It’s just an automatic line…

The other day in the car I found myself answering this question from my 11-year-old: “What the heck is he saying???”

We were at the end of rocking out to Night Spots, and it was where Greg is repeating, “It’s just an automatic line…” I told my son what the words were, and then explained my take on the lyric choice: In a lot of songs the singer repeats a line over and over at the end, and I think it was The Cars’ quirky sense of humor that led them to use those lyrics in kind of a teasing way; maybe poking fun at that habit of singers/songwriters (including themselves). Of course, as I’m telling him this, my own speculation makes me love the song and the band more than ever.

eenightspotssoloWhether my explanation is accurate or not, there is no denying that Night Spots is a damn fine song, with a heavy, pulsing bass line, a fantastic Elliot guitar solo, and bad-ass lyrics. And of course, Greg’s masterful synthesizer work! The song was written by Ric Ocasek (of course!) for The Cars’ first album, but ended up being used as the seventh track on Candy-O instead. It became a staple of their live sets in 1978 and was played in concerts all the way through 1987.

There are two studio versions published and both seem to exude power, though in different ways. The first one released, of course, is the track on Candy-O. It starts out with a little introduction of the synthesizer melody that hooks you for the entire song, and then the other boys are all in, churning away on that rocking beat. Every instrument is so present in this recording. Put on some headphones and get away by yourself for a few minutes — SO many audio delights here! Ric sings the lyrics perfectly; in fact this is one in a handful of songs where I would say I LOVE his vocals. His unconventional style is exactly what this song demands. Another favorite little tidbit about this tune is that in the live recordings Ric sometimes changes up the description of the woman’s hair: long blonde, blonde long, kinky, curly…

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From Ric’s book, Lyrics and Prose

The demo version was recorded in 1978 while the band was in London working on their debut album. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker, this unfinished take was apparently set aside at that time, and it wasn’t released to the world until it came out as part of 1995’s Just What I Needed: The Cars’ Anthology. Again, grab your headphones. This time we start out with an addictive beat, and then the layering begins: guitar, bass, guitar; building until the vocal jumps in, but with an almost entirely different set of lyrics. And here again, Ric’s singing is spot-on. In this version he comes across as rather amused and mocking of the woman in the song; as opposed to the bit of desperation, the awe for her that he portrays in the Candy-O cut. The biggest difference between the two tracks? There is no keyboard part in this early demo, and no blazing EE solo. Where the vinyl is poppish and danceable, this version is very bass-driven and very slinky… sexy. Quite a contrast.

It should be no surprise that I love both recordings. Each one conveys its own mood and message; I easily think of them as two individual songs, rather than one being an early version of the other. I’m going to post links to both of them here. I’ve decided not to use fan vids, mostly because I want to encourage you to close your eyes and focus on this incredible music. Enjoy!

CANDY-O VERSION

 

DEMO VERSION:

Lyrics: Night Spots (demo version)

Night Spots by The Cars (demo)

You walk a little bit curious
You look a little bit happy
You play a little bit sensitive
You stay a little bit beautiful

You’re just a little bit ridiculous
Sometimes a little bit off the wall
You are a little bit t-t-tight
Sometimes when you, you take the fall fall

Oo how you shake me up and down
When we hit the night spots on the town

Ah you walk a little bit curious
You look a little bit happy
You play a little bit sensitive
You stay a little bit beautiful

Oo how you shake me up and down
When we hit the night spots on the town
Oo how you shake me up and down
When we hit the night spots on the town

Just a little bit cool
Sometimes funny

Lyrics: Night Spots

Night Spots by The Cars

Could be you’re crossing the fine line
A silly driver, kinda off the wall
You keep it cool when it’s t-t-tight
Eyes wide open when you start to fall

You go d-dancing in the dim lit club
Some pressure cooker crawls up on his knees
Flashing sensations like a one on one
Stomping around in the jitterbug breeze yeah

