Everything’s a mess since you’re gone

It was 1977, and the tide was turning in rock music.

You had your diehard rock fans who preferred the mainstream, power-chord rock of Springsteen, Seger, Heart and Aerosmith.  Emerging from the left end of the dial came the punk sounds of The Clash, Talking Heads, The Ramones and Elvis Costello.

And yet, there was at least one band that found a way to straddle that fence and please both audiences.  That band was The Cars.

Cars-1“We were walking a fine line, and it contributed a great deal to the success of the band,” said guitarist Elliot Easton in the liner notes of The Cars’ excellent 2-CD anthology “Just What I Needed” (1995).  “The Cars would have that one record in a punk rocker’s collection that was a just a little right of center.  And it might be that one record for mainstream fans who thought they were being really punky.  We managed to span those two audiences.  It’s not something you can calculate, just that we had the songs.  And we really had great songs.”

From 1978 to 1988, The Cars graduated from small clubs to arenas, released six LPs (four of which reached the Top Ten) and had a dozen or more Top 40 singles, all the time finding the musical formula that satisfied the palettes of punkers and rockers alike.

The key ingredient in that success was the uncanny songwriting talent of their frontman, Ric Ocasek, who wrote 75% of the group’s repertoire and served as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.  Influenced by Beat poets as well as the pioneers of rock ‘n roll, Ocasek cranked out smart, literate, accessible songs, and the band recorded and performed them  with more polish and style than most bands on the circuit at that time.

Ocasek died this past week “suddenly and unexpectedly” of heart failure in his Manhattan apartment while recuperating from surgery.  Supermodel Paulina Porizkova, 180503131658-02-ric-ocasek-paulina-porizkova-file-restricted-super-teaseOcasek’s wife of 28 years until their amicable split last year, said she found him dead upon bringing him his Sunday morning coffee.  The couple’s two sons, Jonathan and Oliver, were also present.  He was either 70 or 75 — there are conflicting reports of his age, although The New York Times and other reputable sources say he was born in 1944, and died at 75.  Not that it much matters.  Ocasek is gone, and his music lives on.

Three-chord rockabilly, New Wave synth-pop, echoes of The Beatles, avant-garde art rock, surf music, punk and glam rock — you can hear all of these genres in a single Cars tune, or certainly on any given Cars album.   In his induction speech on The Cars’ behalf at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, Brandon Flowers of the Killers described the band this way:  “They were a slick machine with a 340 V8 under the hood that ran on synergy, experimentation and a redefined cool.  They had it all: the looks, the hooks, Beat romance lyrics, and killer choruses.”

Ocasek and his bandmate Benjamin Orr (born Orzechowski) met in high school in Cleveland in the late ’60s and formed a musical bond that took them to Columbus, Ohio, la-et-ms-the-cars-20151007and Ann Arbor, Michigan in various groups before relocating to Boston by 1972.  They tried their hand as an acoustic twosome, then formed a country-folk-rock band called Milkwood and released one album, selections of which you can hear on the Spotify playlist below.  It’s interesting to contemplate:  What if Milkwood’s CSN-inspired harmonies and arrangements had caught on?  Would Ocasek and Orr have stayed in that groove instead?   instead of evolving toward the quirkier Cars tunes we all know?  Knowing Ocasek’s penchant for experimentation, it seems likely he would’ve gravitated toward the quirkier hybrid music of The Cars anyway.

With Gregg Hawkes on keyboards, Easton on lead guitar, David Robinson on drums and Orr now playing bass, The Cars were born in 1977 and signed to Elektra Records.  Ocasek’s songs were usually curt but catchy, laced with Easton’s prominent guitar lines and Hawkes’s intriguing keyboard hooks.  Thanks to Roy Thomas Baker, the accomplished producer behind Queen’s finest albums, the tracks on The Cars’ debut The_Cars_-_The_Carsalbum took on a professional sheen that deftly mixed the group’s elements into an irresistible sound that captured many listeners from the get-go.

