Book Review: Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars

This review was originally written for and published on my sister site, Read~Rock~Review, on September 11, 2018.


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Written by Joe Milliken, 2018

Format: Book, 216 pages, 30+ photos

Published by Rowman & Littlefield

Website: http://www.benorrbook.com

Notable Quote: “Believe me, Benny just had this incredible electricity about him. He would walk into a room and whether they knew him or not, people just felt there was something special about this guy…. I swear that in the mid-sixties, Benny was like the Elvis Presley of Cleveland.” — Wayne Weston, friend and former bandmate.


My quick 2 cents: Between the unique writing style, the candid memories of many important people, and the generous number of previously unpublished photos, Benjamin Orr’s inspiring story comes to life in these pages. Buy it!

The full scoop:  Any retrospective on the late 1970s and 1980s HAS to include some focus on the new wave rock legends, The Cars. A debut album that stayed on the charts for 139 consecutive weeks, winners of the first MTV “Video of the Year” award in 1984, creators of what would become the haunting signature song for Live Aid (“Drive”) — they are more than deserving of their 2018 induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

While all five guys generally resisted the limelight, bassist Benjamin Orr was arguably the most sought-after — and most private — of the band members. Blessed with versatile vocal chords, unwavering musicianship, and an irresistible magnetism, fans of Benjamin ‘the rock star’ fell hard and with no hope of recovery. But once the show was over and the lights went down, Benjamin flipped a switch. He was a normal guy; he avoided photographers, shunned interviews, and led a low-key lifestyle in the quiet, upscale town of Weston, Massachusetts. Of course, all of this added an air of mystery to his reputation. When he succumbed to cancer in October, 2000, at the age of 53, it seemed the curtain had closed on his legacy forever.

First-time author (and long-time rock journalist) Joe Milliken has spent the last eleven years researching Ben’s life in an attempt to pull back that curtain with his biography Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, due to be released on November 11, 2018. The book follows Benjamin through others’ eyes as he pursued his rock-and-roll dreams from his happy days as a teen star in Cleveland to the open-minded bars of Boston, to the comforting arms of Atlanta — not ruthlessly, but with a humility and steely determination that left those around him in awe.

As a devoted fan of Benjamin Orr, I’ve been researching and writing about him on my personal blog for about three years. When I discovered that this book was in the works, I felt protective of Ben’s privacy and I’ll admit… I was nervous. What if the author revealed information that was too personal? What if he told things that were not fair to tell, with Ben gone and not able to defend himself? Would the author’s sources be credible? And what if… what if I just… didn’t like the book?

My fears were unfounded on all fronts.

The first thing that impressed me was the writing style. The author uses a distinctive technique where he introduces a player in Ben’s life and then lets that person fill in the narrative with his or her quote. I thought it might be jarring to have the flow stop and another voice come in but it’s really so perfect. It’s truly like a camera cuts to the significant person and you hear them talking about Ben, like a documentary rather than a novel.

Having Benjamin’s loved ones tell about him in their own words is brilliant. I felt my heart and mind busily rearranging my personal ‘mosaic’ of Ben, having it grow in clarity and color, adding texture, as I read their stories. It is such a perfect format to document the life of a man who never enjoyed talking much about himself. The result is this masculine and tender, very respectful, very REAL painting of who Benjamin was.

And of course, by ‘rearranging my mosaic’ I mean that I learned a lot of new things about Ben, especially about his early years and what he was like behind-the-scenes. I also connected some dots, confirmed some things I had suspected from my research, and enjoyed some surprising stories.

While I won’t tell you exactly who is in the book, I was impressed with the long roster of interviewees, including Ben’s former bandmates, record executives, iconic photographers, media personnel, key women in his life, and friends who had known him intimately.

Another element that I love about this book is that there is no ‘tell all’ mentality anywhere to be found. The author skillfully balances the heady experiences of a world-famous rock star with the reality of a deeply private, kind-hearted and loyal man. For example, I can see in places where he’s walked that fine line of honoring Ben and respecting his relationships while maintaining the honesty of his attraction to and of other women. Or the struggles Ben faced with the dissolution of The Cars and finding his way back to the stage. Milliken is gentle with the truth, letting the other voices tell their story and leaving it up to the reader to ‘read between the lines’ if they are so inclined.

When asked how he made decisions about what to leave in and what to take out, Milliken said, “Every time I came to a place where I had to walk the line of Ben’s privacy, I had his son in my head. I would ask myself, ‘What would young Ben think of this?'” It seems to have been the perfect measuring stick.

Equally as thrilling as the informative text is the abundance of photos! There are more than 30 black-and-white photographs woven through the chapters, the majority of them new to the public. Such a treat! The book also includes a timeline of bands, a selected index, and a list of everyone the author interviewed over the years.

If there is any drawback to the book, it is that all of my questions were not answered. But how could they be? My curiosity goes way beyond obsession (what IS the story with that one bracelet, anyway???). It’s an impossible task, short of putting Ben’s life under a microscope, which I believe he would have hated.

Others may feel like this book is not ‘sensationalistic’ enough. But the fans… the ones who truly love Benjamin… they will be so moved at the way the author has protected his memory and his legacy. His son, the women in his life, his dear friends, his former bandmates… any and all of the people in those categories… I believe they will finish the book and hug it to their chests and be SO happy at what’s been done for Ben.

