In 1984 The Cars were everywhere. My earliest memories of watching MTV for the first time in the summer of that year includes two images: Ric Ocasek buzzing around as an animated fly (“You Might Think”) and Ric walking on water across a pool as others chasing him fell in (“Magic”). That was my first taste of The Cars. The band had many hits in their reign from about 1978 to about 1987. But Heartbeat City hit paydirt. Sure if you compare the album right next to their 1978 debut The Cars, there are far more electronics. It was 1984 after all. But even in 1978 the band was using electronics and keyboards to make their post-punk rock a bit more interesting and edgy, even new wavey. They were the band you could like whether you liked mainstream rock, or if you veered towards punk. The band experimented more and more with their sound through Candy-O and Panorama, then moved back to more of a pop sound on Shake It Up, but by the time they hit Heartbeat City all the right things were in place. Crafty pop-art videos did a lot to garner attention to their visual side. In fact even Andy Worhol was a fan, turning up to direct and be part of their “Hello Again” video. But to my eyes and ears, the first impression was that Ric Ocasek was the leader, a role that in 1984 he reportedly didn’t wanted to shoulder. In fact on a large portion of their hits Benjamin Orr sang lead and had the smoother voice of the two. The band originally counted on this in their early days sometimes as he was the one the girls went for, while Ric had a kind of geeky chic instead. But Ric was the writer and the mastermind behind writing the initial demos of nearly every song. The songs were brought into the band and changed and reworked with the input of all 5 members. According to an interview at the time after Heartbeat City‘s release, Ocasek was already yearning to work solo and not be as “pop”. However, this album was the perfect blend of Ric’s lyrical wit and style, Benjamin Orr’s smooth charm, the electronic side the band pushed forward even in 1978 by prominent member Greg Hawkes, and still a backbone of quirky rock & roll thanks to guitarist Elliot Easton and Benjamin Orr on bass. The Cars are one of those bands that made the transition into the digital age fairly easily. It’s just a shame that it fell apart, as by 1987, after Door To Door, the band all went their separate ways.
“You Might Think” was the first single from the album, which hit first and made a big splash. It’s hard to talk about the album without mentioning the videos, as they formed part of the whole. It was one of the first to use computer graphics and featured model Susan Gallagher. It holds the the honor of being the first ever MTV “Video of the Year”. The video, with its fun and clever imagery helped push the song into heavy MTV rotation, which mattered a great deal in 1984. It started a snowball effect for a monster album.
The album opener “Hello Again” is, like most of the album, full of electronic drum beats. Yet the band made this work. David Robinson didn’t even play the drums on the album, according to a 1984 Rolling Stone interview. All of the drums were sampled and programmed on a Fairlight by David at the suggestion of producer Robert “Mutt” Lange. One of the things I loved about this song so much was the use of sound effects in the break and throughout. This was the one and only song to get a 12″ Single Extended Version, which took these effects and sounds into overdrive. This is followed on the album by a great catchy song called “Looking For Love” that wasn’t a hit, but was later covered by none other than Falco for his Falco 3 album (the one with “Rock Me Amadeus”) in mostly German as “Munich Girls (Looking For Love)”. Then came “Magic”. There’s a simplicity about “Magic” that will forever make it one of my favorite Cars songs. The riff is irresistible. The lyrics actually sound more poetic than what they probably are meant to in lines like “I see you under the midnight, all shackles and bows”. If I had a dollar for every lyric I misheard on this album as a kid. The words and music were one meld of sound making the almost perfect pop-rock song. “Magic” is followed on the album by the third single from the album, “Drive”. This was *the* monster ballad of 1984. And the thing is, it’s not even a love song. It’s more of a sad lament. It also is the first song I ever had the confidence to sing during karaoke when I was a teen, so I will forever hold a soft spot for it. Benjamin Orr’s vocals were warm and ghostly at the same time. These previous two songs and “You Might Think” were constantly being played somewhere all summer that year. And then rounding out side one was the Benjamin Orr fronted “Stranger Eyes”, a great rocker in its own right that still sounds really good and a little more of an adventurous side on the keyboards.
Side two kicks off with the mighty “You Might Think” which I’ve covered above, giving it a proper side two power boost. Then it gets a bit more electronically driven with “It’s Not The Night”, showcasing Greg Hawkes’ flair for arty synth atmosphere. Then we get to the fifth and final single “Why Can’t I Have You” with its very sleek and seductive beat and keyboards mix. This wasn’t quite as big of a hit as the first three singles, but I remember the video being one of my favorites because it just looked so stylish and cool. The song just creeps up in its sleekness and has such a beautifully subtle vocal arrangement. This is where the Fairlight drums provide the right minimal beat where live drums would have been too overpowering. “I Refuse” is next, fronted by Ric, which ended up being a single b-side and had a little darker edge sounding almost like a song from the latter half of the previous Shake It Up album or even Ric Ocasek’s Beatitude solo album. And then the final stroke, “Heartbeat City”, initially titled “Jacki” as seen in the early pressings of the LP inner sleeve. There was something moody and atmospheric about this one that made it one of my favorites. In fact in 1985 when The Cars’ Greatest Hits was released, it was added as a bonus track oddly, even though it was never a single.
The cover of the album was one of 1984’s most memorable images. It’s actually a 1972 painting by pop artist Peter Phillips called “Art-O-Matic Loop Di Loop”. This was an album where the art, the music and all the right things came together at the right time in the 80s. It’s just a shame that because of the MTV images and the perception of Ocasek as the mouthpiece of the band, that image started to force Ric Ocasek into being a defacto bandleader, which he really didn’t want the full burden of. Eventually those burdens and differences in direction led to the band’s breakup in 1987 after one more album, Door To Door. Sadly Benjamin Orr passed away in 2000 from cancer, before the band would fully reunite. Many years later though, Ric Ocasek decided to invite his former bandmates into his recording sessions to see where it went, and in 2011 Move Like This became the first Cars album in over two decades. Hopefully we hear more in the future, as it was a great album. But in the meantime, the band recorded some great albums and Heartbeat City will forever in my eyes be a classic.
I can only hope that in the future we get to see a 30th anniversary reissue, remastered and with the outtakes from the album, an official CD quality release of the “Hello Again” 12″ Mix (and Dub Mix which graced the b-side of the 7″), and maybe.. just maybe a DVD release of the VHS The Cars Live 1984-1985. One can dream. In the meantime, if you can get a copy of the Audio Fidelity edition without paying a mint, go for it! The quality is so much improved. The best way to hear this classic album.
Pick up your own copy of Heartbeat City HERE:
Check out these iconic videos and some performances from the album:
“You Might Think”:
“Why Can’t I Have You”:
“It’s Not The Night” (Live in Houston 1984):
“Heartbeat City” (Live In Houston 1984):