Live Aid: “It’s good to see you again!”

In a November, 1986, interview, when asked what his most memorable moment with The Cars was, Ben responded, “Oh… Probably Live Aid, I would say. We had a really nice time there and it was great playing for the world.”


There were a lot of BIG things about the 80s: big hair, big shoulder pads, big technology (have you seen the size of those portable phones?). And right in the middle of it (literally: middle of the decade, middle of the year, and middle of the month) was the mother of all 80s bigness: Live Aid. Capturing the world’s attention for about 16 hours on July 13, 1985, a bevy of the biggest names in music took turns busking on stages on both sides of the globe in an unprecedented charity concert to raise money for famine relief. Ultimately, the event set the Guinness World Record for the Largest Simultaneous Rock Concert TV Audience, was viewed by about 1.9 billion people in 150 countries, and reportedly raised around £150 million. See what I mean? BIG.

In the United States, things kicked off at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at 9 a.m., and while there is SO much to talk about in regards to this iconic concert, it’s only natural that I narrow the discussion down to the parts that pertain to our boys.

I believe The Cars took the stage at just after 5:30 p.m. They played four songs, opening with “You Might Think,” and then moving through “Drive,” “Just What I Needed,” and “Heartbeat City.” There’s lots to unpack here, and indeed, I’m not sure where to start but… how about we get the stink out of the way first?


The Collins Intrusion

Any serious Cars fan who’s watched this footage knows exactly what I’m talking about. For whatever reason, the powers-that-be felt it was of the utmost importance to document Phil Collins’ lackluster arrival in the U.S., and they had no compunction about cutting away from The Cars’ performance to bore us with the publicity grab. Yes, yes, I’ve heard that it was somehow a newsworthy feat that he performed ‘on both sides of the Atlantic,’ playing a short set in Wembley Stadium and then flying to Philly in a Concorde jet, blah blah blah. For lovers of The Cars, the time the broadcasters dedicated to the stunt was insulting.

And it’s not like they only mentioned it during an intermission, or cut in just once. The Collins Intrusion began early on, biting into the footage of The Cars’ first song, and then kept popping up with frustrating frequency. For what? The video feed of his arrival was totally boring! At least he could have done some cartwheels on the tarmac or something. Give me something to look at, for cripe’s sake. And you know what’s even more pathetic? After all that hoopla, Collins only played two songs, and then filled in a bit here and there. Certainly nothing to write home about.

Okay, okay. Enough of that, although I will mention that that little trick festered in comedian David Juskow’s brain for years, and inspired him to later write the Cars mockumentary Turbocharge: The Unauthorized Story of The Cars. Love it or hate it (I think it’s hilarious!), the film is part of the Fanorama. You can read more about it here, if you dare: The time has come for Turbocharge!

Alrighty… moving on!


Let’s take a minute to hang this performance on the Cars’ timeline. The band toured heavily in the latter half of 1984 behind their fifth album, Heartbeat City. As they moved into 1985, they took a break from The Cars ‘proper’ and invested varying levels of energy elsewhere. Elliot performed a handful of gigs promoting his solo album, Change No Change, and Ric was working on his second solo project, This Side of Paradise. And somewhere in there, the band was recording “Tonight She Comes” and making decisions about their Greatest Hits album, which would be released in October of that year.


NERD ALERT: Fun facts about the way that stage worked:

As you can imagine, the logistics of moving 38 musical acts and all of their various gear on and off the stage in about a 14 hour window could get pretty sticky — and time consuming. In order to speed up the process of switching the bands out, the center of the stage was circular and was divided into halves with a wall of portable screens. It was fitted with a motor that would allow the stage to rotate as a turntable. In this way, bands could be performing on the front half while the next band was setting up behind the screens. When it was time to switch acts, the stage would rotate, bringing the next band forward for their set, and allowing another switcheroo to happen ‘back stage.’ At least, that was how it was supposed to happen.

Wouldn’t you know it? Less than 24 hours before the concert started, the motor on the turntable went kaput — broke — with no time to replace it. Someone had to come up with a plan B, and fast. Here’s how  sound engineer Dave Skaff, who was part of the team in charge of providing for all of the audio at JFK that day, described the solution:

“Between Bill Graham and [legendary stage designer] Michael Tait, they decided it would have to be manually turned—but how? Tait came up with a great solution where they cut pockets around the turntable and put in these metal ‘receivers’ [where you could put in] a Schedule 40 aluminum pipe and now you had something you could push on. Well, they put about 20 of those in and then Bill Graham made a call to the Philadelphia Eagles and they had 20 guys over there as quick as they could get them. The Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line came in and turned the turntable all day—that was pretty wild.”

