What I wouldn’t give to travel back in time and see the Cars perform live! To be in the presence of those five talented, funny, intense men would be such an incredible experience; I know this is true because the live performances on youtube are so mesmerizing, even through the screen! The perfection, the tightness of their playing; their uncanny ability to interlock as musicians and create that unique, mind-blowing sound LIVE — often better than the studio recording. Could you imagine being in the same room with that energy???
That is why I am just so mystified when I read any negative reviews from those fortunate enough to have seen the Cars in concert. The band has been compared to mannequins, “friggin’ statues,” corpses, and battery-operated robots. People complain that the guys don’t really move around, don’t interact with the audience, don’t vary the music enough. There is not any flash, no pyrotechnics, no circus. Several fans have commented around the web that the Cars were the worst show they had ever seen. One commenter said the Cars were the worst live show of the 80s. Wow! [Seriously, did no one see a wasted David Lee Roth prancing around and mumbling incoherently in ass chaps?] And this is not just Joe Shmoe off the street; some rock critics and entertainment writers seem to scratch their heads over this ‘weird’ phenomena.
I’ve been to many concerts and have seen a lot of variety. Steve Miller, Robert Plant, The Scorpions, Kiss, Rod Stewart… Hall and Oates, The Monkees, Neil Diamond, and oodles in between. Right off the bat I’d have to say that yes, there is a difference in the way the Cars perform; they’re pretty unique. I get it. They don’t run up to the audience and shout in the fans’ faces; they don’t strut around like peacocks, moving frenetically from one end of the stage to the other; and they certainly don’t swing from the rafters or come up through the stage on hydraulics. This writer describes their show pretty well (while trying to put a positive spin on it):
“The Cars epitomize the so-called ‘minimal’ school of rock. Onstage there are no between-song raps, no stretched-out solos. Tunes are cranked out like eerie replicas of their studio versions. There is no interpersonal kibitzing among band members or with crowds – and no introductions of song titles or musicians. Clearly, though, the Cars prove there is a market for such frigid and impersonal restraint.” – Jim Farber, People magazine, August 13, 1979.
In the early years they certainly kept things very low-key. They had a prescribed color combination, a big logo behind them, a few spotlights… and not much else. Around the Shake It Up tour they started fluffing up the stage dressings and lighting effects, but for the most part they stuck to their formula: stand there and perform your heart out. I love it, and here’s why:
- I can hear the songs I love, just the way I love them. And I can sing along and get the words right. Sometimes Benjamin would vary a lyric line or ad lib a bit (I’m thinking of Candy-O in particular), or change his vocal inflection (and make me crazy with his increased sexiness) and that is enough for me.
- The vocals stay strong throughout the entire show because the guys are not getting winded from running hither, thither and yon trying to get the crowd hyped up. Those voices are what I want to hear!
- When the guys are standing still I can feast my eyes on them and get a fix on their beautiful faces. Well, you know that I really mean one face in particular. And I can watch those hands work the bass and follow his eyes and see his adorable facial expressions. I’m so glad the cameras don’t have to chase him/them around!
- I get a true sense of who they are as individuals by the way they naturally perform. Elliot rocks around a bit, Greg be-bops, Ric lurches and sways, and Benjamin moves to the back of the stage when he’s not at the mic. Nothing contrived, nothing pre-fabricated; just them and the music. I love the interactions between Ben and Elliot, too; so fun and friendly. For them to try to conform to outside expectations would only be a visual disaster (think of the video for Too Hot to Stop, or Ric’s awkward movements during Touch and Go).
- I can’t stand long, drawn-out solos. From any instrument or throat. Period. I’m so glad they don’t do any of that irritating showboat crap.
- They don’t need to be “entertainers.” The Cars are a group of guys that created amazing music, and that music has the capacity to stand on its own. There is no need to try to enhance the presentation of it with a bunch of smoke and lights. It is solid, captivating, addictive all by itself. And each member is a talented, interesting person who understands that the performance is about drawing attention to the music, not to the individual. It is this combination, the men and the music, that provide all the energy and pizzazz this band needs to give an amazing live performance.
I’ve read and listened to many interviews where the guys have all expressed their satisfaction with the way they perform, but I’ll end with this quote from the same article I used above:
“Observes drummer David Robinson, accurately: ‘It would be easier for the audience to understand it if people jumped around with their guitars on fire. We find we can get people excited without doing anything.'” – Jim Farber interview, People magazine, August 13, 1979.