Ric Ocasek obituary: Singer, songwriter and frontman of the Cars
US new wave musician’s band had many hits including My Best Friend’s Girl and Drive
Ric Ocasek (left) with fellow members of The Cars: their song Drive was used as background music for Ethiopian famine footage shown during the Live Aid concert. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Born: March 23rd, 1944
Died: September 15th, 2019
The American musician Ric Ocasek, who has died aged 75, led the new wave band the Cars to huge international success from 1978 until 1988. The Cars reached their highest UK chart position, No 3, with My Best Friend’s Girl in November 1978 and enjoyed hits with Just What I Needed, Let the Good Times Roll, You Might Think, Let’s Go and, best and biggest of all, the aching ballad Drive.
They were the first American band to successfully take a punk/new wave aesthetic into the US charts – their use of irony, downbeat imagery, synthesisers, impassive vocals and European cultural references standing in contrast to the shrill hard rock then dominant – and Ocasek’s exceptional talent as a songwriter ensured they enjoyed a decade of hit singles and albums.
Patient and focused, Ocasek was already in his 30s when the Cars released their debut album, The Cars, in 1978. Although his favourite musicians were artists such as the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart, he proved an astute pop songwriter: his best songs employ repetitive hooks, powerful rhythms, melodies that hang in the listener’s head and a clever use of instrumental motifs. The Cars’ hits were not just distinctive but, as the Village Voice critic Robert Christgau has noted, their arch, glossy pop helped shape the sound of the 1980s. The finest Cars songs have an eerie quality akin to Roy Orbison’s best work – melodramas that convey a quiet intensity.
Friendship with Orr
Ocasek was born in Baltimore, Maryland. When he was 16 his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where his father worked as a systems analyst at Nasa’s Lewis Research Centre. Ric graduated from high school in 1963 and briefly attended college but dropped out, determined to succeed as a musician. In 1965 he met the singer Benjamin Orr and they began forming bands, playing across the midwest before settling in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1971.
As Milkwood, a folk rock band, they released an album in 1973 to little attention. Ocasek and Orr continued making music together under a variety of names while working at day jobs, slowly recruiting the musicians who would come to be known, in 1976, as the Cars – their drummer David Robinson named and dressed the band. The Cars made a demo tape of Ocasek’s songs in 1977 and it received regular airplay on two Boston radio stations. Record labels began bidding to sign them up, with Elektra Records winning. The British producer Roy Thomas Baker – whose work with Queen had helped the band achieve superstardom – was assigned to the group.
Their eponymous debut album contained three international hit singles. Ocasek wrote all the songs, and played guitar and sang the lead vocal on the majority of them (Orr, the bassist, sometimes sang lead vocals, including on Just What I Needed). The band enjoyed a brilliant trajectory, with their albums Candy-O (1979), Panorama (1980) and Shake It Up (1981) all hits. Robert Palmer, the New York Times’ pop critic, wrote of the Cars: “They have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends – punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesiser and guitar textures of art rock, the 50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop – and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend.”
Producer of Suicide
Ocasek, enjoying his status as a new wave figurehead – and one with commercial clout – produced the second album by the New York electronic duo Suicide in 1980 and Rock for Light, the debut album by the African American hardcore band Bad Brains, in 1983. Then, after almost three years outside the studio, he chose the South African producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange to produce Heartbeat City (1984) – which became the Cars’ greatest success.
The album’s lead single Drive, sung by Orr, produced one of the MTV era’s standout videos, became the Cars’ biggest hit and was employed as background music to footage of the Ethiopian famine shown during the Live Aid concert (at which the Cars performed): Ocasek donated his songwriter’s royalties to the Band Aid Trust.
A Greatest Hits album in 1985 sold more than six million copies in the US alone but Orr now demanded the Cars record songs he had written with his girlfriend, and Ocasek refused. The album Door to Door (1987) crawled to No 26 in the US charts – No 72 in the UK – and the following year the Cars disbanded.
Ocasek released seven solo albums – none was particularly notable but he said he was happy to be making music. He appeared as a beatnik painter in John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray, published a book of poetry in 1993 and produced young bands. The two albums he produced for the US band Weezer, in 1994 and 2001, sold more than a million copies each.
Ocasek reformed the Cars in 2010 to record the album Move Like This – it reached No 7 in the US charts and the band undertook a brief tour. Orr had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000, he and Ocasek never having made peace. In 2012 Ocasek released Lyrics and Prose, a complete collection of his lyrics. Recently he had begun exhibiting his paintings.
He is survived by his third wife, the model Paulina Porizkova, whom he met on the set of the video shoot for Drive, and married in 1989 – she announced their separation last year. He is also survived by their sons, Jonathan and Oliver, and by four sons, Christopher, Ada, Eron and Derek, from two previous marriages that both ended in divorce. – Guardian