You can see that solution in play in this photo taken by Elaine Hawkes (shared with permission).

1985 live aid getting ready to play photo by elaine hawkes

Can you imagine how wildly their hearts must have been beating as they slowly rotated to face the audience? The roar of the crowd, the wave of heat, the sea of people gradually coming into view as the band smoothly emerges from behind the scenes… Wowza! What a moment!

By the way, if you want to read more about the insane logistics of organizing the monitors, microphones and mixing consoles for more than 30 bands rotating out at 20-minute intervals in front of 90,000 people, check out this article from Mixonline.


For me, at the age of 15, Live Aid was the altar my best friend and I gathered around that summer day, but I wasn’t really into The Cars back then (for shame! haha). I don’t remember their set, and I certainly didn’t tape it. If it wasn’t for YouTube it would probably be lost to me forever, so I’m very grateful for today’s technology!

There were lots of uploads out there from a variety of sources (the MTV broadcast, some from ABC, and some from the BBC), but it looks like nearly all of them have been pulled from YouTube. For this article, I created a compilation video to pull together The Cars’ Live Aid experience by combining my favorite footage clips in chronological order, but YouTube won’t let me upload it, either. Rats! Oh well, all is not lost. I cobbled together a little playlist that includes most of the videos I had hoped to use. It’s a bit of a choppy fix, but but it’s all I can do. (Yep, I went there.) Oh, and I’ll see if I can get my compilation on my Facebook page at some point, too.

So just to be clear, there is nothing new unearthed here; just everything gathered into one place.


So let’s go ahead and take a closer look at their set. I won’t go over every song with a fine-tooth comb, but I do have a couple of things I want to point out.

“You Might Think”

Not to start off on a weird note, but I paused this video at about 0:16 because I was trying to get a good look at David’s hair; more specifically, his ponytail action. Does he have two? Or is it a half up, half down? I know the headphones are reducing his general fluff on top, and that adds to the unique look. As for Ben, he has a couple of eye-popping bass moves: don’t miss him at 1:13 (right after Ric’s adorable little smile), and that big bass swing at 2:13. Other notable nuggets: Elliot’s guitar solo is sizzling, and Ric’s wearing a snazzy “PARIS” lapel pin.


“Drive”

If you look at the footage carefully, you’ll notice three women standing in the wings off of Elliot’s right. In the “Drive” video you can see them fairly well at 2:14 and 3:28. The blonde woman in the pink on the left is Diane Grey Page, Benjamin’s fiancée. The second woman in pink is Greg Hawkes’ wife, Elaine, and the taller woman with the dark hair in the pale green (or blue?) dress is, I believe, Elliot Easton’s wife, Colleen. I point them out because I think I see a sweet connection happening…

Whatever Ric’s intentions were when he wrote “Drive,” the song had a special meaning for Diane and Benjamin, and every time Ben sang it, no matter where they were, he would make sure to find Diane and attempt to make eye contact. This event is no different. You can see him acknowledge her several times during his performance of the ballad, turning toward her frequently and smiling. When Ben flubs the lyrics a little in the second verse, he catches himself right away. He looks over to the side of the stage toward Diane with a wide, seemingly self-conscious grin and kind of an ‘aw hell’ hand gesture, swinging his arm up expressively. I imagine them sharing a laugh over it later as they relived this magical weekend.


“Just What I Needed”

The band’s performance of “Just What I Needed” is off the hook. It is the highlight of their set for me. The force of Elliot’s solo hits me right in the chest, and then he follows with that outro and my knees get weak. But, naturally, it’s Benjamin that sends the song into the stratosphere. He has me from the start with his jaunty address to the crowd, “It’s good to see you again!” He’s removed his sunglasses, and with the wind gently ruffling his hair, he looks genuinely pleased to share the moment with the 100,000 people bouncing in the stadium in front of him. His voice is clear and strong, his eyes are bright, and with every movement he’s giving off this perfect rock-and-roll swagger vibe tinged with a sheen of giddiness, and then you top all of that off with his flawless physical looks, and is it any wonder that many, many fans say that this footage of JWIN is the spark that ignited their obsession with Benjamin?


“Heartbeat City”

When Ric launches into “Heartbeat City” he is a bit late and has to ditch the first line of the song, but he appears completely serene. It’s funny, too, how everyone gives up lip-syncing to the backing vocals by the end of it. To me, this is the most lackluster song of the set, and it seems like a rather sedate note to end on, but don’t skip it. Elliot’s guitar solo is other-worldly and wonderful to watch.