Oo, how you shake me up and down
When we hit the night spots on the town

Oo, how you shake me up and down
When we hit the night spots on the town

It’s all behind you when you do catch on
You keep your lovers in a penny jar
A real romantic with a sultry stare
You keep on messin’ with your blonde, long hair yeah

Oo, how you shake me up and down
When we hit the night spots on the town

(it’s just an automatic line)
(it’s just an automatic line)
(it’s just an automatic line)
(it’s just an automatic line)

Quoting Benjamin

“For me it’s power. Myself and David supply the power. We are the ‘en-gine.’ That’s what it is to me… It’s also melodic, a bass instrument is melodic to me. I don’t go into playing straight ‘boom boom four’, you know. I like to experiment a bit, and sweeten it up, put a little melody behind the bass part. I think it helps. We’ll let the audience be the judge.”– The Cars: Riding the New Wave radio interview, 1982

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Lyrics: Goes On Sleeping

Goes On Sleeping by Cap’n Swing

You know the way she’s looking, she’s the one you’d like to touch

You were staying the night over and you could love her for as much

Because you’re the soft shade (?) lady, know the way that she could feel

If only you could roll on her you could spin her like a wheel

 

Too shy to love her with a secret on

You still caress her in your head ’til dawn

‘Cause if you hide it ’til the feeling’s gone it goes on sleeping

 

She’s a cool romantic, she’s giving up on you

And she always flies her ladies into the crystal blue

Hot lights and flaming nights leave a haunted smell in the air

Silk jeans and sweet love dreams make ‘em sometimes unbeware

 

Too shy to love her with a secret on

You still caress her in your head ’til dawn

‘Cause if you hide it ’til the feeling’s gone it goes on sleeping

 

Goes on sleeping…

Cars + Books = My Happy Place

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I am a book freak (along with my other little obsessions) and of course I love The Cars, so imagine my giddiness when those two worlds collided and I found myself with a (near) complete collection of written-and-bound material on my boys!

I do qualify my statement by saying ‘near’ complete, because I know that Ric has some other printed material out there; poetry and what not. I confess I’m not really looking for those so much — unless, of course, I happen to come across the little pamphlet that Ric hand-made and would leave lying around in bookstores back in the 1970s… Now THAT would be a treasure, indeed.

In the meantime, I’ve very happy with my little stash. They’ve been great sources of photos, quotes and information about this wonderful band. Here’s a short description of each (hoping to eventually write reviews of all of them). Clockwise from the top left:

Robus Books: The Carswritten by Stacy Leigh, photography by Mike O’Brien and Kelly Thompson; published by Robus Books, 1985. (ISBN: 0-88188-364-6) First one pictured, but last one I bought. I wasn’t aware of this book until my Cars buddy, Timothy, pointed it out to me and then (of course) I went on a relentless search to find it. It’s an elusive one, but I was able to pick up my not-entirely-pristine-but-pretty-close copy off of Amazon for about $15. A steal!

The Cars, written by Peter Goddard, photography by Philip Kamin; published by McGraw-Hill, 1986. (ISBN: 0-07-033498-6) Another hard-to-afford book, but I managed to win it on ebay for just under $50. SO worth it! Nice large format and beautiful photographs.

Super Groups, written by Cynthia Dagnal; published by Tempo Books, 1981. (ISBN: 0-448-17228-3) This book covers several bands and contains a significant chapter on The Cars. You can generally find it on Amazon on the cheap. Lots of great coverage considering the band was only 3 years old at the time.

Lyrics and Prose, written by Ric Ocasek; published by Blue Rider Press, 2012. (ISBN: 978-0-399-16370-8) Huge collection of… well… lyrics and prose. LOL Great reference book and fun to see some of Ric’s handwritten pages. Picked this up on Amazon, too.

Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars, written by Toby Goldstein, photography by Ebet Roberts; published by Contemporary Books, Inc., 1985. (ISBN: 0-8092-5257-0) I wrote an in-depth review of this book already, not knowing it would inspire one of the biggest sweetie pies in the world to send me a copy! My dear sister-in-the-Cars, Leigh, ‘shocked me into sense’ by giving me this book as a gift, and I am forever grateful. Not only do I enjoy the book, but her generosity at a time when we hardly knew each other just floored me. The Fanorama never ceases to amaze me.

