PopOff! Retro Review: The Cars – Heartbeat City

Here is an interesting tidbit about me, I don’t listen to my favorite albums that much. It can get a little emotionally intense (positive emotions, let’s be clear) so I really need to feel in the mood for it. I revisited the 1984 album Heartbeat City by The Cars following the passing of lead singer and principal songwriter Ric Ocasek on Sept. 15th and realized that this in many ways is one of those albums.

It is also unarguably their breakout smash and what many music fans and some critics consider their artistic sellout low overproduced point. Though guitarist Ellis Easton would later say in 1988 interview for Creem, “I don’t feel caught between the two. We don’t go, ‘Let’s do a bubblegum one, then let’s do an arty one. We just make records and let the singles emerge. It’s elitist to only play for a certain, sophisticated audience. This band has always tried to bring out good music within a pop format.”

Still at the time, it did not go over well with a lot of the hardcores and sophisticates. But the MTV generation ate it up and “You Might Think” won the first MTV music video award for Video of the Year. And for me personally, The Cars were one of the first bands I found on my own thanks to retro video shows on VH1 in the early 90s. And your firsts have a way of sticking with you.

But by then, listening to 80s music, according to my peers, was an era best avoided at all costs if you had any desire to be cool; grunge, gangster rap, and Garth Brooks were where music was at. But not for me. I was hunting for sounds from my youth that were lost to trauma and repressed memories. I am certain the album was played out when I was a kid but again I lost those memories. And such is the power of music that hearing these songs for what felt like the first time in the early 90s, I knew this was the lane of musical highway I wanted to be driving.

And it was in part the mainstream pop accessibility of Heartbeat City that provided a bridge to the deeper more haunting sounds of my youngest years that I didn’t know I had been longing for. In fact, music is really the only solid memory I have of anything before 5th grade and was one of the few things in my life that was reliable and stable, and to have that bridge leading me back was a lifesaver.

Also as is tradition in my life, I often like the stuff most scene fans, in this case new wave, look down upon. Maybe because MTV wore it out, “They sold out, man!” But the mainstream clearly did not care, they loved it and I’m sure, like me others used it as a gateway drug to quirkier sounds and more obscure acts of the era. A similar parallel is Roxy Music’s masterpiece album, Avalon, another bridge to the lost sound of my youth.

I am also certain The Cars led me to Men at Work and the album Business As Usual somehow (talk about an underrated album!). But fair enough to the new wave crowd, Heartbeat City is not a great new wave record, but I think it is a near flawless rock-pop record and I say rock-pop as it is more pop than anything else.

So credit for that has to go in part to production wizard Mutt Lange, who put his stamp on many of the rock records of the 80s. In fact, he took a break from making Def Leppard superstars to make this record.

And listening again, it is so clearly of the early 80s and in many ways that actually makes sound better. Timelessness is great and all but sometimes I do want to hear a certain style or sound that reeks of it’s period and this surely does. Also, for an 80s record, it is amazing how little filler there. When you look at the writing credits, it’s mostly Ocasek, with couple songs by band member Benjamin Orr – a testament to their songwriting skills that (production aside) the lyrics hold up really well.

There are no tracks here penned with upwards of 3 -6 songwriters, which seems to be the norm these days. There are very few songwriters I feel that can write lyrics so versatile anybody can sing them and make them their own, Cole Porter being the gold standard. So when a musician writes their own material, even if it isn’t that great, I have to award some points because at least they are trying to speak with their own authentic voice born from some experience as opposed to singing some generic lines put together on an assembly line. The standout (lyrically) for me is “Drive,” which has lyrics and vocals by Orr about the breakdown of a relationship. Probably one the best songs in their entire catalog, really.

As I said, this is a pop record and these days, pop records tend to be bloated affairs thanks to the ease of digital. I also personally miss the bygone art that was a part of the physical format known as song selection and track order. There is a whole article to be written on this but the short answer is that track order mattered in the days of cassettes and vinyl for a variety of reasons. Narrative, where the song actually sounded best on the physical space of the record, the limit of space, front loading the hits…. But now with digital and shuffle and artists seem to think every song is worth releasing or that we want to hear every song dreamed up during a writing.