NERD ALERT: Some gear notes that I stumbled across.

anthologyElliot used two guitars in the set. He started out with a Fender Telecaster in Fiesta Red (the same one he used in the video for “Magic.”) As we know, EE loves his Teles! He kept this one long after Live Aid, but in the mid-90s he had problems with the neck. He loved the body of it so much, though, that rather than ditch it, he had Fender Custom Shop guru Fred Stuart build a new neck and give the gal a makeover. The body was refinished in a distinctive, sparkly lime color with blue and white pinstriping. Many will recognize it from the back cover art of the 1995 Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology.

Roland-GR-700-G-707-Guitar-Synthesizer-371-3-big-1-www-vintagesynthshop-comThe second guitar Elliot played was a bit of an eye-catcher, and represented the latest technology. It was the Roland G-707, a guitar played in conjunction with a synthesizer, and it was perfect for crafting the unique sounds in the song “Heartbeat City.” He had used it during the recording of the Heartbeat City album, and also played it on the subsequent tour. I’m not sure how long Elliot kept it after Live Aid, or if he ever played it for any other gigs beyond that, but it has been up for sale a couple of times on ebay. I think the most recent listing I saw was around 2017.

That gorgeous bass Ben is playing is a Guild Pilot. Anything I know about Ben’s guitars I learned from the excellent file called Moving In Stereo: an instrumental retrospective of Benjamin Orr compiled by Michelle Bourg. You can find the entire photo album on Facebook, but I’ll share the relevant page here. In addition to Michelle’s background on the model, she points out that this is the same bass Ben used in the video for “Tonight She Comes.”

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Retrieved from the Benjamin Orr Remembered public Facebook group; created by Michelle Bourg.

There are a small handful of goofs during their set. At the beginning of “Drive” you can hear David’s programmed drums go a little crazy, and Greg’s looking over at him like “Dude!?” I hadn’t realized before that things were going a haywire in the silence before the song started, but at one time there was alternate footage out there that made it really clear (it has since been taken down).

As I mentioned, Ben mixes up the lyric lines in the second verse of “Drive,” singing, “who’s gonna come around” instead of “who’s gonna hang it up.” Right after that, the lush backing vocal track comes in a little too early, beating the chorus. And Ric’s got a few flubs in “Heartbeat City,” as we noted.

I feel like these little stumbles can probably be attributed to several factors: the technical complexity of the music from HBC and the fact that the band had been off tour for several months, along with general (and justifiable!) nerves.

No matter. The Cars were at the height of their popularity. They sounded phenomenal; the crowd loved them. They all looked gorgeous, happy, relaxed. They had the world at their feet, and their performance was (and is) unforgettable. What a beautiful thing!


Notes on the heart-wrenching video

CBC Television (owned by the Canadian Broadcast Company) created the original promotional video that featured harrowing images of the suffering in Ethiopia backed with The Cars’ song “Drive.” Engineer Colin Dean happened to be listening to the song while he was editing footage for a short film, and he found the lyrics and emotion of it to be a moving and appropriate anthem for the desperate fate of the young children he was seeing before him. He added it in. He discusses his memories of that night in this stirring interview clip:

Upon viewing the finished film, David Bowie was so affected that he insisted it be part of the event, even cutting his own set short to make room. Live Aid promoter Harvey Goldsmith remembered, “One afternoon before the concert, Bowie was up in the office and we started looking through some videos of news footage, and we watched the CBC piece. Everyone just stopped. Bowie said, ‘You’ve got to put that in the show, it’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll give up one of my numbers.’ That was probably one of the most evocative things in the whole show and really got the money rolling in.” (“Live Aid in Their Own Words” by Carl Wilkinson, The Guardian, October 16, 2004)

The exposure pushed “Drive” back up the charts in 1985, rising to #4 on the UK Singles Chart. Proceeds from the sales of its re-release were donated to the Live Aid cause, and Ric himself presented a check for 160,000 pounds to charity trustee Midge Ure in 1986.


The Drive Aid Signature Car

Another fundraising element to the Live Aid efforts involved two donated GMC IROC-Z cars. A bunch of the July 13th performers signed the vehicles, their autographs preserved by a clear protective coating. One of the cars was sent off to the GMC Heritage Collection Center for a bit and eventually sold at auction. The other was raffled off as the Drive Aid Signature Car, quickly sold by the winner, and then under the care of a collector for almost 25 years until it was listed for sale again. The two histories get mixed up a bit and I didn’t try to noodle it out. If you’re interested in diving deeper, you might start with the extensive history on this old website, and this more recent information from 2018. What matters here is that documents list Ric and Ben as having applied their signatures, but I’ve only found images of Ben’s (behind the driver’s door) and Greg’s (on the hood on the driver’s side).