Just like me.

Review: The Cars Live at the Agora 1978

Here is the 6th piece I wrote for Joe Milliken and Standing Room Only, and it wraps up the series. Though I am adding this to my blog last, it was actually written and published in October of 2017, in between the release of the expanded editions. This is also the review that was quoted on the big screen at a presentation at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 (photo below).


I’m not going to make you wait until the end of this review to give you my opinion: this album is off the chain!

Now remember, I am not an expert on discerning levels of sound quality, or at picking out nuances in the way music is mixed, but I do know how to enjoy a great show, and there is not a single track on this two-album set that disappoints.

While some critics (and concert goers) have been known to whine and fuss about The Cars not being a ‘dynamic’ live act, no one can deny that when it came to the music, this band could recreate their remarkable studio sound flawlessly from the stage. Because of this, many fans have lamented that The Cars never released a live album during their active years together. Sure, there are a handful of bootleg recordings that make their way around the Fanorama, but not a complete live show remastered and released by the band, itself… until this year, that is!

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

On April 22, 2017, Rhino Records put out a limited run of 5,000 copies of one of The Cars’ early live performances as part of the worldwide vinyl movement, Record Store Day.  The Cars Live At The Agora, 1978 documents the energy and the fresh sound of the band at the beginning of their rise to success.

Just to give you some context, The Cars consists of songwriter Ric Ocasek on rhythm guitar, and he trades lead vocals with long-time friend and bandmate Benjamin Orr, the bass player. Elliot Easton handles the lead guitar, while Greg Hawkes works his keyboards and David Robinson keeps everybody locked in with his drums. This five-man lineup started playing together in early 1977, and within 18 months they had a record contract in their pockets and their first album on music store shelves.

With their debut single, “Just What I Needed,” gaining popularity on the airwaves, the band took off on their first major tour, spanning the United States, and including stops in Canada and parts of Europe. The Agora show here, recorded at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on July 18, 1978, for WMMS radio (about a month into their tour), is a shining example of the band’s ability to interlock their individual roles to create a tight, rollicking performance that keeps the listener bouncing from song to song. No, not a bunch of jumping around and physical gyrations, no long monologues or extended soloing by band members, no pyrotechnics; just an ensemble of creative and classy musicians doing what they do best: rocking the house.

The set list for the night is an interesting blend, giving the enthusiastic audience a taste of where these boys have been and where they are going. Not only are there near-flawless performances of all nine incredible songs from their debut album, but The Cars also burn through some raging rockers from their regular club set (the hard-edged “Take What You Want” and the powerful punk of “Hotel Queenie”) and treat the crowd to “Night Spots,” which will show up on The Cars’ future album, Candy-O. They end the concert with a gritty cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” letting Elliot take over the lead vocal on their last song of the night.

Other audio delights pour from the speakers. Listen for Greg’s crazy-cool assortment of eclectic sounds on “I’m In Touch With Your World,” and then catch him later as he pushes the show in a whole new direction with his melodic saxophone (“All Mixed Up” and “Something Else”). Also, I love how you can really hear the power of David’s drums on “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and how Elliot kills it on that classic guitar solo in “Just What I Needed.” My favorite tracks feature Benjamin pouring his all into the vocals, like on “Bye Bye Love” and “All Mixed Up;” you can just feel his racing pulse as he belts it out. And woven throughout the entire show are great harmonies, some highlighted backing vocals, and brief audience interactions that draw a smile.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

The cherry on top? Rhino Records really nails it with the packaging of this release. The signature red-and-black color scheme of the early Cars’ years, combined with the terrific photos of each band member and the reproduced hand-written show notes displayed on the backside of the album cover – it’s definitely a stare-worthy addition to the vinyl stack. Inside the cover are tucked two records; three of the sides contain the music, and the fourth displays what would prove to be the first in a series of custom etchings to grace the 2017 releases of Cars albums. Awesome!

The vinyl is hard to get ahold of now, though there are still a few copies available floating around online (mostly from Europe). At this time there are no plans for the show to be released on CD; fortunately Rhino has now made it available digitally through several music channels. Click below to download the album. If you don’t have it already, get a copy – it’s a must-have for every Cars fan!

https://rhino.lnk.to/latasmp?ref=http%3A//thecars.org/


 

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My review, quoted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during a listening party for this album in the Foster Theater, 2018. Photo courtesy of David Curry.

Review: Heartbeat City Expanded Edition

The last of Rhino catalog revamp, this is part five of six: my review of the Heartbeat City Expanded Edition. I had started writing this in 2018 shortly after the album was released, but got (happily) distracted with my duties for Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! My article ended up being published for Standing Room Only in March, 2019, in time for the one-year anniversary of the release.


March 30, 2018, saw the continuation of Rhino Records’ revamp of The Cars’ classic catalog with the release of the expanded edition of Heartbeat City (in tandem with Shake It Up, previously reviewed on SRO). This wildly unique fifth album from the band proved The Cars to be at the forefront of technological experimentation, cutting edge visual representation (aka music videos), and eclectic synth pop sorcery – all addictive elements prevalent in the 1984 music scene.

