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How a WBCN deejay and a Harvard dining hall concert helped The Cars get their big break

Forty-five years ago, Ric Ocasek and The Cars shot to fame by giving Boston (and pop music) just what we needed.

The Cars in 1979, from left: Benjamin Orr, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton, and David RobinsonEbet Roberts/Getty Images

By 1976, musicians Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr had tried nearly everything in search of their big break: They moved to Boston from the Midwest, created a string of new bands, dabbled in different genres. But something wasn’t clicking.

Their latest incarnation featured Orr on vocals, Ocasek on rhythm guitar, and Elliot Easton on lead guitar. But after a lackluster showcase for industry executives, the band shook up their lineup — adding drummer David Robinson and later keyboardist Greg Hawkes — and decided on a new name: The Cars.

In the summer of 1978, the band released their self-titled debut album, which crackled with hits including “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” and “Just What I Needed.” It remained on the charts for 139 weeks and catapulted The Cars into the rock ‘n’ roll firmament. Forty-five years and six more albums later, the debut remains a landmark of new wave rock.

The story of the band’s breakthrough album, told through interviews with surviving members — and pieces of previously published interviews with Orr (who died in 2000) and Ocasek (who died in 2019) — begins with a move to Boston’s thriving music scene in the early ‘70s, and forming a folk-rock band called Milkwood.


Steve Morse, former Boston Globe rock critic: Live music was so much bigger then. It was before video games. It was before Netflix. It was a golden age if you liked rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why bands came to Boston.

Greg Hawkes, Cars keyboardist: I knew this guy who was the engineer on that [1973 Milkwood] record. He suggested me [to Ocasek and Orr] and I came in and played saxophone on a song. That’s where I met Ric and Ben.

Joe Viglione, musician, producer, and journalist: The Milkwood album is like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Ocasek. It’s just a folk album. [But] Ric changed with the times. He saw the new wave and he just shifted his gears.


Hawkes: After I did the Milkwood record, Ric would write a new batch of songs and he’d want to go in and make demo tapes. From then on, he would give me a call and see if I was interested in working on them. That turned into a band situation, which was called Richard and the Rabbits. It didn’t last very long.

The cover of The Cars self-titled debut album.Globe staff

Hawkes left the band, though he’d return. Meanwhile, the group’s soundman, Allan Kaufman, kept pitching Ocasek and Orr on his roommate, Berklee College of Music dropout Elliot Easton. Kaufman was tireless.

Elliot Easton, Cars lead guitarist: He kept hyping me to them and, I thought, overhyping me. They were forming this band that ended up being called Cap’n Swing. Finally, I got the chance to play with them. I was a little nervous. Ben sat across from me with his arms folded, just looking at me. “OK, play something amazing.”

Barbara Rhind, booker for South Shore clubs: [Allan Kaufman] was really a pain. He was constantly bugging me to book this band. In the little town of Scituate back then, if people didn’t recognize the music, they couldn’t relate to it. I just kept booking and booking them because, I said, this band is going to go someplace.

Barry Marshall of the Boston band The Marshalls: [Cap’n Swing] had sort of the sound of The Cars, but they weren’t quite in what I would later call the “new wave ballpark.” They were sort of closer to a Steely Dan band. I liked them, but I wasn’t completely knocked out.


Easton: We were poor, man. I mean, at one point I was collecting food stamps just to eat. I also was playing country music down in what they used to call the Combat Zone. I did some day jobs. There was a hamburger place in Kenmore Square called The Fatted Calf and I flipped hamburgers.

Ric Ocasek, late Cars principal songwriter and vocalist, to Circus in 1982: I was happy during those days to have four dollars and twenty cents for the week.

Former WBCN deejay Maxanne Sartori: My feeling toward Cap’n Swing? It just didn’t sound like something that would stand out, would rise out of the mediocrity of what was going on at the moment. It wasn’t hip enough to be avant-garde, and it wasn’t classic enough to be classic.

Easton: We went down to Max’s Kansas City [in New York City] to do a showcase for some management companies. We were trying to get a manager and get a record deal. They gave us some useful criticism. They said the songs are really good, but the arrangements are a little lengthy, a little more jamming than you might need. We went back to Boston and tried to fix what wasn’t right about the band.


The band set out to retool. Orr picked up a bass and began dividing singing duties with Ocasek. Drummer David Robinson of The Modern Lovers joined, and Orr and Ocasek lured Hawkes back to play keyboard. When they needed a new band name, Robinson had an idea.

