“Ben was a good friend, and we played a lot of great music together in just a few short years. We were pals. I’ve only known a few great singers who were pure ‘naturals’ like Ben. He just opened his mouth to sing and sounded perfect—like a hit record.
“His musicianship was stellar, and he was just a very fun guy to know and hang out with. He was consistently a good and kind fellow, and I’ll always miss him and remember fondly all the good times we spent together.” — Danny Louis of Gov’t Mule, formerly with Cap’n Swing and founding member of The Cars, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken, p. 65
I can’t recall exactly how I first learned that Cap’n Swing was the precursor to The Cars, but I distinctly remember the first time I heard a Cap’n Swing song. I was sitting in my home office, obsessing on Benjamin, when I clicked on this video (link below)… and I was blown away.
The initial music was kind of rollicking; a happy little tune, almost ‘young,’ with that peppy keyboard riff. Then Benjamin’s voice came in all seductive and lush, singing that chorus, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to hear what he would say next. And he started to tell a story that transported me back… back to those days of my budding awareness of the opposite sex; those early days of exploration. I felt like he was describing that one time in the sixth grade with Robert Tranberg, on the trail in the woods behind the house: those first tentative touches, clumsy attempts at figuring out what our hormones were calling us to, but everything still so innocent and confusing. It brought on that ache of longing and nostalgia and beautiful pain of those early teenage days…
And all of it was couched in this sunshiny music, his evocative vocals. I had to listen again. Now that guitar grabbed me, those simple but pushing notes that accentuated the sensuality of the song. I loved the part behind “stabbed into the thick black air…” and on to the chorus; it was so perfect. Then I got into the keyboard solo, playful and light, and it blended so perfectly into the guitar solo, which told of the heights of those confusing emotions… until Elliot brought me back down again and handed me over to Benjamin and his “yeah, yeah, yeah.” And the next lines captured the internal struggle of me as a young teen: “like a hypnotized baby… out there, trying to feel it all somehow… out there, well they really don’t care at all.”
I was hooked. HOOKED. And as you can guess I had to go on to listen to as much CS as possible and devour all of it, but “Come Back Down” will always hold a special spot inside my heart, will always speak to that young girl in me.
(I posted those wonderfully impetuous lyrics by Ric Ocasek separately; click here to read them.)
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.
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.
Barely 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.
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.
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
You know me by now. When I love-love-love something I feel compelled to research-research-research it. After the Benjamin bomb went off for me I immediately dove into finding out everything I could about The Cars, and in doing so stumbled across a whole little collection of wonderful music by an “almost famous band,” Cap’n Swing. If you didn’t already know, Cap’n Swing (CS) is the band Ric and Benjamin formed just before The Cars, and it was truly a ‘diamond in the rough.’
Coming up with the facts about CS has been harder than I thought it would be, and I have ended up with more unanswered questions than I started with. Even the most basic detail, like when they actually formed, is hard to nail down, in part because Ric and Benjamin tried several combinations of bands that wove in and out and around each other; and partly because I don’t think any of the guys were particularly nerdy-obsessive-fact-recorders… at least, not that I’ve heard. But I’ll start with what I’ve been able to scratch up:
The band was made up of Benjamin Orr on vocals, Ric Ocasek on rhythm guitar and vocals, Elliot Steinberg (soon to be Easton) on lead guitar, Todd Roberto on bass, Danny Shiftlin (not sure of the spelling of his last name) on piano, and Glenn Evans on drums (later replaced by Kevin Robichaud after Glenn decided to move on).
At least four of these guys already had a history together by the time CS formed, which I believe was around 1975-76. Of course, Ric and Ben had been a team for a good 7-8 years by this time. Elliot had joined them during their Ocasek and Orr days, playing regularly at the Idler in Harvard Square around 1974-75ish. Glenn had worked with Ric and Benjamin on their recordings for an Ocasek and Orr demo tape in 1975. I don’t know any history for Todd or Danny… and where are they now? Wish I knew.
One of the earliest dates I can find for a CS performance is May 11, 1976, which was touted as their “world debut.” The band developed quite a following in the Boston area in 1976, gaining the attention of popular local deejay Maxanne Sartori, who went crazy over them after seeing them perform at the WBCN Newbury Street Music Fair. She added more than one of their songs to her playlist (possibly including “Come Back Down” and “Strawberry Moonlight”), further increasing the attention the guys were getting around town.