After working with Roy Thomas Baker on their first four albums, The Cars chose to team up with famed producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange for HBC, a decision that would ultimately be the best in terms of commercial success, but possibly the worst for the band’s cohesive future. They lived in London for over six months, undergoing a grueling recording and production process that left them worn thin. In the liner notes for this expanded edition, written by David Fricke with Ric Ocasek, Ric states, “All those months in London, things got out of sync between us. People thought – maybe myself included – that in three or four years we’d come back and do this some more. We just never did.”

Heedless of the personal cost, the album itself was a smash. It rose to number 3 on the Billboard 200 chart and spawned five hit singles, including the upbeat and danceable trio “You Might Think,” “Magic,” and “Hello Again.” The most memorable is the ballad “Drive,” sung by Benjamin Orr, which became the haunting soundtrack to the video montage of Ethiopian famine images during the historic Live Aid concert in 1985. Every song is a grabber: rich, satisfying, and saturated with style.

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Let’s take a look at how Rhino treated this iconic album with their expanded edition. As with Shake It Up, they chose to forego the unique album etching on the fourth side, but did offer a limited edition colored vinyl, featuring HBC in a nice marshmallow-y white. The other notable difference with this offering is that the original cover art was revamped. Drummer and designer David Robinson explains in the notes that his original concept featured unique plans for the graphics and color scheme, but they were scrapped by the art department. He said, “I’ve been lucky to finally create the cover as conceived 33 years ago. Thanks Rhino… Best ‘do over’ ever!”

Inside the gatefold we find an infusion of graphic imagery and photos that seem representative of the band’s departure from their solid rock days as they embraced the new wave pop style. By itself it might not satisfy the desire for new pictures, but when you pull out the album sleeves there are more than enough beautiful shots of the band in concert to cover any initial disappointment. On the back of that sleeve are some very candid and compelling liner notes in which Ric Ocasek explores the pros and cons of the making of this album. The second sleeve showcases the lyrics with a clean and simple design.

As you may know, the bonus tracks generally make or break the expanded editions for me. This release came with seven additional songs, the most notable being the early demo version of “Drive.”  The repetitive samba beat seems a bit silly when compared to the elegant ballad that hit number 3 on the Billboard charts, but the demo is redeemed by the silky, evocative vocals of bass player Benjamin Orr, who clearly communicates the beauty of Ric’s lyrics in spite of the misplaced rhythm.

Three of the bonus songs are not new. There is the remix version of “Hello Again” (released as a 12” single in 1984) that takes the song to the pinnacle of 80s synth glory with a plethora of musical stutters, crazy car noises, and even quirkier sound effects.  “Breakaway”, which was the B-side to “Why Can’t I Have You” in 1985, is perhaps a lesser-known track but its pulsing beat fits perfectly in this mix. The poppy “Tonight She Comes” is from the band’s 1985 Greatest Hits album and is indeed one of the band’s highest charting singles.

My favorite tracks are from the early versions that they dug out. Subtle differences between “Jacki” and its final form, “Heartbeat City”, add a bit of new texture to the title track. I also appreciate the evolution of the darker “One More Time” to the ethereal and achy “Why Can’t I Have You”. The compelling shift in the direction of the synthesizer part and the softer drum presence take this song from creepy stalker mode to a ballad of legitimate longing.

Now here’s the tastiest treat of them all: “Baby I Refuse.” Similarly titled to the final cut on the album (“I Refuse”), this early incarnation of one of my favorite tunes takes the song in a whole different direction and I am completely addicted. The melodic, gentle guitar stylings of Elliot Easton have me hooked in the sway and make this track worthy of every daily playlist.

These new expanded editions from Rhino Records are available digitally and on CD, as well as the vinyl product reviewed here. Should fans shell out the money for Heartbeat City? For me, Elliot’s signature solo on “Baby I Refuse” alone was worth the price of the whole album set. Add to that the glorious photos, the in-depth liner notes, and the fact that this album just exemplifies all that is bright and beautiful in 80s music, and you’ve got yourself a winner!

Review: Shake It Up Expanded Edition

As Rhino Records continued to release The Cars’ catalog with bonus material, so continued my little writing series for Standing Room Only. Here is part four of six: my review of The Cars’ Shake It Up Expanded Edition. (I actually wrote the majority of this review on the plane to Cleveland, on my way to see The Cars get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! 🤓🤘)


Rhino Records has done it again. Coinciding with The Cars’ 2018 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and paving the way for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of their debut album, Rhino has released expanded editions of Shake it Up (1981) and Heartbeat City (1984), The Cars’ fourth and fifth albums, respectively. Of course, you may recall that expanded editions of Candy-O and Panorama were released last summer, causing quite a stir in the “Fanorama,” and these March 30, 2018, offerings have generated their own buzz, as well.

Do you remember how in my review of Panorama I used the illustration of a capital letter Y to show the progression of The Cars’ sound? And how I said that Panorama represented a veering off into the left fork of the letter? Well, with Shake it Up (SIU) we definitely hear the band heading back to center and then taking a U turn up in the opposite direction. No more snarky jabs and swaggering strut; SIU sounds more like a dance set at the junior high… which is where it may have been played most often.