Truth be told, I was a traditional rocker who found the chaos of punk a bit too noisy and unmusical, so I was reluctant to accept The Cars’ punk-flavored tunes at first.  But I heard them perform in one of the “World Series of Rock” concerts in Cleveland in 1978 with Fleetwood Mac, Bob Welch, Todd Rundgren and Eddie Money (who, coincidentally, also died this past week), and that was enough to make me pay them at least grudging respect.

TV talk show host Stephen Colbert, a discerning rock music critic as well, was a huge fan of The Cars from the beginning, and he paid tribute to Ocasek on his late-night program the other night.  “That first Cars record is packed with hits like peanuts in a Snickers Bar,” he said.  “I think that album and ‘My Aim is True’ by Elvis Costello were two of the greatest debut pop albums of all time.  In 1978, Ocasek was already 34 years old when their first album came out.  He had put in the hours.  His music — he wrote everything for The Cars — his music was the soundtrack of my high school.”

It’s true, that first album was so chock full of radio hits — “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Bye Bye Love,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” — that I couldn’t help but warm up to them — eventually.   And The Cars kept motoring along 45152-18355ec95b1b7b573c813a2a5c2f3617nicely with three more Top Ten albums:  1979’s “Candy-O,” 1980’s “Panorama” and 1981’s “Shake It Up.”

The Cars - Shake It Up (1981)-01But it really took me until their fifth and most successful album, 1984’s “Heartbeat City,” to fully appreciate The Cars’ real accomplishment:  connecting the cynical cool of new wave with a timeless AM-radio spirit, putting an ironic spin on well-worn rock ‘n roll catch phrases like “let’s go,” “got a hold on you,” “shake it up,” “let the good times roll,” “all I want is you.”

“Heartbeat City” contained four Top 20 hits, including “You Might Think,” “Hello Again,” “Magic,” and their highest charting single, “Drive.”  The shimmer of that song, written and sung by Orr, is somewhat atypical of The Cars, with lyrics that take a sober look at the-cars-heartbeat-citythe self-destructive behavior of the singer’s girl.  It was during filming for the music video of “Drive” when Ocasek met Porizkova, who played the part of the strung-out girl.

The Cars’ sixth LP, 1987’s “Door to Door,” managed to reach only #27 on the charts, and Ocasek concluded that he had grown tired of touring, and pulled the plug on the band he’d founded.  Many years later, in an NPR interview, he explained he’d never really intended to wind up in the spotlight.  “I’m not much into being the front guy,” he said.  “I was the songwriter, really — the person who put the songs together, and maybe a bit of a director.  But being an entertainer was never my main thing.”

ric-ocasekAs for the songwriting part of it, Ocasek said, ““I’m happy that I’ve been able to write pop songs that have a bit of a twist.  When I’m writing, I never know how it’s going to come out.  I don’t think, ‘Well, I’ve done a catchy one, now I can do a weird one.’  Our albums clearly had some of each, but it wasn’t really intended that way.”

If you’re looking for “weird” songs in The Cars’ repertoire, you might look at “Shoo Bee Doo” from 1979’s “Candy-O,” or “A Dream Away” from 1982’s “Shake It Up.”  Better yet, start with “Moving in Stereo” from the debut album, which was never released as a single but got plenty of FM-rock radio attention.  Interestingly, its instrumental section, carried by Hawkes’ keyboards, was used in scenes from the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the current Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.”

Following The Cars’ breakup, Ocasek stayed active with several solo LPs (actually, his first two solo projects came during The Cars’ active period — 1982’s “Beatitude” and 1986’s “This Side of Paradise,” which both reached the Top 40 on the album charts), but his later efforts failed to chart.  Orr similarly tried a few solo albums, but then protracted pancreatic cancer and died in 2000.

Easton and Hawkes, with Ocasek’s blessing but not his participation, recruited Todd Rundgren and Utopia cohort Kasim Sulton to tour under the banner The New Cars in 2005, performing classic Cars tunes as well as a handful of Rundgren’s material.

