As A Producer, Ric Ocasek Was Often Just What Bands Needed
Twenty-five years ago, a not-insignificant segment of music fans learned about the greatness of the Cars via Weezer’s self-titled debut, widely known as “The Blue Album.” Back then, one of the major promotional talking points of the grungy power-pop LP was its production work by Ric Ocasek, the Cars’ frontman and songwriter. It was an easy fact to grasp — after all, there’s no better way to sell a new band than by touting the involvement of someone so well-respected — and in this case Ocasek had a legitimate claim to influence.
“In general, he helped us get out of the garage and into a big studio,” frontman Rivers Cuomo told Billboard in 1994. “We had a real crusty and muddy sound, and he eased us into making a major-label record. He just told us to turn up the brightness a bit. It was a little hard to adapt to a big studio when you’re used to being a crappy-assed band in a garage for a few years.” Ocasek, to his credit, dug Weezer’s diamond-in-the-roughness. “Their demo was just a thick slab of mud with some music mixed in,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “It was so fucking great.”
Ocasek’s influence on early Weezer can certainly be quantified — for example, he was responsible for pushing them to record “Buddy Holly,” which certainly changed the band’s trajectory for the better — although, over time, the band mused that his guidance and mentorship evolved into something more intangible. “I like working with a guy like Ric Ocasek not only because we know what we’re going to get and we have a common goal and we’re focused, but it’s such a great experience,” guitarist Brian Bell said in a 2001 interview. “I learn something every time I’m in the studio with him.” Added Cuomo in that same chat: “He gives you advice about all kinds of things that nobody else can give you, ’cause they haven’t been through the same kinds of experiences that he has, and that we have.”
That the Cars frontman had a giving spirit comes up time and time again in interviews with musicians who worked with Ocasek in a production capacity. That’s in no small part because he tended to work with a lot of young bands — his production c.v. contains a slew of credible ’90s modern rock shoulda-beens, including dollar bin denizens Johnny Bravo, D Generation, and the Wannadies — or groups looking for a sonic buff, such as No Doubt, Motion City Soundtrack, and the Cribs.
Ocasek also produced Nada Surf’s major label debut, 1996’s High/Low, notable for featuring the accidental novelty hit “Popular.” This particular relationship came about after frontman Matthew Caws gave Ocasek a cassette demo after an early Nada Surf show, and the Cars frontman actually rang him up to offer his production services. “I didn’t expect the band’s career to get launched that way, but I will say that after he called me I had a feeling that it would help kick off something,” Caws said in a 2016 interview, adding, “I was very much in shock, I couldn’t believe it. This was the first time that somebody I really admired as a musician had given me such positive feedback.”
Going above and beyond wasn’t out of the ordinary for Ocasek, even when the album didn’t see the light of the day. When Elektra Records shelved Keep Your Crazy Head On Straight, an Ocasek-produced effort by the criminally underrated shoegaze-pop band Stratford 4, the veteran helped the group recover the full-length. “He’s Ric Ocasek, he has some sort of pull!” bassist Sheetal Singh told the SF Weekly in 2015. “He went to them, he said to give it to him, and then he gave it to us. We’re lucky!”
Many producers have their own sound and style that leaves an imprint on with whom they’re working. Ocasek certainly had sonic hallmarks: His productions were underpinned by rhythmic precision, and he was certainly a go-to for pop-leaning rock bands who wanted new wave flair (see: “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Platinum Blonde Life” on No Doubt’s 2001 comeback Rock Steady). Plenty of his production charges also wanted to try and replicate the Cars’ sound, with varying degrees of success: New Models’ “Shattered Windows” is a sloppier version, for example, and the Pink Spiders’ ill-fated major label debut, Teenage Graffiti, is overly slick rock ‘n’ roll.
But Ocasek was a remarkably versatile producer who slipped between genres and scenes with ease. He was the architect of a ’90s power-pop sound that split the difference between grungy heft and pure pop sensibilities — not just with Weezer and Nada Surf, but also with Possum Dixon (1998’s underrated New Sheets) and Guided By Voices (1999’s radio-ready Do The Collapse). Ocasek also had a knack for balancing sonic contrasts; Hole’s gloriously ramshackle The Crow: City Of Angels soundtrack cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” is somehow both chaotic and poppy at once—and wrangling eclectic acts. In 1993, he co-produced Black 47’s Fire Of Freedom, a Celtic rock album that drew from folk, hip-hop, and reggae.
Ocasek also dabbled in punk, producing Bad Religion’s 1996 album The Gray Race and forging a longstanding relationship with D.C. hardcore legends Bad Brains. He produced 1982’s I & I Survive, an EP balancing the dub reggae title track and furious clanging punk, and the equally ferocious 1983 full-length Rock For Light, a thrashing album driven by scorching guitars. In 1994, Madonna’s label, Maverick Records, hired Ocasek to do A&R and be an in-house producer, where his first assignment was once again teaming up with Bad Brains for 1995’s God Of Love.
As the latter relationship underscores, Ocasek was a remarkably versatile producer who also knew how to just get out of the way and coax the best from musicians with whom he was working. Romeo Void’s 1981 Never Say Never EP is a jittery, danceable post-punk totem that is of a piece with the Cars’ own restless music, but had its own focal point in the indomitable vocalist Debora Iyall. “His brilliance was fun and knowing,” Iyall wrote on Facebook. “He produced Nvr Say Nvr with Romeo Void like a guide, a man of few words and an active listener.”
Besides Weezer, Ocasek’s other well-known productions were with the influential NYC electronic band Suicide. Initially, Ocasek produced the act’s 1979 “Dream Baby Dream,” a single that split the difference between rigid synthpunk and pop daydreaming. He later gave a glaze of production black ice to Suicide’s second album, 1980’s Suicide: Alan Vega · Martin Rev, a landmark of proto-industrial drone and post-punk murk. Over the years, Ocasek would continue collaborating both with Suicide and principal members Vega and Rev, including on 1988’s uncompromising A Way Of Life. His production work with the band ranked among his most innovative and challenging; it was clear that Ocasek thrived both working in the electronic realm and with musicians who relished working outside of the mainstream.
Working with musicians for decades wasn’t out of the ordinary for Ocasek, which points to the kind of loyalty he engendered. In fact, he also remained a constant in Weezer’s career, and later went on produce two more full-lengths, 2001’s “Green Album” — home of “Hash Pipe,” “Photograph,” and “Island in the Sun” — and 2014’s stellar Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Both albums arguably are the most Weezer-sounding collections in the band’s catalog after “Blue,” ones where the band strips away artifice, shies away from goofy tendencies, and focuses on no-muss, grunge-tinted pop-rock.
For good measure, Weezer also once covered the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and bassist Scott Shriner was called on to perform with the Cars at the latter’s 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Unsurprisingly, Weezer was also one of the first bands to express their condolences after Ocasek’s death. “He taught us that one can be in a respected position of great power and yet be absolutely humble and have the biggest sweetest heart in the industry,” they wrote on Instagram. “Ric was so kind to us, and never faltered or changed a thing either professionally or personally in the three different decades we worked with him. When you were his friend, it was for life, and he was always as generous as could be with his time and care.”