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-- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bEu9wLDjKY . 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.