The legendary Cars guitarist remains just what we needed
“Act like you’ve been there before,” is what Vince Lombardi advised one of his players who danced in the end zone after a touchdown. Fuck that. “I played with Elliot Easton!” I shouted as I bounded off the stage like the 52-year-old child that I am.
Most of the super-accomplished musicians with whom I was sharing the stage at the Wild Honey Foundation benefit concert at the Alex Theater in Glendale, CA, were used to this sort of thing. After all, this is an event that has been running annually since 1993. They once had Brian Wilson himself show up to help out with a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys tribute night. I won’t even begin to mention other legends who have shown up over the years because I wouldn’t be sure how to end such a list. This year’s contributors alone — and the great cause — got me on a plane to go sing just one song 3,000 miles from home.
One of the advantages of just sort of sticking around on the margins of the music biz for 30 years is getting invited to an event like this. It was a Kinks-themed show this year so we played “Stop Your Sobbing.” We had Syd Straw on harmonies, Dennis Diken of the Smithereens on drums (other drummers that night included erstwhile Attraction and current Imposter Pete Thomas, and Blondie’s Clem Burke). It was an embarrassment of talent. But it’s L.A., man. Everyone acts like they’ve been there before, because they have.
Elliot Easton is one of those musicians’ musicians, the kind of guy who can somehow still be underrated even as a founding member of a band that sold many millions of records, significantly helped define the sound of an era, and get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Google him and you’ll see that the second listing after his Wikipedia entry contains the word “overlooked” in its title. It’s an article that provides an excellent breakdown of some of the recordings that make Elliot so well regarded.
Like Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, Easton is known for his concisely potent and memorable solos. The Cars and Squeeze each released their debut records of smart pop songs in 1978, still the height of the Rock Guitar Hero era. The trend of long onanistic guitar solos arguably reached its apex (or nadir, depending on your outlook) with Eddie Van Halen of the band whose debut record was released the same year. However this was also post-Ramones-Sex Pistols, so the guitar pyrotechnics were regarded as cliche by many fans and players alike, while a return to basics, if not an outright embrace of a certain primitivism, brought things back to earth for mere mortals for whom “three chords and the truth” had always been enough.
While many so-called punk and new wave acts threw out the baby with the bathwater by minimizing solos or jettisoning the guitar completely, still other forward-leaning artists found new expressive uses of the instrument, new textures, even leading to sonic leaps forward in the way that Jimi Hendrix had unleashed then-unforeseen potential of an amplified guitar a decade prior. Before his notable tenure alongside Talking Heads, Adrian Belew came up through the ranks of Frank Zappa’s combos and then added animalistic and otherworldly, highly processed guitar solos to David Bowie’s Lodger album, also in 1978 (released 1979). Belew was continuing in the footsteps of Robert Fripp, who was well-known as a member of King Crimson by the time he began working as a guest on Bowie’s Heroes (1977) (via his then-ongoing collaborations with Heroes producer, Brian Eno).
On the other hand, their debut Marquee Moon (1977) found Television reframing the classic twin guitar attack forged by the Beatles and the Stones, weaving like Keith Richard and Brian Jones, and later Ron Wood. Television even jammed out, sorta like Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, but with a more East Coast bent, more akin to the Velvet Underground’s ecstatic rhythmic improvisations. Guitar geeks could still gawk, but this wasn’t, say, Molly Hatchet. Television was lean, clean, and far more modern.
