Ric Ocasek, lead singer of The Cars passed away on September 15 at the age of 75. Pretty much no one who was a teenager when their debut album came out in 1978 could resist the band’s ultra-cool style and the way they were able to mix a Euro-electronic sound with pure American pop.
The dichotomy was represented visually and sonically by the band’s two vocalists–Benjamin Orr, a dreamy blonde who crooned the band’s most soothing hit, “Drive” and Ric Ocasek, the impossibly lanky, dark-haired weirdo in sunglasses who gave a mod Roy Orbison twist to songs like “My Best Friend’s Girl.”
The band’s six original albums–The Cars, Candy-O, Panorama, Shake It Up, Heartbeat City, and Door to Door–contained a ton of hit songs that were played frequently on MTV as well as a shadow group of songs that were popular with FM radio listeners (“Bye Bye Love,” “Moving In Stereo,” “Heartbeat City”).
Ocasek also had an amazing career as a producer, often working with younger, up and coming bands like Weezer, who he helped make the transition from the garage to a professional recording studio. He also worked extensively with electronic trance-pop duo Suicide, a band that was not only electronic but also outside the mainstream.
If you think you know all about Ocasek’s production work, I suggest you take a look at this wonderful piece by Annie Zaleski. She does a great job of not only rounding up Ric’s many production credits through the years but also providing a window into his relationships with these bands and his strong work ethic and sense of professionalism. Seriously, I had thought about writing something about Ocasek’s work as a producer but Zaleski did it and there’s no sense reinventing the wheel.
Ocasek also had a complete and generally ignored solo career that will no doubt invite some reevaluation. Beginning with Beatitudes, released during the hiatus between the Cars albums Shake It Up and Heartbeat City, Ocasek’s solo work functioned both as an outlet for music that didn’t fit the Cars sound as well as a laboratory for exploring the studio and experimenting. 1986’s This Side of Paradise is the most Cars-like of his solo albums and features nearly all the members of the band on various tracks. By 1990’s Fireball Zone he was shedding many of the Cars mannerisms, but it’s probably the least interesting of his solo discs.
Quick Change World, released in 1993, highlights Ocasek’s two sides: the power-pop genius and the electro avant-garde experimentalist. Originally meant to be a double album called Negative Theater, it was changed by his record company, who took seven tracks from Negative Theater and paired them with seven tracks recorded with Mike Shipley. Negative Theater was released in Europe with a different track listing. The contrast between the first seven songs, which could have come from a later Cars album (“Hard Times” was originally written for the Heartbeat City album) and the second seven, which are synth-heavy and full of nervous energy, makes this a high point in Ocasek’s solo career.
The 1997 release Troubalizing was produced by Billy Corgan, and it features some heavier guitar sounds than Ocasek had used in a while. The songs are recognizably Ric Ocasek joints, though, and he was energized enough by the experience to go out on tour for the album, his first live performances since the Cars.
He released his last album, Nexterday, in 2005. The album was self-produced, much of it recorded in Ocasek’s home studio, and it benefits from a clean, stripped-down style. Ocasek worked with Cars member Greg Hawkes, Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer, and also overdubbed many instrumental parts himself. For those who are feeling the shock of Ocasek’s sudden death hitting harder than expected, Nexterday is a good listen that helps absorb the blow. To those unfamiliar with his solo work, there is a lot of good music from an old friend to be heard here.