The Cars: Heartbeat City - Album Of The Week Club review

The Cars hired the golden hands of Robert John "Mutt" Lange and turned Heartbeat City's sound into a celebration of studio sonics. The result? Four million sales

The Cars - Heartbeat City
(Image: © Elektra)

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The Cars - Heartbeat City

The Cars - Heartbeat City

(Image credit: Elektra)

Hello Again
Looking for Love
Stranger Eyes
You Might Think
It's Not the Night
Why Can't I Have You
I Refuse
Heartbeat City

Shedding their new wave skin to cash in on the MTV video boom, Boston’s The Cars had the brainwave of hiring Def Leppard and AC/DC producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange to make them sparkle. The resultant album, Heartbeat City, generated five singles, including the career-transforming Drive

The album was arguably The Cars' strongest album since their self-titled debut. It was a seamless fusion of art-rock, power-pop and AOR. Lead single You Might Think had The Cars’ quirky signature sound, but on Hello Again the band were barely present (around Ric Ocasek’s vocals it’s all Lange’s trickery), while the afore-mentioned Drive, sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, was the most immaculately textured rock ballad since 10cc’s I’m Not In Love.

Heartbeat City's sonics may be sound a bit dated now (the electro drums, the Def Leppard-esque vocals etc), but the album remains one of the top mainstream rock releases of the 80s. 

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in March 1984

  • This Is Spinal Tap - Spinal Tap
  • Rising Force - Yngwie Malmsteen
  • Psalm 9 - Trouble
  • Fugazi - Marillion
  • Alchemy Live - Dire Straits
  • About Face - David Gilmour
  • Love at First Sting - Scorpions
  • Out of the Cellar - Ratt
  • Three of a Perfect Pair - King Crimson
  • All Those Wasted Years - Hanoi Rocks
  • Burning the Witches - Warlock
  • Deià...Vu - Kevin Ayers
  • Great White - Great White
  • My War - Black Flag
  • N.E.W.S. - Golden Earring

What they said...

"It’s Heartbeat City that stands at the core of their sound, and their success. Mutt Lange presented them perfectly for the era, and the songs were the strongest of their career. Heartbeat City is on that list of essential albums that our kids or grandkids will be playing – in who-knows-what new shiny format (or maybe beamed directly into their brains) – for eons to come. Still sounds magical." (Metro Weekly)

"With hooks recurring as predictably as zebras on a carousel or heartbeats in a city, the glossy approach the Cars invented has made this the best year for pure pop in damn near twenty, and it's only fair that they should return so confidently to form. They still don't have much to say and they're still pretty arch about it, but that's no reason for anybody to get unduly bothered, and neither is Greg Hawkes's Fairlight." (Robert Christgau)

"What's the use of making ambitious rock if nobody's quite sure what you're saying? Musically, the Cars are as talented and technically sophisticated as any band around, yet Ocasek's songs don't have the depth or the content – the art – of such wizardly peers as Thomas Dolby and Laurie Anderson. You could say it's artless art-rock, but you could also say it's arty without being art." (Rolling Stone)

What you said...

Alex Hayes: Oh Heartbeat City, here we come. The review wherein I make just short of a complete about-turn from last week's grumbling about 80s production values. Almost, but not quite.

In 1986, as a reward for passing my 11+ exam, my parents bought me a Sony Walkman. Occasionally, over the next couple of years, I would buy an album on tape, as opposed to my usual vinyl, to specifically listen to on the Walkman. One of the first of these happened to be Heartbeat City by The Cars. I'd first been exposed to the band through borrowing my Dad's copy of their 1985 Greatest Hits set, an album he still owns, and being suitability impressed with it.

Other 'Walkman albums' of the period included Tango In The Night, Bad Animals and Invisible Touch. That's some pure 80s overkill on display right there. To such a degree that it almost makes me chuckle a little, in an affectionate way naturally.

For unknown reasons, I'd not gone back to this album in many, many years though. Listening to it this week has been a serious blast from the past, and a bloody good one at that. I was always gonna give this a good score, if only to counter the 'God, weren't the 80s terrible' narrative that tends to attach itself to albums like this when they feature. My 80s certainly weren't, and I won't be told otherwise either.

