Ric Ocasek/The Cars were the ‘Heartbeat’ to American Pop’s (arguably) Greatest Year.

“H-h-h-h-h-h-hello.   H-h-h-hello again!”

And with those words you knew it was time for yet another trip to that zany place known as Heartbeat City.  

Mode of transportation?  The Cars.  

The driver?  Ric Ocasek (and, alternately, his co-wheelman – the late Benjamin Orr).

The Cars with Ric Ocasek (far right) and Ben Orr (next to him).

As just about everyone now knows, Ocasek died Sunday, September 15, in his New York home.  He was either 75 (according to official news outlets) or 70 (according to earlier accounts).  He joins Orr, who died in 2000, and now both are likely rockin’ and rollin’ with that zany, faux-Brit, new wave sound that made them so famous here in the homeland.   

They’re now both in that righteous place known as rock-and-roll heaven on the cloud clearly marked “Cars.”

Ahh, The Cars, the Boston-based band that Ocasek and Orr fronted for the better part of ten years together.  I’ve known of ‘em since 1978 when they first burst onto the scene with the single “Just What I Needed” – the initial top-40 hit that may still be their best (I’m torn between that and “Lets Go”). 

The self-titled debut album from which it came certainly is their best, with no less than half a dozen classic rock radio staples contained within (“Needed,” “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re All I Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “Moving in Stereo”).  By the way, a 1944 birthdate would have had Ocasek already 34 before that first album hit…just saying.  

But it was six years later when those Cars went from being middle-of-the-chart dwellers with an occasional breakthrough single (“Let’s Go”; “Shake It Up”), to becoming viable pop hit generators – if only for one solid year – with 1984’s Heartbeat City.   

It was indeed a blockbuster album with five top-40 chart entries that matched the entire top-40 output from the group’s first four albums combined (no thanks to the three near-misses that peaked at No. 41 on the Hot 100 – “Good Times Roll,” “It’s All I Can Do,” and “Since You’re Gone”…seriously, isn’t that some kind of record?).

Cars and girls: The Cars tapped into what made young men buy records with their albums, including 1984’s Heartbeat City.

The Cars’ transition to pop supergroup came during a special time for me personally as well, as 1984 was the year I both graduated from high school and entered college, so the year’s soundtrack, which included Heartbeat City and its unforgettable singles, holds a place near and dear to the heart. 

All throughout that freshman fall at college, my dorm mates were blasting Heartbeat City with their big component sets – those muscle stereos we used to mark our territories back then – which also took up at least a third of the available space in those tiny dorm rooms at Va. Tech’s all-male Pritchard Hall.  

Emphasis should be placed on the all-male part, with the inhabitants’ peak testosterone levels likely driving most music choices – and The Cars’ songs about girls and love being right up our alley.

First up was – naturally – “H-h-h-h-h-hello Again,” then “Looking For Love,” “Magic,” “Drive,”… Cars diehards know the sequence. 

And with vinyl albums and cassette tapes being the main way to consume music at the time, it wasn’t as easy to skip tracks like millennials can today; you often had to endure the entire album if you happened to be the unwitting neighbor of one of the many Cars enthusiasts in my dorm building.

Heartbeat City was everywhere…and it was nonstop that first semester.  

And what’s more, I loved it.  

The album was released in March and radio had already cycled through first single “You Might Think” in the spring of my high school senior year, with its follow-up “Magic” hitting during the summer – the last summer that my best buddies and I had together before going our separate ways to various colleges.  

It’s probably not a stretch to call “You Might Think” and “Magic” Ric Ocasek’s signature songs some 35 years later.  

By freshman fall it was “Drive” with Ben Orr providing lead vocals (the only Heartbeat City single with that distinction), followed by “Hello Again,” with Ocasek once again navigating.  Second semester was ushered in by Ocasek’s “Why Can’t I Have You?,” the lush ballad that returned the group to its old familiar mid-chart territory by barely squeaking into the top-40 (but it did give the band their fifth such hit from Heartbeat City).

(Side note: The Brits were treated to a sixth single release in the stellar title track, while in America the band’s label felt it was finally time to move on after “Why Can’t I…”).

By the time Heartbeat City finished its incredible top-10 run (it spent 31-straight weeks there, peaking at No. 3 for one week in July), it had sold four million copies in America.  And the singles from it had achieved milestones the band likely never expected.  

Like the album, the single “Drive” had also peaked at No. 3 and became the Cars’ highest-charting hit (besting the No. 4 peak of Ocasek’s “Shake It Up” nearly three years earlier).  

And although “Drive” charted the highest, “You Might Think” became the Cars’ most ubiquitous and most rewarded single.  

The song was inseparable from its iconic music video, which featured the quirky Ocasek pestering a love interest by appearing in multiple miniaturized incarnations during a series of uninvited encounters with her (including as a submarine periscope in a bathtub she occupies, as well as her alarm clock, a pesky fly, and a tube of lipstick, among other things).

A still from “You Might Think” with Ocasek’s character in a lipstick case.

Ocasek seemingly gets the girl by the end of the video – one that music video outlets ate up that year, including NBC’s popular late-night “Friday Night Videos” program and, of course, MTV – back when the M stood for music and they played videos 24/7.

