The Good, Better, and Best of the Cars, According to Elliot Easton

Our interviewee is not wearing glasses. Photo: Ron Pownall/Getty Images

Back in 1978, a quintet of punky dorks were finally able to crack the code for the perfect earworm: one part new wave, another part power pop, with a silky dollop of synth that just made you want to dance all night, go go go. The band was the Cars, and your life would be exponentially worse if you’d never experienced the joys of grooving to “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think,” and “Just What I Needed” on a Saturday night or, for a few cathartic moments of reflection, blubbering along to “Drive” under some blankets. Two members, the eternally suave front men Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr, have died in recent years, while Elliot Easton, David Robinson, and Greg Hawkes remain active in the music industry to varying degrees.

Easton, who is releasing an album on August 28 with the Empty Hearts — his rock supergroup that also features Wally Palmar (the Romantics), Andy Babiuk (the Chesterfield Kings), and Clem Burke (Blondie) — recently called Vulture from his California home to reflect on his time as the Cars’ lead guitarist. This decades-long journey culminated in 2018 when the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While the ethos of our Superlatives column is to allow musicians to discuss highs and lows, it quickly became evident that Easton, the truest of mensches, has very few negative bones in his body. “The band did so well,” he said with a laugh. “What do I have to complain about?”

Best song

Wow. They’re all like your children. It’s like, which one do you like more? With songs like “Just What I Needed” and “Drive” and “Best Friend’s Girl,” I’m just like the fans — I love them too. But from the point of view of being inside the band, there are songs that I’m proud of for my work within them; in that regard, a favorite of mine is “Touch and Go.” I don’t have my one favorite, but on some level I think I’d pick “Just What I Needed” as our [overall] best. It’s our song. You expect the Beatles to perform “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and you expect the Cars to play “Just What I Needed.” We’re so lucky to have any songs that capture the Zeitgeist in that way.

Song you wish the Cars had never recorded

I don’t have one. I really don’t. There are some songs we recorded that didn’t make it on the records. We were always sure we were happy with our work on every song. There are no songs on any records that I’d want to take off. I worked so hard on those songs, and I was such a perfectionist about it. If there was anything I didn’t like about a track, I’d hardly be able to go to sleep until I’d fix what was bugging me. That kind of attitude will tell you we were pretty satisfied. I have no negative comments about any songs. There are some that, sure, I play or listen to more. There’s something interesting in each song, and they bring back specific memories.

Song you experience the most joy playing

“Just What I Needed,” “Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Touch and Go” are the key trio. The most joy I experience playing live is when I can do my guitar solos. They weren’t improvised; they were compositions, I wrote them. I always played the solos as I did on the record, as that’s what I imagined would satisfy the fans, as opposed to winging solos — and the odds of me winging a better solo are slim to none. That leads to the experience of joy that I see on people’s faces in the audience when I break into one of those solos. A friend elbowing another friend and going, “He’s playing it, he’s playing it!” I get a tremendous kick out of that. If someone spent hundreds of dollars on an evening out and I didn’t play the solo right, I’d be kicked off. [Laughs.] That makes me really happy — the flash of recognition from the fans.

Song you wish had become a bigger hit

We had a song on Panorama called “Misfit Kid,” Still wondering what I did!” I thought it really caught something and captured a certain moment. It shows you that the guys in the band have no idea what the label will pick, but I always wish the label had picked that song for radio.

Song you never expected to become a big hit

“Shake It Up.” Ric brought it to us during the Panorama sessions because he actually wrote that song for that album. It’s our biggest single now, of course, but somebody in the band — and I won’t say who, because I don’t want to embarrass him — said, “This song is boring and pedestrian.” It didn’t turn into an argument or anything like that. Ric was just like, “All right, no worries, we’ll try another song.” It was rejected, and look what happened a year later.

Biggest band disagreement

It would have to be the way we ended [in 1988]. There’s a common situation in bands where … well, it’s show business. It was the worst time for me because I loved being in the Cars. It was a great band to be in. It was sad when it started going away, but it happens. People drift or fall in and out of love; you don’t know why, but it’s a natural occurrence. We’d been working hard for ten years, and it was rough to see it all go away. That one hurt.

