Monday, November 3, 2014

A Band Named The Cars, A Song Named "Drive": Not As Dumb As It Sounds

If I told you there was a band named the Cars and they had a song called "Drive," you would probably think that was stupid. Sometimes, context is everything: "Drive" actually came out on the Cars' fifth album, long after they had established themselves and their slyly automotive moniker. Ric Ocasek just happened to write a song called "Drive," OK? Is that any worse than Pete Townshend writing a song called "Who Are You"?

If you actually knew the Cars prior to 1984, you would have found "Drive" even more confusing. The Cars - masters of clinical, deadpan dispassion - writing a haunting ballad? With the singer actually sounding like he cared slightly? The DJ didn't mislabel the new Tears For Fears single, did he? The Cars had tried slower numbers before, even going back to "Moving In Stereo" on the first album, and I'm also partial to Shake It Up's "I'm Not The One," but they always sounded a little arch and disinterested, as if someone was forcing them to be a band against their will. They sounded about as passionate as you'd be if you'd just stepped out to grab some Chinese food at 9:30PM only to realize that the place had already closed at 9:00PM.

I had a slightly different experience with the Cars' discography. I became familiar with their late '70s classic rock staples ("Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Let's Go") in my teens, so when I learned that the very same band had also recorded "Drive," one of those omnipresent synth-rock hits from my childhood that I heard everywhere and yet nowhere in particular, it didn't seem possible. The late '70s Cars make me think of the mid-90s, but "Drive" instantly transports me back to long afternoons of watching The Smurfs, drinking Hi-C, and playing Pole Position at the local Round Table.

Even at their most synthesized, the Cars usually still sounded like a rock band, but "Drive" exists in a Sea of Synthesizer, where nary a guitar can be found. Was a drummer even present? There are about three different kinds of synthesizer: 1) the one in the back, on the right channel, playing long, sustained notes, 2) the one on the left channel, wheezily churning out a three-note riff, and 3) my favorite, coming in around 0:13, sounding like imitation bells (arguably the best kind of bells?). But it's the wall of processed backing vocals that give "Drive" that eerily artificial atmosphere of death, sounding like an '80s version of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." As with "Time After Time," the song sounds so '80s, I'm not sure that the production actually presents the composition in the strongest light. I'd almost like to hear a version of "Drive" on solo acoustic guitar. Get on it, somebody.

But enough about the backing vocals that sound like an army of cyborg cumulus clouds fucking each other; the lead singing doesn't sound like typical Cars lead singing either, and I don't think that's simply because it's coming from Ben Orr, as opposed to Ocasek. Orr had already sung lead on several Cars songs, including some of their biggest hits, but like Ocasek, he usually sounded as though his native language wasn't English and he'd just learned all the lyrics phonetically in the studio at the behest of their manager in a desperate attempt to appeal to the American market. On "Drive," Orr actually sings the lyrics, and it turns out they're kind of poignant:
Who's gonna tell you when
It's too late?
Who's gonna tell you things
Aren't so great?

You can't go on
Thinkin' nothing's wrong
But now
Who's gonna drive you home

Who's gonna pick you up
When you fall?
Who's gonna hang it up
When you call?
Who's gonna pay attention
To your dreams?
And who's gonna plug their ears
When you scream?

Who's gonna hold you down
When you shake?
Who's gonna come around
When you break?
Can't she just ... call a cab? OK, seriously, this one is for all those self-destructive types out there who are in need of a little "reality check." I like how the singer starts out by describing broader life situations such as "things not being so great" or "having dreams" but then ends with the more immediate concern of who, precisely, will be able or willing to take care of this person "tonight." "Listen girl, you can continue to live in denial as long as you choose, but you actually have a specific problem that you need to solve now." And the question just hangs there, the implication being, "Who's gonna drive you home? Because it might not be me this time, baby."

And so, the Cars pulled off a haunting ballad, with a haunting video to match, though it turns out the person who was shortly going to need a ride home was actually Ric Ocasek's then-wife Suzanne, because during the making of the video Ocasek met and began a relationship with Czech swimsuit model Paulina Porizkova. Geez Ric. At least Billy Joel waited until he got a divorce. Here the troubled little Paulina sits in an empty room in a white hospital gown, drawing scribbles on the walls with crayons, fiddling with her flawless hair under the kind of intense venetian blind glare not seen since Double Indemnity, swaying back and forth like a child, then laughing, then crying, all the in span of just a few minutes (or so we're led to believe). Can anyone help this poor little supermodel who just can't take it anymore?

However, "Drive" quickly became associated with a group of people in much more need of assistance than Czech supermodels: starving African children (it's always the starving African children). During the Live Aid broadcast in 1985, the song served as the soundtrack to a montage (introduced by David Bowie!) of famished Ethiopians. When a shot of an emaciated child found itself serendipitously accompanied by the line "Who's gonna plug their ears/When you scream," a thousand white people's wallets split open from the sheer strain of liberal guilt. Famine-porn montage aside, the Cars actually performed "Drive" during the concert, and for a song that seemed like such a studio creation, I have to say that it translated to the stage better than I would have guessed. But I'm thinking at least half the inebriated concertgoers began wondering, as they soaked in the majesty of Ben Orr's sunglasses, "My God, he's right - who is going to drive me home tonight?"


Anonymous said...

Cool article, love The Cars

Peter Arceo said...

Awesome article, you covered a lot of stuff that I’ve thought about with this song and you also brought a ton of new perspective too. That background track sounds exactly like 10 cc I’m not in love. It’s especially prevalent in the Live Aid video a season it looks like it’s queued up with the synthesizer.