The Cars were an American rock band that emerged from the early New Wave music scene in the late 1970s. The band consisted of singer and rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek, singer and bassist Benjamin Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson. The band originated from Boston, Massachusetts, and were signed to Elektra Records in 1977.
The Cars were at the forefront in merging 1970s guitar-oriented rock with the new synth-oriented pop that was then becoming popular and which would flower in the early 1980s. Robert Palmer, music critic for The New York Times and Rolling Stone described The Cars' musical style by saying: "they have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends—punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the '50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop—and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend."
The band broke up in 1988, and Ocasek has always discouraged talk of a reunion since then, flatly telling one interviewer in 1997 "I'm saying never and you can count on that." Easton and Hawkes, however, joined with Todd Rundgren in 2005 to form a spin-off band, The New Cars, which performs classic Cars (and Rundgren) songs alongside new material on tour.
Before The Cars, the members of the band began coming together in several early forms. Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr were the first to meet, at a party in Columbus, Ohio, and they began performing as a duo, covering rock 'n roll classics as well as performing their own material. They refused to perform the Top 40 hits club owners expected to hear from a young band. After deciding that Boston would be a better place to break into the music business, Ocasek and Orr relocated there. It was there that they met Greg Hawkes, who had studied at the Berklee School of Music, and the three, along with lead guitarist Jas Goodkind, combined to form a folk band called Milkwood. They released an album titled How's the Weather on the Paramount label in 1973 that failed to chart.
After Milkwood, Ocasek and Orr formed the group Richard and the Rabbits (with drummer Thomas Tapley), whose name was suggested by Jonathan Richman. They were a local club band for a while. Soon after, Hawkes temporarily left Ocasek and Orr and joined up with groups including Orphan, a soft-rock band, and Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture, a musical comedy act in which he played a variety of instruments. Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr then performed as an acoustic duo called simply Ocasek and Orr at the Idler coffeehouse in Cambridge. Some of the songs they played became the underlying music in early Cars songs.
Later, Ocasek and Orr teamed up with future Cars guitarist Elliot Easton (who had also studied at Berklee) in the band Cap'n Swing. Though they were slowly becoming more experienced musicians, Cap'n Swing still had a long way to go before developing a professional image. Record labels were turned off by the band because they said they looked "too weird." Cap'n Swing also featured drummer Kevin Robichaud and a jazzy bass player, which clashed with Ocasek's more rock and roll leanings. Benjamin Orr acted as frontman, did not play an instrument, and sang the bulk of Cap'n Swing's demos. Ocasek soon got rid of the bass player, the keyboardist, and the drummer and decided to form a band that better fit his style of writing. Since one of the major complaints from the major record labels was that Ben Orr didn't do anything except stand there and sing, they decided he should hold something, thus he took over bass guitar duties. Kevin Robichaud was replaced by David Robinson. Robinson said that he should really have a regular job instead, and that the Cars would be his last band. Best known for his career with the Modern Lovers, Robinson had also played in DMZ and the Pop! It was Robinson who came up with the name "The Cars," which led to automobile-related puns. Ocasek said of the name, "It's so easy to spell; it doesn't have a 'z' on the end; it's real authentic. It's pop art, in a sense."
The band spent the winter of 1976–77 playing throughout New England, developing, honing, and ultimately perfecting the songs that would become their debut album. They shortly thereafter caught the attention of Maxanne Sartori, a local DJ on WBCN, who began playing their demo of "Just What I Needed." By virtue of that airplay, the band was signed to Elektra Records. "Just What I Needed" would turn out to be the first single from the band’s debut album, The Cars, released in 1978 and reaching #18 on the Billboard Top LP's & Tapes chart. "My Best Friend’s Girl" and "Good Times Roll" soon followed, charting on the Billboard Hot 100. The band commissioned famed Playboy artist Alberto Vargas to design the sexy illustration for the cover of their second album, Candy-O, released in 1979. Hits from that album included "Let’s Go", "It’s All I Can Do" and "Dangerous Type."
A more experimental album, Panorama, was released in 1980, charting only one Top 40 hit with "Touch and Go". Rolling Stone described the album as "an out-and-out drag". In 1981, the Cars purchased Intermedia Studios in Boston, renaming it Syncro Sound. The only Cars album recorded there was Shake It Up. It was their first album to spawn a top 10 single with the title track, and had another hit in "Since You’re Gone". Following their 1982 tour, the Cars took a short break and went to work on solo projects, with Ric Ocasek and Greg Hawkes both releasing their debut albums (Beatitude and Niagara Falls, respectively).
The Cars re-united and released their most successful album, Heartbeat City, in 1984. The first single, "You Might Think", helped The Cars win Video of the Year at the first MTV Video Music Awards. Other hit singles from the album included "Magic", "Hello Again", and "Why Can’t I Have You". Their most successful single, "Drive", gained particular notability when it was used in a video of the Ethiopian famine prepared by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and introduced by David Bowie at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in London.
After the resulting period of superstardom and another hit single, "Tonight She Comes", a #7 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and a #1 hit on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart (their last #1), from their Greatest Hits, the Cars took time off again to pursue solo projects. Elliot Easton and Benjamin Orr released their debut albums (Change No Change and The Lace, respectively), while Ric Ocasek released his second solo album, This Side of Paradise. In 1987, the Cars released their last album, Door to Door, but it failed to approach the success of their previous albums. They announced the group's breakup in February 1988.
In the late 1990s, rumors circulated of a Cars reunion, with no results. However, in 1995 Rhino Records released a 2-CD set Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology, containing all the group's hits mixed with rarities (demos, non-album b-sides). They followed up with the releases of The Cars: Deluxe Edition (1999), their debut album in 2-CD format, and Complete Greatest Hits.
Ocasek continues to perform as a solo artist, having released over seven studio albums. David Robinson has retired from music and spends most of his time with his restaurant. In 2005, Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes combined their talents with Todd Rundgren, Prairie Prince (The Tubes, Utopia), and Kasim Sulton (Utopia, Meat Loaf) in a revamped lineup, The New Cars, to perform classic Cars songs along with selections from Rundgren's solo work and some new original material. Sometime in the mid-90's, Orr recorded tracks with guitarist John Kalishes for an unreleased follow-up to The Lace. From 1998 until his death in October 2000, he performed with three bands, including his own band "ORR", The Voices of Classic Rock, and Big People.
Recently, the band's first album was released for the popular video game, Rock Band.