As difficult as it can be to purchase some of these, there is hope of getting your hands on them… I was able to check several of them out through the inter-library loan system (I LOVE my local library!) before I bought them. Although I guess that’s no guarantee you’ll get to read them: one friend of mine checked out Frozen Fire only to find that all of the pages about Benjamin were torn out. Go figure!

Thanks again, Leigh, for providing that final piece, and to Timothy for alerting me to the existence of the white Robus book!

The Swing of Things, Part 2: From the Cap’n to The Cars

The Swing of Things, Part 2: From the Cap’n to The Cars

This isn’t going to be your usual summary.

This transition period in Cars’ history has been documented many times in books, interviews and magazine articles, and I’m not planning to rehash all of the fine details here. I’m going to attempt to fill in some of the holes (though many remain) and answer a few of the questions surrounding the shift from an “almost famous band” to one with skyrocketing success.

In Part 1 of my narration I left off when I got to the autumn of 1976, with the members of Cap’n Swing (Ric Ocasek on rhythm and vocals, Benjamin Orr on vocals, possibly Glenn Evans on drums, Todd Roberto on bass, and possibly Danny Schiftlin on keys) returning home from their big audition in New York. They were ready to revamp Cap’n Swing with a tighter, more defined look and sound, in line with the feedback they had received from their trip . This process would involve several crucial changes, and as the leader of the group, it was up to Ric to make some tough decisions.

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Ric and Benjamin shared the lead vocal responsibilities, and I understand that sometimes Benjamin played a variety of percussion-type instruments when he was not singing, like tambourines, cowbells, and other bits. For the most part, though, Benjamin was just there with a microphone in his hand, or he’d “stand there with his hands in his pockets — nothing dynamic.”¹

While many listeners could have been perfectly satisfied with that role for Benjamin, famed Boston deejay Maxanne Sartori didn’t agree. She said, “I told Ben he’s got to have something in his hands. He used to be a lead singer without any instrument. And he’s probably the most photogenic of anyone in the band, but he didn’t look comfortable on the stage at that time. He just looked foolish standing out there with nothing to do with his hands and nothing to do with his feet.” After a conversation with Ric she went on to suggest that Benjamin take over on bass guitar.² Inevitably, that meant that Todd Roberto was out.

Since writing Part 1 of this history I have learned that Todd Roberto has been playing bass for Vista Hill for the last several years. You can learn about that band and take a listen by clicking here.

Glenn Evans, the drummer, left Cap’n Swing of his own choice, as he shared in a public facebook post: “After losing my shirt in this band and waiting about a year for the pending recording contract, I left Cap’n Swing. Everything was too ambiguous for me at the time and I was not making the best decisions. My last gig with the band was three nights on Nantucket, very late on my van payments, all the band’s equipment in my truck as I come off the ferry in Hyannis with Elliot Steinberg (Easton) in the passenger seat and fifteen dollars in my pocket for three nights’ work.”

I am not sure if Glenn was still with the band when they auditioned in New York, but I do know that he played the drums on many of the demos recorded by Cap’n Swing, including ones that received a great deal of airplay on the radio and propelled the band into Boston popularity. I believe Glenn continues to drum, sing and produce today. You can check out his website here.

Glenn was replaced by Kevin Robichaud. And of course we know that sometime during those last months of 1976 Kevin was then replaced with David Robinson. Fortunately for Ric, this wasn’t just a changing of the drummer. David brought not only his amazing talent for percussion, but also his eye for style, his ability to streamline the look of the band, his creativity in album art and set design — and a new name for the band: The Cars.

And usually the next line in retellings of the band’s history says something like, “and Greg Hawkes rejoined the band and The Cars were formed.” They use ‘rejoined’ because Greg used to play with Ric and Benjamin back in oh-about-1974ish when they were all in a band together called Richard and The Rabbits, and Greg had done some earlier demo work for them as well.  Now here is where things went off on a new track for me.