By the summer of ‘84, MTV, which was only in its third year, had experienced phenomenal growth in viewership and in its importance to the changing music industry, which was becoming more about image and videogenics than about the music itself.  

The Cars were a huge part of that growth with their innovative (and heavily-played) music videos.  Somewhat fittingly, the group was rewarded with the first-ever Video of the Year award in 1984 for “You Might Think” (although it controversially beat out Michael Jackson’s epic “Thriller” video, which is still a head scratcher 35 years later).

To say Heartbeat City moved the Cars into pop’s fast lane in ‘84 would be a gross understatement.  It clearly was an important leap for a band who, before then, had played mostly on college radio and classic rock stations. 

The Cars’ award-winning video for“You Might Think” from Heartbeat City.

But aside from being the most bountiful Cars album in terms of pop hit singles, Heartbeat City was part of another great story in 1984 – at least for American pop music fans. 

First was the sheer number of blockbuster albums that year – landmark albums that spent months in the top ten and sold millions of copies each.   Albums by Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, and The Cars, plus 1983 holdovers from Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis & the News and, of course, Michael Jackson were all top-10 staples.

Never before or since had so many albums dominated in the kind of fashion that those LPs did in a single year.  Indeed, Heartbeat City was among at least half a dozen that spent six months or more in the top ten (joining sets by Van Halen, Jackson, Richie, Huey Lewis and Springsteen), while many others approached that mark.  

So great was their dominance that only five albums managed to rank at No. 1 in 1984: Thriller (Jackson), Footloose Soundtrack, Sports (Huey Lewis & the News), Born In The USA (Springsteen) and Purple Rain (Prince).  That’s the fewest of any year in the Billboard album chart’s six-decade history. 

It was a showing that led many music historians and trade magazines to laud 1984 as the greatest year in pop music history, a claim some fans dispute, but one that’s hard to refute when considering the above numbers (and names).  

Then there was the American aspect.  

The years from mid-1982 to late 1986 had seen the second British Music Invasion in the U.S.  Those were the years that British acts like Culture Club, Duran Duran, Human League, Billy Idol, Def Leppard, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama, Paul Young, John Waite, ABC, A Flock of Seagulls, Naked Eyes, Howard Jones and Wham! – among many others – first rose to prominence in America – while established Anglo acts like the Police, Elton John, Dire Straits and Paul McCartney continued to make their presence known.

During 1984, which fell smack dab in the middle of the British takeover, Americans came charging back with a showing that still amazes to this day, especially when viewed in its overall musical context.

All five of the year’s No. 1 albums were American blockbusters.  The year also saw breakthroughs by domestic acts like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, while the legendary Tina Turner made a huge comeback.  Rockers Van Halen had their biggest chart success yet while Motown crossover superstar Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down became the first album to spend an entire calendar year in the top ten (Thriller missed doing it in ‘83 by one day).  

And then there were the Cars.  

In the year of Purple Rain and Born In The USA, their Heartbeat City was certainly a mainstay.  It was a No. 3 also-ran that wasn’t so “also.”  It remained in the top-10 from April to November that year, bridging the Thriller and Purple Rain eras.

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All together now: The Cars’ Ben Orr (right) and late fellow rocker Eddie Money (next to him) with a shirtless Ric Ocasek “trailing” both.

Heartbeat City’s 31 weeks in the top ten were behind only Richie’s 52 weeks for Cant Slow Down and Huey Lewis’s Sports’ 42.  (Born In The USA spent 28 weeks in the top ten in 1984, followed by Van Halen’s 1984 with 27 weeks, Thriller with 26 weeks and Purple Rain with 24 weeks, which tied Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers during the calendar year, making them the only British act with that many top-10 weeks in ‘84.)

By 1985, as Heartbeat City and the other albums ran their course, the British acts would resume their mid-eighties domination of pop radio and the album charts.  Albums by Phil Collins, Sting, Wham!, Dire Straits and Tears for Fears were among the many by British acts to see time at or near the top position that year.

By August of ‘85, Heartbeat City was finally done and off the charts after 69 weeks on.  Its exit made way for the group’s victory lap with their Greatest Hits album that fall and the Ocasek-penned double-entendre “Tonight She Comes,” a less memorable song that still managed to give the band its fourth (and final) top-10 single (after “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think” and “Drive”).

When all was said and done, Heartbeat City may not have been The Cars’ best album.  It wasn’t even their best-seller (that would be their self-titled debut from 1978, with six million copies sold in America).

But it does hold some fond memories for this Cars fan.  After all, there are likely few greater musical moments than the songs that soundtracked a 17- or 18-year-old’s high school senior year and his or her transition to that first college dormitory experience. 

The Cars’ Heartbeat City and its many hit singles were there for both.

And indeed it was Magic. 

Thanks for the memories, Ric Ocasek.

R.I.P. Ric Ocasek March 23, 1944 – September 15, 2019


DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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2 Replies to “Ric Ocasek/The Cars were the ‘Heartbeat’ to American Pop’s (arguably) Greatest Year.”

  1. Nicely done, sir. I always loved their sound. It might be an urban legend, but supposedly they lined the recording studio with plywood to get a harder edge on their tone. And yes, that was a banner year for quality albums!

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