This album was produced by Roy Thomas Baker (his fourth and last collaboration with The Cars), and it was recorded in The Cars’ own studio in Boston, Syncro Sound. Critics and fans alike loved it, and the album hit number nine on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, while the title track became the first of the band’s singles to break the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number four. Clearly this perky, light-hearted sound gratified the mainstream listeners of the day.

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Though it has grown on me over time, it took a bit for me to warm up to SIU. Never doubting Greg Hawkes’ limitless keyboarding wizardry, this album is a little less rock and a little more new wave, and I miss the edge of the once-prominent Elliot Easton guitar riffs and the deep drumming of David Robinson that have been largely replaced by a focus on the synthesizer and drum machines (I get it – it was the 80s, after all!). Still, I love all things Cars, and this album has many terrific gems to keep the toes tapping.

Of course, the purpose of this review isn’t to scrutinize the original offering, but to examine the features of this new expanded edition.

Staying consistent with Rhino’s earlier reissues, the Shake It Up vinyl is packaged in a beautiful gatefold album. The original 1981 elements are all there: the front and back cover art, as well as the record sleeve with the lyrics and ‘spraying shaker’ image. The visuals are then bumped up a notch with the addition of a hunky photo of the band, ultra-cool individual shots of each member, a risqué circular graphic, and revealing liner notes written by David Fricke and David Robinson. Scrumptious!

Rhino did detour a little when it came to the vinyl itself. No badass etching on the fourth side as seen on their 2017 releases (Panorama, Candy-O and Live at The Agora); they went with a limited edition colored vinyl instead. SIU came out in a nice bright red.

As with the previous releases, Rhino (and presumably, singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek) dove deep for the eight bonus tracks. The result is a very fun, eclectic auditory smorgasbord that includes a demo, a remix, several early versions of SIU tunes, and a previously unreleased song featuring bassist Benjamin Orr on vocals. The variety of sensations that the listener may experience here could be worth the price of adding this to your vinyl stack.

Three tasty tracks stand out to me.  First is the rough cut of Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek goofing their way through the early demo of “Shake It Up.” I literally laughed out loud the first time I listened to it. I have never heard anything from The Cars that sounds so much like an after-hours party as this recording! Then there is “Take It On The Run,” featuring some fabulous Greg-ness putting a kooky jungle spin on the mystical “A Dream Away.” Finally, we are treated to a lusty vocal performance from Ben on the edgy “Midnight Dancer,” a song that clearly didn’t fit in with the rest of SIU but definitely needed to be released to the world. It is a memorable way to close out the album.

This new expanded edition from Rhino Records is available digitally and on CD, as well as the vinyl product reviewed here. Though the bonus tracks have been released online, I highly recommend putting out the money for this package – you won’t regret it. I’ll cover the new version of Heartbeat City in my next review and we’ll see what other delights Rhino has served up. Stay tuned!

Review: Panorama Expanded Edition

This review of the Panorama Expanded Edition is part three in a series of six articles I wrote for Standing Room Only in 2017.


With two incredible albums under their belt, the 80s new wave rock band, The Cars, put out their third album in three years, and once again shook up the music world with their cutting-edge originality. Panorama continued the streak of platinum albums for The Cars, and broke the top five on Billboard’s album chart. Released on August 15, 1980, with Roy Thomas Baker back in the producer’s chair, Panorama caused quite a stir.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken

Picture an uppercase ‘Y’ as the path of creativity. If The Cars began at the base with their debut album, and moved upward with Candy-O, Panorama represents a veering off to the left on their musical journey. Almost across the board, critics declared this third album to be dark, moody, and cold. On October 30, 1980, Rolling Stone called it “rigid, electronic rock & roll that favors machine-like exactness over heartfelt expression, and avant-garde minimalism over pop-based tunefulness,” – and that was a friendly review!

But where those on high grumbled about the starkness of the music, I am crazy for it. Panorama is far and away my favorite Cars album. What may be considered rigid and distant, I hear as aggressive and full of swagger. Songs like, “Don’t Tell Me No,” “Getting Through,” and “Down Boys” present an in-your-face attitude that we can all relate to, while “Touch and Go” and “Mistfit Kid” expose a little of the human underbelly in Ric Ocasek’s writing, while still maintaining that above-it-all, bemused exterior.

Because it is my favorite album, I have to work harder than ever to not go on and on about every original track, and will instead focus on examining the “expanded” features of this new offering from Rhino Records.

As with the Candy-O expanded edition, opening the gatefold of the vinyl Panorama reissue provides a wonderful visual thrill. There is a collage of rare photos of the band, looking as cool and collected as ever. Inside the sleeves, the delights continue with the reproduced lyrics sheet, and another set of pictures backed by liner notes written by keyboard player Greg Hawkes and writer David Wild. There are two records: sides one and two feature the remastered Panorama album in its entirety, side three contains bonus tracks, and a custom laser etching graces the fourth side; this time with drummer David Robinson’s classy checkered flag.