There is less curating and modern “albums” suffer because of it. Also these “re-mastered” editions of classic albums with demos and b-sides are nice curios but there is a reason those songs didn’t make the final cut. 10 songs feels perfectly satisfying here. You cover the bases. You go high and low fun, silly, dark, brooding. The album does not overstay its welcome.

Heartbeat City starts with the synth bomb of “Hello Again,” and while it only reached #20 on the Hot 100 (not too shabby), it was a huge club hit going to #8 on the dance charts. It is clearly the best dance record on the album, banging hard synth out into the mainstream masses. The Cars managed to take the dark quirkiness of new wave and make it palatable for the mainstream listeners while still being slightly oddball. The Cars did for new wave what Bon Jovi did for Metal in the mid 80s. They became the band you could take home to meet your mother and father. There was none of the wild makeup, wild hair, and wild fashion that was a hallmark of the new wave scene. And their videos were pretty damn harmless visually.

Most importantly, Heartbeat City is a totally FUN record to listen to. While I may prefer the album cuts to most of the singles, I definitely prefer the darker synth driven moods to the pop stuff. Songs that sound like one is driving down a dark road or lonely street late at night. Probably the song that speaks most to that feeling for me is “Why Can’t I Have You”. The tempo, the synths lines, the vocal delivery of the song finds The Cars hitting that sweet spot where my insides catch fire and I am transported to a place where my whole body feels a tingle of sonic pleasure. The other song that really sends me back is “I Refuse” both songs coming on side B after big hits have run their course. “I Refuse” was not a single but certainly could have been. Every single from the album except “Heartbeat City” went top 40.

It felt like the new wave answer to “Thriller.” The biggest hit, “Drive,” a slow synth burner feels like a precursor to the current sythnwave popular in some clubs. The title track “Heartbeat City” would feel completely at home on Stranger Things, and is considered one of the best tracks on the album, despite never charting. In fact, the whole album now could be seen and some a foundational record for the dark brooding synthwave craze more so that even Depeche Mode or New Order. The very thing the album was slammed for it’s it’s day is now celebrated.

The two obvious outliers are “Magic,” which is a pure summer jam and “You Might Think,” MTV staple, is pure pop. Side Note: that music video, while dated, was one of the first I remember watching where I felt like there was a real magic to making a music video and that it didn’t have to just be this gimmick or a video version of a band poster to sell more records.

The album cover by pop artist Peter Phillips remains one of my favorites of all time. It is certainly not the greatest album cover ever or that ground breaking or iconic but again it speaks to a time of life I lost, the colors, the font, the chaotic design of it all. FYI: the original piece is called Art-O-Matic Loop di Loop. It is because of this album cover I discovered his other work, which is similarly funky very 80s collages.

It’s probably not the greatest record I’ve ever put ears to, and again while the big pop hits are fun and were the on-ramp to a wider music world, it’s the dark midnight synth tones that really speaks to me. As with any great album, it is best heard loud so the subtle touches are unavoidable. There is no background music here. This isn’t a yoga class record.

Finally, I’ve heard it said The Cars were to new wave what Green Day was to Punk. People in the scene both love and hate them, love to hate them, and hate to love them. But more importantly, I know first-hand both bands through their mainstream appeal have led young ears, mine back in the day and the youthful ears of today to other deeper darker more menacing punk and new wave sounds and acts. And sometimes all a budding music fan or a kids looking for a music identity needs is a sturdy bridge to cross into another world and Heartbeat City is a toll-free trip worth taking.

TASTY TRACKS:

Why Can’t I Have You
Drive
I Refuse
Heartbeat City
Hello Again
You Might Think
Magic

2 Comments

  1. Jim Parker

    My thoughts exactly. I was a huge fan at the time of the Cars debut 1978 album, which was really the definitive new wave album in the pure sense -stripped back power pop, chugging guitars and a 60s classic pop sensibility with a layering of irony. When the heavily produced synths and more earnest writing took over the sound in the early 80s, I and many others judged they’d sold out. I was never a fan of the huge hit, Drive, thinking it a mawkish, soppy ballad trying too hard to please. But some of the other songs on this set, most notably the title tune, now sound so current. I went back to this album after hearing the Drive soundtrack from 2011 and was struck by how much the sound derived from The Cars/Tangerine Dream. Suffice to say I’ve put together a Spotify playlist that brings together some of those tracks, alongside the great Scottish synth band Blue Nile.

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