In Memoriam: Ric Ocasek (1944-2019)
Bandleader, guitarist, and principal songwriter for new wave superstars The Cars, Ric Ocasek was an artist with a singular musical vision. Welding catchy bubblegum melodies to a razor sharp instrumental attack, with every surface polished into a sleek, gleaming package with immediate commercial appeal and eternal popularity, The Cars delivered thirteen Top 40 singles and eight mega-selling albums. Long after the band’s 1988 breakup, Ric Ocasek remained active as a solo artist and producer, working with artists as diverse as Bad Brains, Suicide, Weezer, and Guided By Voices.
Ocasek was born Richard Otcasek in Baltimore, MD, on March 23, 1944. Inspired by early rock’n’roll legends like Buddy Holly and the Crickets and Roy Orbison, Otcasek took up music in his mid-teens. By the early ’70s, Otcasek moved to Boston to play in the mostly forgotten folk-rock trio Milkweed with friend and bassist Ben Orzechowski. The band released a largely ignored full-length album before splitting. Otcasek and Orzechowski continued on, shifting focus and inspiration from Crosby, Stills, and Nash to The Modern Lovers, The Velvet Underground, and Roxy Music, polishing their sound (and simplifying their names).
After successes in a few other Boston-based bands, Ocasek and Orr formed The Cars in 1976. The lineup was filled out by bandmate Elliot Easton on lead guitar, session musician Greg Hawkes on keyboards, and former Modern Lovers drummer Dave Robinson, all accomplished artists in their own right. A studio demo of “Just What I Needed” got serious radio play in Boston, leading to signing with powerhouse major label Elektra Records. The 1978 self-titled debut The Cars is as perfect a rock’n’roll salvo as they come. Three of the album’s nine songs were hits, and the rest are merely classic. With help from with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, the sound is crisp and streamlined, combining catchy, well-crafted rock riffs with icy new wave synthesizer textures and distinctive vocals. Musically, The Cars followed Roxy Music’s blueprint of classic-meets-modern (but reined in the art school glam excesses); vocally, Ric Ocasek’s nervy, detached cool is balanced by Benjamin Orr’s natural rock star charisma. The album remained in the charts for over two years.
By the start of the 80s, the band had followed up with two more successful albums that expanded upon and experimented with their established formula: Candy-O, and Panorama. With their new wave clothes (including Ocasek’s ubiquitous black shades) and crisp album design, The Cars were already an image-conscious band. But the arrival of MTV in the summer of 1981 allowed the band to link sound and vision like never before. Their performance-based promo videos put them in heavy rotation on the brand new network. Recorded in their own Boston-based studio, the Shake It Up album arrived in the fall of 1981 and with it two high-production videos, “Shake It Up” and “Since You’ve Gone” that further cemented the band as MTV staples.
The Cars continued to innovate both in the studio and in front of the camera on their fifth album, Heartbeat City. Recorded in London with arena rock producer Mutt Lange (Def Leppard, AC/DC, Foreigner, etc.), Heartbeat City wasn’t so much performed by the band as painstakingly assembled part by part in the studio under Lange’s demanding watch. But Ocasek’s pitch-perfect songwriting and the band’s collective dedication to getting every nuanced sound just right made Heartbeat City a modern rock masterpiece. Buoyed by four MTV-dominating videos—”You Might Think,” “Drive,” “Magic,” and “Hello Again”—the album was a commercial and critical peak for the band. Inevitable rock star moves for Ric Ocasek included working with Andy Warhol and marrying a super model (Paulina Porizkova, star of the “Drive” video). In 1984, Ric Ocasek was walking on water.
Their 1987 follow-up, Door to Door, sold well enough but didn’t hit the same previous highs. Ocasek attempted to push the band’s signature sound forward, introducing some overdriven guitar noise to the icy/hot formula but the album fell far short of another classic in the catalog (their first not to sell over a million copies). Acknowledging that the magic was starting to fade, Ocasek officially announced the band’s breakup in early 1988.
Ric Ocasek continued to record as a solo artist (his first album, Beatitude was released in 1982, between Shake It Up and Heartbeat City) where his artier inclinations were explored outside the self-imposed musical constraints of The Cars, even when recording with his bandmates. While embracing his position as a successful mainstream artist, Ocasek’s influences and interest in the underground music scene thrived. In 1982 alone, he produced albums for legendary confrontational minimalist rock duo Suicide, DC reggae/hardcore punk innovators Bad Brains, new wave dance rock act Romeo Void, and the original punk rock godfather Iggy Pop.
Ocasek recorded seven more solo albums over the next two decades, and remained a sought-after producer and songwriting collaborator, working with No Doubt, The Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Robinson’s old bandmate Jonathan Richman, and the aforementioned Weezer and Guided By Voices, among many others.
Ocasek’s former bandmates all continued on with solo careers after the break up. After bassist Benjamin Orr lost a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2000, a renewed interest in The Cars led to documentary film projects, lavishly-packaged career retrospectives, a New Cars project inexplicably led by Todd Rundgren (and without founding member Ocasek), and the eventual 2010 full band reunion (with Ocasek and without Rundgren).
The Cars released an album of brand new material entitled Move Like This in 2011, delivering on the band’s original energy, musical chops, and classic songwriting. A well-received live tour followed [I can attest that their May, 2011 performance at the 9:30 Club was fantastic! While Benjamin Orr was sadly missed, the show was a dream come true for a lifelong fan who missed out on seeing them in their 80s prime.] The Cars were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Ric Ocasek died peacefully in his sleep in the early morning on Sunday, September 15th, succumbing to heart disease and emphysema. The eternally cool music of Ric Ocasek and The Cars lives on forever in the ears, eyes, and hearts of cool kids everywhere.