While I was researching the info on Cap’n Swing at the end of August, I came across this quote from Greg in Philip Kamin and Peter Goddard’s book, The Cars (p.68): “They [Ric and Ben] had been together for three or four shows as The Cars before I joined. In fact, I heard them as The Cars sometime in January 1977.” Uh… come again? I had never heard this before; that there was a time period when The Cars did *not* include Greg. I was half convinced it had to be a mistake in the book. I started keeping my eyes out for any other source that could dispute or verify this little nugget.

dannylouis-2Barely a month later I got another ‘Cars history’ shock. A photo surfaced on ebay (seen here, left) which rocked my world. This picture, which was taken by Duana Lemay, was listed as a vintage original promo group photo of The Cars from 1976 . My jaw dropped. Clearly, that is NOT Greg on the right, and of course it confirmed what I had been chewing on about the band’s timeline of members. So who the heck was this guy??? (Incidentally, the photo would go on to sell for just over $70.)

Well, certainly  I wasn’t the only one who was thrown off by it, and while I asked around, trying to puzzle it out, my very intelligent friend, @Night_Spots, did a very intelligent thing and straight-up asked Elliot Easton. Duh! Brilliant! So here’s what he found out.

mystery-guymystery-guy-2

Oh, Danny Louis! Of course! Mystery solved, right? Hahaha. C’mon. You know it’s not that easy for me. So many questions! Is Danny Louis one and the same with the elusive Danny Schiftlin? Or were there two Danny piano players? Had Ric already decided he wanted Greg, and Danny Louis was filling in until Greg finished with Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture? Or did Ric decide to add Greg in after the band was underway?

Okay, okay. In the overall scheme of things I guess it doesn’t really matter. Danny Louis has been rocking for over a decade with Gov’t Mule and gone on to terrific success of his own as a highly talented multi-instrumentalist. (See what he’s been up to by clicking here.) And of course we know that Greg was a perfect fit for The Cars. Still, I wonder. I like to have all the little slots on my chart filled in (no surprise), and these questions are leaving some uncertainties in my path. Can’t *quite* close the book on this chapter…

Greg or no Greg, The Cars’ official debut performance was on December 31, 1976, at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. What I wouldn’t give to have seen that show!

You know, as I shuffle through all of this research and spend time pondering those winter months of 1976, I can’t help but tingle at the thrill of these guys being on the cusp of their wild success; a rise so quick and so high that it would leave them all feeling a bit stunned (at least for a little while). Such exciting times! Still striving, still tweaking; all five of these talented men doing what they loved. The hours spent in Ric’s basement falling into place with each other, refining, learning; maybe discussing the ‘what ifs’, getting their hopes up one more time but not too high… laughing and working and playing and cementing themselves together into what many of us consider to be one of the greatest bands of all time: The Cars.

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¹Goldstein, Toby. Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars. Chicago:Contemporary Books. 1985. p. 17

²Kamin, Philip. The Cars. New York: McGraw Hill. 1986. p. 16

It reminds me of him.

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“…he died both a hero and a man in love. He couldn’t have made a different choice. And all he wanted was to be remembered. So, I thank you all, for giving his life meaning, for bringing out the very best in him, and for remembering him all these years later.”

Kristin Hannah,  The Nightingale (modified)

 

[This isn’t a direct quote, because the passage in the book was originally written about a female character, but it just struck me that it could have served as a well-worded tribute to Benjamin.]

In other words:

What was it like to play Benjamin Orr’s bass parts when you toured with The New Cars? “When I started working on that gig I discovered that Orr wasn’t just picking away at the obvious eighth notes. Those are really smart parts. He changes it up a bit on every verse and every chorus in order to make each part of each song work individually. ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ is a decent example. There’s an art to the way he picks the part using lots of down strokes, the occasional upstroke, and an occasional kasimsixteenth note stutter. And he incorporates just the right amount of palm muting throughout.” — Kasim Sulton, former bassist for The New Cars and member of several other rock bands, Bassplayer.com interview, February 1, 2010