Now here’s where things get a little sticky for me. Obviously the big draw of a re-release like this is the bonus material. Panorama has only four extra tracks. One of those is the punky and irresistible “Don’t Go To Pieces,” which was released back in the early 80s on vinyl as the B sides to both “Don’t Tell Me No” and “Give Me Some Slack,” and again on the Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology in 1995. Also included is a song called “Be My Baby,” which seems to me to be an almost identical version of the song, “Maybe Baby” from The Cars’ fourth album, Shake It Up.  Not a fave of mine, but still a solid, throbbing rocker.

Then we get to the new stuff… the golden ticket. This is the kind of thing longtime Cars fans can’t ever get enough of: previously unreleased tracks. Rhino included two of them; both incomplete demos, and both sung by bassist Benjamin Orr.

First we have “Shooting For You,” a great meshing of rocking guitars and quirky synthesizer riffs, with a minimal infusion of lyrics. What Benjamin does sing, he sings with that unshakable confidence and wry delivery characteristic of many of the songs where he takes the lead vocal. The other treasure is “The Edge.” From my first listen I was electrified by Benjamin’s palpable energy, and completely taken in by Ric Ocasek’s lyrics, which alternate between taunting and nonsensical. The marriage of the two is intoxicating. Both “Shooting For You” and “The Edge” have become an exciting part of my regular playlist.

Now, I have to admit I was a little disappointed that Rhino included so few bonus tracks on this reissue. It would have been so great to hear some of the original Panorama songs in demo form or as previously unreleased live recordings. Perhaps no alternate versions exist? The two songs they did give us are terrific, but one of those (“Shooting For You”) was made available in its entirety via the internet almost two months before the expanded editions were on the market, so basically when I was forking over my money at the counter, I was effectively shelling out for only one new song and a bunch of terrific photos. Worth it? For me, yes! There is no question. I am absolutely crazy about all things ‘The Cars.’ You’ll have to decide for yourself, though, if the new elements are enough to compel you to replace what you’ve currently got in your library.

These new expanded editions from Rhino Records are available digitally and on CD, as well as the vinyl product reviewed here. And here’s an exciting side note: Greg Hawkes recently commented on Facebook that there might be forthcoming reissues of Shake It Up and Heartbeat City (the next two albums in The Cars’ catalog) before the end of 2017. Of course, I will eagerly open my wallet again! It’s getting awfully close to December 31st with no official announcement, but I am optimistic that 2018 will bring us those reissues if I don’t find them hiding under my Christmas tree. Fingers crossed!

Review: Candy-O Expanded Edition

This is the second article in a series of six that I wrote for Joe Milliken and Standing Room Only: a review of the expanded edition of Candy-O.


In the rare instances where a band explodes onto the rock scene with a perfect debut album, music critics don’t often hold their breath that the follow-up offering will be able to measure up. In fact, they even have a name for it: the ‘sophomore slump.’  The Cars were one of the exceptions.

Released on June 13, 1979, The Cars’ second effort, Candy-O, would be certified platinum in less than two months, and would soar as high as #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and #4 on RPM Canada. Its first single, “Let’s Go,” would jump to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the follow-up release, “It’s All I Can Do,” would peak at #41. Billboard Magazine’s chart for the “Top Pop Albums of 1979” lists The Cars debut at #4 and Candy-O at #82. Needless to say, the success of The Cars was not ‘just a quirk.’

There is a common creative thread running between the debut album and Candy-O, meshing the sound of the two projects in such a way that you just knew it was The Cars, and that sound… that punchy, fresh, addictive sound…  was their identifying signature. It’s really no surprise that they should be linked: several of the songs on Candy-O were already written and floating around at the time of the debut album. The plaintive “Since I Held You” and the hard-rocking “Candy-O,” along with the sardonic “Night Spots” and “You Can’t Hold On Too Long,” were popular numbers played in clubs and concerts before Candy-O was in the record stores.

Though I could go on for paragraphs about the power and appeal of the songs on Candy-O, my purpose here is to examine the newest issuing of this terrific album. Owners of the previously released (and reviewed) The Cars Deluxe Edition had reason to be pretty excited about the prospect of Rhino Record’s newly “expanded” editions of both Candy-O and Panorama (The Cars’ second and third albums, respectively) that came out in July of 2017; surely we would get another delivery of rarities from the Cars’ cache of unreleased audio goodies.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken

The double album vinyl packaging of the reissue is beautiful. Of course, the 1979 original artwork is there. Opening the gatefold reveals some previously unreleased photographs, including a candid shot of the band, and a series of very cool reference photos of the model Candy Moore, taken for use by Alberto Vargas for painting that iconic album cover.  Tucked inside the sleeves are the original lyrics/photo sheet and a set of liner notes from lead guitarist Elliot Easton, written with David Wild. Then the vinyl itself: the remastered audio on two sides, bonus tracks on the third, and a cool custom etching on the fourth side.

The seven bonus tracks are an interesting mix. Rather than recreate the entire original album in demos, as we found with the debut deluxe CD, only five of the eleven songs are represented with alternate versions. “Let’s Go” and “Lust for Kicks,” are included from the previously discovered monitor mix tapes (made public around 2001). Also included is “That’s It,” originally appearing as the B side to the single, “Let’s Go.”

