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Music

Ric Ocasek: The life and times of punk rock's older brother

@DrewAlanWardle1

The inside of Ric Ocasek’s head was filled with neon lights, polished and pristine dance floors, futuristic decor – all the while hiding a well-kept underground seedy bar where the low-lives, leftover from the 1960s psychedelic Velvet Underground influenced avant-garde kids had grown up and were looking for a continued sequel to their dreams of pure pop aesthetics. Such was the inner-workings of the mastermind behind the new-wave heroes, The Cars. 

In reality, Ric Ocasek made this all happen with a well thought out chemistry that he had developed for years. During a time when mainstream radio was reluctant to play punk music – despite its explosion being all-encompassing and dynamic – if one were around for the 1978 debut of The Cars, it could have almost felt like it was a CIA backed set-up to get the kids hooked on new-wave. There is such a thing as being in the right place at the right time – although it took Ric Ocasek a few years to finally get to that place. He was the older missing brother of punk rock, the one who came back from out of hiding to deliver a gospel incomparable in production quality, unmatched in songwriting, and second to none when producing earworms. The Cars had the grit; they had the avant-garde; they had the fashion.

Ric Ocasek wasn’t some young-blood-new-kid-on-the-block kind of phenomenon; he was 33-years-old when The Cars released their debut in 1978. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Ric Ocasek was in a number of different bands along with future Cars’ bandmate Benjamin Orr. Most notably Milkwood, an acoustic folk outfit who had a sound very similar to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Then there was Cap n’ Swing which featured a lot of the members of The Cars and even played some earlier less polished Cars songs. Ric Ocasek always had a healthy diverse taste in sounds, but all of the albums he’s ever released – The Cars and otherwise – were always highly calculated and very polished; he once noted that he loved “the left side of the music brain.” 

Due to a troubled childhood, he had a cool, detached aura about him – he always wore sunglasses and had that kind of Joey Ramone look to him. His songs reflected this: always imbued with a great sense of irony and facetiousness, it seems like his songs served as a mask and a tinted prism between the outside world and the enigmatic singer. The relationships in his songs – frequently told with a sense of deep loneliness – were his fictitious worlds of longing, where he could make his own reality up.

The Cars’ eponymous debut came out in 1978 and was instantly framed as a new wave record. It sounded like nothing before it, although the foundation of its influences were noticeable. What made The Cars stick out from other bands was Ocasek’s songwriting which had a beautiful simplicity to it. There are multiple layers to The Cars’ music; the lyrical content is fairly straightforward, with the subject being easy to identify, but like Lou Reed, Ocasek had an indelible way of creating double meanings with his sentences. Take, for example, one of the verses of ‘Just What I Needed’

“I don’t mind you hangin’ out
And talkin’ in your sleep
It doesn’t matter where you’ve been
As long as it was deep, yeah.”

Perhaps it is not literally a double-entendre; however, the image that is conjured has more depth to it than what first meets the eye. Ocasek had a way of misleading the listener with bittersweet love songs, to the point where you question whether the narrator is in love with the subject of the song, or in fact, hates the subject. 

One of the outstanding accolades accredited to The Cars was what they did for punk rock music. Bridging the gap between new wave and punk, they helped bring more underground punk music to mainstream radio. Before The Cars hit the airwaves, one could only really hear Patti Smith on popular radio, and that is only because of her association with Bruce Springsteen. What made The Cars more commercially acceptable? No doubt it had something to do with hiring Roy Thomas Baker to produce their debut album. Baker has an illustrious career, having worked with Queen, Journey, Dusty Springfield, Foreigner, and many more; he brought an expertise that helped elevate The Cars to another level.

Ric Ocasek would pick up a thing or two from this experience and went on to work as a producer himself. It speaks volumes in regards to the kind of bands he produced that a lot of them were punk bands who reminded him of his roots. The list includes Suicide, Bad Brains, Alan Vega, Bad Religion, Nada Surf, and fellow Boston new wave ally Jonathan Richman. Probably the most notable act with which he made an indelible mark, were Weezer. Ocasek helped Weezer find their voice with their debut, The Blue Album, and later Green Album. Matt Sharp, who was with Weezer at the time, said of Ocasek, “He was one of the most significant icons of our childhood.” Matt Sharp also added, “It’s not an understatement to say that my life and all the lives of the guys in Weezer would be completely different without having that connection with Ric.” 

Ocasek had convinced Weezer to relocate to New York to record their debut album, and to harness the creativity of a new and unfamiliar location. Not unlike what The Cars did when they recorded their debut. Matt Sharpe recalls the memory in an interview with The Rolling Stone: “He said they had spent about two weeks making the first Cars record with Roy Thomas Baker, and they had gone to England to make that first album, and they weren’t sleeping in their own beds and not living their normal daily lives. He remembered every minute of that recording, even how the food tasted. He could access every moment of that first album.”

The Cars biggest selling hit was ‘Drive’ from their 1984 album Heartbeat City, and elucidated the elasticity of The Cars and not just their willingness, but their sheer capability of adapting to new trends. When synthesizers became a prominent instrument for composing and recording, The Cars soaked it right up. 

In addition to his groundbreaking work with The Cars, Ocasek eventually left the group due to growing tensions and went on to record and release seven solo albums and published a book of poetry. Simultaneously a futuristic and sentimental artist, Ric Ocasek will forever be loved as an undeniable point of influence. 

Watch live footage of The Cars performing ‘Just What I needed’, below.