Someone once said that the formula for a hit song was simple: Sad lyrics, happy melody. Ric Ocasek, lead singer of the quintessential new wave band The Cars, was one of the masters of that formula.
Ocasek — who was either 70 or 75 according to different sources — was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Sunday afternoon, an NYPD spokesman said, after a 911 call reporting his death. No foul play is suspected.
The legendary singer, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, spent years turning out upbeat yet subliminally dark pop-rock that perfectly captured the mood of the late 1970s and 1980s. That was when The Cars produced its best-known hits, from “My Best Friend’s Girl” to “Shake it Up” to “You Might Think.”
It’s easy to forget The Cars were initially a ‘70s band, formed in 1976 in Boston, a town whose musical output consisted mainly of the classic rock stalwarts Aerosmith and, of course, Boston. The Cars were nothing like those shaggy-haired bands, which were essentially still steeped in the ‘60s. The Cars were, like their name, a sleek and modern machine. Their spiffed-up version of power-pop, driven by dynamic guitars and cool synthesizers, pointed the way toward the 1980s that were yet to come.
Looking back at that cusp-of-the-decade era — when punk bands like the Ramones existed side by side with new wave bands like Blondie and Talking Heads — Ocasek stands out as a definitive figure. Tall, lanky, dressed in a slim suit, skinny tie and ever-present sunglasses, Ocasek came off as a modern-day Roy Orbison. Like Orbison, Ocasek cultivated an aloof persona, a mystique. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Charisma on stage, and The Cars were never known as a particularly galvanizing live band. Ocasek preferred to let the music speak for itself.
And it did. A Cars song was always a work of cool detachment and irony with a strong undercurrent of yearning and heartbreak. “Just What I Needed,” a deceptively propulsive rock tune, told the age-old story of a toxic relationship; “Since You’re Gone” builds on the rhythm of what sounds like a pair of stilettos walking out a door; “Good Times Roll” is one of the most wondrously depressing pop tunes ever to blast out of AM radio.
“Drive” — one of their biggest and most straightforward hits, written by Ocasek but sung by bassist Benjamin Orr — is a ballad whose nightmarishness is easy to overlook unless you focus on the words: “Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams? And who’s gonna plug their ears when you scream?”
It’s not too much of a stretch to connect The Cars with the Cold War anxieties of the 1980s. What was so great about Ocasek and The Cars is that they turned those anxieties into some of the catchiest pop tunes ever written.
“If someone can walk out in the street and shoot John Lennon, somebody can launch a nuclear attack,” Ocasek told The New York Times in 1983. “It’s scary. But you start to take it in stride after a while. If you’re going to live in a world of absurdities, you have to learn to laugh at them.’’
With Nicole Fuller
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the discrepancy regarding Ocasek's age.