Excited by their growing popularity they took a shot at getting a record deal. Sometime in the fall of 1976 (I believe October 4th and/or 5th?) the band went to Max’s Kansas City in New York to play for some big name management companies, including those who handled Kiss and Aerosmith. Elliot recalls, “The general consensus was that there was great potential but that we really needed to consolidate our sound, look, and image.” (Rock Solid interview, July 31, 2014) Though Elliot characterizes their retreat as “coming home with our tails between our legs,” the guys took this constructive criticism to heart and set to making some very defined and proactive changes behind closed doors, which signaled the end of Cap’n Swing and the birth of The Cars — but I’ll write more on that in Part 2.
In the meantime, let’s get to Cap’n Swing’s music. I am addicted to this ‘crazy rock and roll!’ Many of their songs are in my daily listening rotation, and I am frequently swept away to pleasant places in my mind by that free-flowing, easy 70s sound. It’s interesting how the personality of Cap’n Swing’s music bounces back and forth between several genres: there’s the laid-back “keep on trucking” groove, some finger-snapping jazzy snazz, a little bit of lounge music stylings, and harder rock and roll with a more driving beat and prominent guitar… then there’s some Peanuts-style cartoon music mixed in there for good measure. Haha!
The lyrics are uniquely Ric’s, of course. I feel like he was (and always is, really) on the edge of a relatable truth and it’s often something I can grasp personally, but it would be difficult to define the meaning of it for someone else. Elliot is masterful with his tight riffs, Danny keeps the music flowing along, and Todd and Glenn give the songs their backbone. My friend, Kathy B, put it this way: “I love the live music, the raw energy. The not-so-refined sound makes you feel the excitement of them knowing they were on the tip of wild success. For a band that was supposedly distant with their audience you can hear them interact at times. Ben especially on some songs has trouble containing his excitement, which is quite irresistible from our shy boy.”
Without an instrument in his hands Benjamin channels his energy and creativity into his vocal work. His voice is sultry, demanding, sardonic. He goes high and low, growls roughly and harmonizes beautifully. He fiddles with pronunciations, experiments with his word endings and adds melodic variations to lyrics he has to repeat multiple times, playing with syllables and stretching out vowels with more freedom and abandon than he would later display in The Cars. If you ask me, some of Benjamin’s best vocal work is preserved here in these Cap’n Swing demos.
I do get a little impatient with the music in one respect. In my opinion, Cap’n Swing hadn’t quite mastered the skill of knowing when to end a song, or how to limit the performance of one instrument in such a way as to make it effective without dragging the song down. Solos from the lead guitar, piano, and bass often carry on for quite a while (one of my pet peeves, as you know), and even seem to be competing with each other from time to time. I’m over it now, but it took some effort. ::wink::
My other gripe probably only exists because of hindsight. Danny’s playing on the keys is great, but I miss the sheer variety of sounds that Greg brought to the table with his synthesizers, saxophone, and general noisemakers. Of course, had I been sitting in a bar listening to Cap’n Swing live I’m sure my ears would have been thrilled, but since I can’t unhear Greg’s amazing contribution after the fact, I find it lacking in CS whether I want to or not.
[Heck, who am I kidding? If I had been sitting in a bar listening to CS live I wouldn’t have even known there was a piano player in the room, or anyone else for that matter; it would have been all about the Benj!]
Sorting out their songs has taken a bit of work. I’m just including titles that I have at least *some* concrete evidence for, and given Ric’s reputation for prolific song writing, I’m sure there are many tunes the band played that I am not aware of. I think I’ve got it straight, but help me out if I’m off track, would you?
Okay, here goes, starting with the easiest to track:
On July 13, 1976, Captain Swing recorded a series of demos at Great Northern Studios in Boston. The finished product included the following eleven songs:
Toby Goldstein asserts in her book, Frozen Fire, that Cap’n Swing was playing You’re All I’ve Got Tonight as well.
With all of these great songs I am hard-pressed to try to pick a favorite. “Come Back Down” was the first CS song I listened to, and it blew me away; it is certainly one I never get tired of playing. But then again, I feel the same about “Strawberry Moonlight,” “So Far Away,” “Jezebel,” “You’re Always Brighter,” “Twilight Superman”… Oh heck! All of them! Let me just encourage you to give each one a try. With the diversity of genres CS was fooling around with you’re sure to find something that tickles your fancy. Let me know what you end up with!
It would be truly unfair of me if I neglected to say that I am VERY grateful for the answers, direction, and best guesses of two amazing Cars encyclopedias, J and J. They were both unceasingly patient with all of my questions and clarifications, even though I’m sure I drove them crazy. I continue to find the Fanorama to be such a terrific group of people!