Another little gem is the Northern Studios version of the hilarious and fun-to-sing “They Won’t See You,” a track that was played in the clubs but didn’t make it to vinyl. It’s a delightful peek into Ric Ocasek’s peculiar sense of humor; indeed, the lyrics here inspired my twelve-year-old to declare, “Those guys are weird!” … then he asked me to play it again. Unfortunately, this appears to be the same version released as a bonus track on the 1999 The Cars Deluxe Edition.

The real treat is the previously unreleased music. My favorite, “Candy-O,” appears from a series of recordings done at Northern Studios. Benjamin Orr’s vocal work has such a metallic, powerful sound to it, reflecting an appealing arrogance in his mood not present in the studio version. “Night Spots” and “Dangerous Type” were also done at Northern Studios, and portray that same kind of pleasing vocal strut. You get the impression that the band was feeling confident and riding high on the thrill of their success.

One of the magnetic elements of demo recordings is getting a glimpse of the evolution of a hit. For example, in “Dangerous Type” you can tell there was still some polishing of the lyrics yet to come. The absence of Greg Hawkes’s synthesizer is quite telling as well, clearly emphasizing how vital his bright, melodic contributions are in defining the sound of The Cars.

I confess, I do wish that there had been more in the way of bonus material, especially from those Northern Studios sessions. Really, since the monitor mixes have been out so long, only three of the additional tracks were previously unheard by the public. It’s a bit of a letdown after the generous banquet served on the deluxe edition, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I am truly grateful for another peek into the ‘vault’ of Cars’ material.

These new expanded editions from Rhino Records are available digitally and on CD, as well as the vinyl product reviewed here. If you don’t already have Candy-O in your music library, grab the expanded edition; you won’t be disappointed. We’ll take a look at Panorama in my next review and see what other delights Rhino Records has in store. Stay tuned!

Review: The Cars Deluxe Edition

In the summer of 2017, music journalist Joe Milliken invited me to do some writing for his website, Standing Room Only (SRO). I jumped at the chance! The gig grew into an opinion series of six Rhino products backing up to the The Cars Deluxe Edition from 1999, then to the 2017 expanded editions of Candy-O and Panorama, plus Live at The Agora 1978 (also released in 2017), and, finally, the expanded editions of Shake It Up and Heartbeat City (released in 2018).

Standing Room Only is dedicated to promoting music, arts, and specialty foods in the northern New England area. Music reviews, concert recaps, and exclusive interviews with badass rockers are the norm, along with lots of attention given to local businesses and arts events, making this a website with something for everyone. Unfortunately, the site is currently undergoing maintenance, but be sure to like Joe’s Facebook page to stay in the loop and be notified when SRO is back online.

With Joe’s permission, I’ve added my SRO writings here on my blog just for kicks. Here’s the first review I turned in: The Cars Deluxe Edition. Enjoy!


The year 2017 is proving to be an exciting one for fans of the 80s new wave rock band, The Cars. After releasing their last studio album, Move Like This, in 2011, the group has been pretty silent in the marketplace (aside from its remaster/reissue project in 2016). It came as a wonderful surprise to learn that Rhino Records organized the release of The Cars’ early Cleveland performance, Live at the Agora 1978, in time for Record Store Day on April 22, 2017. This new offering would have been enough to keep followers at bay for the year, but Rhino rocked The Cars’ world again on May 11th, announcing that they would also be releasing Candy-O and Panorama (The Cars’ second and third albums, respectively) as expanded editions on July 28, 2017… and Cars’ fans began the countdown.

carsdeluxe1
Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken

It’s worth pointing out that Rhino gave the band’s debut album some special treatment back in April of 1999, when they released The Cars Deluxe Edition as a two-CD set. In preparing to review these two new 2017 releases, I wanted to take a look at how they compare to that earlier product. Let’s take a quick step back in time and see what Rhino did with that iconic first album.

This two-CD set is packaged in a cool, unconventional tri-fold case, backed by a classic 1978 Ebet Roberts photograph. The first CD contains a remastered production of the original debut album. Fans and critics alike joke that it could pass for a “greatest hits” record, since all nine of the songs received considerable FM airplay and popularity, though “Just What I Needed,” “Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll” may be the best remembered.  Nearly 40 years later, every song still holds up to repeated listening.

The second CD in the set is full of rarities and unreleased songs, a veritable auditory feast for serious Cars fans. The first nine tracks are early demos of each of the debut album songs in order (with the exception of “Good Times Roll,” for which a demo could not be found so an early live performance was substituted). Notable gems include the original version of “Just What I Needed” (also known as the ‘demo that got the deal’), a recording of “Moving In Stereo” done in guitarist Ric Ocasek’s basement with only Ric and keyboard player Greg Hawkes present, and the demo for “All Mixed Up” with Ric on the lead vocal, rather than Benjamin Orr.

I got such a kick out of hearing these alternate versions, taking pleasure in the raw quality of the sound, the lyric and instrumental variations, and the evidence of how polished and energetic the band was, even before they were signed to a major record label.

The final five tracks on disc two are previously unreleased demos of songs that were staples at The Cars’ early live shows. You’ll find three solid rockers, a quirky dance tune, and an aching ballad, all of which were crowd favorites for years but never showed up on vinyl.

