It makes sense that someone born in the 21st century would think music fans from the Seventies were dumb. How did you not know that half of Heatwave was white? How did you not know that Bill Withers was black? How did you not know that Ric Ocasek had a son who looks just like him, put out music in the ‘80s as Glamour Camp, and is in his fifties now?
We did not have an internet. We did not have much. There were some videos and big acts did concert films. A magazine feature was sweet, sweet intel, but those didn’t show up much, unless your crush was Shaun Cassidy (the subject of entire magazines). If your fave appeared on Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, you had something to work with. Mostly you stared at the photos on the album cover and inner sleeve.
For a long time, this was all I knew about Ric Ocasek.
Do you know Milkwood’s 1972 album, How’s The Weather? Until Ric died on Sunday, I did not. I definitely did not know about Milkwood in 1979 when I was so crazy for The Cars that I threw something across the living room when my parents forbade me from seeing them on the Candy-O tour. (A copy of Time magazine, I think.) Anyway—if you click on that Milkwood link, you will be able to see entertaining pictures of Orr and Ocasek from 1972 and hear six songs from the entire album-ass Milkwood album they made six years before The Cars’s debut. It’s good, like Crosby, Stills and Nash rendered by three guys who also dug Yes.
What does it mean that the fans of 1978 did not know about Milkwood? That the fans hadn’t been staring at photos of Greek chorus cutie Benjamin Orzechowski and praying mantis Richard Otcasek for years? (What if Sonic Youth hadn’t been given a huge window to get their shit together? What if Missy really had debuted with the Sista record in 1994?) I cannot tell you, but I can confirm that we worked with what we had, and that was just the records and a handful of images. (I legit thought George Harrison was John Lennon for about five years.) Music wasn’t better in 1978 but there was definitely less to pay attention to, which affected both listening to, and making, records.
Identity had to be channeled into production and sound and songwriting—and inferred from same. Music existed on the radio, disconnected from the aura of personality. You could be big and still more or less invisible, as with Heatwave or England Dan or Mandrill. Without personality, though, there was still the context of other recordings, big and little. The Cars existed in an age of extreme production. Boston, Queen, Buzzcocks, B-52s, ABBA, Bee Gees, Wire—each of these records were the product of obsessive, intense, conceptual sound views. Everything—all the energy that would be divided between social media and the recording itself in 2019—had to be squeezed into the grain of the sound.
In 1978, rock bands had reached a kind of consensus on vocal thickness. Boston, KISS, Queen, Cheap Trick, and Fleetwood Mac might have thought they lived miles apart, aesthetically, but nah. As far as the studio was concerned, their vocal hooks were wide as houses, multi-tracked, almost choral. Roy Thomas Baker produced the first four Queen albums and he did the same for the first two Cars albums. You hear his hand in a song like “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”—the “ah-aaah” background vocals in the pre-chorus could be Freddie himself. That was only one tendency, though.
What became a constant with The Cars, and Ocasek’s productions for Suicide and Bad Brains, was a claustrophobic torque inwards. Listen to the opening chords of “Just What I Needed”: mechanical, rude, airlock cold, a guitar pushed through a stencil. Baker was the producer but there’s no doubt that Ocasek was both learning and teaching (and that The Cars was his band). If Ocasek was going to war with wall of sound buddies like Boston’s Tom Scholz, he was smart enough to throw in a sprinkling of big, while going hard on his ice. The keyboards that Pharrell and Kanye ended up carving up pop with? Ocasek and his man Greg Hawkes had you forty years ago. Do you love the loud/soft dynamic that drove Touch and Go bands? The Cars were in touch with that world. Put differently, Boston was the last Seventies band, and The Cars were the first Nineties band. We couldn’t see it but we could hear it.