David Robinson, Cars drummer: There wasn’t any logic in it or any hidden meaning [behind The Cars name]. My thinking was that sometimes bands limit themselves by the kind of name they pick out, and then they’re stuck with a certain sort of sound related to their name. If you’re the So-and-So Blues Band and you stop playing blues, what are you going to do?

Benjamin Orr, late Cars bassist and vocalist, to journalist Mark Mehler in 1980: I was doing out-front lead singing, and that never felt right. It wasn’t until The Cars that things started feeling right.

Jon Macey of the Boston band Fox Pass: I would say Ric Ocasek was determined to make it big and he figured out how to do it. Ben was much more of a sort of a happy-go-lucky kind of guy — I don’t mean that as an insult. Ric was much more reserved, and you can tell he was thinking all the time. He clearly needed Ben. I don’t think The Cars would have been anywhere near as big without Ben.

Ocasek in The Cars’ final group interview in 2000: I did keep in mind that if it needed to have a good voice, it should be Ben.


Orr in the same interview: We’d talk about it for about a minute or two and decide.

Kit Rachlis, former Phoenix music editor: They did not sound like anybody else. I think that has a lot to do with Ocasek and Orr and their pretty conscious notion, which is that Ocasek would be the lead singer of the pop songs and Orr would be the lead singer on the arty songs.

Sartori: A lot of people couldn’t tell them apart on the records. Ben is a little bit more stylized. Ric was more straight ahead. But I think it worked. It must have worked, because they sold records.

The back of The Cars' debut album.Globe staff

The Cars honed their sound at Boston clubs — including the Rat and the Paradise — and at a studio in Maynard that Ocasek helped build in exchange for free recording time.

Ocasek from the 2005 book Console Confessions: During the day I’d be [at the Maynard studio] pounding up plasterboard and wiring things, and then at night I’d be recording for free, making Cars demos.

Hawkes: The first time I ever heard “Just What I Needed,” in fact, was that time that Ric and Ben came over to pitch me to join The Cars. They played me a demo and I thought, Wow, that sounds like that could be a hit single.

Rachlis: Ocasek just had a great ear for the pop hook in the perfectly crafted three-and-a-half-minute song.

Paul Antalek, musician: Ric Ocasek’s writing was incredible. It was quirky. It wasn’t really punk. It was more maybe “new wave” if you want to use that term.

Hawkes: Ric’s whole vocal delivery became much more stylized in The Cars. I mean, if you listen to the Milkwood album, and then listen to him in The Cars, it’s hard to maybe even know that it’s the same singer.

Macey: Most of us [playing in Boston] were not studio-savvy bands. We were club bands. We sounded great on stage. These guys, because of their experience, realized that [the studio] was more important. You know, create a hit sound, get a good tape, and get it on the radio. That’s what they did, and that was clearly the impetus for everything that came right after.

The band gave two songs from their demo — “Just What I Needed” (with Orr singing lead) and “My Best Friend’s Girl” (with Ocasek in the lead) — to WBCN’s Sartori, a champion of the J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, and other local bands. She put the songs into heavy rotation.

Marshall: [Maxanne Sartori] was definitely a person who could find cool new music more than anybody else in Boston radio at the time. She was just one notch cooler than everybody else on the air.

Sartori: The only reason I played the tapes was that they were great songs.

Macey: That demo tape of “Just What I Needed” was being played so much on BCN you would have thought it was a hit record already.

Antalek: It was quite unusual for a radio station to be playing a band that didn’t even have a record out yet. People started going to see them based on that.

Hawkes: We would go to someplace like a club and start playing our set. And then when we played “Just What I Needed,” you could tell that people had heard it on the radio. All of a sudden there was that glimmer of recognition like, Oh, I know this song.

Orr on NBC Radio Network in 1982: Being through a number of bands like I was, [The Cars] seemed like the next best shot so we gave it a try and it happened real fast. We didn’t have time to really think about it. I didn’t really have time to think about it.

Rhind: You couldn’t even get in the room [when The Cars played five shows in Scituate]. It was crazy. Where were all those people earlier when I was trying to push this band? It drove me nuts.

Robinson in The Cars’ 2000 interview: All the musicians were happy about the [Boston] scene that was going on, but it actually garnered enough attention that there’d be articles in, like, Newsweek, about it being a hotspot.

Easton at The Cars’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction: A&R reps for major labels started flying to Boston to check out this local band, The Cars, whose demo tape got so much airplay that it was being reported on a national level. Maxanne did that. We are forever indebted.

