I’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:
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….”