We had made Heartbeat City, which was a massively successful record. It had a lot of singles, and it took a long time to make. It was really super-produced. We were fried and should’ve taken a hiatus to recharge our batteries, but we kept pushing ahead. I think if we took a couple years of rest, we would’ve continued together. That’s my feeling about it.

Lyrics you wish you’d talked Ric Ocasek out of writing

None! We were lucky to have a poet in the band. Ric’s lyrics are one of the reasons the Cars have aged so well and why people still enjoy us and discover us. His lyrics always seemed to explore the darker side of the human experience. It wasn’t walking in the sunshine. It was “Who’s gonna hold you down while you shake?” It was pop music with irony. Those kinds of ideas are timeless. People are still going through the same things we did at our age. The coolest thing about his writing is that it’s not locked into a year. You could read it like a poem.

Also, what a lot of people don’t realize about Ric is that he was a really funny guy, one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. We’d have silly, surrealist conversations. Like one time he called me and said, “Hey, my father didn’t make that sock.” Instead of laughing, I’d give it right back to him. [Laughs.] We’d be roaring with laughter.

Guitar solo that took the longest to master

It would be either “Touch and Go” or “Tonight She Comes.” During the recording process, I would always be taking cassettes home and working on solos and coming up with ideas. Those two stand out in my mind as being the most finely crafted.

Music video shoot you’d most like to relive

I don’t know if I’d like to relive any shoot, mostly due to the 5 a.m. wake-up calls and sitting for hours, bored, in an ice-cold soundstage with makeup on. But I’d have to go with “You Might Think.” We won the first VMA for Video of the Year for that. I still have my Moonman statue! That’s up there in the pantheon of rock music videos, and it was an enjoyable and silly time to film it. It seems to have stuck.

Unfulfilled Cars projects you wish had seen the light of day

There weren’t any that were penciled in and destined to happen. But if Ric hadn’t passed, we would’ve done more work together. We had such a fantastic time at the Rock Hall of Fame induction, and it reignited a spark. We hadn’t hung out together in a long time, so spending that week together was wonderful. There was a lot of healing. We left that on a really positive note, and there would’ve been an excellent chance for another project.

Ric and I never had the “heavy” call. We were on good terms and kept in touch a lot after the Rock Hall induction. We texted a lot. I was really shocked when I got the call that he was gone.

The Cars’ most surprising failure

After the success of the first two records, I didn’t expect Panorama to not sell as well. It did fine but not in relation to The Cars and Candy-O. That was a glitch. At the time, music writers considered it our experimental album and a departure from our first two albums. I still wouldn’t call it a failure, but I guess it was the wrong record for the wrong moment. But who can ever guess what people want at any moment? The tour was great, though. That’s one of those records that when people discover the Cars and want to go deep, they go to Panorama. 

Ranking the Cars’ cover women

Clockwise from left: The Cars (1978) Photo: ElektraCandy-O (1979) Photo: ElektraShake It Up (1981) Photo: Elektra
Clockwise from left: The Cars (1978) Photo: ElektraShake It Up (1981) Photo: ElektraCandy-O (1979) Photo: Elektra

Number one would absolutely be Candy-O because we managed to get Alberto Vargas to do that cover. It was an incredible coup to get his talents. Number two would be Shake It Up, just because The Cars cover is horrible.

Honestly, I’d rather we were on the cover of that album, and I always felt that way. It’s a horrible, Los Angeles ’70s look that has absolutely nothing to do with what our music is about. We had nothing to do with the Southern California sound; we were East Coasters. We wanted our cover to be what David [Robinson] designed, which ended up becoming the inner sleeve. It was a series of black-and-white photos. We handed that in and wanted it to be the cover, as we thought it represented our music perfectly. And of course, the higher-ups disagreed and hired a model with crazy red lipstick. Let’s get a model driving a car! Get it! It’s so facile. It’s meaningless now because it’s such an iconic album, but at the time, we really wanted to be on that cover. But hey, maybe it wouldn’t have become as big of a hit.

The Best and Worst of the Cars, According to Elliot Easton