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Photo gallery

There are scads of Live Aid photos floating around out there, so I’ll just add a few of my particular favorites here. The first one might seem an odd choice, but it’s just such a tease, with Diane and Ben off to the left, and Ben so obviously engaged in conversation.

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The Miami Vice thing

In that interview segment toward the end of the playlist, Martha Quinn questions Ben about having to cancel a television appearance to be at Live Aid. It wasn’t just a rumor… I wrote more about that here, if you’re curious: Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity

And speaking of that interview, I just get such a kick out of their flirty little exchange from 1:18-1:40. That woman is a paragon of self-control in the face of Ben’s lavish charm.


Ending on a high note

The Cars’ music shows up a handful of episodes of The Goldbergs. It was fun to hear them mentioned in this clip about Live Aid:

Live at Boston University: Short and Sweet

I recently received a treasure trove of live shows from a very cool friend and Cars fan, along with permission to share them. Because it makes the most sense, and because I’m a big nerd, I’ve decided to upload them in chronological order to my YouTube channel, and post a little write-up here with whatever little deets I can dig up about the performance, along with my own $.02.

The first one I did was The Cars opening for Bob Seger at the Boston Music Hall on March 21, 1977. If you missed that one, you can read it here: The Cars and Bob Seger: Yay for Snowstorms!

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Photo credit: Stephen Sherman, 1977

This second audio is another oldie: The Cars at Boston University. There was no specific date for this show when it was given to me, other than March of 1977. I think it must have been recorded sometime toward the end of the month because both Ric and Ben mention Maxanne Sartori leaving WBCN, and her last day was April 1, 1977. This is just a short four-song set, but it sounds like it was part of a larger concert with multiple bands (based on the blurb from the emcee at the end).

The Cars kick it off with “Just What I Needed.” It’s an interesting version. In some of the earlier Cars recordings Ben seems to mimic Ric’s low, draggy vocal style, and he kind of starts off that way here, but then I love how bits of natural Ben break out here and there. It’s a treat, too, to get to hear Elliot’s guitar parts so clearly.  Obviously the song was still evolving at this point (though I do think Ben flubbed the words at :53, as opposed to it being a lyric that was later changed). I can’t tell for sure who is singing back up… is that Ric, maybe? It doesn’t really sound like any of the guys to me. Oh, and I did click backwards a few times to listen to Ben’s little laugh at about 1:45.

When Ric takes over the mic after that song, it’s really cool to hear how relaxed he sounds. He drops the clues for us about the date and purpose of the show, and then introduces “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It doesn’t sound like Greg was incorporating all of his instrumental gew-gaws quite yet, although I do hear a toot or two on the whistle and a few other odd little sounds here and there. I love it!

From there, Ben leads the band into “Cool Fool” and there is no trace of Ric impressions… it’s a full-on vocal Ben fest. The whole performance smokes: Elliot is off the chain, ripping it up left and right. David can’t be thrown off the beat for anything, and Greg holds it all up with his subtle keyboard work and the reappearance of that whistle. Dudes must have been sweating after that one!

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Maxanne Sartori. Image retrieved from the internet.

As the crowd swells with cheers of approval, I adore Ben’s response: “Thanks! Okay… this one’s our bye-bye song and for our very special friend, Maxanne.” The band jumps into “Strawberry Moonlight” with a raucous energy; the perfect way to end their set.

The last little snippet of audio features an announcer indicating that The Cars are just one of the bands that will be playing that day, but then he gets cut off and it’s a bummer because I feel sure he would have identified the occasion for the concert. Oh well, it’s better than nothing. I have my fingers crossed that someone reading this might have memories of that show they’d like to share with us. That would be cool!

For the record: A Detour with Dr. Gonzo

Here’s a little misconception that popped up during the Christmas season. 

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Image retrieved from Discogs.

Fans were (understandably) lamenting the fact that The Cars never recorded a Christmas song, though one track did come up in conversation. Our good friend and SuperFan Jon M. posted on Facebook about a single called “Dough Ray Me” attributed to ‘Dr. Gonzo,’ and shared the audio of the song. There was some confusion as to if it was actually a Cars recording or not. It sounds suspiciously like The Cars. The vocal could certainly pass for Ben being a complete goofball, and while the lyrics are too straightforward to have been written by Ric, the storyline seems like something that might appeal to the band.