Heartbeat City spawned no less than half a dozen singles, very much a sign of the times for a rock album. They're probably the finest six tracks on offer here too. Drive, alongside Waiting For A Girl Like You, surely ranks as one of the finest rock ballads of the decade. I'd actually even forgotten just what a sublime little slice of pop perfection Magic is, something else that almost brought a big, dopey smile to my face. Then we have the synth-tastic delights of both Why Can't I Have You and the title track. This really is fine music and was as state-of-the-art as pop-rock got in 1984.

For all the praise though, I can't help but feel that Heartbeat City was a bigger triumph for 'Mutt' Lange than it was for The Cars, especially with hindsight. As a band, they had never been shy in adding sonic embellishments to their music but, with Heartbeat City, the line between the musicians themselves and the technology is a lot harder to ascertain. There's a legitimate case to be made here that the machines have taken over on this album. It's hard to argue with that.

The backing vocals on the opening track Hello Again are so similar to Lange's previous work with Def Leppard that they almost sound pilfered, like they were unused outtakes from Pyromania that he then simply swiped and repurposed for this album instead. There's a non Car listed in the musician credits also, an additional synth player called Andy Topeka. Another possible instance of the members of The Cars relinquishing control of their own music over to their superstar producer.

Those are just background details though. All most people care about is whether Heartbeat City is a good album to listen to or not. Yes, it certainly is. Although the 46 year old me has grown to prefer The Cars first two albums, reacquainting myself with Heartbeat City this week has been terrific fun. It conjures great memories for me of walking through the countryside around my village, or simply lying in bed on a summer's night, headphones on and lost in the music. Memories that are, well, magic.

Heh, Magic. I'd honestly forgotten just what a guilty little treat you really are.

Roland Bearne: I had a friend who had Candy O, I'd heard the singles and filed under "pretty cool" but never came close to buying this; processed pop for trendies with slim ties rolled up jacket sleeves, sweaters draped round the shoulders etc. It came as no surprise as processed drums, swathes of key textures, layered vocals and cleanly processed guitar tones oozed out of the speakers. Then, "oh this is the one that's got bloody Drive on it ...ugh". 

I didn't skip it and saw the whole thing through. In and of itself nothing duff as such just supremely of it's time. I thought, yup one listen is all I need for this week. Then I played it again. Then again. Wtf is happening?? I like prog metal, classic rock, thrash, power metal... wha? Then of course I had to admit it, I'm only kidding myself; I'm riding a time machine back to stone wash, Brat Pack movies, first loves and "my life is over " heartbreaks, Nik Kershaw and Huey Lewis et al. Even though I don't know this album it is a window back to then and the Nostalgia Force is strong! 

I reckon if you weren't there this would just be over processed 80s pop rock tosh on a big budget, but for a guy who was in their late teens in the mid 80's this resonates still. So, it could be an 8 based on that but as a slice of classic rock per se? 4? A tough call. Think I need to re watch Breakfast Club and St Elmos Fire! (John Parr, now there's 80s cool!!)

Thick House:
"Hey Siri, play some mediocre 80s music."
"Playing Heartbeat City by The Cars."

Marco LG: From time to time this club has unearthed albums that, in some way or another, are far from my taste. In those situations I am usually able to recognise the limitation is within me, but this time is different, very different. Heartbeat City pretty much represents everything I despise in music, it is in fact one of the chief examples of “the enemy”, the type of music I distanced myself from while I was growing up and thus developed my taste against.

In 1984 I was barely 10 and spent my time watching Japanese cartoons and listening to Italian pop music. One artist I was particularly fond of was Viola Valentino, and her hit single Sola, a song built around a simple vocal line and some particularly irritating (for today’s standards anyway) synthesiser sounds. It was a hit in Italy, but to my ears it remains children’s music. This week’s pick opens with an equally irritating synth sound, and never recovers from there, also because album opener Hello, Again is probably the best song of the lot!

