Ric Ocasek may have been the most important rock and roll frontman of the late-1970s/early-1980s new wave movement. The Cars combined the pop chops of Blondie or Duran Duran with the eccentricity of Talking Heads or Devo, remaining cool enough for the artsy crowd and infectious enough for the mainstream crowd. They could merge the soaring multi-tracked vocals of Queen with the electronic quirks of Kraftwerk, and enable fans of each to see the virtues of the other.
Ocasek, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 75, was the co-lead vocalist for The Cars with bassist Benjamin Orr, but was the band’s primary songwriter – while Orr’s voice was an integral part of the enduring hits “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go” and “Drive,” they were precise, tightly constructed pop songs penned by Ocasek. Eight of the nine songs from the band’s legendarily consistent eponymous debut album were exclusively Ocasek compositions, with the ninth being co-written with keyboardist Greg Hawkes. (Guitarist Elliot Easton famously quipped that the album “should be called ‘The Cars Greatest Hits.’”)
The Cars were something of a transition in rock and roll history, and this transition was exemplified in the images presented by their frontmen. Orr had long, blond hair and a cool confidence, typical of iconic early-1970s stadium rock frontmen Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, while Ocasek was a tall, slender man with a distinct lack of traditional rock and roll style. But Ocasek’s broader influence on the genre (beyond his incredible list of classic songs) wasn’t that he lacked style – it was that he turned a perceived lack of coolness into a kind of coolness that outlasted many of his contemporaries. Had he tried to be Mick Jagger, he would have come across years later as a cheap imitation of Jagger. Instead, he crafted his own style.
The most obviously Ocasek-influenced artist from successive generations is Weezer, whose first two self-titled albums (Blue in 1994 and Green in 2001) and 2014 LP "Everything Will Be Alright in the End" he produced. Like Ocasek a generation earlier, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo was a slight departure from the conventional frontman (though for Cuomo, that convention was Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder), but he was also a fundamentally populist songwriter, and Ocasek aided Cuomo on his quest to craft superb pop music in his own, quirky way.
But The Cars were also cited as major influences on subsequent indie darlings such as the Pixies and the Strokes. Ocasek also co-produced songs on No Doubt's 2001 album "Rock Steady" and produced five tracks for Motion City Soundtrack's third record, "Even If It Kills Me" in 2007.
When The Cars took their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, they were glowingly inducted by Brandon Flowers of The Killers, a band that didn't release its debut album until 2004.
While many of the bands categorized as “new wave” implemented techniques that eventually became perceived as dated, The Cars remained relevant until the day Ocasek died, a testament to the timelessness of his songwriting.
Editor's Note: Photo by Adanne Osefo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (cropped). Additional brief text by Ben Province.