The lyrics to the songs appear on the album sleeve inside The Cars' debut album.Globe staff

At Sartori’s coaxing, Elektra Records executive George Daly listened to The Cars’ demo but wasn’t especially impressed. His attitude changed in September 1977, when his sister urged him to see the band during a set at a Harvard dining hall.

Daly: When I heard the cassette, I didn’t dig it. I only went up to see them because my sister was going to Harvard, and I wanted to see her and give this band one more chance.

Rachlis: We shouldn’t forget The Cars were fun. Those songs come on the radio — or, you know, across Spotify these days or wherever — and they make you smile, they lift your spirits. They cause you to sway and move.

Daly: [At Harvard,] I saw what was coming out and what my ears were hearing and I thought, It’s there. It’s there.

Macey: When you think about what was going on, like Roxy Music, Bowie, and the punk thing, they sort of combined it all, plus, obviously, The Velvet Underground image. Ric kind of put it all together, but he made it much more commercial.

Daly: They were craftsmen and Ric’s tunes with Ben and Elliot were just totally hooky. They were like ditties, but made to come across like some incantation. “Best Friend’s Girl,” it’s not Jackson Browne, but it has a kind of a mystery to it. All the songs were interesting that way.

Daly signed the band on a napkin — “I don’t go to gigs with lined paper,” he says — and the band soon traveled to London to record with Roy Thomas Baker, who’d produced four Queen albums. While Boston was buried in the Blizzard of ‘78, The Cars worked in a studio cofounded by Beatles producer George Martin, who’d occasionally stop by to listen.

Ocasek to Creem: We got a $5,000 advance for that first record, and it was the most money I had at one time in 15 years. It was enough to pay the rent for eight months.

Easton: I went into a better apartment than I was living in, because I was living in a shared house with a bunch of people that I barely knew . . . and got my first car that I ever bought, which was a Volkswagen Rabbit, and some nice stage clothes, and a couple of guitars.

Hawkes: There would be four guys singing in unison [in the studio], and then we would double track that, then we would triple track that, then we would quadruple track that. So, you’ve got basically four, eight, 12, 16 voices singing in unison for one part.

Robinson: We kind of rediscovered the songs after we recorded them because of Roy Thomas Baker’s input. He’s the one that suggested we do all the vocal overdubs. We probably would have been happy to do double tracking and think that it sounded great and move on. But he wanted us to at least try it to get that background vocal thing he’d done for Queen.

Ocasek in The Cars’ 2000 interview: It only took 12 days to make. And I think half the time was probably just layering the vocals.

Easton: I just remember once [George Martin] got up and he was kind of stretching. He said, “That wasn’t bad, actually.” And we were a little bit depressed, like we thought, Oh, damning by faint praise. When he left, the engineer said, “No, no. You don’t understand. That’s like the best compliment he ever gives. If he says, ‘That’s not bad, actually,’ that means he loves it.”

Hawkes: There are definitely Beatles references on that first record. On “Best Friend’s Girl,” the hand claps at the beginning are practically a direct steal from “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Antalek: John Lennon even listened to The Cars [later] and he thought they sounded like a ‘50s band modernized.

Drummer David Robinson had suggested an idea for the album cover, but the record label rejected it. His image wound up on the inner sleeve instead.Globe staff

On the eve of the album’s release, the band was nervous. And they weren’t exactly in love with the album cover, featuring a model smiling behind the wheel of a car. Robinson’s original idea for the cover wound up as the inner sleeve.

Robinson: I think [my idea] was a little too, I guess, sort of punk-kind-of-looking for the record company. At that point, I didn’t know how much pull I really had to work on a cover one way or the other.

Sartori: Elektra put this broad on the cover of the album with her wrist to her forehead and one hand on the steering wheel looking like an idiot with fillings that you can see in her mouth.

Easton: I used to [autograph] it and for fun I would blacken out one of her teeth.

Hawkes: I didn’t really like the way I looked on the picture on the back cover. So I’m kind of more annoyed personally by the back cover than the front cover.

Ocasek to Creem: I never expected the album to sell like crazy. It was just great to have a record out on a major label. I thought it would do well in Boston and that would be it.

Robinson: My expectation was that I was pretty close to not being in the band if it didn’t work out. I was probably going to go to art school or maybe think about being an architect or something.

Orr in the 1986 book The Cars: We figured, back in those days, that if we sold maybe 50,000 records it would be great for us. We had no idea as to where it would go or how large it would turn out.

