Gotcha Covered

The Cars’ Perfect Debut Album Turns 40 Today: 9 Great Covers

“The debut album that plays like a Greatest Hits album” is an old rock-journo cliché, but sometimes that’s what you have to go for — and damn, the Cars’ debut album qualifies better than just about any major release of the late ’70s. Only three singles were officially released, but every one of its nine cuts (save the supremely weird breather “I’m in Touch with Your World”) feels like it could’ve been one of those three. Now: Guess how high those singles charted? Believe it or not, more or less nowhere. Sure, “My Best Friend’s Girl” peaked at #3 in the UK right when New Wave was taking England by storm, but back in the States it stalled out at #35, with its followup “Good Times Roll” one notch too low to even make the Top 40.

These looked like diminishing returns after debut single “Just What I Needed” hit #27 in summer ’78. The album proved more sneakily successful: If you had some backseat fun to the cassette you just bought at Sam Goody on release day, the baby you conceived to “All Mixed Up” would be born before The Cars hit its highest point on the Billboard album charts in March ’79: #18, nine months after the album was released. At least it had sold a million-plus by the time Candy-O gave them a #3.

But now that theoretical baby’s anxiously mulling over what it’ll feel like turning 40, and The Cars hits that milestone today. It’s as good an excuse as any to look back at how one of the most bulletproof classic New Wave albums ever recorded echoes through successive generations (and maybe a contemporaneous generation while we’re at it). As a songwriter, Ric Ocasek burst out the gate with a batting average unseen from a rookie until Ichiro; as a band Ric and Benjamin Orr traded similar but nuanced voices over guitars crunchy enough to pique classic rockers’ interest and synths that everyone from Human League to Prince could find inspiration from. And even though their peak wore down after ’84, few bands did more to make of-the-moment trends like New Wave and power pop feel like permanent fixtures of rock’s landscape. But influence is one thing — who actually went so far as to cover the songs from one of the best debuts of the last 40 years? The answers probably won’t surprise you, but the circumstances might.

Nirvana, “My Best Friend’s Girl” (1994)

According to setlist.fm, Nirvana played this Cars cover twice: once on October 6, 1991 in Atlanta, just after the release of Nevermind, and once on March 1, 1994, in Munich, as the opening number in a gig best known for being the last live show Kurt Cobain ever played. Just a couple days after this show, Cobain flew to Rome to get treatment for a combination of bronchitis and laryngitis, where he overdosed on a combination of alcohol and Rohypnol — an incident Courtney Love would subsequently pinpoint as Kurt’s first suicide attempt. It’s pretty strange how Cobain sang this song only twice, and in such close proximity to the first week Nevermind charted (entering at #144 on the Billboard 200 the week of October 12) and the beginning of the end of everything — especially since it seems like such an uncharacteristic choice of cover on the surface.

Nirvana weren’t New Wave, they were the final nail in New Wave’s coffin once the last remnants of the genre had fully dissolved into college rock by the end of the ’80s. Could you even imagine a Nirvana song with a synthesizer on it? And yet the fact that it was in these two moments, literally an early high point and the last public performance for Kurt Cobain, that he played a song that was a big-but-not-too-big hit when Kurt was still a kid — maybe channeling that kid in ’91 when the idea of becoming a cult-favorite, just-mainstream-enough star might’ve felt like an attainable goal finally within reach, and again in ’94 when he must have felt like that kind of youthful naïveté and the reality of his life had never been further apart. Not like you need speculation to see the discomfort in the performance: As a band that gave us distorted-yet-hooky songs like “About A Girl” (and were joked about back in the day as having lifted the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”), it’s not that hard to comprehend Nirvana sludging their way through a take on it that starts particularly grotesque and physically warped-sounding yet ultimately turns out crowd-pleasingly catchy.

Smashing Pumpkins, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (1996)

“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” might be the best song on The Cars, albeit with enough competition that the “might” in that sentence is a load-bearing qualifier. It’s an album cut so popular and so immediate that it’s surprising to remember it never came out as a single (except in the Netherlands — and even there, it was a B-side). It hasn’t been as heavily covered as some of the other cuts on The Cars nonetheless, so the version the Pumpkins cut and included in the 1996 EP-length Bullet With Butterfly Wings maxi-single is far and away the best-known version.

