If you’d been kicking around Boston in September 1977, you could have wandered into the Rat in Kenmore Square and seen a little-known band called the Cars. You’d probably have noted their fashion sense: They had a thing for pop-art, black-and-white stage costumes, with automotive backdrops they’d put behind the stage—this in an era when any kind of fancy staging was considered a no-no. You’d have been amused by their cool, European-style renditions of 60s covers. And you’d probably notice how catchy some of their originals were, especially that “Just What I Needed” song and the one about loving your best friend's girl.
Barely a year later, after a few productive weeks in the studio, this band had an all-time classic album on its hands, and some of those songs they’d played to half-empty clubs were on the way to being timeless hits. Sometimes it just works that way. And for the Cars, things came pretty close to happening overnight. This week Greg Hawkes, the keyboardist for the legendary band, tells us how it came about.
While the Cars were a new band in 1977, the members had played together in different combinations. Lead singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek and lead singer/bassist Ben Orr had worked together as an acoustic duo in Michigan, before Ocasek heard that Boston was the place a young band should be. Ocasek even had a short-lived band called Richard & the Rabbits — so called because one of his heroes, Boston rock figure Jonathan Richman, insisted he use that name.
“Ric was the James Bond type, the tall guy with the sunglasses whop kept in the shadows. Ben was the good looking guy, the rock star of the band. Elliot (guitarist Elliot Easton) was the rock guy — He was the one who knew about all the records, who played what, and what equipment they used. And David (drummer David Robinson) was the arty guy, the one with the sense of style.”
The five Cars came together after a few years of trial and error, playing together in different combinations. And it didn’t hurt that unlike their previous outfits, the Cars were a band with five distinct personalities. “Ric was the James Bond type, the tall guy with the sunglasses whop kept in the shadows. Ben was the good looking guy, the rock star of the band. Elliot (guitarist Elliot Easton) was the rock guy—He was the one who knew about all the records, who played what, and what equipment they used. And David (drummer David Robinson) was the arty guy, the one with the sense of style.” Hawkes himself was more the mad scientist, a fitting role for a synthesizer player. “I was the geeky smart aleck with the glasses. That fit my personality pretty well because I was a big comic book guy, and I loved video games. I was always a big fan of the old Atari games and Pac Man.”
In the year before their first album, the Cars did the familiar round of no-glory shows—“a circle of crappy clubs around Boston,” as Hawkes recalls. They did a bunch of cover songs that never made it to their albums (Brenton Woods’ soul hit “Gimme Little Sign” was a favorite), and they used their name as a jumping-off point for stage designs. For one now-famous show at Boston’s Paradise, David Robinson got a backdrop that a local car dealership had thrown away. He lost a night of sleep, but only had to pay twelve bucks for the glue.
But if one thing got their career underway, it was a cheap studio session in Boston. They recorded a couple of songs, including live favorites “Just What I Needed” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and sent them off to the local radio stations. Radio playlists were a lot looser in 1978; and it happened that one DJ at Boston’s major rock station WBCN liked “Just What I Needed” enough to put it into heavy rotation—even though it wasn’t released yet and nobody could buy it. That large bit of hometown success helped the Cars get signed; and it made them pros by the time they officially hit the studio.
The producer of the first Cars album was Roy Thomas Baker, an Englishman best-known for his mile-high production work on the first four Queen albums. But although the album sounds like an immaculate studio production, Hawkes says the recorded versions are pretty close to how the songs sounded live. “We were the same arrangements we id on the demo — The most obvious difference is that we added the multi-track backing vocals, and did a fair number of overdubs. I do remember that on ‘Just What I Needed,’ Roy suggested we do two choruses at the end instead of just one.” By then Hawkes had already come up with the song’s trademark keyboard lick. “That was a lucky combination of finding the perfect sound for that little melody. And I have to admit, it happened partly because we made cassettes of all our rehearsals and every dhow we played. When I heard them over again, my style would start simplifying. I’d be saying, ‘Okay, it’s getting busy in here. Maybe I don’t need to play during that verse, and it’s more effective if I wait till the chorus’. That’s the drudge work of being in a band.”
The Cars were a confident band when they made the first album; but not confident enough to imagine their album would still be hitting 30 years later. “I can say that when we recorded ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, that sounds just like a rock single’. I got that feeling about a lot of the ones we did over the years — ‘Let’s Go’ was like that; ‘Shake It Up’ too. But at the beginning, we weren’t so sure. I knew we could at least get some kind of New England buzz out of ‘Just What I Needed.’ Beyond that, none of us had any idea of our potential, or whatever you want to call it. It was a combination of hard work and luck, and somehow things falling into place at the right time. I like to think it’s still possible for something like that to happen.”
“I Want My, I Want My DLC!”
The songs in Rock Band are only the beginning. Each week we’ll be rolling out more downloadable songs, essential tracks (and sometimes whole albums) from every era of rock history. Check the Rock Band website to find out what’s new.
Tracks will usually sell for $1.99 each; with three-pack specials costing $5.49. (On the Xbox 360, that’s 160 Microsoft Points per track and 440 per three-pack). Occasional special or discounted tracks may cost a dollar more or less.
Downloadable content for the Xbox 360 is available through the XBOX LIVE marketplace. Downloads for the PLAYSTATION 3 version of Rock Band are available through the PLAYSTATION Network Store. In each case, the songs are downloaded onto your hard drive.
If you’re playing solo, you can start rocking right away. For head-to-head or multi-player online, all players will need to download the song.