It is in this context that The Cars was released, a perfect album, which the band only half jokingly later referred to as their “greatest hits” record. I was 12 at the time and just starting to learn guitar. I was predictably into the English giants like the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, the Who and Pink Floyd, plus the Eagles, southern rock, Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, and most of whatever else was coming out of the radio. And The Cars exploded out of the radio with production from Roy Thomas Baker, who by then had already cemented his legacy with hit Queen records. But whereas Baker famously layered everything — vocals and guitars — on those Queen discs, with The Cars he recognized a chance to do something new, more “now.” He kept the big layered vocals, but only essentially on the choruses and juxtaposed that with sparse and precise production elsewhere. He explained in an interview with Mix magazine:
I was going through my own little demons at the time. I had been doing Queen, which was kitchen sink over-production, which I loved. But in the same way that we had the alterna-music thing in the early ’90s, the end of the ’70s had the punk era. I would run into the Sex Pistols, because they were working over at Wessex. They were saying the usual, “All you bands are going to be gone because you’re over-produced and you’re all fags,” and all that. [Laughs] It was really funny. I thought, “Maybe there is a point where I should be a bit more sparse.” So when I did the first Cars record, we purposely did it very sparse, but when the harmony vocals come in, there are as many vocals there as there were in a Queen record. The only difference is it was in and then it was gone. “Good Times Roll” is a classic one for that. When they sing those words, it’s huge and then it’s gone, and everything is back to sparse again.
These were not the same sort of sprawling epic songs as Queen, after all. Though their influences included the Velvet Underground and Suicide, The Cars were more like some of the midwestern power pop bands of the 1970s (Raspberries, Big Star (albeit via Memphis), Dwight Twilley, Cheap Trick) but a bit more skewed, with a distinctive East Coast slant. Drummer David Robinson had been in the Modern Lovers with Jonathan Richman and future Talking Head Jerry Harrison, and when they broke up, he moved on to the proto-garage-punk band DMZ, with Jeff “Monoman” Connelly, who later formed the Lyres.
Ben Orr might have been a heartthrob crooner in any band he landed in. But it was Ric Ocasek who wrote almost all of the songs and whose stylized voice — with a little Buddy Holly hiccup and a bit of nasally Jonathan Richman quiver — planted the band in the newly coined (and like most such categories, virtually meaningless) “new wave” camp.
All of that would have been interesting enough to adolescent me, no doubt, because no matter what the presentation, it has always been about the songs, the melodies, the few lyrics that stick. The Cars had all that. But what really set them apart out of the box was their almost-secret weapon, Elliot Easton. Trained at Berklee School of Music, he had the technical proficiency and musical vocabulary. He could be flashy when necessary, but there are no moments in the band’s catalog where he overstays his welcome or repeats himself. He is not known for one sort of style, really. He just wrote and played brilliant little haiku-like solos with exquisite tone on Cars songs. This was obvious from the first single, “Just What I Needed.”
Ric starts the track with the muted eighth-note chords and Elliot kicks in the door with those stereo doubled, pinpoint staccato power chord stabs. It is no wonder Fountains of Wayne (with the help of my late friend, producer Mike Denneen) lifted those in-your-face stabs for their homage to The Cars, “Stacy’s Mom.” They were so close to those of the Cars that some believed they were actually samples of the original recording. “I know those guys [Fountains of Wayne],” Elliot told me. “Chris Collingwood sent the track to me before it came out. I really thought that they’d sampled the chord stabs from ‘Just What I Needed.’ He told me that they hadn’t, but it’s an obvious homage. They asked Ric to be in the video. He demurred, ha ha ha!”
But the riff and pattern was actually first suggested on “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by the bubblegum pop band Ohio Express, a record I had when I was a child, though I had not connected the two. It’s consistent with the pop-art pop that was The Cars. But Elliot said, “Forget ‘Yummy’ and think ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ for a much more accurate example of intent.”
Coupled with David Robinson’s snare drum cracks, Elliot hits those chord stabs one time for the first go-round, then Ben Orr joins on bass and they all hit them two times. Ben Orr enters with the sarcastic first line, “I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time.” I, like all adolescent boys, certainly identified with the next, “‘Cause when you’re standing oh so near, I kind of lose my mind.” David plays the beat, but only on the snare. Elliot pointed out that “the chords in the verse perfectly match those of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ Ric wrote it, so I assume neither credit nor blame, but it’s interesting though because that [Beatles] single was so profoundly pivotal for my generation of rock and rollers. Actually, the earth shifted on its axis.”