Binding all of this terrific music together is a 24-page booklet, chock full of photos (including the original album art), lyrics, and liner notes. Maxanne Sartori, the Boston disc jockey largely credited with launching the band, pens her thoughts, and excerpts from Brett Milano’s essay in The Cars Anthology liner notes make an appearance as well. The icing on the cake? Greg Hawkes provides little personal stories and factoids about each entry on the second disc to flesh out the history of the songs… fascinating tidbits for die-hard followers of The Cars, like me!

All in all, this was a superb repackaging of an incredible album, and a must-have for Cars fans. So how will the 2017 expanded editions compare to the deluxe treatment? We’ll take a look in my next review!

Bootleg book?

The Cars by Vincent Price

 

The Cars

Written by Vincent Price (not the actor)

Published by Blurb, August 28, 2019

ISBN# 978-0-46-425861-2

 

 

 

 


My quick opinion:

Clearly self-published, possibly plagiarised, and stuffed with low-resolution images likely downloaded from the internet, this book offers nothing new to Cars history. Save your $20.

My long story:

On Monday night I heard the surprising news that there was a new book about The Cars that was just published. C’mon, you know me… I had to jump right on that train! I found the book online and ordered it up via Amazon Prime that same night. While I waited for its arrival I poked around to see what I could discover about this unexpected addition to The Cars’ legacy.

My cursory research into the publication and the author turned up few details. The book appears to be part of a larger series of celebrity biographies churned out through Blurb, a self-publishing website where a product like this one would cost either $6 or $14 (approximately, and depending on if the author chose economy or standard color printing). Vincent Price has published at least 25 of these readers in the last four months.

So today, Friday, mine came.

I can’t beat around the bush. I was definitely disappointed after my first flip-through, but only to a certain extent: I knew that weighing in at only sixty-eight pages, I wasn’t going to get a long, detailed history of the band. I was not wrong. But upon closer inspection, there were other immediate and stronger impressions that left me feeling more angry than anything else.

Let me give you the basics:

  1. The book is paperback, measures at 6″ x 9″ and, as I mentioned, is sixty-eight pages long.
  2. There are thirty-five pages containing generously-spaced text, and thirty-three pages printed with a total of fifty-five images, mostly in color with some black and white.
  3. The cover of the book includes no title, author, or publishing house information. There is no writing on the front, back, or spine, other than the band’s original logo and a barcode.
  4. There is no title page, copyright page, or any kind of heading, subheading, or introduction inside the book.
  5. The author’s name does not appear anywhere in or on this book.
  6. There is no publisher information in or on the book; not the publisher’s name or location, nor the date of publication.
  7. There are no acknowledgements or photo credits anywhere in the book.
  8. There is no bibliography.

Did I get some “lemon” copy of the book? Did Amazon or Blurb print it wrong? Maybe… but I double-checked with my friend, Craig, and his looks the same as mine. So we’ll keep going…

The text starts out with about two dozen paragraphs giving a brief (and slightly inaccurate) history of The Cars. This appears to be a narrative based almost entirely on an article called “The Cars” by A.J. Wachtel (for Music Museum of New England). I believe Price attempted to restate Wachtel’s research in order to make it his own, and I will just gently say that it seems like he did not have the benefit of an editor OR a proofreader, and he was very much in need of both.

Now here’s where I might not be so gentle. There are some very obvious and unhappy flaws in this book.

The rest of the text appears to be a cut-and-paste job of three articles that are currently posted online. In the order that they appear in the book, they are:

  1. “The Cars’ ‘Drive’ to the Rock Hall” by Jim Sullivan, April 12, 2018, bestclassicbands.com
  2. “Second Gear: After 24 Years, The Cars Return” with Ilana Kaplan, April 20, 2011, interviewmagazine.com
  3. “The Cars Take on Their Critics” by Mikal Gilmore, October 30, 1980, rollingstone.com

Incredibly, there is no introduction to these articles, no proper credit given, no acknowledgement of the other writers, no reference to the source material at all. Instead, the text is very slightly altered to change the tense of the interviews. For example, in the piece by Interview Magazine, Ilana Kaplan posed questions directly to Greg Hawkes, like, “Did you ever think there would be a reunion like this after so long?” Price edited the text to read, “Had Greg ever thought there’d have been a reunion like this after so long?”

And let me be clear, these are not excerpts. In all three cases, the entire interview is included with those amateur edits. Even the most inattentive high school teacher would identify the rampant plagiarism here.

At a minimum, reproducing someone else’s work in its entirety, without giving credit to the original writer and/or publication, and especially without doing a single thing to make it clear that it is not the author’s own work, is unethical, disrespectful, and rude.

Furthermore, it is very likely grounds for a lawsuit. As tempted as I am (and believe me, I am!), I won’t take the time here to detail the ins and outs of Fair Use, but I feel very strongly that this book is a monumental violation of copyright laws. (If you’re interested in looking into this issue yourself, start with this helpful and layman-friendly article from Nolo.)

Is it possible Price had permission to reproduce these texts? Yes, of course. But I am suspicious because it doesn’t seem reasonable to me that there would be zero acknowledgement of the original source. If I am wrong, I will happily and humbly apologize.

