Guitarist Elliot Easton chats exclusively with the Rock & Roll Globe about the New Wave legends’ underrated third album
By the end of the 1970s, The Cars had become immensely popular thanks to two hit albums, their 1978 self-titled debut and its 1979 follow-up, Candy-O.
Singles from those albums – “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Let’s Go” and more – dominated radio waves across the U.S. and beyond. But when the band released their third album, Panorama, in 1980, critics and fans initially seemed confused, deeming the album more edgy and experimental than its predecessors. But The Cars lead guitarist Elliot Easton, calling from his Los Angeles home recently, says that the band didn’t do this deliberately.
“It was not like we said, ‘We’re going to try to expand our sound’ or anything,” Easton says. “It’s just where we were at that year. Ric [Ocasek, singer/songwriter] would bring in a batch of his newest songs and I guess that was where his head was at then, writing that way.” Then, Easton says, he and the rest of the band members would “do our best to take them off a piece of paper and make records out of them, and that’s just how that one came out.”
Easton does have one theory about why Panorama was perceived differently, though. “Ric, as a poet and lyricist, I think always explored the darker side of human existence, and I think that comes through on Panorama,” he says, though he adds, “There were always pop songs and brighter songs on every record.” On Panorama, one example of that type of track is the single “Touch and Go,” which did end up charting.
VIDEO: The Cars perform “Touch and Go” on ABC Fridays
Even if Panorama was not as much of an instant smash as the band’s previous albums, Easton still firmly stands behind it and says he wouldn’t change anything about it even if he could, because “I was – and am – so painstaking in what I do that if I would record a part, if there was some tiny thing about it that was bugging me, I could hardly even get to sleep that night, waiting to get back into the studio the next morning to fix it,” he says. “That’s how much care and attention to detail I put into what I do. So when the record’s finally released, it’s pretty airtight. Anything that I thought I could do better, I would do better. That’s just my process.
“I think there’s moments on the record that are some of my finer moments,” Easton continues, pointing to his work on “Touch and Go,” in particular. “I’m real proud of that solo. I composed it – it wasn’t something I improvised off the top of my head. I spent time really constructing it. That was a high point.”
As with every other Cars album, Ocasek was the band’s main songwriter for Panorama, but Easton says it was always a very collaborative effort to turn his concepts into fully realized songs. “We’d sit down and Ric would sing the song to us or play a very simple demo of the song that he’d made at home, and we might have a little talk about what direction the song might be good to go in, tempo, key, the very basic things,” Easton says. “From there, we all used our creative abilities to come up with parts and counterpoint melodies and intros and endings and solos – all the little bits that make a demo of a song into a record, which are two very different things. We would hammer it out like that and keep tweaking it to make it as good as it could be at that point.”
Easton recalls that laying down his guitar parts came quite late in the Panorama recording process, leaving him at loose ends for weeks at a time. Then, “One day we were diddling with something and I exploded and I said, ‘Fuck this – I want to play some guitar! Put the title track up!’ And I plugged my guitar in and then was like a maniac – I played the whole thing from beginning to end. They’re all looking at me like, ‘Are you okay?’” Easton laughs at the memory. “It’s funny. I just exploded. I couldn’t sit around another day waiting to play!”
As for how Easton thinks Panorama fits in stylistically with the rest of The Cars catalog, he says simply, “It fits in third!” He won’t be pressed into elaborating, explaining, “I’m not trying to be blithe or anything like that. The thing is, I’m too inside it to say what that record is. It’s the third record. It’s a snapshot of where we were at at that time, and that’s all a record is.”
After Panorama, The Cars went on to dominate the 1980s music scene. The title track to their next album, 1981’s Shake It Up, became another huge hit for the band. 1984’s Heartbeat City became the most successful of the band’s entire Cars career: three singles rocketed off that album – “You Might Think” and “Magic” hit the top spot on the charts, and another single, “Drive,” peaked at #3. “Tonight She Comes” (1985) was another #1 single for the band. By the time The Cars disbanded in 1988, they had released thirteen charting singles. They briefly reunited for one last studio album, 2011’s Move Like This.
“We had so much fun doing this stuff,” Easton says of being in The Cars. “We just loved the band and doing what we were doing, so we just hoped that we would sell enough records to let us make another one.”
Easton started working toward this successful career at a very young age. “My mom was a Juilliard-trained singer who had a radio show in New York,” he says. “I started on music as a baby. She started me with Gershwin and stuff like that. At age 3, I had a guitar. So it was only about pure love of music for me. There was never any other motive. I didn’t take up guitar as a teenager to be popular with girls or anything like that; I’d already been playing for years [by then]. I’ve always just tried to be a good musician.”
Post-Cars, Easton has kept busy with various other bands, including The New Cars, which he formed in 2005 with fellow ex-The Cars member Greg Hawkes (keyboards); it also included Todd Rundgren on vocals and guitar. That group released one album, It’s Alive!, in 2006.
Most recently, Easton formed The Empty Hearts along with drummer Clem Burke (Blondie), vocalist Wally Palmar (The Romantics), and bassist Andy Babiuk (The Chesterfield Kings). Their self-titled debut album came out in 2014, and they released their follow up, The Second Album, in August. “If people are fans of my work in The Cars and they like the way I play guitar, I think they’ll really enjoy The Empty Hearts and really like this new album, and I hope they give it a chance,” Easton says.
VIDEO: The Empty Hearts “Run and Hide From You”
Easton says The Empty Hearts seemed like a natural band to form because the members have all been longtime friends. “That’s a big part of having a good band, because the hang is almost more important than musical ability,” he says. Also, he adds, he and his bandmates “share similar influences, and some of us share very similar professional experiences. We lived in the same world and we understand the same language and grew up on the same music. All that goes together to make a good basis for a band.”
While Easton is disappointed that The Empty Hearts can’t tour at the moment to support their new album, he promises, “When the world opens back up again, we want to get out and play as much as we can. We’re excited to get back out there, and also write more songs. As long as it’s fun. If it stops being fun, that’s when we’ll stop doing it. We don’t do it for the money; we do it because we love to play music and we enjoy being together.”
Easton is as enthusiastic about The Empty Hearts as he is when discussing his history with The Cars, and he says this is possible because he’s never lost his passion for music.
“I’m still the sixteen-year-old nut that started playing in bands in the first place,” he says. “I still love what I do. I’m not even a tiny bit jaded about it. I still get excited if I get a new guitar. I never want to lose that.”