“Just What I Needed” and “You Might Think” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Drive” and “Good Times Roll” — simply put, Ric Ocasek wrote the songs you love.
The New Wave pioneer — who co-founded seminal rock band The Cars in Boston in 1976 and produced albums for key acts in the next generation of artists — died Sunday (September 15) at age 75. During his 40-year career, he wrote the songs I love, and the songs people I love also love. They’re largely the same songs, like the ones above, and yet even more: “Moving In Stereo” and “Lust for Kicks” and “Let’s Go” and “Magic.” I think I’ll love them soon; that usually happens with Ocasek’s songs.
Ocasek didn’t sing all the rockabilly, pop, and widescreen art rock songs he wrote; sometimes his Cars copilot Benjamin Orr took lead to lend a cooler, steelier vocal texture, like on “Just What I Needed” and “Drive.” But when Ocasek did sing his own words, he did so in a distinctive yelp that became one of the most essential voices in a new class of rock music in the late 1970s and early ’80s. You know it. You’ve sung along to it. His quick wail regarding best friend’s girl, that “she used to be mine,” is a real mood-shifter. There are times when simply nothing else will do.
To younger fans, the vintage keyboard-infused power-pop style immortalized by The Cars may first make an impression indirectly, via, say, The Strokes’s lovely stylistic homage “12:51.” Then rock-radio DJs or streaming algorithms can do the rest, spinning “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” a few times per day to let it burn into your soul. The Cars’s hits, especially the unimpeachable run that kicks off their staggering 1978 self-titled debut, are classics, but not because DJs played (and continue to play) the hell out of them. It’s quite the other way around. They were born classics because Ocasek could write a song that you felt you already knew even as you heard it for the first time.
The songbooks of both Ocasek and his contemporary Tom Petty are full of American standards, and that’s exactly why both artists were staples of early MTV. As of 2018, they’re both officially Rock and Roll Hame of Fame inductees as well. Like Petty, Ocasek could deploy a candy-coated melody over four familiar chords and make you feel like maybe you could’ve written it, too — like you never realized it could be so simple, and that maybe it was. But around listen four or five, you’d realize you knew better. You couldn’t write a song like “Gimme Some Slack” at all, and that’s what makes it so great.
Looking closely at even the most commercial Cars hits like “Just What I Needed,” perhaps their signature song, reveals the depth of both melody and arrangement chief among Ocasek’s many musical gifts. That ticking. Those quick stabs. The big chorus after more skeletal verses. Every one of them is a bow on top.
Those gifts stretched into protection for other bands as well. When an emerging California band called Weezer needed a studio ace to help capture their guitar-crunching power-pop in the early 1990s, Ocasek handled the work, helming the boards for their landmark debut, known as the Blue Album. They recruited him again to recapture that spark on 2001’s Green Album and 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End. You can hear it.
While still in The Cars, Ocasek worked on records by punk icons Suicide and Bad Brains; after the band’s first breakup in 1988, he continued releasing solo music and producing for artists like No Doubt (the New Wave-y “Don’t Let Me Down”), Nada Surf (their big-break alt-rock hit “Popular”), and Motion City Soundtrack (their third album, Even If It Kills Me). Even if he didn’t write them, Ocasek still had his fingerprints all over extremely lovable songs. He knew what it took to make a tune sound irresistible.
In 1984, The Cars won the first-ever Video of the Year VMA for “You Might Think,” a neon dream of daffy yet dazzling computer graphics. The clip cost a reported $80,000 — nearly triple the typical music-video expenses at the time — and it remains endearing as hell; it perfectly matches the song’s sticky earnestness with now-primitive special effects like Ocasek’s head on a buzzing bee, romancing young model Susan Gallagher. While the song is a buffet of power chords, reverb-drenched drums, and an ear worm of a keyboard tickle, it showcases another facet of Ocasek’s songwriting appeal: his openness in the face of his more staid public persona.
“People tell me all the time that I look forbidding or aloof,” he told Rolling Stone in a sprawling 1980 cover story, thankfully since digitized. “That doesn’t bother me much — I am fairly private, withdrawn and… distant, I guess. But, um, I think that’s OK.”
“You Might Think” boils down to the sincere final two lines of the chorus: “You might think I’m crazy / But all I want is you.” With a legacy spanning an avalanche of music as open as that, what’s not to love?