So about this version, and what YouTube uploaders have to do to get it uploaded: Right off the bat, you’ll probably notice that the embed will ask you to play this video at 2.0x speed, thanks to a time-stretching trick the uploader used to keep their video from being automatically flagged. It’s up to you, really — if you do, you’ll get a solid-enough grunge-glam take on the song, a good fit as a song that’s one of the most compelling examples of Ocasek’s ability to write a song that’s as energetic as it is strangely wistful — the kind of desperate but euphoric expressions of pop angst to hit the late ’70s. (By 1996 thinking too hard about the “You” in the song could conjure up jokes about a dude who looked like Ocasek getting to marry to a model like Paulina Porizkova, but that only really works for cynics.) But the whims of copyright law circumvention make for a transformation in itself: play this at 1.0x speed and forget the Pumpkins: What if Sleep covered the Cars? Let’s make this doom metal/new wave crossover dream a reality already.

Red House Painters, “All Mixed Up” (1996)

Anyone else remember that one line from the Hold Steady on “Multitude Of Casualties” — “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time”? Back then Craig Finn was ragging on all the synthpop/skinny-tie-sounding throwbacks that were popping up everywhere around 15 years ago, but it’s also sort of a signal of how a certain aging Gen-X indie-reared contingent was viewing the genre as a whole: with a skeptical, jaundiced eye and a nearly outright refusal to believe that all those herky-jerky riffs and synthesizer noises could ever be taken seriously enough in the first place, let alone enough for a revival. So what would it mean to cover the Cars during peak Indie Sincerity, especially for a band whose slowcore origins were supposedly at odds with the stereotypical upbeat, tongue-in-cheek quirky energy associated with New Wave?

Funny enough, Mark Kozelek decided a good time to explore this possibility was when Red House Painters had not only broken with 4AD, but given their album-in-progress, Songs For A Blue Guitar, to the Island imprint Supreme Recordings — a short-lived label headed by filmmaker and New Wave soundtrack canonizer John Hughes. (On Hughes’ passing in 2009, Kozelek told a Music Hall of Williamsburg crowd during a live show that the two had spent five and a half hours talking on the phone about Red House Painters and their in-limbo album.) What Kozelek came up with — largely on his own, for a solo album in all but name — was such a drastic transformation in tempo, tone, and melody that it feels as though all that’s left are the words and the ineffable sense of ambiguously unrequited love. But the way the song goes electric during the bridge is a fantastic twist, and not even the cloying video — which features the rest of the band miming playing instruments on a song they were absent from, and a narrative focusing on the most literal possible portrayal of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — can undercut it.

Fu Manchu, “Moving In Stereo” (2007)

But what if New Wave had never happened — or punk rock, for that matter? Would one of the other dominant ’70s rock paradigms shift its focus to fill in the gap? Say what you will about the dirtbaggier aspects of AOR and hard rock — blowing up all those disco records was a dick move, guys — but lots of bands along the lines of Thin Lizzy, Nazareth, and Van Halen could do plenty with three minutes and change of sing-along hooks and nervy riffs, even if they also had to make some room for the obligatory shredding.

SoCal stoner rock revivalists Fu Manchu, who reinvented big-amp Sabbath-oid metal as its own flavor of garage rock in the mid ’90s, have offered fun little what-ifs into that approach more than once through some judiciously irreverent covers. Some folks might be horrified to hear “Freedom Of Choice” rendered with the same sludgy swagger as the longhair boogie-rockers that Mothersbaugh/Casale et al were convinced acted as a symptom of devolution (if not a cause), but it still maintains the message while whomping ass — something that’d make Rainier-guzzling dudes in Chevelles shout “DEVO!” as a fuck-yeah celebration instead of an epithet hollered at punks. But their “Moving In Stereo,” from 2007’s We Must Obey, is just as raucous, if not as irreverent: It opens with that same lightheaded electronic whirr but flips the table afterwards, breaking the original’s tension for catharsis and replacing Ocasek’s disoriented anxiety for Scott Hill’s bloodshot hey man ease in leaning back and enjoying the ride. The original scored Fast Times At Ridgemont High’s famous topless Phoebe Cates fantasy scene — this one’s better suited for her fighting Gremlins.

