The Cars – Heartbeat City

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

It would be interesting if I made a chart of the popularity, by sales figures, of the albums I own. Heartbeat City apparently sold at least 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, similar to Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water notched over 8 million in sales in this country. Green Day’s Dookie has sold upwards of 10 million in the U.S., as has U2’s The Joshua Tree and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle, Vol. 1. 15 million moved amongst his countrymen is the mark surpassed by Springsteen with Born in the U.S.A.; and the top spot in my collection goes to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which has sold more than 20 million copies states-side. Still, Heartbeat City was huge; almost certainly a top ten most popular in my collection. I remember the videos from middle school and just being really into “Magic,” “Hello Again,” and especially, “You Might Think.” As it turns out, this is the last of the Cars albums you would need to own, though, really, you could dispense with the studio albums and just get the greatest hits (which also nets you the excellent “Tonight She Comes,” never released on a studio album).

What I Think of This Album

This album could get by on just its four hits. And it basically does, as there is really not a lot else there, with one exception.

Some of the sound effects on “Hello Again” remind me of a Duran Duran song (“View to a Kill”? “Union of the Snake”? I don’t know), and the vocals call to mind Def Leppard (the first “hello” and “hello again” with the effects in the background in particular). Producer “Mutt” Lange did produce both Pyromania and Hysteria (respectively, U.S. sales of 10 and 12 million copies), so that tracks. Greg Hawkes simply dominates this song, playing about a million different keyboard sounds. This is a strikingly experimental offering for the US radio charts; there are a lot of very weird sounds on this for a Top 20 hit.

“Looking for Love” is the dark horse here. Part ballad, part mid-tempo number, this is a great, overlooked song –  I think it has a grand and panoramic feel. I am surprised this wasn’t a single (particularly when “Heartbeat City” and “Why Can’t I Have You” were). The drums sound absurd, though.

“Magic” starts out sounding like a flying saucer lifting off and ends up being a slicked-up bubblegum song; none of that is an insult. One one level, this is just a fun, melodic tune. On another, it’s a testament to studio goofs – for example, the tongue clicks at :57 after Ocasek sings “high shoes with the cleats a-clickin’” is hilarious and wonderful, as is the cowbell(?)-as-railroad-crossing-signal at 2:09. Kudos to you, “Mutt” Lange, for being brave enough to add those touches. Easton’s crunchy tone is fantastic, by the way, and Orr adds some nicely rubbery bass.

I never got into the Benjamin Orr-sung “Drive” back when I was 11, but it is an almost perfect ballad, with lush-but-cheesy synths in the background. Orr sings the shit out of this.

Jesus, “You Might Think” is a monster of a song. Just incredible. Easton plays perfect parts, with some brief muscular riffing, particularly effective at the close of the song.  He really is one of the least obtrusive, most tasteful lead guitarists. Hawkes provides the framework of the chorus with his piano chords, and the synths during the bridge are critical, and he manages to throw in a lot of other parts throughout the piece. That’s half the album right there – five great songs.

The other half doesn’t even come close, but nothing there is terrible either. What’s weird is that the hits were where the band took chances and the duds are where they tried to write more conventional FM radio songs.

“Stranger Eyes” is okay, again with the Def Leppard feel. “It’s Not the Night” is brooding and mysterious, with a descending synth line, until it, too, adopts a more typical US pop chart sound. “Why Can’t I Have You” is another ballad, and it’s not bad, though a tiny bit tedious. “I Refuse” is likewise the sound of the Cars with one foot in the vanguard and the other seeking for a toehold of popularity. The title track is okay, with some subtle fills by Easton and atmospheric work by Hawkes.

BTW, Andy Warhol directed the very strange music video for “Hello Again.” And for all the carping I’ve done about how the Cars were copying conventional sounds here, let me state that during his time with the band, Ocasek also worked as a producer for decidedly non-mainstream artists like Bad Brains, Suicide, and Romeo Void (and later, Guided by Voices, D Generation, and Bad Religion).

The Best Thing About This Album

If I had to break the band down, I would do it like this:  Ocasek was the most talented; Easton was the best musician; Orr was the coolest; Hawkes had the greatest vision; and Robinson had the most style. That is all besides the point because the best thing about this album is clearly “You Might Think.”

Release Date

March, 1984

The Cover Art

Another rather obvious choice by drummer David Robinson – the Vargas art is a callback to Candy-O, and there is, well, a car (a Plymouth Duster 340, if you want to know). That said, I do like the framing and the fonts. This art is from a larger piece (which wraps around to the inner sleeve/back) by artist Peter Phillips.

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