The Cars: The Elektra Years 1978-1987

Vintage classics box set from under-heralded new wavers

The Cars The Elektra Years 1978-1987 album cover

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They’re oddly marginalised in the collective pop memory now, as if the Live Aid-related ubiquity of Drive consigned them to AOR ballad purgatory. Yet The Cars were vastly influential on the US new wave sound of merged guitars and synths that bossed the 80s.

Surfacing with staccato hits My Best Friend’s Girl and Just What I Needed from their 1978 debut, they pretty much repeated their one song over and over. Yet there was arch knowingness to the tweaks, and their persistent Pop Art references culminated in Andy Warhol directing a video (atrociously) for 1984’s Hello Again. They were the Ramones for kids with a degree, who weren’t afraid to talk to girls.

There are diminishing returns across their first six albums, bar the freak success of Drive. The diamond-hard debut is followed by the crystalline Candy-O, crackling with night-out anthems like Let’s Go and Since You’re Gone. It’s as classily cheap as its Alberto Vargas sleeve. On Panorama and Shake It Up they try, faintly, to reboot: you’ll notice tracks where they’ve heard The Cure or Suicide.

After four albums with Roy Thomas Baker producing with ruthless clarity, Robert “Mutt” Lange tackles 1984’s Heartbeat City. He doesn’t reinvent the band, or wouldn’t have, had Drive not hit the crossover road. The self-produced Door To Door in 1987 preceded their split (the survivors reconvened in 2011), and only scraped by its MOT. When they were cruising though, the ice-cool Cars were as adept at pop-rock as Blondie or Cheap Trick. Va-va-vroom.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.