Why Ric Ocasek’s ‘The Cars’ was the first new wave album you owned

Updated 7:40 AM EDT, Tue September 17, 2019
ric ocasek people now intv 1983 sot vpx_00010608.jpg
ric ocasek people now intv 1983 sot vpx_00010608.jpg
Now playing
01:14
The Cars' Ric Ocasek talks solo career (1983)
A view of Capitol Hill during heightened security concerns over possible protests or violence tomorrow March 3, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Washington's security posture has been bolstered after threats of a possible March 4, 2021, "breach" of the US Capitol, with the House of Representatives changing its voting plans to avoid gathering members on a day of potential unrest. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
A view of Capitol Hill during heightened security concerns over possible protests or violence tomorrow March 3, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Washington's security posture has been bolstered after threats of a possible March 4, 2021, "breach" of the US Capitol, with the House of Representatives changing its voting plans to avoid gathering members on a day of potential unrest. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
03:18
Rep. Sarbanes: Failure to pass HR 1 'would split our democracy in two'
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner  attends a press conference on September 4, 2020, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner attends a press conference on September 4, 2020, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:50
Jared Kushner disappears from Trump's inner circle
PHOTO: CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell
Now playing
02:14
Governor Cuomo accuser Charlotte Bennett speaks out
In this Dec. 1, 2020 file photo, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell appears before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.  Powell told Congress on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021,  that the central bank will not begin raising interest rates until the Fed believes it has reached its goals on maximum employment  and warned that many people in the hardest hit industries will likely need to find different jobs.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File)
PHOTO: Susan Walsh/AP
In this Dec. 1, 2020 file photo, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell appears before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Powell told Congress on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, that the central bank will not begin raising interest rates until the Fed believes it has reached its goals on maximum employment and warned that many people in the hardest hit industries will likely need to find different jobs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File)
Now playing
02:18
Jerome Powell: US economy 'some time' away from full recovery
A customer wears a face mask while shopping for flowers displayed for sale from a wholesale merchant ahead of the Valentine's Day holiday at the Southern California Flower Market on February 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. - While some florists note an increased demand for socially distant gifts, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted global supply chains and shut down most large events including weddings where flowers are popular. The Valentine's Day and Mother's Day holidays are historically the two busiest days of the year for floral businesses. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP
A customer wears a face mask while shopping for flowers displayed for sale from a wholesale merchant ahead of the Valentine's Day holiday at the Southern California Flower Market on February 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. - While some florists note an increased demand for socially distant gifts, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted global supply chains and shut down most large events including weddings where flowers are popular. The Valentine's Day and Mother's Day holidays are historically the two busiest days of the year for floral businesses. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:39
States rolling back Covid-19 safety measures as cases continue to rise
PHOTO: CBS' 60 Minutes+/Getty Images
Now playing
01:45
'QAnon Shaman' says he has one regret about January 6
psaki
PHOTO: CNN
psaki
Now playing
00:56
Psaki fires back at Trump testing czar over vaccine claims
Now playing
02:30
Alabama governor explains why she's ending mask mandate
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
01:35
See what security looks like outside US Capitol
Now playing
00:00
Bash: This is why key GOP senator is fighting Biden's stimulus
PHOTO: YouTube/Everyday Astronaut
Now playing
01:19
Watch SpaceX Mars prototype rocket nail landing, explode on pad
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16:  Physician to U.S. President Donald Trump Dr. Ronny Jackson listens during the daily White House press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House January 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. Dr. Jackson discussed the details of President TrumpÕs physical check-up from last week.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Alex Wong/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: Physician to U.S. President Donald Trump Dr. Ronny Jackson listens during the daily White House press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House January 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. Dr. Jackson discussed the details of President TrumpÕs physical check-up from last week. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:14
DOD releases scathing review of former White House physician
PHOTO: CNN/Getty
Now playing
02:10
'Highly misleading at best': Dale reacts to Pence's op-ed
PHOTO: Gov. Cuomo's office
Now playing
03:35
Gov. Andrew Cuomo addresses women's allegations
Commanding General District of Columbia National Guard Major General William J. Walker testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs/Rules and Administration hearing to examine the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash / POOL / AFP) (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Commanding General District of Columbia National Guard Major General William J. Walker testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs/Rules and Administration hearing to examine the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash / POOL / AFP) (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
03:01
DC National Guard commander: 'Unusual' Pentagon restrictions slowed response to Capitol riot
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally at Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
PHOTO: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold up their phones with messages referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory at a campaign rally at Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Now playing
03:00
Hear why QAnon supporters believe Trump will be president on March 4th

Editor’s Note: John Covach is director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music and a professor of music at Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of, “What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History,” and maintains an active career as a performing and recording musician. Follow him @JohnCovach. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) —  

He was at the leading edge of ‘80s New Wave, but Ric Ocasek, who died on Sunday at 75, was about the age of Bob Dylan and most of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

When he made his first commercial splash as the lead singer and songwriter of The Cars in the late 1970s, he was already a mature musician and songwriter, more than ready to earn his place in history as the driving force behind the rise of 1980s new wave rock – the music that was pushing past the likes of the Stones and Dylan.

Ocasek had ridden the course of rock history through Beatlemania, psychedelia, the singer-songwriter ‘70s and the prog-rock era. His songs offered a return to ‘60s pop simplicity while retaining a certain intellectual ambition in the lyrics and production. His songs were smart, sometimes a bit subversive, provocative, even quirky, but always interesting.

“The Cars,” the record that started it all, was released in the summer of 1978 – a year after the Sex Pistols’ brand of punk had stirred up England and six months after Elvis Costello had caused a rebellious scene during his appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” It was maybe the first new wave album that many rock fans owned. It deftly blended the emerging ironic aesthetic of new wave with the established stylistic conventions of ‘70s rock.

On the surface, Ocasek’s early Cars songs seemed to hark back to the more innocent, pre-psychedelic years of pop – imagine American AM radio in 1965. “My Best Friend’s Girl” opens with a cleaner, less distorted guitar sound than usual for the late ‘70s and uses hand claps that trigger memories of the early-’60s girl groups. The occasional hiccups in Ocasek’s lead vocal conjures up memories of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” and are reinforced by guitarist Elliot Easton’s rockabilly arpeggios that would have made Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore proud. Greg Hawkes’ organ sound is more reminiscent of Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” than stadium rockers Yes’ “Roundabout.”

But there was always more to Ocasek’s songwriting than returning to models from a bygone era. He was an enormous fan of the Velvet Underground, telling me not too long ago with great enthusiasm how influential that band’s 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” had been for him. There is indeed a certain velvet darkness that resides not too far below the seemingly sunny surface of Ocasek’s lyrics. You can hear it in “Just What I Needed”: “I guess, you’re just what I needed; I needed someone to bleed,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”: “I don’t care if you use me again; I don’t care if you abuse me again.”

His take on the 1960s was not a return to innocence, but rather an interpretation of that earlier era as viewed through a lens created by the musical developments of the 1970s.

Ocasek also produced poetry, paintings and drawings, as well as a series of solo albums. But music historians will remember him primarily for the run of six studio albums with The Cars, each of them commercially successful and including four US Top-5 albums and a string of hit singles.

Indeed, the band’s music was a staple of FM rock radio after the release of the debut album and throughout most of the 1980s. In 1984, the innovative video for “You Might Think” was voted MTV’s Video of the Year, giving Ocasek’s music a place in the history of music video as well.