38 Years Ago: The Cars 'Shook' Pop-Rock

Album cover art
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Album cover art

Released November 6, The Cars’ hit-filled album Shake It Up veered to the front lane of the emerging new wave movement, a bright, explosive assembly of art pop melodies that induced a top-down, synth-fueled highway drive.

The Cars’ fourth studio album was written by Ocasek and came out in 1981 - at the nexus of disco drama and commercialized, stiff rock radio (also known as album-oriented rock). The Cars emerged with a backline of experimental synth that neutralized into bouncy rock material, creating a fleet of power pop tracks.

Often donned in signature sunnies and draped in black, the physical six-foot-four stature of Ric Ocasek alone struck a different chord, but his style of musicianship as the Cars’ frontman was even more fresh.

In 1987 Ocasek said to The Times, “I’m happy that pop songs have a bit of a twist. When I’m writing I never how it’s going to come out…I read a lot of poetry, and that gives me a wide of permission to say anything in a song - they’re more twisted than I’ll ever be.” 

Refusing to normalize with the restrictions of their time, the Cars sped ahead by promoting their singles on MTV, including the Billboard chart favorite "Shake It Upthat kept the youth “[dancing] all night, [playing] all day,” launching Ocasek and his mates towards a number of single hits, including "Since You're Gone" and "Think It Over" that would garner a steady string of chart success in the states. 

The Cars presented romance infused lyrics, but delivered them with a deadpan ambivalence, with seductively hard taglines, like “Be my maybe baby." The title track was a testament to their craftsmanship, evidenced by their progression from a bare reggae-rock framework of simple chords when it was still a demo track to the resulting final track that was overlaid with a gloss of expert production.

Admitted drummer David Robinson in the 1985 biographer Frozen Fire: "It never sounded good. We'd dumped it, and we were going to try it one more time, and I was fighting everybody. So we thought, let's start it all over again, like we'd never even heard of it."

The clean slate transformed the years-old demo to a finalized version that highlighted vivacious and playful instrumental conversation between guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes and kept the beat (as well as the feet of those listening) moving. 

 

While the album charted favorably as classic rock hits, the groovy glim pop rock arrangement drove neatly in and out of the lines of mainstream rock, not only ensuring their listeners’ a good ride, but a greatness in the music to come for future generations. 

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