HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HEARTBEAT CITY
by Lucas Fagen
Thirty years ago, the Cars released their biggest, shiniest, sexiest album, Heartbeat City. As a commercial sensation, home to five smashing Top 40 singles and five more lurking in potentia, it cohered as a single artistic statement. It was a blatantly shallow embrace of then-current market trends, cheerfully appropriating the glitzy sound popularized by English pinups and poseurs, and it was also the perfect culmination of everything the Cars had previously accomplished. It was a bold, unblushing declaration of erotic love, and it was also filled with such arch detachment that the band came across as a bunch of robots. It was a spectacular comeback and one of the most glorious sellout albums in history.
When attempting to describe the Cars, who have been classified as power pop, synthpop, dance rock, hard rock, and who knows what else, one might consider their historical context. Front man extraordinaire Ric Ocasek, dreamboat bassist Benjamin Orr, lead guitarist Elliot Easton, drummer David Robinson, and their brilliant mousy librarian of a keyboardist Greg Hawkes got together and became a band at a time when conventional rock & roll was being split down the middle first by punk, which the Cars had very little to do with, and then by the broader, more pop-friendly new wave, which the Cars rode for as long as they could. Attracted to new wave fashion because it meant they could playfully obscure their lyrics, appeal to teenage girls, and use synthesizers, they basked in dispassionate skepticism and mocking irony. But they also shared a crucial style of heavy riffage with more conservative road bands like, say, Cheap Trick, and generally rocked harder than most electronic androids playing to the same audience. When Robert Palmer lists their influences in the New York Times -- "punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the '50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop" -- he nails the various elements that went into their synthesis. The secret ingredient, however, was gloss, sparkle, a production sound whose plastic surface only heightened the tension underneath. In short, they were a generic pop band of the best kind, defining a distinctly original, widely accessible blend of crackling guitar hooks, bright rays of Fairlight, and sly aesthetic distance. Between 1978 and 1981, they released an album every year, and each was just about flawless: 1978's The Cars was upbeat and mischievous, 1979's Candy-O gleefully mechanical, 1980's Panorama dark and seductive, 1981's Shake It Up relaxed and sober. Then they took three years off to restore their energy. When they released Heartbeat City in 1984, they scored the big commercial comeback they had been hoping for, conquering contemporary hit radio and the American adolescent psyche.
Even for '80s corporate rock, this is one smooth band. So ensconced in their command were they that their gentlest confessionals sounded vaguely reminiscent of genre exercise, and while Heartbeat City is shamelessly corny by the Cars' standards, remember that we're talking about a band who invented Modern Slickness and turned love songs into recyclable slogans. Countless others have attempted to approach the cold, mechanical precision and complex, exacting mastery that the Cars developed, and all have failed, because their musical dynamic sprang from the mind of a control freak the likes of which will never walk the planet again. For all his rock star ambition and geeky love of glamour, Ric Ocasek was an obsessive craftsman above all, dedicated to fashioning perfect, meticulous, self-contained jewels of concision. Regardless of what his lyrics were saying, the music always took its own neurotic formal expertise as its subject, often reaching astounding levels of meticulous intricacy. Consider "Hello Again", Heartbeat City's skyrocketing opener, and take a minute to figure out just what precisely the hook is. You can't do it -- there are too many of them going simultaneously, Greg Hawkes' high keyboard chords counterposed against his warped synthesizer gurgle before Elliot Easton wriggles a snaky guitar line into the chorus as yet another tangy electronic variation plays off the melody, all over one of Benjamin Orr's rubbery electric bass lines, then wrapped up in yet more synthesizer slapstick, including a particularly entertaining sound effect meant to evoke a whistling kettle, and that's just the beginning of an interlocking mesh of riffs whose fresh delight seems inexhaustible. The rest of Heartbeat City lives up to that level of rigor.
Produced by AC/DC-certified mastermind Mutt Lange, Heartbeat City skates into its hook parade much the same way that every Cars album does, as expertly paced and sequenced as ever. But with the possible exception of the self-titled debut, still the gold standard of classic pop-rock, none of their other albums moves so elegantly from start to finish. Where their earlier music cultivated a nearly emotionless cool because that's what was fashionable, Heartbeat City was made at the height of 1984's New Romantic insurrection, and as such the album is soaked in synthpop moves: not just the impressionistic wash of textures inundating "Drive" and "Heartbeat City", but that jangly bell effect ripped off directly from Duran Duran's "Is There Something I Should Know?", a cheesy woodwind simulation they seem to have pulled out of nowhere, a whole host of hissing, radar-like noises over each song. Easton's power chords, too, sound bigger, thicker, brasher in their energetic abundance and headbanging audacity; whether kickstarting "Magic" or slicing "It's Not the Night" to bits, he slams his way through the lush electronic environment. For the first time in his career, Ocasek was writing genuine, sincere, affectionate love songs, and the resulting mood was so tough, so tender, so lyrical, so intense and yearning and sensual. The haunting "Drive", a magnificent stream of liquid keyboard breath, slowly rides its elegiac melody into outer space. And "You Might Think", an adoring love letter to a girl who "thinks [she's] in the movies", bounces up and down on the most wide-eyed, childlike, innocent keyboard hook you've ever heard.
Cruising around with striking self-assurance, Heartbeat City wasn't deep or historic or revolutionary or life-changing. But it sounded superb, with each note in exactly the right place and each song saying exactly what it set out to say. It was a pop album, and that's how pop albums work; they make you smile, they perfect existing musical forms you already know and love, they refine and polish until all that's left is a platinum-plated pleasure machine. The Cars were simply more fanatical about the process than most. Heartbeat City deserves a happy birthday.