My main problem with this album is the almost complete absence of guitars and the overall soft tone of the music, two characteristics which firmly place Heartbeat City away from rock, let alone classic rock. The point here is the combination of the two: music without guitars can be really rocking and heavy, as exemplified by artists like Clipping, who, however, self-identify as hip hop (yet, just listen to them!). And the presence of keys and synths alone doesn’t necessarily take away from the rock. In fact, when used well keys and synths can be very effective, even within the context of 80s music and sounds. Enters John Sinclair, the most underrated keyboard player ever!

The comparison between Heartbeat City and Equator by Uriah Heep is as unflattering for the former as it is illuminating. Keys and synths are all over the place on Equator, “plastic” sounds are often centre stage and there is even a Synclavier driving the song Poor Little Rich Girl. Yet the album rocks, there is not one moment where the foot doesn’t tap and I dare say at times the head bangs. That’s the difference between pop and rock. Whatever the previous output by The Cars can be classified as, Heartbeat City is a pop album, and is missing the genius of a player like John Sinclair to elevate it beyond just light entertainment.

A note on the production in closing is due: Mutt Lange made Def Leppard superstars, but I will argue Def Leppard made Mutt Lange a superproducer. Heartbeat City clearly could not have happened without Pyromania, too many elements confirm that: from the vocal reverbs to the sound of the drums. All that works incredibly well with Joe Elliot and company but it rarely does with anybody else. It’s mostly irritating on Heartbeat City and most recently the same type of production made a great band like Tesla sound average at best. Somebody should start a campaign to prevent any member of Def Leppard ever producing somebody else’s album again.

In conclusion, this might just be my lowest score ever: 2 out of 10 from me, and I wish we did not even consider Heartbeat City for inclusion in this club.

John Davidson: It would be easy to dismiss The Cars Heartbreak City as frothy pop that straddles the electropop of the Buggles and the easy groove of Hall & Oates. Even at their rockiest, for example on their debut single Just What I Needed way back in 1977/78, they were producing power pop/new wave rather than hard rock, but this album is on the fringes of what I’d consider ‘classic rock’.

On the positive side, the songwriting is still strong. They have the hooks and choruses that make for a great radio / MTV single and there are enough flourishes of musicianship to let you know these guys are talented. The bass line, for example, on Stranger Eyes is great and the vocals (shared between rhythm guitarist Ocasek and bassist Orr) are good throughout the album.

But the guitars are very much toned down, for the most part reduced to providing a choppy rhythmic backdrop with few leads or flourishes of any note and the drums have been ‘enhanced’ 80s style with synth bursts and drum machine sounds.

Highlights for me are Magic, You Might Think, It's Not the Night and Stranger Eye.

As an aside, the ballad, Drive, is probably a decent song but in my head it is overshadowed by its use on Live Aid . I can’t listen to it without seeing starving people and desperate children.

It would be interesting to hear these songs rearranged and reinterpreted without the overly 80s production courtesy of Mr Mutt Lang Twain. But as it is, it's all lip gloss, shoulder pads and bold-coloured Miami suits.

If I was going to listen to a Cars album I’d choose their debut. It’s still quite poppy but it has more guitars and the synths provide atmosphere rather than dominating the sound. It also has that quirky new wave/post punk charm ..

If Heartbreak City is what Cars sounded like when they grew up, I prefer the snotty teenagers. 5/10 for me .

Gary Claydon: I like The Cars' first two albums. Their hooky, mid-tempo, new - wavy pop-rock had some arty quirkiness that made it stand out from the crowd, in part, thanks to the often off-kilter vocals and stabs of guitar & keyboards. The song writing was strong but uncomplicated.

Heartbeat City is a completely different kettle of fish though. There are still some signs of life, most noticeably You Might Think and Stranger Eyes but there is one big problem here and that's the production.

