The Cars were at the forefront of the new wave scene in the late 1970s. The rock band’s biggest international hit, Drive, is widely associated with the Live Aid event in July 1985, after it was used as background music to a video depicting the tragic Ethiopian famine.
How did the band meet?
Before forming The Cars in 1976, the band members had been playing on the live circuit in and around Boston for several years. The two vocalists, rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek and bass guitarist Benjamin Orr, first met in the 1960s in Cleveland, after Ocasek saw Orr’s band, the Grasshoppers, playing the Big 5 Show.
Ocasek and Orr played together in various bands, before moving to Boston in the early 1970s. They formed folk-rock band, Milkwood, in the Crosby, Stills and Nash mould, but their one album, How’s the Weather (released on Paramount Records in 1973) didn’t make the charts.
As a result, they decided to form a new group called Richard and the Rabbits and the line-up included future Cars’ keyboardist Greg Hawkes, but they had little commercial success. Hawkes left to tour with a musical comedy act, Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture.
Orr and Ocasek then teamed up with guitarist Elliot Easton to form Cap’n Swing, but they were rejected by several record labels. The drummer, Kevin Robichaud, was replaced by David Robinson.
After many different incarnations, Ocasek, Orr, Robinson, Hawkes and Easton finally formed The Cars in 1976 and played live shows throughout New England in 1977 to develop their style and try out new songs.
Their rise to fame
The band signed to Elektra Records on the strength of a nine-song demo tape they had recorded in early 1977. Debut album, The Cars, was released in June 1978 and it reached number 18 in the Billboard 200.
Their first single, Just What I Needed, charted in the Billboard Hot 100 and their two follow-up singles, Good Times Roll and My Best Friend’s Girl, also enjoyed chart success. The band continued to record a series of successful albums and singles until 1982, when they decided to take a break following a tour.
After re-forming, they went on to record their most successful single of all time. In 1984, Drive became the band’s highest charting single in the USA, reaching number three in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It reached number one in the Adult Contemporary chart, number five in the UK, number four in West Germany, number six in Canada and number three in Ireland.
The official video for Drive features actress and model Paulina Porizkova, who went on to marry Ric Ocasek. Directed by actor Timothy Hutton, it depicts scenes showing the breakdown of a relationship between characters played by Ocasek and Porizkova.
It then shows Orr sitting in an empty nightclub, with mannequins posing at the bar as staff and customers. Porizkova is seen laughing and crying hysterically, before she walks away at the end of the video.
Hutton later described how he loved the song, so he spoke to The Cars’ manager, Elliot Roberts, describing his idea for a video. The band loved the concept and asked if he would direct it. At the time, MTV was at the height of its popularity and every band was making videos, so Hutton agreed. Filming took place in New York at the Astoria Studios, taking two days to complete.
Afterwards, the video was hailed a classic of the new wave scene. Initially, the lyrics don’t seem to have anything to do with driving, with the narrator saying to the girl in the video, “You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong,” as he refers to her relationship. He asks her, “Who’s gonna pick you up when you fall?”
However, the song referred to a metaphorical drive, with the narrator frustrated at the girl’s inability to see the figurative cliff that she’s approaching as the relationship draws to an end.
The song sold half a million copies in the UK, achieving gold status. It was performed by Benjamin Orr during the Philadelphia Live Aid concert in 1985 and was re-released in the UK. It re-entered the charts across Europe as a result and the £160,000 proceeds from record sales were donated to the Band Aid Trust.
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