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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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 Agora1978 (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.
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!
“Ben was such a sweet guy. In the early days our bands played a lot of the same clubs and venues. He was always just a regular guy with a great sense of humor. We’d be like ‘how’d the gig go at whatever place, we’re in there next week?’
“When The Cars hit it big it was like they were shot out of a cannon! I didn’t see him for a year or so, until the Boston Rock awards. I stepped out for a smoke just in time to see him pull up on a Harley, wearing his bike leathers and looking like a GQ biker… Ben was a handsome kid. I tried to congratulate him on the year he’d just had, but he waved it off and wanted to talk about The Fools being up for a ‘Best Live Band’ award. Ben sure was the real deal!” ~ Mike Girard of The Fools, interview for Standing Room Only, January 18, 2019
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).
This episode has been on the bucket list for a loooong time, covering a topic we weren’t sure would ever be fully explored! But 2018 continues to be “The Year of The Cars” in all sorts of crazy and unexpected ways!
It kicks off with Dave giving an update on his recent trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Cars Car-ma” swooped in and made it possible for Dave to attend a special listening party of The Cars Live at The Agora 1978 in the Foster Theater, and what he reveals to Donna prompts her to utter her first swear words on the show ever!
Once she recovers herself, Dave and Donna dive into the details of the elusive-but-highly-sought-after film Turbocharge: The Unauthorized Story of The Cars. Created by comedian David Juskow back in 2008, the film has been sitting on a shelf… until recently. Dave got it in his bonnet to convince Juskow to make it available to the Fanorama. Juskow was gracious enough to allow Dave and Donna a private screening, and to give them permission to podcast about it and promote the film while he figures out how and when he’s going to release it (hopefully SOON).
Dave and Donna go over the background, plot, cast list, and highlights of this hilarious film, while doing their best not to spoil anything for future viewers. They also discuss the amazing and varied roster of musical artists that contributed to the soundtrack. Truly, this movie is just so funny, and SO relevant to the Cars’ fandom, that we want everyone to be able to view it! To show your support for getting it released, please like Dave’s Turbocharge Facebook page. Follow this link:
Heck, you can even tweet to David Juskow and let him know you’re eager to get your hands on it! Hit him up at @davejuskow and give him the word. While you’re there, follow him and listen to his podcast. He’s pretty funny. 😉
The episode closes out with the Midnight Scroll, where
David gets challenged to a Gilligan’s Island trivia showdown by sweet Sherry through the blog,
Superfan Judi gives some love to Katrina’s rocking band, The Debutantes,
new listener Donna connects Panorama with West Side Story,
and faithful friend of the show B.B. shares some Ric-esque new lyrics. Fun, fun!
You can be on the Scroll, too — contact us! There are plenty of ways to get in touch with NiGHT THOUGHTS:
March 24, 2018. Sitting at the desk he has labored at for more than a decade, surrounded by his wife and young daughter, music journalist Joe Milliken applies his signature to the publishing contract with a flourish. This day has been a long time coming, and marks the end of a fulfilling, though sometimes grueling, road.
It’s official. The biography of Benjamin Orr is going to be published.
Still fresh from the experience, Joe said, “Saying it was simply a ‘feeling of accomplishment’ seems like an understatement. But yes, when I signed that publishing agreement and realized that a publisher believed in my project, I felt a sense of accomplishment, pride, relief, and personal growth.”
Many of you are familiar with this project… some of you have been waiting for what seems like ages. And while you may have wondered if Joe Milliken’s biography of Benjamin Orr would ever reach the shelves, no one has stressed and speculated over this labor of love more than the author himself.
“I started this back in 2007. There were a few gaps along the way where I had to set the project aside for stretches because of life circumstances, but essentially, I have worked on this book in my spare time for eleven years… Yes, it has been a long process,” Joe sighed. (In addition to freelance writing, Joe works overnight shifts at the Brattleboro Retreat, a locked-down psychiatric hospital in Vermont.)
So let me assure you right here at the beginning: Benjamin’s story IS going to be told! As of this date, Joe is scheduled to submit his completed manuscript, artwork, and photographs to Rowman & Littlefield Publishers by May 1st, and the book is tentatively slated to be on shelves by the beginning of November, 2018. Such great news!
While Joe considers this endeavor to be his ‘life’s work,’ it wasn’t so much the passion for writing that set him on this path… it was rock and roll.