At the top of the next verse, David fleshes out the pattern with the kick drum and hi-hat, and Elliot slides back in, also muted like Ric, but adding more movement to the chords as a counterpoint. As they near the end of the verse, Elliot starts opening up the chords and the influence on Weezer (who Ocasek produced) is obvious. Greg Hawkes floats in on a new synth hook, answered by a couple of overdubbed figures from Elliot. The whole break swings fiercely.
Elliot stays in for the next verse, returning with the intro stabs. Greg’s synth hook returns for the second half of verse two, while Elliot returns to his boogie part. When they hit the chorus for the first time, Ben’s vocals are now doubled (if not quadrupled). And he is answered by the sort of stacked background vocals mentioned by Roy Thomas Baker, echoing the lead vocals. If you listen closely, you can hear Elliot also laying down some bending guitarmony parts deep in the mix. Then he unleashes one of his concise melodic solos, the sort of “composition within a composition” that he would become known for.
You can probably hum it from memory. It is only 16 seconds long but manages to take us on a journey, tells us a story, a joke and a punchline that we just start to understand as the joker is out the door. We don’t know what hit us, but we are giddy. Unlike many guitar solos, this is not some sort of improvised exploration that might be different every performance. It elevates the song, serving the whole. It is difficult to imagine the song without it. If I were in the audience for a live show, I would be bummed if it had not been played note-for-note. It’s like the best solo George Harrison ever played, a little bit of country and a lot ot rock and roll. Elliot ends it with a sort of saturated version of Buddy Holly’s riff on “That’ll Be the Day” in reverse, ascending instead of descending. We can discern many of his influences here. But mostly he keeps the music rooted in tradition, foreshadowing the rockabilly revival that would soon be spearheaded by the Stray Cats, Elliot’s fellow Massapequa, Long Island natives.
The post-solo verse returns to form, but at the second half, David moves the snare hits from the two and four beats (i.e. the “backbeat”) to the one and three beats, then snaps back to the backbeat. You can call it turning the beat around, by design. It is yet another hook that builds this masterful pop song. Elliot’s bending parts come up in the mix and snake around the vocals. The final chorus repeats and pauses before it hits a new coda (“yeah, yeah, so bleed me!”), an outro with Greg playing an up-and-down slide-whistle-like part on the synth, soon joined by the guitar, while the gang vocals sing “You’re just what I needed” in between the figures, and it all trails off in that modulating space age synth note like a flying saucer hightailing it out of here.
Funny to think at the time, years after Ziggy Stardust fell down to Earth, and even though this mixture of guitars, synths and sarcasm was just a new twist on rock and pop, to kids like me, The Cars really did feel like it was left behind by aliens. Did the world shift on its axis as it had for the generation who first heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand?” That might be overstating it. But it did feel like a significant shift was underway. Devo debuted in 1978 as well, and they took that android vibe started by Kraftwerk a few years before and brought it to cartoon-like levels. I mean that in a good way. This was the year I saw Devo do their brilliantly deconstructed cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on SNL and I felt like my mind was expanding, if not exploding. My bandmate, Chris Colbourn said that he assumed back then that it was the end of guitars band, that all future groups would just sort of be standing there like Kraftwerk. It took a while but that is more or less what a big segment of live music events have become.
But in 1978, the old school and new school united. New wavers and rockabilly revivalists were soon overlapping like a Venn Diagram. The presentation and songs were new. But it rolled and rocked. The Rolling Stones knew it and were spurred on by some of that new energy for their 1978 Some Girls, and some more aging rockers soon followed with their own interpretations of new wave [check out Episode 1 of Rachael Lichtman’s brilliant Network 77 for a satire of just that, at about the 1:00 mark]. Kids who were into Rush and Van Halen, while they might have blanched at Devo, could dig the Cars because they had a new guitar hero and songs. Girls loved ‘em and so could boys. And they sustained this level of adventurous experimentation, slightly subversive pop, and brilliant hit making for almost 10 years.