Unfortunately, it’s not our boys, but the post sparked my curiosity.

Jon had also mentioned that Dr. Gonzo did a Christmas spoof of “Just What I Needed,” too. I got to wondering how these funny songs came to be, and if The Cars had any involvement in their creation. I figured I’d take the detour, if nothing else than to store away some more random Cars trivia (!). Through the magic of social media I was able to have a little chat with the talent behind the mic, Mr. John Means, aka Dr. Gonzo.

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Image retrieved from Facebook.

In the early 1980s, when stand-up comedy was thriving, Illinois native John Means landed in San Francisco and found his niche as Dr. Gonzo, “The Doc of Comedy Rock.” He would take the stage with a guitar slung over his shoulder, and he would pepper his joke routine with short bursts of cheeky parodies of the popular songs of the day. “That got me to open for a lot of bands,” John explained, “because I was sort of musical, and that kind of made me the ‘cartoon before the movie’ for a lot of rock bands.”

Enter Roger Clark of Little Roger and The Goosebumps. who had some notoriety (and a bag of legal trouble) in 1978 after his genius mash-up of the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” triggered a cease and desist order from Led Zeppelin management. Roger was compelled to destroy all of the unsold 45s. Of course, he couldn’t take back the radio exposure, and the song, titled “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway),” (later reissued under the name “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”) became a cult classic. Incidentally, Robert Plant would say in 2004 that it was his favorite cover of the song.

Anyway, John teamed up with Roger in 1982 to write and record “Dough Ray Me,” a twist on Roger and Hammerstein’s “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. The gist of the lyrics is that Dr. Gonzo got high and decided to steal Ray’s car, then he crashed it, and now he owes Ray some dough. Very recognizable musical bits from “Just What I Needed” are sprinkled throughout. The 45 was released locally, billed as Dr. Gonzo & the Rent-A-Cars (the Rent-A-Cars were, of course, Little Roger and his Goosebumps), and even got a little radio airplay. “I think Dr. Demento played it, and local bay area stations humored me by putting it on the air a few times,” John chuckled.

With some help from his friends, John also shot a video for the song, featuring the late Monty Hoffman as the angry Ray. MTV was exploding in popularity at the time, so John decided to see if he could get a piece of the action. “We went to LA and went to The Cars’ record company and tried to pitch this thing and see if we could get it on MTV,” he recalled. “We wanted a blessing, we didn’t want to just do it and get in trouble. The MTV people liked it but the record company didn’t want them to release it, so they kind of put a stop to it getting on the air.”

Still, the video survived (and luckily, we can watch it on YouTube!). And there’s that Christmas parody that Jon M. mentioned, too. On an episode of the 80s show Night Flight, Dr. Gonzo takes to a junkyard with his guitar and rocks out an ode to Santa, also using “Just What I Needed.” The clip of that is preserved on Tracey L.’s YouTube channel (including some cute footage of an interview with Elliot!). See both videos below:

“The Cars were just a good vehicle, very recognizable. I could play a couple of chords on the guitar and people would realize I was going to do The Cars. I even did a Ric Ocasek… I’d pull my ears out and look like the fly in that one video and go, ‘Hey, look! I’ve got a rock star in my soup!’ Stupid stuff like that,” John laughed.

“Anybody I ever made fun of is because I was a fan of theirs. Their sound was just so good!” he said.

He always thought maybe he’d meet someone from The Cars but no luck, even when playing in the band’s backyard. “People just loved it when I did [the song] in Boston. It went over well and it was just a lot of fun.”

Throughout the 80s, John opened for some great bands, like Blue Oyster Cult, Night Ranger, Starship, Joe Walsh, and Devo. He also toured extensively with Huey Lewis and The News in 1983-84, and ended up in two of Huey’s music videos — how cool is that? “I got into it to be a stand up comic, not a rock star, but I got to live out my rock-and-roll fantasies, too.”

You can see him here as the ball handler at the Clown Toss booth (from about 1:55 to 2:35):

He also shows up a couple times in this one. You can hear Huey call “Gonzo!” at the 12 second mark, and then John has two little exchanges with Huey, one at 0:25 and another starting at 1:38 as Gonzo models a Back to the Future jacket.

Well now, we found all sorts of fun 80s trivia to tuck away, didn’t we?! And now we’ll return to our regularly scheduled writing. Haha! 

