This weekend the Cars will accept an overdue induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Though the band has been eligible since 2003, it wasn’t nominated until 2016.
Cleveland is the town where Cars frontmen Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr first met, but it was Boston where they hit their stride. One key supporter from the band’s mid-’70s emergence says she’s not surprised that recognition from the Rock Hall has taken so long. Maxanne Sartori, the former WBCN disc jockey often credited with breaking the Cars on the radio, points out that the group was a nominee for the Grammys’ best new artist award for 1978. So was Elvis Costello.
But the winner, she recalls, “was the band that did ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie.’ ” (A Taste of Honey, for those scoring at home.)
Few bands have synched with their times quite like the Cars, even if music institutions have been slow to acknowledge it. In a compact, decade-long career, the band’s crafty, quirky New Wave sound produced more than a dozen Top 40 hits and four straight Top 10 albums. From the power-pop sing-alongs “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” — the songs that Maxanne (as she was known on air) launched on ’BCN — to the misfit danceability of “Shake It Up” and Orr’s glossy crooner ballad “Drive,” the band was a direct link between the post-punk late 1970s and MTV’s candy-colored baby years.
When the band’s Rock Hall induction was announced last fall, the reclusive Ocasek told Rolling Stone the honor is “a good cap to the bottle.” Deadpan, he compared the news to getting a bowling trophy. Drummer David Robinson, who owns an art and antiques shop in Rockport, said that Orr would have been “overjoyed” to be elected.
Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000, at age 53. Guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes toured with Todd Rundgren as the New Cars in 2005. Ocasek, meanwhile, produced albums by Weezer, No Doubt, and many others, and he’s been exhibiting his abstract art for years. The four surviving members of the Cars reunited in 2011 for a new album and a brief tour.
Maxanne was intrigued by the band that preceded the Cars, Cap’n Swing, which featured Ocasek, Orr, and Easton. (An even earlier incarnation of the band, Richard and the Rabbits, took its name at the suggestion of old friend Jonathan Richman.) But their rhythm section, she says, consisted of a bass player who “overdid everything” and a drummer “who fell off the cocktail jazz wagon.”
Having Ocasek’s ear, she convinced him to move Orr to bass. And she helped the band recruit Robinson, who’d played drums in Richman’s Modern Lovers and DMZ.
Ocasek, she says, was reserved even in those early years. “He’d already been married two times,” she says. “He was my plus-one at a lot of places. He was fun to be around, really sarcastic.”
With his gangly frame and his pop-art shirts, he was “quite the odd man out. And I do mean odd.”
But by the time Ocasek and his mates debuted the Cars at the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square — their first gig was at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire — their potential was evident.
As Cap’n Swing, “they were . . . interesting,” says Jim Harold, who owned the Rat. “When they came back as the Cars, even at soundcheck, you knew these guys were gonna be good. It was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ This was really different. They had something no one else had.”
In time, Harold would become good friends with Orr. And he admires Ocasek as someone “who was pretty astute about what he wants, and he gets it done.” He was baffled that the Rock Hall didn’t come calling as soon as the band was eligible.
“I never understood why they didn’t get in the first time around,” he says. “Talking Heads, Blondie, Joan Jett — not that I’m putting anybody down, but out of that era, they were very successful. They went for longevity with pop songs that appealed to 12- and 13-year-old girls. I know they did that. And that gave them legs.”
‘Even at soundcheck, you knew these guys were gonna be good. . . . They had something no one else had.’
The Cars have been rehearsing in Cleveland this week to play a few songs at Saturday’s Hall of Fame ceremony. They’ve indicated that they’ll take part in the customary all-star jam finale, alongside various members of the other bands in this year’s class — the Moody Blues, Dire Straits, and Bon Jovi. (The late Nina Simone will be inducted as well, and the gospel-R&B singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe will be noted as an “early influence.” An edited version of the ceremony will air on HBO in May.)
The band was always considered more a product of the studio than a live draw. Unlike other Boston bands with national reputations, such as Aerosmith or the J. Geils Band, the Cars weren’t demonstrative onstage.
“That’s who the Cars had to be compared to,” says Maxanne.
In the end, however, they occupied a category all their own.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.