In 2011, Ocasek capitulated and reunited with Easton and Hawkes to release “Move Like carsThis,” which captured some of the vibe of earlier Cars music and even reached #7 on the album charts, even sparking a brief US tour.  But the magic didn’t last.  “On about half the new songs, I felt Ben (Orr) would’ve sung them better than I did.  In the liner notes, we said so:  ‘Ben, your spirit was with us one this one.'”

When The Cars were inducted in the R&R Hall of Fame in 2018, Ocasek cooperated, performing with Easton and Hawkes, and they brought in Scott Shriner of Weezer to play bass.  Said Ocasek at the podium that night, “I was never big on trophies and all that, but all things considered, I’d rather be in the Hall of Fame than not.”

Whether or not the adulation was important to Ocasek, there are many bands eagerly willing to reference The Cars as key influencers.  Here are just a few:

“The Cars are a big part of my musical love affair,” said Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips.  “Ric was amazing and will be missed. The music of The Cars will inspire people and move people forever.”

The-Cars-resize-1b“Aw man, can’t believe you’re gone, Ric,” said Richard Marx.  “Thank you for the songs on ‘Heartbeat City’ alone.  You were a true original.”

Michael Peter “Flea” Balzary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote, “Ahh man, say it ain’t so. I loved Ric Ocasek. What an interesting, smart, kind, funny man who made incredible records. I loved those Cars albums when I was a teenager. Perfect pop songs with those wicked Elliot Easton guitar solos. Absolute candy.  As an adult, I met him several times and he was gracious, funny and engaging.  Ahh man.  Ahh damn…”

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The first three tracks, from Ocasek’s and Orr’s earlier band Milkwood, are a revelation for any fan of The Cars.  What follows is my list of the band’s best tracks.

 

 

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Seasons change and so did I

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I delve into the work of a group that is considered royalty in its native Canada, and revered among many U.S. fans as one of the best Top 40 hit bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s:  The Guess Who.

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Some of my readers will no doubt be scratching their heads as to why I would spend much time and space on a group that frankly isn’t in the same league as previous artists I have profiled (Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Genesis, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd).

The answer is simple:  I have always loved the songs of The Guess Who, and the amazing rock vocals of Burton Cummings.  When tunes like “Undun” or “Hand Me Down World”

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Clockwise from top:  Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Garry Peterson, Jim Kale

or “Albert Flasher” come on the radio, I am instantly transported to 1970-71, hanging with friends and driving with my girl around the east side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

To me, their records were perfect little pop songs, carried either by Cummings’ rollicking piano and distinctive voice or the stinging guitar riffs of Randy Bachman (at first) or Kurt Winter.  Between 1969 and 1974, The Guess Who was Canada’s biggest success story, scoring 10 Top 20 hits in the US and twice that number in their native country.  Their albums performed less well (only three reached Top 20 status in the US), which isn’t really all that surprising, as the group was, from the outset, a singles band.

“We had our eye on the Top 40 charts,” Cummings reflected.  “That was our goal, to have a hit single in the US.  Once we did that with ‘These Eyes’ in early 1969, Randy and I gained the confidence to write more in the same vein, and then they became hits too.”

Soon, recalls Bachman, “It was like we were finishing each other’s sentences.  I’d play Burton a whole song of mine, he’d play me a song of his, and we’d say,  ‘Let’s make mine the verse and make yours the chorus,’ and vice versa.  Sometimes we had heard songs we wanted to imitate, something by Lennon and McCartney, or Brian Wilson, or even Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  We liked to rock, but we enjoyed writing ballads too.”

Few people would claim that The Guess Who catalog had a lot of emotional depth.  The lyrics were often quirky, sometimes even a bit lame, but when put to irresistible melodies as sung by Cummings, it didn’t seem to matter.  Consider, for instance, “Rain Dance.”  What are we to make of these words?  “Fifi said to Don the baker, ‘Can you show burton-cummings-in-1969me how to make another bun, Don?’, And I’m still standing with my next door neighbor saying, ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?’…”  Cummings fashioned such a memorable melody line that the song ended up at #19  (in Canada, it reached #3).

