There are a few songs in The Cars’ collection that, when I first heard them, I gave them a decided ‘thumbs down.’ During my early explorations of the Panorama album, I can clearly remember sitting in the kitchen and saying to my husband, “This song is just so hokey, with its ‘doong da da doong da da doong’ cowboy rhythm. Sounds like a weird western thing going on.”
Can you imagine?
No surprise that now I listen to it constantly and consider it one of the high points among (ten) high points on Panorama (which is now my favorite record!). Not sure exactly what changed my mind but I think it was Elliot and that hot solo. More about that in a minute… Let’s start with some basic facts. Released as a single on August 25, 1980, “Touch and Go” is the second track on that album, the first of three sent out, and the only song to chart from Panorama, reaching #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was written by Ric Ocasek and produced by Roy Thomas Baker. “Down Boys” was on the flip side.
One of the things you immediately notice in the song is the complexity of the tempo during the verses, and then the change up when they move to the bridge and chorus. In my highly technical mind (ha!) I think to myself, “Wow, that sounds so tricky and awesome!” But people who understand the REAL way music works call it polymeter: using two different time signatures simultaneously. I learned about it from this educational blurb:
“‘Touch And Go’, a hit single by The Cars, has polymetric verses, with the drums and bass playing in 5/4, while the guitar, synthesizer, and vocals are in 4/4 (the choruses are entirely in 4/4).” — Guitar Alliance
My mind, while sincerely nerdy and fact-based, is not super flexible, and concepts like this are somewhat slippery for me to get a grip on. The best way for me to grasp it was by watching Greg count the beat on his fingers during this performance on Fridays (aired September 19, 1980). Luckily no one’s going to test me on it, so I just took enough knowledge to increase my appreciation for the song (and my admiration of the band) and tucked it away; I encourage you to do the same.
The other notable thing about this song — and really, it’s the ultimate, BADASS, off.the.chain, “WTF did I just hear?” portion of this song — is Elliot’s guitar solo. This was decidedly the game changer for me, the element of this song that pulled me in initially and still won’t let me go.
As we know, Elliot has always been the master of crafting the perfect punch for the typical 15 to 30 seconds he might have to make his mark in a song, and his work here in “Touch and Go” just might be his best overall. I am blown away every time I hear it! For a full forty seconds he builds and layers, and takes me higher every step of the way, ending at the perfect peak before dropping me back into the soft lap of Ric’s vocals and Benjamin’s swaying bass. But did you know that this beautiful creation almost didn’t make it into the final recording? Elliot tells the story himself in this audio clip from my all-time favorite EE interview:
[Pat at RockSolid has given me permission to make and publish that audio clip, but I highly encourage you to take the time to listen to the full 2-hour interview with Elliot; it is funny, poignant, and extremely insightful. You can download it and take it with you on your morning commute, during a long run, or while you’re doing chores around the house. You won’t regret it!]
As to the lyrics for “Touch and Go,” Ric is quoted as giving a rare interpretation of his own writing on page 60 of the book Frozen Fire, by Toby Goldstein: “This is one of those songs about people having a difficult relationship and not understanding why they’re having problems, but they put up with the uncertainty anyway.” Makes sense to me; more so than my 11 year-old son’s take on it: “Touch and go. That’s the same as hit-and-run, right?” Hm, I actually think I could buy into that explanation, too…
The icing on this musical cake is, of course, Benjamin. I cannot resist that wonderful bass sound, alternately rollicking and gentle, pulling me through the song. I love the live footage where I get to study Benjamin’s hands making it happen.
Though “Touch and Go” was released almost a year before MTV successfully launched video music television in the United States, The Cars were, as always, in with the pioneers of technology and new music frontiers. They teamed up with Gerald (Jerry) Casale of Devo to produce a ‘short band film’ (sometimes called a ‘pop clip’) to go with the song — not a common practice among artists at the time but growing in popularity. The second verse of the song was omitted, shortening it up a bit. The official video was filmed at historic Whalom Park in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1980. The park closed its doors on September 4, 2000, but you can still see two of its popular rides in the video: the Whalom Park Carousel and The Bouncer (pictured).
I love the opening shot of the hands putting the picture disc on the turntable… I don’t know why, but that just is SO cool to me. I also love the parts where Ric is singing in the near-dark and the boys emerge one by one, slowly gliding through our field of vision. And Elliot spinning on The Bouncer with his guitar — could he be any more badass? Even without the special effects and high tech equipment that are available for today’s music video productions, this cutting-edge gem delivers some great visual tidbits.
Here are a few more things about this song that maybe you hadn’t heard yet:
- On December 8, 1980, John Lennon mentioned “Touch and Go” specifically in the last interview of his life. Check it out here. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, feel free to skip ahead; the relevant discussion starts at 1:41:00 and lasts about one minute.
- The song did better globally: it peaked at #2 on the French Singles Chart and #16 in Canada.
- “Touch and Go” has been compared musically to “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police, and “You Got Lucky” by Tom Petty, both released after Panorama, and both possibly influenced by The Cars.
- Whalom Park’s ride, The Bouncer, had a strong reputation for making people vomit… Wonder if any of the guys were queasy after shooting the video?
- The filming of “Touch and Go” was possibly the second music video The Cars made. The first might have been the fun and funny spy video they filmed for the song “Panorama,” which was also directed by Gerald Casale, along with co-director Chuck Statler (known as the ‘godfather of the music video’). I can’t find a production date for “Panorama” so I can’t say with certainty which came first, but it is listed first on Gerald Casale’s videography, which I’m assuming is chronological.
Here’s the link to the official music video. I also posted the lyrics here if you want to sing along (skipping that second verse, of course). Enjoy!