Saturday, July 17, 2010

SONG #130: Touch And Go

The Cars, Panorama, 1980

I remember Richard Love (my first musical guru-- he should get an avatar credit on this blog) explaining to me why The Cars were a great band while we watched them on TV in 1981.  I was staying over at my friend Chris' house, and The Cars were playing this song live on some show (it might have been Don Kirschner's Rock Concert), and Richard pointed out to me all the specificity in the arrangement, especially on keyboards and percussion.  It was a great lesson in listening, one of hundreds that he imparted.  As always, thanks, Richard.

I can't say it turned me into a Cars fan for life, though.  I think their song "Magic" killed the band for me in some fundamental way.  Can't say why-- it's no more annoying or more harmful that hundreds of songs like it, but for some reason it's fingernails on a chalkboard for me.  I really hate it (even more than actual magicians), so much so that I didn't listen to The Cars for about fifteen years after that.  Check out the video--  .  I'm that guy screaming at the beginning.  Do you hear that fake snare drum?  It's a nail in my soul, every time.

This project reintroduced me to The Cars, and I once again can listen to their early stuff.  The first album is the only one worth buying, but I actually think this album, their third, is the most interesting.  After blowing up instantly with the first two records (which have all those hits that you remember with varying degrees of nostalgia and "Oh, yeah-- that Circuit City song" awareness) leader Ric Ocasek wanted to make a "statement" record instead of just another collection of million-selling pop songs.  I'm sure the band was thrilled.  

Ric-- Hey, guys!  I'm ready to make another record!
Band-- Awesome!  You are printing money, Ric!  Can't wait! I'm gonna buy an offshore island this time!
Ric-- Not so fast!  I think we've done all we can with the traditional "pop song" idiom.
Band-- Who are you calling an idiom?
Ric-- Ha ha.  Seriously, now that we're a serious band, I'd like to make an art record, one for the ages, to cement our reputation in rock history.
Band-- Um... we're a serious band?  We're called THE CARS, for God's sake.  Please, man, just stick to the formula:  three minute hit, world tour, wheelbarrows of cash.
Ric-- Don't worry.  It will be arty and still sell!  We've got the world's ear!  I am a significant artistic voice.  
Band-- Well, can we hear some of your ideas?
Ric-- You bet.  For example, the title track is going to be six minutes of disconnected, angular atonal harmonies with synthesizer sound effects.
Band-- (Sigh).  Time to start investing in long-term securities, I guess.

Amazingly, though Panorama was a predictable dud, it didn't kill the band's career and still had a few hits on it (I even like the weirdo title track).  Ocasek rebounded by writing two more huge pop albums (he quickly fell in love with the pop song again-- "Shake It Up," "Since You're Gone," "You Might Think," "Tonight She Comes"), releasing a weird solo record, marrying Paulina Porizkova (sixteen years his junior), and retiring from public view to produce acclaimed albums by Bad Brains, Weezer and Guided By Voices.

Yes.  This man:

the human praying mantis

married this woman:

the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and children's book author

and was basically never seen again.  Ladies and gentlemen, a man who is clear about his priorities... Ric Ocasek!

(I have feared, though, that he is in fact an actual praying mantis, and ate her.  Has anybody seen the two of them together lately?)*

"Touch And Go" rides the line perfectly between "hit" Cars song and "artsy" Cars song.  It's definitely strange, but it's still catchy as hell, and I think all the parts come together here in a memorable way.  The opening rhythm is as mathematical and jarring as a pop song can get, and it's coupled with that airy, icy synth sound and the robotic bass line.  Moreover, it's not like Ocasek's voice warms things up-- "All I need is what you got," he sings, sounding like a creepy, desperate stalker.  For the first minute, it's a song about not being able to relax around somebody, and the music perfectly conveys that distance.  Artsy Cars.

At 45 seconds, the band insert an extra two beats, and it's suddenly Hit Cars.  The drums settle into a loping groove, the guitar comes in with cheerful counterpoint, and we're bopping along.  Even the synth succumbs to the rhythm.  Now Ric is happy and everything is "so right," even if it's "Touch and Go."  Then back to the verse form, with some added guitar flavor.  I get it-- the song itself is "Touch And Go," moving back and forth from challenging art music to inclusive harmonic music.  Very clever, Mr. Ocasek.  On top of all that, we get a classic late 70s complicated guitar solo complete with harmonic squeals that lasts almost 30 seconds.  Check out the sudden ending as well-- we're back where we started.  Great final touch.

Perhaps Richard was right-- what this song offers more than anything is a quick course in Songwriting 101.  Now that 25 years have passed, I forgive the Cars for their transgressions, but I retain the right to rip the "Magic" video in the future.  In fact, anyone want to take first crack in the comments?


* Cheap joke.  They seem like one of the happiest, most normal celebrity couples of all time.  Good for them, though I'm much more age appropriate for Paulina, as I would have happily explained to her in the mid-80s.


  1. I love that you chose this song, shows your overall feelings for the band. I really don't much care for this song, but after taking a 15 year break from the rest of their catalogue I've been LOVING rediscovering their big hits with my daughters. I totally agree with Richard Love, those hit songs are PACKED with beautiful little touches. The claps at the outset of Best Friends Girlfriend are one of the ALL TIME great starts to a song, and Ocasek just packs one great moment after another. I'm sure you're 100% right about the reaction of the band to this record, let alone the reaction of the record company. In some ways it is sad for me that Ocasek felt the need to break from doing what he did best. The world never has enough just pure pop genius for my money.

  2. I think you've been fooled! The drums and bass might suggest 5/4 in Artsy Cars, but if you count the beats from the beginning in 4/4 (the keyboards being on the off beat and alternating between four minor seconds and four minor thirds, or suspension to resolution) there are no extra beats. The vocals make more sense that way too, always starting on the downbeat with two bars between lines. There's a odd sophistication to The Cars, going back to the first track on their first album:

    It took me a a few times to finally hear where the one is; even the Hit Cars can be artsy. I knew all that music theory would come in handy one day.

    The video for "Magic" on the other hand... I wish I hadn't seen that.

  3. Wow, this song's music strongly reminded me of (and, looking at the dates on Wikipedia, might have inspired) the Police's "Spirits in the Material World"

    They're even in the same key! Only difference is the Police tune goes to iv in the chorus rather than moving to the relative major. Sting, you hack!

  4. That's a great call, Rob-- really similar intros!

  5. I've really come around on the early Cars in my dotage.. in particular, Greg Hawkes' keyboards. The song-craft is just fantastic -- when the keyboard kicks in after the second chorus on bye bye love it gets me every time.

    I'm drawn more to the restraint of the arrangements... it's almost like a pop steely dan. I think Roy T Baker had a big hand in the signature sound, and on Rick's later producing style.

    But I agree, the later stuff is dreck. I can't listen to anything off Heartbeat City without getting indigestion. The 80s gone rancid. Screw Mutt Lange.