There were instances, though, when Cummings came up with lyrics that had substance, like on the melancholy piano ballad “Sour Suite,” a minor hit which touched on the sad feelings of an off night and depressing memories the next morning (“I don’t want to think about a runaway dad that took away the only thing that I’ve never had, don’t even miss him this morning, I don’t want to think about a cold goodbye, or a high school buddy got a little too high, I can’t help him out this morning…”)

So let’s answer the question many people have always been curious about:  Why “The Guess Who”?

Originally, Bachman (then only 16) had formed a group in 1962 with drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale, with singer/guitarist Chad Allan as the front man.  Using the common naming format of many rock bands of that period, they called themselves Allan and The Silvertones.  They soon morphed into Chad Allan and The Reflections, and gained some notoriety in Canada, mostly in and around their home base of Winnipeg in the central Canadian province of Manitoba.  By 1965, they changed their name to Chad Allan and The Expressions because a US band called The Reflections had scored a Top 10 hit with “Just Like Romeo and Juliet.”

As Chad Allan and The Expressions, things started happening when they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over,” a 1960 hit in England by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. R-5451335-1393701861-1746.jpegThe Expressions’ label, Quality Records, frustrated by the inability of Canadian groups to break into the American market, came up with an idea:  They chose to credit the record to (Guess Who?), hoping it would be better received if it was thought to be by a British Invasion act.  Sure enough, the song reached #22 in the US in early 1965 and went all the way to #1 in Canada.  The band’s real name was revealed a few months later, but disc jockeys continued to announce the group as The Guess Who, which effectively forced the official name change.

In 1966, Cummings was added on keyboards and backing vocals, but then Chad Allan chose to leave the band, which put Cummings at the forefront as lead singer.  This new lineup kept the momentum going in Canada with several Top 20 singles, including Neil Young’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” the eventual Carpenters’ hit “Hurting Each Other” and two Bachman compositions, “Believe Me” and “Clock on the Wall,” but they all stiffed in the US and elsewhere.

Once Bachman and Cummings put their songwriting talents together in 1968, something clicked.  “These Eyes” zoomed to #6 in the US, followed by “Laughing at #10 (a chart topper in Canada).  “Undun” did less well, stalling at #22, but “No Time” reached #5 in the US and was another #1 in Canada.  This was all in the space of 10 months.

(“No Time” had actually been first recorded in ’68 with a weird intro, a longer guitar break and an extended vocal section at the end.  This version rarely gets heard, but you’re in for a real treat — you can hear it on the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay.  Cummings’ vocals and Bachman’s guitar are both amazing here).

Then came the strange case of “American Woman.”  The band had returned to Canada after a long string of American shows, and at a small hall in Ontario, they were taking the stage after a brief break.   Bachman was tuning his guitar after replacing a broken

The-Guess-Who_1200-e1471556615154-800x449.jpg

(Clockwise from left):  Jim Kale, Greg Leskiw, Garry Peterson, Burton Cummings, Kurt Winter

string and realized he was playing a new riff.  The other members returned to the stage and joined in, creating a jam session in which Cummings improvised lyrics about how homegrown Canadian women were preferable to American girls.  A couple of lines (“I don’t need your war machine, I don’t need no ghetto scenes”) were interpreted as anti-American, but as Cummings said, “It was just a sentiment I ad libbed that night.  The Vietnam war was raging at the time, and we had a lot of draft dodgers in the audience.”

The band recorded the song a week later and, despite the apparent putdown (“American woman, stay away from me”), the song zoomed to #1 in the US and Canada, as did its flip side, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.”

Festering underneath this success, though, was increased tension between Bachman and Cummings.  Bachman had chosen to avoid drink and drugs and had even converted to Mormonism, while Cummings was more of a wild child (as were Kale and Peterson). cshf_05_randy_bachman-1According to “Bachman,” the recently released documentary, “I had become the group’s de facto manager.  I was handling our business affairs, counting the money, constantly up in the morning, going to the bank when it opened, coming back, and then getting [the other band members] out of bed, nursing their hangovers and driving them to the next gig.  When you do that 300 days a year, it takes its toll.”