Fresh from castrating Def Leppard (although, not only were they happy to jump on the operating table, they were handing him the scalpel as they did so!) Mutt Lange squeezed any semblance of a spark out of this album with densely layered, over bright, heavily processed production. The result is shiny & plastic. This is synth pop, only in this case the synth stands for synthetic and it's about as appealing as a serving of freeze-dried dog turds. I couldn't swallow it when it was released, it's even less palatable now. The best thing about this album is Peter Phillips' Art-O-Matic Loop on the cover.

I had to listen to this when the family were out and with the doors and windows closed, the curtains drawn and the volume way down so that nobody knew what I was doing. I won't be listening to it again.

Mike Canoe: Heartbeat City: The album that made the Cars massive pop stars. Heartbeat City: The album that destroyed the Cars?

I remember buying Heartbeat City when it came out in 1984 and listening to it a lot, but, I think, even as a teen at the time, I realized not all was well in Heartbeat City.

Ric Ocasek had always been the primary songwriter for the Cars, but the Cars always sounded like a proper band. I especially thought it was cool that he would trade off lead vocals with bassist Benjamin Orr. Keyboardist Greg Hawkes was always an integral part of the band's sound, throwing in cool and funny bleeps and bloops that augmented the band's music without smothering it.

Heartbeat City, by comparison, is an album dominated by Ocasek and Hawkes. I get an impression of drummer David Robinson and lead guitarist Elliot Easton being particularly bored and/or frustrated with what they have been given to do. Orr is limited to lead vocals on two and a half songs. Looking at the credits, there are three separate musicians, including a non-Car, credited with Fairlight programming and the album sounds like it. It is an album that might prompt Depeche Mode or Gary Numan to say, "That's a lot of synthesizers!"

But, obviously, it worked sales-wise. Forty-nine weeks in the U.S. Billboard 200. Two Top 10 singles and three highly influential music videos. Another multi-platinum feather in the cap for producer "Mutt" Lange.

As the saying goes, you can't argue with success...but maybe you can grumble about it a bit.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Orr and Easton went on to release solo albums over the next couple of years. So did Ocasek. The band released an even more successful greatest hits compilation in 1985. But by the time the band finally got around to releasing a proper follow-up to Heartbeat City in 1987, no one really seemed to care about the Cars all that much anymore and they broke up the following year.

Wow, he has now gone on for more than 300 words without mentioning a single song! Well, here you go: Drive is still one of the greatest ballads ever written and possibly Orr’s greatest vocal performance. Singles You Might Think and Magic are still pure 80s sunshine and make me feel like I’m still listening to an actual band. The song Heartbeat City still makes me kinda sad and Looking for Love makes me kinda wistful. The rest just kinda passes by. I still listen to the first four Cars albums regularly, but this week’s return trip to Heartbeat City was enough for me.

Evan Sanders: Heartbeat City is the second best Cars album, behind their debut. This one is a really good mix of catchy songs with the Cars' new wave sound. Drive is one of their best songs, and You Might Think is still fun to hear today. I like to think of this as their final album, ignoring Door To Door.

Darren Fried: There’s a lot of great songs that are sonically hard to listen to. The worst sin is the drum sound. Mutt Lange took a very good (and underrated) drummer and took away his feeling and soul.

Maybe the band members are happy since it sold so many millions of copies and made them rich. But with classier production that album could’ve been an all time classic instead of dated and somewhat forgotten.

Why Can’t I Have You is a forgotten gem. Magic is a great third single and one of the few songs that doesn’t suffer too much from the production

Jacob Tannehill: This album was the perfect mix of their quirky, electro/pop/rock mix that “Mutt” Lange fine tuned into near perfect album for the time. Singles were classic pop songs and the back songs weren’t bad either. Amazing that this was close to the end of this band, with only one more studio album after this with the classic lineup.

Stephen Hildebrand: Heartbeat City is a brilliant album, a mid 80s gem, where keyboard and guitars fight for centre stage with those unmistakable lyrics and vocals from Ric Ocasek. Hello Again is a great starter and then comes the hits Magic, Drive, You Might Think, and then the title track which is a masterpiece to finish off. 