Albert Hammond Jr., “Don’t Cha Stop” (2007)

The Strokes featuring Jarvis Cocker, “Just What I Needed” (2011)

Fellow writers, promise me this: Once we hit the 20th anniversary of Is This It, which is approaching horrifyingly fast, let’s all collectively admit that the Velvet Underground comparisons were half-assed and that the Strokes were always way more Candy-O than “Candy Says.” No matter how NME-cover good-looking and New York chic they might’ve seemed, the Strokes were also kind of dorky — albeit in the affable kind of way that skewed more Ocasek than Reed and resulted in the sort of demi-self-awareness that led Julian Casablancas to (correctly) deduce that the Voidz would be an evocative name for a side project.

And here’s two solid pieces of evidence that come from how thoroughly at home they sound, both in a solo side deal and as a unit (with top-tier cool dork Jarvis Cocker, who owns), just slipping on two cuts from The Cars like artfully distressed leather jackets they’ve actually owned since they were new. Funny enough, they’re both at the Reading Festival, four years apart, and while Hammond Jr.’s performance of shoulda-been-a-bigger-hit “Don’t Cha Stop” works far better as a showcase for his gnarled takes on Elliot Easton solos than his singing voice, the Strokes proper work perfectly as this sort of ensemble effort at feigning casual goofiness (Julian announces Cocker as “The Jarv”), replete with a hiccuped false start, before turning their faithful but joyfully fannish take on the Cars’ first hit into a declaration of shared heritage.

Zachary Scot Johnson, “I’m In Touch With Your World” & “Bye Bye Love”

Right, right: I’ve been doing this column for this long, and yet I haven’t dipped into the Zachary Scot Johnson Thesongadayproject well? Consider that error fixed, then. Johnson’s made the kind of muso-geek breakthrough that I’m surprised hasn’t been more picked up on by other artists, as his covers-heavy (though not covers-exclusive) itinerary of recording a new one-take live performance of a different song each day since September 2012 puts him up there and even beyond the likes of Yo La Tengo and Ted Leo in the annals of cover-version versatility and magnitude. And when you go at it for that long, clearly it’s not enough to just go note-for-note; even if his itinerary generally skews pretty singer-songwritery and doesn’t lean much on irreverent or cross-genre stunt covers, switching things up is always good for some skewered expectations once you’ve got into a routine.

Somewhere around the low 1600s day-wise, Johnson started covering The Cars front-to-back, and when it came to “I’m In Touch With Your World” — the herky-jerk speedbump of a Roxy Music-gone-haywire experiment on an album otherwise filled with straightforward pop gems — he builds a layered keyboard loop out of that wobbly see-saw riff, simplified into the kind of minimal backing that he can use to showcase his smooth-drawling voice, which… huh, how about that, the Cars do kinda work as Midwestern roots rock, don’t they? His “Bye Bye Love” is also transformative in a familiar solo-acoustic sort of way, though there’s a missed joke opportunity to be made somewhere about how it’s also the title of the Everly Brothers’ greatest foray into the pop/rock/country crossover Johnson comes so close to making it.

Todd Rundgren, “Good Times Roll” (2018)

Hoo boy, the New Cars. Remember the bad blood over that? The idea to swap out Ocasek for Rundgren seems like it almost makes sense on paper — they kind of look alike in that gangly vague-aged kind of way, they’re both prone to producing and collaborating with crucial alt-world bands (New York Dolls and XTC for Todd; Bad Brains and Guided By Voices for Ric), and both could blur the lines between pop and rock with the same gusto they made the weird accessible. But Ric disapproved, at least enough to nominate Rundgren for The Colbert Report’s “On Notice” board, and Todd looked back on it as an aggravating experience in “struggling… to come up with something that resembled the Cars but, y’know, was obviously not.”

But at least the experience for Todd was positive enough that he still felt all right playing “Good Times Roll” during his SXSW show’s encore earlier this year. In fact, he seemed so psyched to play it that he started it up without realizing the rest of the band hadn’t joined in yet. The moment he realizes this is probably the funniest thing he’s been involved with this side of “Piss Aaron.”