Lyrics: Just What I Needed

“Just What I Needed” by The Cars 

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time

‘Cause when you’re standing oh so near I kinda lose my mind

It’s not the perfume that you wear, it’s not the ribbons in your hair

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time

 

I don’t mind you hanging out and talking in your sleep

It doesn’t matter where you’ve been as long as it was deep, yeah

You always knew to wear it well, and you look so fancy I can tell

I don’t mind you hanging out and talking in your sleep

 

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to feed

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to bleed

 

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time time

‘Cause when you’re standing oh so near I kinda lose my mind, yeah

It’s not the perfume that you wear, it’s not the ribbons in your hair

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time

 

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to feed

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to bleed

 

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to feed

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to bleed… yeah yeah… so bleed me

 

You’re just what I needed

You’re just what I needed

You’re just what I needed, yeah yeah yeah

Jeff Carlisi: Hold on Loosely

It’s no secret that Jeff Carlisi was heavily influenced by The Cars when he co-wrote what may well be 38 Special’s most recognizable and beloved song, “Hold On Loosely.” He is unfailingly candid about it whenever he tells the story of its creation. But it wasn’t just that one song: The Cars and Benjamin Orr would play a pivotal role in Jeff’s musical career long after he fiddled around with those first chugging 8th notes.

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38 Special: L-R Jeff Carlisi, Steve Brookins, Don Barnes, Donnie Van Zandt, Larry Junstrom, and Jack Grondin

38 Special was a popular 80s band out of Jacksonville, Florida. Well, I guess I should say they still are, since they just announced a new tour for 2020, though I believe Don Barnes is the only original member remaining. Anyway, the group of high school pals started churning out Southern rock songs in 1974 but, in Jeff’s words to me, “the first couple of albums were garbage and got no play.” Jeff felt the band was stuck trying to imitate the genre’s icons of the day, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Marshall Tucker Band. In doing so, they were failing to set themselves apart from the rest of the swamp.

In 1979 they got an infusion of fresh water (see what I did there?) when Jim Peterik, co-founder of the band Survivor, joined their songwriting sessions. Their third album, Rockin’ Into the Night, finally put the band on the charts when the title track peaked at #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. 38 Special was finally getting some national attention, but they were still sputtering a bit to find their signature sound.

Jeff clearly remembers the first time he heard “Just What I Needed.” He told me, “I was driving in my car and JWIN came on the radio. I thought I was going to throw up. I thought it was terrible; I couldn’t switch the radio station fast enough.” But within two weeks he couldn’t get enough of it, drawn in by the simplicity and genius of the riffs and the infectious chorus.

As Jeff explains in this video excerpt from iVideosongs, he started messing around with that beginning riff and it morphed into the backbone of “Hold On Loosely.” Don Barnes and Jim Peterik loved it, adding lyrics and fleshing out the music. It was a huge hit, and all of a sudden 38 Special was a staple on both rock and pop radio. Over the next decade the band released “Caught Up In You,” “If I’d Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong,” “Like No Other Night,” and on and on… They now had a sound all their own, featuring, as Jeff aptly calls it, “the ever present 8th note.”

Because of that little opening riff in “Just What I Needed,” Jeff believes that The Cars helped boost them out of the mire 38 Special was stuck in and put them on the road to success.

“I think the one band that I owe the most credit to as far as really hitting my stride as a songwriter, especially when 38 Special started becoming successful in the early 80’s, was the Cars…I really owe Ric Ocasek (the Cars’ leader) a lot of credit as far as enlightening me into how you can create something different, very original and unique – that when you hear it on the radio for the first time it’s like ‘whoa, it’s that band.’ Some people say ‘as soon as I hear your songs on the radio I know that it is 38 Special because nobody else does it that way.’” — Jeff Carlisi, American Songwriter interview, July 1992.

When Jeff left 38 Special in 1996, he could not have predicted that The Cars — or at least, one member of The Cars — would have an even deeper impact on his life.

38 Special and The Cars were both at their most popular in the 80s, though the two groups didn’t really cross paths. Jeff never met any members of the band until 1999, when he and Ben ended up together in the supergroup Big People. Jeff recalled in the book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, “Derek picked Ben up at the airport, and I was in awe of this guy. I’ll never forget the first time he walked through the door for rehearsal and I said, ‘Hey, you’re Ben Orr!’ and he just said with a smile, ‘So, that’s what I’ve been told.'”

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Backstage at a Billy Joel concert, 1999. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi.

When they were pulling together each individual member’s contribution to the setlist, Ben made it clear that he would only perform Cars’ songs that originally featured his vocals. Jeff was surprised to learn that Ben actually sang many of the band’s hits; like so many others, he assumed it was all Ric on the albums. Learning the songs for Big People elevated the music to a whole new level for Jeff. “I was always a casual fan, but I became a much bigger fan of The Cars after playing those songs with Ben.”