Happs Richards: There’s no doubt that through the kaleidoscope of today’s musical taste this sounds a bit dated. But what this album was, was a real return to form by a great band who never reached the recognition they deserved this side of the pond, apart from that single.

So what is the electronic drums are a bit “last century”? This is a great snapshot of 1984 where everything had to be a stadium anthem, electronics and rock were bedfellows, and the king of that kind of production was Mutt Lang.

Great to hear this album again. It really is a bit of an under recognised classic!

Brett Deighton: I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the full album, just the big singles. I sat down to play it front to back and nearly fell off my chair when the first six seconds sounded like classic Def Leppard. Of course at that point there is little resemblance. It sure does bring the 80s sound rushing back, which is in many ways a good thing, although it does sound a little dated. You Might Think is a great song and Drive is in my opinion an absolute classic. Definitely worthy of owning and I’ll be adding this to my collection.

Greg Schwepe: Heartbeat City, the hit-laden 1984 album from The Cars and probably the last hit-laden album from the band as well. If you had the radio and MTV on during this time, you saw and heard the band non-stop. So here you have a band that nailed their debut (The Cars), avoided the sophomore slump (Candy-O), and now you have Mutt Lange helping to produce. You almost can’t miss as it seems everything he touches turns to gold, err… multi-platinum!

8 out of 10 on this one. Bonus point because it brings back memories from Spring of senior year of college! Also, while they are considered a "Boston band", some of their early history had roots here in Ohio.

I had already been a fan of The Cars when this was released, having owned their first two albums. Bought the debut after the songs were in heavy rotation on the rock station I listened to. Because I really liked the band by then, Candy-O was purchased just after release (mainly for the music, but the cover was also a consideration!). 

At the time their sound was kind of a departure from what my high school friends and I listened to. In places their sound was a little “too New Wave-y” for us who were pretty much “rock out all the time” guys. But I’ll use the term that always gets used with The Cars…”quirky”, and that seemed to be different and OK! Some of it may have seemed a little weird, but when that happened there was a lot of chunky, chugging distorted Elliot Easton guitar to appease us.

Enough of my Cars history, back to Heartbeat City. Looking at the 10 tracks again I thought there were the obvious hits; Magic, You Might Think, and Drive (a Top 10 song of all time for me), then the “rest.” Well, the “rest” has some pretty strong stuff too; Why Can’t I Have You, Looking For Love, and It’s Not The Night. My point being, this one has just as many memorable songs all through the album as does The Cars and Candy-O.

Have seen a couple comments about the drum sounds, and I like them, figuring their drum sound was always going to be electronic in nature (Simmons drums, or similar). The rest of the album is classic Cars sounding, which is the intent here. Don’t mess with success!

I do remember a DJ playing something from this album (when stations had just gone to CD from vinyl) and saying “with crystal clear CD sound you can now hear every slurp and trickle in Ric Ocasek’s throat…” Which pretty sums up his unique style. The band always benefited from having two vocalists with Ocasek and Ben Orr. Always gave the albums a nice balance as each vocalist settled into their own realm. While I liked both Ocasek and Orr, I will give the nod to Orr here as Drive is in a league of its own.

Great 80s album and if this was to be the last Cars album to feature a boatload of hits, this is the way to go out.

Billy Master: Horrible! This god awful album epitomises everything that was wrong with music in the 80s.

Toj Thomson: I was lucky enough to go to the US in 1984 as a teenager. Coming from Scotland and experiencing MTV, FM radio etc for the first time. I took note of all the songs I liked on TV, radio and heard in bars and malls etc and bought them when I came home. This was one (along with Survivor, Ratt, Hall & Oates, John Waite, Sammy Hagar the list goes on). Excellent album and brings back happy memories

Tony Fuerte: This album did nothing for me initially. The cheese keyboards on You Might Think. The pop of Magic. I still liked Drive, the title track and Hello Again. I’ve grown to appreciate the album later in life. For me the album is stuck in the era it was created, which drops this down a couple of pegs. If you rank the debut album a 10, this one probably scrapes 7 or 8.

Final Score: 7.36⁄10 (108 votes cast, with a total score of 795)

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