Some musicians inspire a generation of artists. Others, like The Cars singer and producer Ric Ocasek, have their fingerprints on several eras of rock music.
Versatile enough to produce a variety of albums ranging from gritty punk to slick-sounding emo, while also having the pop sensibilities to help create decade-defining hits like “Good Times Roll” and “Shake It Up,” Ocasek was one of a kind. He passed away on Sept. 15 at his home in New York City.
Like his fellow out-there new wave bands The Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo, The Cars was a delicate balance of unforgettable melodies and soaring harmonies with odd instrumentation that felt like it would fall apart in lesser hands. It dripped with sarcasm and confidence.
The band’s self-titled 1978 debut, which the members would joke should be renamed “The Cars Greatest Hits,” set the bar for the group from the first fuzzy riff of “Good Times Roll” and never let up. It’s one of those perfect debuts, like The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” or the Ocasek-produced “Blue Album” by Weezer, that captures a band at the perfect creative moment.
Ocasek’s warbly tenor voice worked so well with fellow bandmate Benjamin Orr’s more conventional singing style. Their mixture of palm-muted guitars, understated and brilliant solos and off-kilter keyboards made for the quintessential new wave sound of the ‘80s, mixing rockabilly, doo-wop and punk.
The Cars didn’t live in the shadow of that debut, as it released classic ‘80s songs like “Drive,” “You Might Think” and “Let’s Go,” which would find a new medium with the dawn of music videos on MTV.
Even with the band’s success, Ocasek didn’t rest on his laurels. He produced albums for punk groups like Suicide and Bad Brains, while also releasing solo albums. When the band dissolved, he found a new life behind the boards, helping create the mentioned “Blue Album” by Weezer, an album as important to the ‘90s alt-rock era as The Cars’ first couple of albums were to the new-wave movement. Like “The Cars,” that debut was loose, playful and confessional.
“Blue Album’s” multi-platinum success led to Ocasek to try his hand at other styles, producing punk band Bad Religion’s “The Gray Race,” Weezer-like alt-rockers Nada Surf’s debut “High/Low” and indie darlings Guided By Voices’ “Do The Collapse.”
When a band wanted a sugary-sweet return to form, they turned to Ocasek. No Doubt recruited him for two tracks, the Cars-like pop tunes “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Platinum Blonde Life.” Weezer brought him back twice when it needed resuscitating, for 2001’s punky “Green Album” and 2014’s “Everything Will Be Alright in the End.”
Ocasek also tried his hand at making a mark on the late 2000s pop-punk and indie-dance booms, producing albums for then-buzzworthy bands The Pink Spiders, Le Tigre and Brazilian Girls. Though it was a troubled production, his work on the Weezer-adjacent Motion City Soundtrack’s third album, “Even If It Kills Me,” is some of the band’s best work.
Despite all of Ocasek’s success, he was never satisfied.
As he told The Boston Globe: “I remember reading this book about older painters and they were asked, ‘OK, so you’ve been painting for 20 years and your greatest paintings were 10 years ago. Now what are you trying to do? Are you trying to paint better?’ And they’re all going, ‘Yeah, I’m still trying to paint better. I have more experience and I’m still as motivated.’ I can relate to that.”
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live