One day Jeff tried to explain to Ben how “Hold On Loosely” came from “Just What I Needed.” He even went as far as playing the two riffs side by side to illustrate the influence for Ben. Remembering, Jeff laughs, “Ben just looked at me, and he had that dry wit, you know. He said, ‘Sorry, pardner. I just don’t hear it.'”

The friendship between Jeff and Ben was immediate and permanent; they were as close as brothers. They had so much in common: the music in their blood, their deep love for kids, and the desire for copious amounts of hot sauce. They were even near the same size physically, though Jeff told me with a laugh, “His feet were much smaller than mine. I couldn’t figure out how he could walk around on such tiny feet!”

While Julie Snider, Ben’s fiancée, was tirelessly and tenderly caring for Ben’s every need throughout his illness, Jeff with right there with her. Together they saw to it that Ben’s last weeks were as active and comfortable as Ben wanted them to be.

Jeff finally met the other members of The Cars when he attended the video shoot for the band’s last interview in August of 2000. Ben emphasized that he really wanted Jeff to be there, and that he was looking forward to introducing Jeff to the other guys. Jeff remembers Ric as being rather stoic and aloof, but overall everyone was friendly.

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At Ben’s insistence that Jeff be in the photo, Jeff decides to play it goofy. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi, August, 2000.

After Ben’s memorial service in Cleveland, Jeff went to lunch with Greg Hawkes and David Robinson and enjoyed swapping stories with them about Ben and their respective bands. It was good to connect; it was good to bond through Ben.

After Ben passed away, Julie gifted Jeff with an incredible treasure: Ben’s Gibson EB-6. Jeff had long admired it, and Julie assured him that Ben would want him to have it. It remains one of Jeff’s most cherished possessions to this day, a tangible reminder of the love of a best friend, gone too soon.

Isn’t it so incredible that 20 years after Jeff was repulsed and then inspired by “Just What I Needed,” Ben would come along and rock Jeff’s world once again? It’s a beautiful thing. ❤


A couple of additional factoids (because how can I not include a number list?):

  1. “Hold On Loosely” was the 13th video played on the first broadcast of MTV. Jeff vividly remembers a cameraman from MTV coming out to film their live show, back when ‘music television’ was an untried concept. He recounts the memory at about the 17 minute mark in the Youtube video from iVideoSongs.
  2. jeff bookJeff has always had a huge desire to connect kids and music. In 2003 he founded Camp Jam Co., an organization that hosts a variety of music experience programs for learners of all ages and skill levels, in cities all across the nation.
  3. Wanting to also come alongside adults, in 2009 he co-wrote a book called Jam: Amp Your Team, Rock Your Business. He weaves his personal rock-and-roll success story with sage advice for business executives looking to rise to the top of their game. (True to form, he gives full inspirational credit to The Cars.)
  4. Jeff will be a guest on Madame Perry’s Salon on January 27, 2020. Listeners can call in and ask questions during this interview. The studio number is 646-716-9922. Tune in!
  5. I’ve included a few more videos below, including another example of Jeff talking about how “Just What I Needed” influenced 38 Special, as well as some original performances by 38 Special, The Cars, and Big People.

Now, it’s time to rock!

Those isolated tracks!

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Hello, friends! Just a quick post this morning as I got a great question from a reader (thank you, MV!). Having heard the isolated track that I posted in my article about “Just What I Needed,” she was curious and eager to find out if more such gems existed. I do know of a few, so I thought I’d post them all in one place to make it easier for all of us to enjoy the deliciousness of Ben’s vocals.

Here’s that initial one. It was posted by Jose Mirelli on Vimeo, and it includes Ben’s bass track and Elliot’s guitar solo:

Jose has two more on his Vimeo page: “All Mixed Up” and “Bye Bye Love.” I love the one for “Bye Bye Love” so much that I wrote a little gush about it. Haha! Again, these uploads are both vocals and bass:

I also love this tribute video that highlights Ben’s vocal and bass on “Moving In Stereo,” layered on a bed of Greg’s tasty synthesizer riffs.

One final gem: the isolated vocal track of “Drive.” This is so tender and lovely. I can’t help but imagine Ben singing this to his young son as a bedtime lullaby.

Ah, sweet Ben! I never get tired of his voice.