Bachman had been suffering painful gallbladder problems and needed surgery, but the touring prevented him from getting the care he needed.  Things came to a head in May 1970, when Bachman played his last show with The Guess Who at New York City’s Fillmore East. “We hit No. 1 with the American Woman album and single, and now we’re suddenly headlining. I said, ‘Okay, guys, I need to go home for two weeks.  I have an operation scheduled.’  They said, ‘Great, well, we’re gonna keep going.’  I said, ‘Am I coming back?’  They said, ‘No, we’re kind of glad you’re gone.’  They were into the drug culture, I wasn’t.  So I was glad to leave, but I was sad to leave.  This had been my life.  I had run this band.”

Bachman’s place was quickly filled by guitarist Kurt Winter, an old Winnipeg friend who offered not only great guitar work but wrote some memorable tunes like “Bus Rider” and “Hand Me Down World.”  Because The Guess Who’s radio hits kept on coming almost

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From their “Live at the Paramount” album cover, 1972

seamlessly, the casual listener took no notice of Bachman’s departure.  Winter became Cummings’ new songwriting collaborator, and they teamed up on “Hang On To Your Life,” “Rain Dance,” “Heartbroken Bopper” and “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon.”  Alone, Cummings came up with “Share the Land,” “Albert Flasher,” “Glamour Boy” and my personal favorite, 1974’s “Star Baby.”

I couldn’t help but feel sad that The Guess Who’s final chart success was the insipid “Clap for the Wolfman,” a tribute of sorts to the radio legend Wolfman Jack.  To my ears, it’s boring, and pales in comparison to almost any other track in The Guess Who’s repertoire.

By 1975, Cummings decided to give a solo career a try, effectively ending the band’s run.  Kale bought the rights to the name and continued assembling various Guess Who lineups to hit the road and even record albums over the ensuing years, but none could manage much success.

Cummings’ first attempts at going it alone did all right, with “Stand Tall” (#10 in the US), “I’m Scared,” “Break It to Them Gently” and “You Saved My Soul” all reaching the charts, but it didn’t last long.  Still, he stayed active in the business, writing and producing and occasionally performing.  He even participated in a few Guess Who reunion concerts,

bachman_and_cummings_at_grey_cup

Bachman and Cummings in the late ’80s

with and without Bachman in the lineup, which is fairly remarkable, considering the way they parted ways in 1970.  Naturally, those shows generated the most enthusiasm from the public.

 

Said Cummings in 1986, “Sometimes when you leave a well-known band, it’s almost immediate death.  Lots of people have tried it and fallen by the wayside.  I’m pleased that there are still people who like me or my songs or the way I sing them.  Some of them like me well enough to come see me perform.  And I do sing quite a few Guess Who tunes.  Hey, those were some great songs.  I was the band’s singer, and I wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, so why would I avoid performing them?  Certainly the audience wants to hear them.”

As for Bachman, he struggled upon leaving The Guess Who in 1970 because industry folks couldn’t understand why he would leave a group just as it had attained a #1 album and single.  But he soldiered on, first putting together a country rock band called Brave Belt with old colleague Chad Allan, and when that didn’t pan out, he recruited his brothers Tim and Robbie and bassist/vocalist Fred Turner to form Bachman-Turner

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The Guess Who, 1968

Overdrive in 1973.

BTO enjoyed a very successful run for a few years, churning out solid pop rock hits like “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Hey You.”  (Me, I always favored the sultry, jazz-inflected “Blue Collar” featuring Turner’s vocals.)

So… Is the story of The Guess Who compelling?  Perhaps not.  Is their body of work “extraordinary, influential or consistently excellent”?  Hmmm, not so much.  But nevertheless, I just go crazy when I hear “These eyes have seen a lot of loves but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you” and “I was a workshop owner in the gulch for the people and I offered myself to the world,” dammit!  And I have a hunch that many of my readers share my affection for the songs of The Guess Who.  I hope the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below (which includes a few solo Cummings and BTO selections) hits the spot for you this week.

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