Released in June 1978, the album was an instant hit. The Phoenix dubbed The Cars “the hottest band to emerge from Boston since Boston.” One night in Chicago, they found themselves opening for country-rocker Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band during their second show of the day.

Easton: The first tour was a combination of opening for more established acts in larger venues and headlining on our own in markets where we were doing well in large clubs.

Rachlis: In that first show in Chicago, they got a hugely enthusiastic response. And in the second show, a bottle gets thrown at them. It was dangerous. That was also the nature: When you’re an unknown band, outside your hometown, you’re gonna get booked with Dickey Betts.

Hawkes: Like Rodney Dangerfield said, “Tough crowd. Tough crowd.”

Orr to journalist Mark Mehler: They were throwing big ice cubes at us. I say, “God bless ‘em.” They pay their money, they’re entitled to go wild. I don’t care. I’m doing the work I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m happy.

Robinson: We started to be an opening act when our album came out, and then we started to become more popular than the people we were opening for. Almost like mid-tour, we switched over to headlining.

Easton: On their own, fans were making their own T-shirts and buttons and stuff. To me that was a real good sign that we were on the right track.

Rachlis: By the end of the tour, two singles were hits and they had a chance. I mean, lots of bands still implode after that stage, but they had a chance for being big and for having a career that would last.

Morse: Phenomenal talent, phenomenal band. You could see right away that they were going places. They weren’t just going to peak at the Rat.

Hawkes: That’s one thing about playing. The bigger places that you play, the more remote the audience feels. When you’re at the Rat, you can look practically everybody in the eye.

Easton: Everything about it was different. We were driving around and had a van full of gear and playing clubs. When we went national, we had trucks full of gear and a large crew and you’re flying everywhere and staying in hotels, visiting radio stations, and doing record store signings.

Hawkes: It never became like A Hard Day’s Night where you’re being chased down the street or anything. [But] it did bother Ric as time went on. He would seek ways to kind of avoid running into people after the show.

Daly: I had a girlfriend the summer that record started blowing up and we went up to Yosemite. We were hiking and we came across a tree and some jackass had carved in it with a knife: “THE CARS RULE.”

The Cars performing at The Paradise in Boston on June 29, 1978.Ron Pownall/Getty Images

Just after Christmas 1978, the album reached platinum, having sold a million copies (it would eventually surpass 6 million). The early months of 1979 saw the band on the cover of Rolling Stone and nominated for a Grammy for best new artist alongside Elvis Costello and Toto. In 2018, The Cars were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a bittersweet honor after the 2000 death of Orr. Ocasek died a year after the ceremony.

Easton: Out of all those promising acts for ‘78 [at the Grammys], you already know the winner was [A Taste of Honey for their disco hit] “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” They were a nice group, but they were never really heard from again. Whereas Elvis Costello, Toto, you know, all these bands — The Cars — went on to have really good careers. The Grammys are always funny, aren’t they? I mean, sometimes they just don’t get it.

Ocasek at The Cars’ Hall of Fame induction: Obviously it’s hard not to notice that Benjamin Orr’s not here. He would have been elated to be here on this stage. It feels quite strange to be up here without him, because we miss him and love him dearly.

Morse: I’m not at all surprised they got in the Hall of Fame because they were a radio powerhouse and really still are. Their songs, their lyrics, their riffs, their kind of cool-cat beat philosophy — that resonates through the years.

Easton to Vulture in 2020: [I]f Ric hadn’t passed, we would’ve done more work together. We had such a fantastic time at the Rock Hall of Fame induction, and it reignited a spark. We hadn’t hung out together in a long time, so spending that week together was wonderful. There was a lot of healing. We left that on a really positive note, and there would’ve been an excellent chance for another project.

Hawkes: The legacy question’s a tough one because it’s hard to judge your own legacy. The music has stood the test of time surprisingly well. If you had told me 45 years ago that people would still be listening to that first Cars record, I’d think wow.

Robinson: It’s on a couple of pretty important lists as one of the best debut albums. It’s like the old saying, you have your whole life to work on your first album so it should be pretty good. At least it should be what you’re aiming for.

Easton: The record went platinum. Does that mean you made it? You can sell out Madison Square Garden. Does that mean you made it? Your record’s on the radio all the time. Does that mean you made it? It’s just a perception. To me, “making it” meant being in a band playing our own music, on our own terms, and being accepted for it, and being able to have a career of it. To me, you couldn’t get better than that.

L. Wayne Hicks is a freelance writer in Colorado. Send comments to Interviews have been edited and condensed.