The reader who asked about this was pointing out that with the recovery of the Candy-O monitor mixes, certainly the capability of creating more of these kinds of audios is out there. Of course, we all wish that the vocal tracks would be released from EVERY song Ben recorded! To put on headphones and have him crooning right into my ears is such a divine experience, and believe me, I partake regularly. And now you can, too!

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy the post I did where I listed all of the songs I know of that Ben sang lead on. You can find it here: Benjamin: Lead Vocal List.

Just What I Needed, Under ‘Cover’

As one of the most recognizable and popular songs by The Cars, there are oodles of write-ups out there about “Just What I Needed.” Rather than add my little opinions to the fray, I’m going to focus on cool, fun and noteworthy versions of the song floating around. There are tons!

jwin1976.jpgRic Ocasek penned this tune in 1976, and of course, as you probably know, this was the song that launched the band… Radio DJ Maxanne Sartori heard it, loved it, and began playing it on her show in Boston. It quickly became a local favorite. On May 29, 1978, just before The Cars released their debut album, the band sent this single out into the world. Though it didn’t place high on the charts in the US (only reaching #27 on the Billboard Hot 100), critics and consumers loved it, and it obviously played a huge role in keeping The Cars on the Billboard 200 chart for 139 weeks. Many of us fondly point to this song as the one that started our Cars addiction.

In choosing various covers to include here, I started with the ones I enjoyed the most, and then narrowed it down based on the criteria that something unique stood out about the performance. There are so many interpretations out there; this certainly isn’t a definitive list.

I’ve got to start out with this terrific audio consisting only of Benjamin’s vocals, his bass, and the guitar solo. Off. the. CHAIN. I love this one in the headphones.

This next version is actually performed by just Ric on acoustic guitar. He participated in one of a series of artist ’roundtable’ shows at The Bottom Line in New York City on May 21, 1992. Organized by Allan Pepper and Vin Scelsa, the idea was to bring together a small group of songwriters and get them talking and playing, and let the music take over. Take a listen here:

Greg’s been known to jam to this song outside of The Cars as well. I loved seeing this video of him with the Aquabats on May 8, 2014, at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. I’m always delighted with Greg’s participation in children’s programs, and of course, it’s so terrific to expose the next generation to this great music:

And speaking of the next generation, listen to this little cutie pie banging out a drum cover. She nails it!

Then we’ve got a band of teens confidently rocking it out at a 2016 talent show. You’ve got the groovy chick on bass, the firecracker on the drums, and check out the dude doubling up on keys and lead guitar!  I’m loving this:

This next one is more acceptable to MY teenagers, who love the dubstep genre. This modern remix, created by well-known Swiss DJ and producer, Antoine Konrad (aka DJ Antoine) will definitely get a party going. Give it a listen:

If you need something a little more mellow, get a load of this bossa nova version. I still laugh when I hear it… it always reminds me of Flint Lockwood taking a break in Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs… Haha!

Lots of bands have put their own spin on this iconic song. This one is probably my favorite… the vibe is so happy and the variety of stringed instruments makes it extra fun. That banjo, though!

Looking for even more fun than that? This ‘vintage 60s cover’ really takes it to another level, and the video has a host of visual delights: aside from the stunning Sara Niemietz, the background players draw the eye with their goofy antics.

Need to cut about a minute off of your listening time? Ghoti Hook, a 1990’s Christian punk band from Virginia, really ramps up the tempo in their cover… feels a little frantic to me but surprisingly appealing somehow… go figure! Just give it a try:

More recently, American country music singer Eric Church performed “Just What I Needed” during his May, 2017, show. I love how accessible this song is across genres, and the reaction of the crowd is terrific.

“Just What I Needed” has also been used in commercials, movies and in TV shows. Here are just a few samples, starting with this quick spot from Circuit City, 2005.

Many folks may remember the controversial-but-iconic teen film Over The Edge that came out in 1979. Not only was it Matt Dillon’s acting debut, but it featured “Just What I Needed” as the backdrop for a pivotal party scene:

And you can’t overlook this terrific scene from the Emmy award-winning television cartoon, Bob’s Burgers.

Even in recent films, “Just What I Needed” fits the bill: here is a trailer for the new Reese Witherspoon movie, coming out in September of 2017. I love how this song (and much of The Cars’ catalog) is timeless.

Okay, this final audio is so interesting to me. Since I sometimes have a hard time discerning the different instruments in full studio versions of songs, I am always fascinated by recordings that isolate various elements. The segment plays twice and it is well worth the second listen… it’s utterly delicious. Ooooh, that bass!

Do you have a favorite version that I didn’t highlight here? Comment below or find me on Facebook and tell me about it!