An artist at heart, Joe earned an associate’s degree in visual arts, but discovered along the way that writing might actually be the way to go to if he wanted to use his creativity to earn a buck. And while he spent time as a local sports writer, it was really music he had a passion for. From that day in the 7th grade when his buddy, Ed Faxon, brought a 45-single of Aerosmith’s “Come Together” to school and played it in music class, Joe was hooked. “Aerosmith hit me like a sledgehammer. After that, it was ALL rock music, ALL the time!”
[Incidentally, it was this same Ed who nicknamed Joe “the Jock of Rock” back in the day, a moniker that still identifies Joe in the Facebook world – find and like his music page here.]
“Music is easily my favorite hobby, but I could not carry a tune if it had a handle on it! Therefore, since I couldn’t become a musician, I’d write about it instead. Writing allowed me to kill two birds with one stone; it became both my way of getting involved in music, and my artistic/creative outlet.”
After ten years or so of rock journalism, and being published in newspapers and national magazines like Goldmine and The Alternate Root, Joe was eager for more. He had been kicking around the idea of writing a book for a while, but he admits that Ben and The Cars would not have been his first choice. “However, once I started investigating Ben’s life, I realized that there was a whole story about his early life in Cleveland where he grew up that I had no idea about, and neither did many other Cars’ fans.”
The suggestion actually originated from a member of a Cars fan group, who found Joe’s profile online and believed he could be a good fit for sharing Benjamin’s story: Joe himself hailed from Boston, resided in Vermont (where Ben also lived toward the end of his life), and was a rock-loving music journalist who listed The Cars as an influence. Joe spent about a month exploring and contemplating before he finally committed to the project. Once he was in, he was ALL in, heart and soul.
“My goal was to paint the clearest picture possible of Ben’s entire life, not just his life as a member of The Cars. This is a biography about a hard working musician who had one goal: to be in a successful national band. It’s not meant to be a ‘Cars book,’ although, of course the band is prominent in the narrative.”
It’s not your stereotypical ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’ rock biography, either. Joe confirms, “This is not a backstage exposé, but rather the story of an extremely gifted, hard-working musician who knew exactly what he wanted to do in life from a very early age… and he achieved it.”
Because Joe could not talk to Benjamin himself he knew he would have to dive into an intensive interview process. For the first year, he did a lot of research, mapping out Benjamin’s life from his birth to his death, and then he created a basic story structure. From there, he started conducting interviews with anyone and everyone he could find who knew Ben, filling in the gaps in his draft with their quotes and stories as he went along.
Joe interviewed well over 100 people for this book and overall, it was a great experience — but it was not always easy; not by a long shot. “The one big obstacle I faced was that some people who knew him were a little leery at first simply because Ben was a very private man, and of course, they didn’t know me from a hole in the wall! In some cases, it took me a long time to gain people’s trust before they would open up to me… understandably so.” For a few of Ben’s contacts, it took years.
Even once lines of communication were firmly established, further assurances were sometimes necessary. “There were times I needed to show an interviewee the excerpt from the manuscript in which they participated in order to get their final approval. It certainly shows just how much people really cared about how Ben is portrayed in this book.”
In spite of its challenges, the interview process was obviously essential, and it gave Joe such a wide lens for getting to know Benjamin. Additionally, some long-held misconceptions were set straight and new pockets of information uncovered. Especially helpful were friends and bandmates from Ben’s early years (Joe fondly calls them his “Cleveland Connection”) who gave insight into the activities, motivations, and personality of the young man who would grow up to make such an indelible mark on the music world.
And Joe would discover that a common thread ran through Ben’s relationships, from beginning to end.
“So many interviewees talked about his kindness and generosity towards his family and friends. Ben was hard to get to know, but once you did and he trusted you? You were a friend for life and he would do anything within his power for you.”
And though he never put himself in the spotlight, Ben was a man of great love and loyalty. “What moved me the most is his generosity. He did so many things for people that no one ever knew about… not even his bandmates. He didn’t talk or brag about these gestures, and many of them were not small things, believe me. Also, I love how he never forgot about his friends growing up. Like I said, if you were his friend, you were his friend for life.”
Joe didn’t get everyone he wanted in the book, but the majority of people he approached were kind and helpful, and their love for Benjamin was palpable. He did talk to a large variety of people, including family members, two of the four members of The Cars, musicians, label executives and music industry personnel, studio engineers, rock photographers and personal friends.
In addition to sharing their stories, many people also gave Joe the gift of photographs. “The photos are a big part of this project. I have collected over 500 of them spanning Ben’s entire life, many of which are from folks’ personal collections and that have never been seen or published. Choosing the final photos for the book might have been the most daunting task of all!”
