Whatever your feelings about the music of the Cars, they were impossible to ignore. In the late-‘70s sea of muted earth-tones, the band’s retro-techno-geek look was a revelation. And in an era when the charts were dominated by soft rock, disco and 1950s nostalgia – the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, the Grease soundtrack – the Cars’ spiky, New Wave-inflected guitar pop signaled a coming sea change in popular music.
Of course popular taste didn’t change overnight and, in retrospect, it may not even have changed a great deal. If the wildfires of punk and art-rock had blazed through the underground music scene and left behind a very altered landscape, in the larger arena of the Billboard Top 100 it was a different story. In America at least, punk wasn’t quite ready for primetime (nor, it should be noted, were the Cars in any sense a punk band).
But the band brought something new and distinctive to the airwaves. Melding the power pop then burbling under the mainstream (think Cheap Trick and the Raspberries) with the synth-led Euro-pop then beginning to lap against these shores (think Kraftwerk and the Human League), the Cars maintained a certain ironic coolness, while never failing to deliver irresistible hooks. Whether their stiff, detached stage presence was diffidence or, as the band claimed, an homage to artists like Brian Eno is a matter of interpretation. “Shake It Up,” the band’s first Billboard Top Ten hit, does bear a passing resemblance to Eno’s “King’s Lead Hat”…
The pre-Cars earlier musical efforts read a bit like outtakes from Spinal Tap. In the early ‘70s, towering, fascinating looking bandleader Ric O’Casek and future Cars’ bassist / vocalist Benjamin Orr performed in a CSN-style folk-rock band called Milkweed. Their sole release, the uninspiringly-titled How’s the Weather?, failed to chart. Meanwhile, future keyboardist / sax player Greg Hawkes was touring in musical comedy act Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture. When the Cars did finally get it together, in 1976, their first gig was—again, a la Spinal Tap—at an Air Force Base.
Over time, the Cars would hone their chugging eighth-note guitar pop to a near-science and, in the process, trade their artier edges for increased chart success. Whether or not this represented an improvement on their formula is a matter of taste, but what isn’t in question is their massive commercial appeal. On April 14th, they’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What do Cars do? They “Drive”!
Fear not, faithful Cover Me readers; this only ensured a healthy crop of reinterpretations. To be sure, the majority of them focus on the band’s latter years, when the band had traded the kicky synth-pop of songs like “Let’s Go” for atmospheric ballads, most notably “Drive,” taken from 1984’s Heartbeat City and the band’s biggest international hit.
As we noted earlier this year, Aimee Mann—like the members of the Cars, a onetime Bostonian—turned in an arrestingly spare version of “Drive” for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, giving the song a poignancy and directness only suggested by the original.
And in something of a hybrid treatment, Matt Pond PA retained the feel of the song’s synthesized rhythm tracks but added a thoughtful folk-inflected diction courtesy of pedal-steel swells and a lovely acoustic guitar arrangement the previous year.
But wait; there’s more! Artists as diverse as Ziggy Marley, Scorpions, Deftones and Julio Iglesias were moved to rework “Drive,” a testament to both the song’s popularity and the relatively blank canvas of its production, which leaned heavily on atmospheric keyboard washes courtesy of Greg Hawkes.
Many artists have taken a swing at the band’s earlier, more characteristic work, though most are less than memorable. Bang Tango, Replicants, Insyderz, Ghoti Hook and a handful of other exotically named acts all turned in fairly rote versions of “Just What I Needed,” one of the band’s best-loved early songs. Perhaps the most memorable reading came from an unlikely source: Folk and gospel icon Toshi Reagon, who delivered a surprisingly tender version of the song from her 2002 album Toshi.
And ’90s indie darlings Red House Painters delivered a standout reimagining of “All Mixed Up,” a power ballad which in some regards presaged the commercial triumph of “Drive.” In the House Painters’ capable hands, the song trades the bombast of the original Roy Thomas Baker production for a melancholy, almost funereal grace.
If you’re looking for a bluegrass-inflected version of “My Best Friend’s Girl,” we can wholeheartedly recommend Hayseed Dixie’s singular effort. We’re slightly less enthusiastic about bratty Houston tantrum-punk stalwarts Bickley’s take, but then again, who are we to judge?
Of course, fine as many of these covers versions are, hopefully they’ll inspire you to return to the source: One of the singular—and certainly most successful—bands of the New Wave era. Congratulations on the eve of their well-deserved Hall of Fame Induction!