The other day I was standing in a department store when I heard the unmistakable “aaah-ah, aaah-ahhh-ahhh” of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” coming over the speaker in the sky. It made me even giddier than I usually get when I hear The Cars out and about because that song is not one that plays often in my neck of the woods. I looked at the people around me like, “Right???” but of course, no one connected. (My sweet kiddo gave me a ‘thumbs up’ though. Haha!)
“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is the sixth track on The Cars’ (perfect) debut album, and definitely one of the rockin-est! It was, of course, written by Ric Ocasek and produced by Roy Thomas Baker. Not nearly as arcane as many of his lyrics, Ric described the meaning of the song in this way: “When things get too quiet, and you’re willing to put up with any company, or you’re not willing to accept the prospect of being alone, you might find yourself needing what you’ve got.” (EA News, May, 1978)
Before you read any further in this article I just want you to grab some headphones and listen to this. I know, I know… you’ve heard it a zillion times… but please, I urge you, just take a few minutes and close your eyes and soak this in.
Those drums absolutely make my adrenaline take flight. And then you hear the first fuzzy guitar riffs, paired with Ric’s voice slicing into the music with those wonderfully apathetic lyrics… Everything about this song is huge and dark and pulsing. Well, until Greg joins in with his bright, sparkly strobe of synth notes that take the edge off just in time. And the background vocals are stunning — ah, Roy Thomas Baker! You’re a genius!
From what I understand, the only time this track was officially sent out into the world on a 45 was as the B side to “All Mixed Up” — in the Netherlands! But no matter. Both rock and mainstream radio station deejays and listeners loved it then and still do today; it continues to receive more than its fair share of ‘spinnage.’ (Hmm, surely I didn’t just make that word up?)
Now let’s take a quick step back in time and trace the history of this bad boy. YAIGT was around before The Cars were “The Cars.” According to Toby Goldstein in her book Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars, Cap’n Swing was playing it in Boston in 1976. Having heard the interesting metamorphoses of other CS-to-The-Cars songs, I sure wish I could hear the Cap’n tackle this tune!
I don’t have an audio from back that far but fortunately for us, an early Cars’ demo was included on Rhino’s 1999 deluxe edition of the debut album. It was laid down during The Cars’ first-ever recording session in April of 1977, at Northern Recording Studio in Maynard, MA. In the liner notes Greg says, “As with ‘Just What I Needed,’ this particular recording also received considerable airplay prior to the first album coming out.” In other words, IT was a hit before THEY were a hit.
You hear the subtle differences right off the bat: you have Dave and Elliot entering with straight sounds, no technological manipulations. Then there’s the heavy bass, the raw (and a little sparse) backing vocals; a different spin on the synth at times. Filling in toward the end you hear the unique vocal mutterings of Ric and those various “woo!” exclamations that clearly testify to the high energy of the band. As always with their early stuff, you just know they *knew* they were killing it. Take a listen:
(It’s funny… my internal stereo always plays the beginning of “Bye Bye Love” after that last “tonight!”)
YAIGT became a concert staple. “We do that [song] all the time. I like that song. It’s just about ending up with somebody you don’t necessarily care to be ending up with, but something’s better than nothing,” Ric explains on the 1979 SuperGroups in Concert series. Indeed, according to setlist.fm (grain of salt, I know), The Cars performed this song 65 times beginning in April of 1977; it is their fifth most-played title. More often than not, it was played as the last one of the regular set or as part of the encore.
As you may recall, the band closed the televised portion of their performance on Rock Goes to College with it, and they nailed it. I love how Ric takes advantage of the live show to get a little naughty with the lyrics… and of course, the added slo-mo effects as the credits roll add the mint to this sweet tea. Check it out:
According to 98.5 WNCX Radio, Elliot enjoyed it, too. “’You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ was a favorite of mine, if for no other reason than it was my chance to stretch out live. I usually used the solo at the end as a launching point and would take off until the other guys in the band sort of looked at me like ‘Okay already, enough,’ and then I’d give them their cue that we would go back into the song. But that was a fun one for me to play, because I always got to stretch on it.”
This performance from 2011 is a perfect example of that ‘stretching.’ The whole song is so stunning I can hardly keep from standing up and cheering at the end. Elliot blazes through those guitar parts like a freight train — check him out at about 3:00, where he kicks off just over a minute and a half of pure six-string badassery. And the crowd just eats it up! I watch this again and again and I just can’t help but internally beg the stars to align so that The Cars will tour one more time.
A search on Youtube will turn up a whole variety of folks doing covers of this song, with equally diverse success. I do have a few favorites among those efforts.
The one I like best sounds the most different to my ears, and I confess I didn’t really care for it on the first listen. It’s by an artist named David Raymer. It’s a little softer; the vocals are more melodic and kind of jazzy; he’s got kind of an Edwyn Collins vibe going on. I gave it another chance, liked it, wanted to hear it again… and then I kept coming back to it. There’s just something so unique about it; can’t really put my finger on it. What do you think?
Probably the most notable remake of YAIGT was done by The Smashing Pumpkins. A long-time fan of The Cars, lead singer/songwriter Billy Corgan added his metallic sawblade vocals and alternative-punk distortion, and then monkeyed with elements of the arrangement enough to add a definite (but not unpleasant) twist to this classic. The Smashing Pumpkins released their version on their 1996 box set called The Aeroplane Flies High. I’m not a big SP fan, but I am a little addicted to this! Take a listen here (you have to do some jimmy-jog with the settings but it works, I promise):
This cover also shows up in a snippet of the film The Saint, a successful 1997 thriller starring Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue. It’s just a tiny blip, to be sure (which is probably why it didn’t warrant a spot on the official soundtrack), but there it is. And the movie itself isn’t too bad, either.
I know I’ve mentioned the 2005 tribute compilation Substitution Mass Confusion in other articles… YAIGT was one of the songs included on that CD. It was covered by an alternative pop/rock band out of Chicago called The Millions. I still don’t have my own copy of it (it’s on the way!), but I did find a partial performance of the track on Youtube. It’s pretty rocking:
Just a couple of months ago I came across this one. Now, I am a big believer in passing music down to the next generation, so it’s very gratifying when I come across young people devoting their time and talents to learning The Cars’ catalog. This talented girl (can’t tell how old she is but she looks like a teenager) does a stellar job with EE’s solo:
Then there’s this one — and she is YOUNG. Watching this little gal gave me an education on what all Benjamin does in this song. For me, a lot of the bass is masked by the heavy guitars and I have a hard time picking it out. So many nuances I had never caught before! And I’m curious… how long did this girl practice this thing??? (She does a video of the lead guitar, too.)
I’ll tell you, for a song that never showed up on the Billboard charts, this heavy number sure has made its mark…. so much so that it’s still being played, forty years later, in a department store in a little town in the woods of Podunk, Idaho. And THAT, my friends, is why The Cars are being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 😉