[Now if your first thought after reading that was, “Holy wow! Five hundred??? I wanna see them ALL!” I’ve got some super good news: Joe mentioned that he is considering following the biography with a special edition “photo book” to share many more of the photos he’s collected with the hardcore fans. Fingers (and toes) crossed!]
The set of SNL,1987. Ben Orr Collection. Used with permission
In Japan. Ben Orr Collection, 1980. Used with permission.
By Marco Glaviano, 1987. Used with permission.
While Joe considers the interview process one of the most challenging obstacles of this project, it wasn’t the only aspect that kept him on his toes. “I had to learn to take everything I heard with a grain of salt, for you can’t believe everything you are told. Luckily, as time went on, I got better at filtering out the bullshit and ‘making it real.’”
Benjamin’s absence is felt keenly by Joe. In fact, the list of interview questions he would have loved to discuss with Ben is long. “First, I would just like to talk to Ben about his music tastes… his favorite bands in different stages of his life and why. Who his favorite singers were, his favorite albums, what musicians influenced him the most…. things like that. I would also ask him what his earliest memory of performing was, and at what moment did he realize this band he was now in was going to be world famous. I’d ask what his favorite Cars’ album is and what was his most memorable moment in The Cars. On a more personal level, I would ask him who the love of his life really was.”
And if Joe could have spent time with Benjamin during his life? “I want to hang out with Ben from June 1979 to June 1980,” Joe confided. “The Cars were riding the success of their debut album (my second favorite) and about to release their second album, Candy-O, which is my favorite Cars album. The Cars were the hottest band in America at that time and Ben was finally a true rock star and enjoying the fruits of all his labor… and the girls were everywhere! (laughing)”
While Joe can never go back in time, he has gained the next best thing. “Knowing Ben inside and out like I do now… I am able to appreciate him as a person and not just as a rock star in a band. Even though I never met him, I kind of feel like I did.”
Joe is pretty tight-lipped when it comes to revealing too many details about the contents of the book itself (rats!) so we’ll have to wait for the fall, when I hope to get my hands on an advance copy and write a review to publish here (stay tuned!). In the meantime, what is next on the horizon for Joe Milliken?
His own music and arts website, Standing Room Only, keeps him quite busy, and he still does freelance writing (in fact, he’ll be covering April’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Benjamin’s hometown of Cleveland for Goldmine magazine). Eventually he’d like to write another music-related book, but he knows that by signing the publishing agreement with Rowman he’s kicking off the marketing and promotion phase of this project, and that will take much of his time and energy in the foreseeable future.
Still, he’ll be riding the emotional high of this writing milestone for some time to come. “I’ve had so much fun and am so honored to tell Mr. Orr’s life story, words just can’t describe it!”
In order to make sure you don’t miss the latest updates, author events, discount promotions, and other book-related Benjamin tidbits, ‘like’ Joe Milliken’s Facebook page dedicated to the book and/or follow the project on Twitter (@benorrbook). You can also email Joe directly at BenOrrBook@gmail.com to receive email communications (and it can’t hurt to give him a shout out in favor of that future photo book!).
“I honestly cannot recall how Ben was originally exposed to ‘River of Fire.’ I only heard one early demo of the song, and I remember that some of the lyrics had been changed but I didn’t care, I was just thrilled that Ben Orr was singing one of my songs!
I did meet Ben years later when I was with Styx and his Big People band was touring with us. I had a couple opportunities to have a conversation with him and it was a big deal for me because I always thought Ben was very cool.” — Glen Burtnik, co-writer of “River of Fire” (recorded for Benjamin’s unreleased second solo album), Standing Room Only, January 28, 2015
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!
I announced several weeks ago that I was invited to do some writing for Joe Milliken, biographer for Benjamin Orr, and his diverse website, Standing Room Only. I’ve been working on a short series of reviews about the current reissuing of The Cars’ back-catalog, including the debut album in 1999, and the recent expanded editions of Candy-O and Panorama, released in July of 2017.
The final piece was published this weekend, so I am providing links to all three reviews down below (all photos courtesy of Joe Milliken). Hope you enjoy them, and be sure to like the Standing Room Only Facebook page to keep up with Joe’s excellent articles on arts and entertainment in the greater New England area and across the nation!
First up: I took a look back at the 1999 The Cars Deluxe Edition:
I’ve got one more assignment coming up (a review of The Cars Live at the Agora 1978) and then we’ll see where we go from there. I’m excited for the possibilities! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts; comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter.