It’s All I Can Do

allicandosingleI’m not sure that anyone would say that The Cars were known for their ballads… surely “Drive” stands out from the overall catalog, but most general listeners zero in on the band’s unique “new wave rock” sound, Ric’s quirky vocals, or Greg’s poppish synth hooks. And yet, tucked away on their second album hides a lovely little gem that deserves full attention.

On September 29, 1979, “It’s All I Can Do” was released as a single from the Candy-O album as the follow-up to “Let’s Go.” Written by Ric Ocasek, produced by Roy Thomas Baker, and backed by “Got A Lot On My Head” (or with “Candy-O” on the B side, if you were in Britain), the track reached as high #41 on the Billboard Hot 100. It hit #17 on the Canadian Singles chart.

This song is so beautiful, so gentle. Indeed, from the first tender notes, you know it’s going to be different from the band’s other offerings up to that point. David’s delayed beat adds a feeling of anticipation, of waiting and watching. While Elliot’s guitar is still rocking and edgy, it is perfectly contained. But the element that really controls the mood from the start is the interaction between Ben’s bass and Greg’s lilting piano sounds. They bounce so perfectly off one another and create a soft, safe place for Benjamin’s vocals, which ease in, so clear and sweet.

A lot of critics characterize Ric Ocasek’s lyric writing as being either cold, oblique, or obsessed with love — but not good love; usually scratchy, painful, and a bit sardonic love. This song really seems different (read the lyrics here). Rather than bitterness, there is hope. Instead of disgust, there is confusion. I get the feeling that far from being done with his girl, he wants to understand her.

To my ears, this song is almost the complete opposite of the ballad from their debut album. While “All Mixed Up” pours out pain and the finality of heartbreak, “It’s All I Can Do” seems to keep that little flame of optimism burning, holding out hope, like “fingers crossed!” A large part of that feeling comes from the difference in the lyrics themselves, but I really think the combination of Benjamin’s wistful tones and Greg’s wonderful melodic textures keep me from feeling like all is lost in this love story.

My favorite part is during the third verse. Benjamin glides into the lyrics easily, continuing to voice his confusion, when all of a sudden… you hear it. Slowly building, Greg creates this gorgeous, soaring ribbon of violin-like sound that takes my breath away. It took me a while to notice it, but one early morning I was running with my headphones on and all of a sudden it stood out to me, caught my ears by surprise, and I replayed it about 10 times. I’m not sure why… but I truly feel like it may be the most romantic music I have heard on any Cars record.

The one tragedy of this song is the lack of availability of any kind of live performance. The single was released while the band was touring for Candy-O and it was getting air time on the radio, but from what I understand they played it in concert very sparingly, in spite of urgings by the promoters. Fans have speculated over the years as to why it wasn’t part of the regular set, and no definitive answers have been given. This tweet from Elliot Easton may be the closest we’ll ever come to any insight:

eetweetAllICanDo

So… maybe a few things you hadn’t heard yet?

With no live audio for variety, the studio version was the only one available to the public for many years. Then sometime in about 2001 the monitor mix tapes for the Candy-O album were released to the public (inadvertently — read that story here) and fans had a new treat for their ears. Listed on the mixes under the title, “One Too Many Times,” this recording is fun to listen to, though Benjamin’s different vocal inflections and subdued emotions don’t quite have the same effect on me.

In 2005, Not Lame Recordings released a set of twenty-one Cars’ covers by various artists. Not only was the album, titled Substitution Mass Confusion: A Tribute to The Cars, intended to honor the band, but it was also a way to pay respects to Benjamin Orr after his death: part of the proceeds from the project were donated to the American Cancer Society in his name. Appearing on that compilation was a cover of “It’s All I Can Do” by a band from New York called The Bravery. It has a more defined New Wave sound to it; much more a dance tune and less of a ballad. Because I have such an attachment to the original, I’m not a huge fan of this cover, but repeated listenings might change that (if I were, in fact, willing to listen to it again… which I’m not right now). Here’s the link to it: I do encourage you to give it a whirl for yourself.

“It’s All I Can Do” also shows up in the 1998 movie The Wedding Singer. It’s a nice addition to a film that makes every attempt to cram as much iconic 80s culture onto the screen; I’m glad The Cars were included. Sneak a peek here:

As time marches on, I’m holding out hope for good things. The Cars camp announced (and Elliot confirmed) that 2017 would see some new stuff released, and I am rubbing all of the lucky rabbit feet and genie lamps I can find to ensure that those offerings would include a live performance of this elusive gem. I can’t stand the suspense and I’m not good at waiting, but at this point… well, you know…  “it’s all I can doooooooooo….”

Tonight She Comes

I would guess that 1985 was a crazy year for The Cars. They spent the last half of 1983 living in England while recording Heartbeat City. They toured pretty much from April through September of 1984 behind that album, and spent time shooting four videos and playing for MTV’s “A Private Affair.” On the surface, it might appear that The Cars had taken a well-justified break in 1985, only publicly performing at Live Aid in July of that year, but that was certainly not the case.

Closer inspection reveals that the members of the band were going gangbusters, creatively. Elliot had released his solo album and was touring behind it; surely Benjamin was writing and working on his; and Ric was definitely spending time in the studio with his second solo effort, This Side of Paradise (which Greg, Benjamin and Elliot all appear on!). And it was during this time that the decision was made to release a ‘greatest hits’ album.

Makes sense: the band’s popularity was riding high with five American Top 40 singles from Heartbeat City, the exposure from Live Aid (where “Drive” was used at the background music to an iconic video montage of images depicting the famine in Ethiopia), and claiming the honor of “Video of the Year” from MTV’s inaugural music awards. It was a perfect time to expose this 80s generation to the full scope of The Cars’ creative history.

greatesthitsfrontOn October 25, 1985, Elektra released The Cars Greatest Hits. It contained twelve songs (a nice sampling from across the band’s first four albums) including a remixed version of “I’m Not The One” from the Shake It Up album. Along with those, a previously unrecorded track was offered: an entirely new song, “Tonight She Comes.” Ric tells how it came about:

“The record company wanted a new track for the greatest hits album, and I was in the middle of recording my solo album, and it was one of the songs that I didn’t use in the solo album at that point, and we just did that single… Actually, I was in the studio upstairs doing the one record and then we had another one going downstairs at the same time. That was like a one-off single that we just all came together and did and it was quite fun to just go in and do it like that. And I like the video for that one because it was crazy.” – Up Close radio interview, August 26, 1987

Listening to Ric’s description, I envisioned the guys all showing up and jamming the song out in short order, like in the old days. I was surprised to find out that it was actually a four-week project. The song was recorded at Electric Lady studios in New York, and was produced with the help of Mike Shipley (who would later work with Benjamin on his solo album, The Lace). It was released as a single on October 14, 1985, with “Just What I Needed” on the B-side.

It turns out that it was extremely appropriate to put the song on a ‘greatest hits’ CD, as “Tonight She Comes” would end up being one of the band’s highest charting singles. It hit #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts, and went as high as #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Elektra also released the song on a limited edition picture disc. The album itself was a commercial success as well, reaching #12 on the Billboard Hot 200 and eventually being certified six times platinum.

Strangely, this doesn’t seem to be a track that you hear about often. Maybe because it wasn’t on a regular album? It’s a shame, because it’s a terrific song. The music is fun — very bright and poppy — and I love Benjamin’s deep background vocals. The lyrics are happy and loving, upbeat; less cynical than many of their other songs. It definitely holds up well with repeated listening.

In the spotlight, though? Elliot’s guitar solo is amazing! And while it has a spontaneous feel to it, it turns out he spent a lot of time crafting it. Elliot told Guitar Player magazine in February of 1986, “I happened to have worked on “Tonight She Comes,” mostly because I had such a long wait in a hotel room in New York. At night, I would sit around watching the tube with my guitar by my side. I had a little micro-cassette recorder, and I would add another lick to the solo. With this approach, you end up with a mathematically cool solo. Then you’ve got to learn it and make it sound like it’s coming off the top of your head, which is an art.”

And then of course there is the small ruckus over the song title. Does Ric mean what most people assume he means? Some people don’t care; some think it’s raunchy… I’ve not heard Ric address the issue (and I wouldn’t really expect him to, given that he likes the listener to draw their own connection to his writing) but Elliot is quoted in the Anthology booklet as saying, “It doesn’t actually say that she reaches orgasm. It could mean that tonight she’s coming over to make popcorn.” So there you have it! Haha!

A couple of other little notables:

Benjamin plays his Guild Pilot bass in the official video (link below), which also happens to be the beauty he was playing at Live Aid that summer.

The woman who stars in the video is Tara Shannon, a well-known model who, at the time, had not starred in any previous videos or movie projects. She says she was shot separately from the band so she didn’t get to meet most of them, but she had a great time filming her part. She also won an award for “Best Performance by a Fashion Model in a Music Video” for her work in “Tonight She Comes.” You can read her thoughts on her experience here.

And my last note. I love the lyrics; they don’t phase me. My favorite line is, “She jangles me up, she does it with ease. Sometimes she passes through me just like a breeze.” Yeah… I know that feeling… but about a guy. LOL

Enjoy the official video below, and click here if you want the lyrics to sing along to.

Touch and Go (oh oh oh!)

There are a few songs in The Cars’ collection that, when I first heard them, I gave them a decided ‘thumbs down.’ During my early explorations of the Panorama album, I can clearly remember sitting in the kitchen and saying to my husband, “This song is just so hokey, with its ‘doong da da doong da da doong’ cowboy rhythm. Sounds like a weird western thing going on.”

Can you imagine?

No surprise that now I listen to it constantly and consider it one of the high points among (ten) high points on Panorama (which is now my favorite record!). Not sure exactly what changed my mind but I think it was Elliot and that hot solo. More about that in a minute… Let’s start with some basic facts. Released as a single on August 25, 1980, “Touch and Go” is the second track on that album, the first of three sent out, and the only song to chart from Panorama, reaching #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was written by Ric Ocasek and produced by Roy Thomas Baker. “Down Boys” was on the flip side.

One of the things you immediately notice in the song is the complexity of the tempo during the verses, and then the change up when they move to the bridge and chorus. In my highly technical mind (ha!) I think to myself, “Wow, that sounds so tricky and awesome!” But people who understand the REAL way music works call it polymeter: using two different time signatures simultaneously. I learned about it from this educational blurb:

“‘Touch And Go’, a hit single by The Cars, has polymetric verses, with the drums and bass playing in 5/4, while the guitar, synthesizer, and vocals are in 4/4 (the choruses are entirely in 4/4).” — Guitar Alliance

touchandgogregcountMy mind, while sincerely nerdy and fact-based, is not super flexible, and concepts like this are somewhat slippery for me to get a grip on. The best way for me to grasp it was by watching Greg count the beat on his fingers during this performance on Fridays (aired September 19, 1980). Luckily no one’s going to test me on it, so I just took enough knowledge to increase my appreciation for the song (and my admiration of the band) and tucked it away; I encourage you to do the same.

The other notable thing about this song — and really, it’s the ultimate, BADASS, off.the.chain, “WTF did I just hear?” portion of this song — is Elliot’s guitar solo. This was decidedly the game changer for me, the element of this song that pulled me in initially and still won’t let me go.

As we know, Elliot has always been the master of crafting the perfect punch for the typical 15 to 30 seconds he might have to make his mark in a song, and his work here in “Touch and Go” just might be his best overall. I am blown away every time I hear it! For a full forty seconds he builds and layers, and takes me higher every step of the way, ending at the perfect peak before dropping me back into the soft lap of Ric’s vocals and Benjamin’s swaying bass. But did you know that this beautiful creation almost didn’t make it into the final recording?  Elliot tells the story himself in this audio clip from my all-time favorite EE interview:

[Pat at RockSolid has given me permission to make and publish that audio clip, but I highly encourage you to take the time to listen to the full 2-hour interview with Elliot; it is funny, poignant, and extremely insightful. You can download it and take it with you on your morning commute, during a long run, or while you’re doing chores around the house. You won’t regret it!]

The icing on this musical cake is Benjamin. Who can resist that wonderful bass sound? It is alternately rollicking and gentle, pulling us through the song.

As to the lyrics for “Touch and Go,” Ric is quoted as giving a rare interpretation of his own writing on page 60 of the book Frozen Fire, by Toby Goldstein: “This is one of those songs about people having a difficult relationship and not understanding why they’re having problems, but they put up with the uncertainty anyway.” Makes sense to me; more so than my 11 year-old son’s take on it: “Touch and go. That’s the same as hit-and-run, right?” Hm, I actually think I could buy into that explanation, too…

Though “Touch and Go” was released almost a year before MTV successfully launched video music television in the United States, The Cars were, as always, thebouncerwhalomparkin with the pioneers of technology and new music frontiers. They teamed up with Gerald (Jerry) Casale of Devo to produce a ‘short band film’ (sometimes called a ‘pop clip’) to go with the song — not a common practice among artists at the time but growing in popularity. The second verse of the song was omitted, shortening it up a bit.  The official video was filmed at historic Whalom Park in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1980. The park closed its doors on September 4, 2000, but you can still see two of its popular rides in the video: the Whalom Park Carousel and The Bouncer (pictured).

I love the opening shot of the hands putting the picture disc on the turntable… I don’t know why, but that just is SO cool to me. I also love the parts where Ric is singing in the near-dark and the boys emerge one by one, slowly gliding through our field of vision. And Elliot spinning on The Bouncer with his guitar — could he be any more badass? Even without the special effects and high tech equipment that are available for today’s music video productions, this cutting-edge gem delivers some great visual tidbits.

Here are a few more things about this song that maybe you hadn’t heard yet:

  1. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon mentioned “Touch and Go” specifically in the last interview of his life. Check it out  here. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, feel free to skip ahead; the relevant discussion starts at 1:41:00 and lasts about one minute.
  2. The song did better globally: it peaked at #2 on the French Singles Chart and #16 in Canada.
  3. “Touch and Go” has been compared musically to “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police, and “You Got Lucky” by Tom Petty, both released after Panorama, and both possibly influenced by The Cars.
  4. Whalom Park’s ride, The Bouncer, had a strong reputation for making people vomit… Wonder if any of the guys were queasy after shooting the video?
  5. The filming of “Touch and Go” was  possibly the second music video The Cars made. The first might have been the fun and funny spy video they filmed for the song “Panorama,” which was also directed by Gerald Casale, along with co-director Chuck Statler (known as the ‘godfather of the music video’). I can’t find a production date for “Panorama” so I can’t say with certainty which came first, but it is listed first on Gerald Casale’s videography, which I’m assuming is chronological.

Here’s the link to the official music video. I also posted the lyrics here if you want to sing along (skipping that second verse, of course). Enjoy!

“It’s just an automatic line…”

The other day in the car I found myself answering this question from my 11-year-old: “What the heck is he saying???”

We were at the end of rocking out to Night Spots, and it was where Greg is repeating, “It’s just an automatic line…” I told my son what the words were, and then explained my take on the lyric choice: In a lot of songs the singer repeats a line over and over at the end, and I think it was The Cars’ quirky sense of humor that led them to use those lyrics in kind of a teasing way; maybe poking fun at that habit of singers/songwriters (including themselves). Of course, as I’m telling him this, my own speculation makes me love the song and the band more than ever.

eenightspotssoloWhether my explanation is accurate or not, there is no denying that Night Spots is a damn fine song, with a heavy, pulsing bass line, a fantastic Elliot guitar solo, and bad-ass lyrics. And of course, Greg’s masterful synthesizer work! The song was written by Ric Ocasek (of course!) for The Cars’ first album, but ended up being used as the seventh track on Candy-O instead. It became a staple of their live sets in 1978 and was played in concerts all the way through 1987.

There are two studio versions published and both seem to exude power, though in different ways. The first one released, of course, is the track on Candy-O. It starts out with a little introduction of the synthesizer melody that hooks you for the entire song, and then the other boys are all in, churning away on that rocking beat. Every instrument is so present in this recording. Put on some headphones and get away by yourself for a few minutes — SO many audio delights here! Ric sings the lyrics perfectly; in fact this is one in a handful of songs where I would say I LOVE his vocals. His unconventional style is exactly what this song demands. Another favorite little tidbit about this tune is that in the live recordings Ric sometimes changes up the description of the woman’s hair: long blonde, blonde long, kinky, curly…

The demo version, likely recorded in 1978, wasn’t released to the world until it came out as part of 1995’s Just What I Needed: The Cars’ Anthology. Again, grab your headphones. This time we start out with an addictive beat, and then the layering begins: guitar, bass, guitar; building until the vocal jumps in, but with an almost entirely different set of lyrics. And here again, Ric’s singing is spot-on. In this version he comes across as rather amused and mocking of the woman in the song; as opposed to the bit of desperation, the awe for her that he portrays in the Candy-O cut. The biggest difference between the two tracks? There is no keyboard part in this early demo, and no blazing EE solo. Where the vinyl is poppish and danceable, this version is very bass-driven and very slinky… sexy. Quite a contrast.

It should be no surprise that I love both recordings. Each one conveys its own mood and message; I easily think of them as two individual songs, rather than one being an early version of the other. I’m going to post links to both of them here. I’ve decided not to use fan vids, mostly because I want to encourage you to close your eyes and focus on this incredible music. Enjoy!

CANDY-O VERSION

 

DEMO VERSION