The second half of the book is chock full of images from well-known photographers like Ebet Roberts, Lynn Goldsmith, Philippe Carly, Jeff Albertson, Peter Simon, and Marco Glaviano. Unfortunately, all of the images are available on the internet and have been circulating for years. Some are obvious screenshots from video, some bear watermarks, and some are duplicated on other pages. Judging by the substandard quality of the majority of them, my guess is that they are low-res copies downloaded from various websites.

The photo section lacks in another respect. The majority of the pictures feature the full band; the only ‘solo’ shots are of Ric and Ben. Since the book was published prior to Ric’s recent passing I can’t justify the singling out of those two as any kind of memorial tribute, so I find it annoying that equal treatment was not given to all five members. That, of course, is just my personal opinion.

More importantly, here we are again with copyright concerns. Not a single photo is credited, there are no descriptions of dates or locations; heck, they are not even in chronological order. Again, I can’t help but question if the author had the proper permissions to reproduce these works.

I can’t recommend this book at all, based on the sketchy text, the poor quality of the photos, and the fact that there is no new content offered. But here’s the truth of the matter: this book makes me angry because I believe that this author may be illegally profiting from the hard work of those that came before him. This is similar to the frustration I feel at bootleggers who take Ben’s unreleased solo tracks and sell them on CD, or profiteers who jack the official Cars logo and produce merch that they resell on ebay for exorbitant prices. It’s selfish, unscrupulous, and just plain wrong. I strongly urge you NOT to support such exploitation.

Revisiting the Expanded Editions

On March 30, 2018, Rhino Records released expanded editions of the fourth and fifth albums in The Cars catalog: Shake It Up and Heartbeat City. I wrote a review about SIU for Standing Room Only not long after the album set came out, and I started an article on HBC, but then I had the honor of jumping into the Let’s Go! book project with Joe Milliken and almost all other writing projects were (eagerly, I confess) pushed off to the side for a time.

Now that things have slowed down a little I’ve been dusting off my piles and I finally got around to completing my thoughts on HBC, just in time for the one year anniversary of its release. As Joe says, better late than never. I’m thankful for his philosophy, particularly since it is HIS website I wrote these for! Haha!

So here are the links to these two most recent scribblings (photos courtesy of spj).

 

Click here to read all about the Shake It Up expanded edition, and …

 

 

 

Click here to check out my thoughts on the Heartbeat City reissue.

 

 

If you’d like to hear what I had to say about the previously released expanded editions, start with this blog post: And “Panorama” Makes Three! I also covered the Agora album here: Live At The Agora, 1978.  While you’re down that rabbit hole, be sure to check out Standing Room Only‘s Facebook page for more great articles about the arts and entertainment scene in the greater New England area and across the nation!

Oh… a little P.S. The article I wrote about the Agora album is the one that was quoted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last summer. I’m still giddy over it!

my writing at the rrhof
Photo courtesy of @night_spots

Episode 25: The Official Unboxing!

Episode25March 30th:  The day has arrived — and so has the UPS man! Rhino’s official release of Shake It Up and Heartbeat City is upon us, and Dave and Donna have the CDs in their hot little hands (thank you, Amazon). Join them as they give their impressions of the packaging, bonus tracks, and liner notes included with each album. Not only that, but Donna picked up the records from her faithful vinyl guy, Bob from 4000 Holes, so we get a chance to discover the similarities and differences between the two products.

They also address such tasty tidbits as what Donna will say when she runs into Roy Thomas Baker in Cleveland,  the ‘fabulous Greg-ness’ of “Take It On The Run,” what the little black egg really looks like, and how Robert John Mutt Lange got Benjamin to sing ‘pork pie’ on the studio version of “Drive.”

The news was chock-full of delights as well… here are the links you’re going to want to follow up on.

  1. Customizable t-shirts and products from The Awesome Company! Supporting and celebrating people on the autism spectrum, this company is co-founded by Ric and Paulina’s daughter-in-law. Check out their website for some AWESOME gear!
  2. Joe Milliken has signed a publishing contract for his biography of Benjamin Orr! Stay in tune with updates, events, media activities, and discount promotions by liking his Facebook page or following the book on Twitter. If you’re not already on the mailing list, shoot Joe a message at benorrbook@gmail.com and request to be added.
  3. chrismorris2Chris Morris has revealed his artwork of The Cars as members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2018. Fast shipping and great customer service. Order his cool merchandise here!
  4. Get on The Midnight Scroll… write to us! Submit your questions, comments, and complaints to nightthoughtspodcast@gmail.com. We want to hear from you!
  5. Join us on Facebook in The Cars NiGHT THOUGHTS Podcast group and let us know how we’re doing. Don’t forget to follow us on twitter (@night_spots@sweetpurplejune), too!

Enjoy!

You’re All I’ve Got Tonight

79-2The 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. 😉

Live At The Agora, 1978

Earlier in 2017, Record Store Day induced nearly 5,000 Cars fans to swarm their local vinyl shop in search of one of the limited editions of a new offering from Rhino Records: the officially released recording of The Cars Live At The Agora, 1978. I had the privilege of writing a review of the album for Standing Room Only, a website dedicated to promoting music, art, and specialty foods in the northern New England area. Click below to read my thoughts, and don’t forget to follow SRO’s Facebook page for more great articles!

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken

http://standing-room-only.info/column/review/joe-milliken/album-review-cars-live-agora-1978