Many artists have done the “back to basics” album at some point in their careers.
Sometimes, there are legitimate artistic reasons for this. Maybe they’ve been experimenting with new sounds for too long and felt like there was nowhere else to go. For instance, U2 seemed to hit the electronic wall following Pop, resulting in their back-to-basics follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
Or maybe they veered too hard into commercial territory, got backlash from their hardcore fans, and decided to get back to their roots. This was the stated purpose for Metallica’s St. Anger album, until lots of other things got in the way. Ultimately, their follow up albums, 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct were more in line with their 80s classic sound.
But sometimes, a “back to basics” album is a “Hail Mary” — a desperate ploy from an artist to stop his or her decline, or from a band to paper over some cracks and avoid a breakup. The proposed Get Back album and movie project for the Beatles turned out to be examples of this, as the band broke up before either were released (we’ll get to see some of that footage in November, when Peter Jackson’s documentary is released on Disney+).
Likewise, Door to Door (1987) marked the moment The Cars broke down and got put on concrete blocks, ending their run as hitmakers and exacerbating personal conflicts between members that broke them up for the better part of two decades.
The Cars were always greater than the sum of their parts. Main songwriter Ric Ocasek was a natural at coming up with catchy songs that were filled with hooks and earworms (and hand-clapping, which is always a fun thing to do when listening to a song). He and bassist Benjamin Orr made for an effective vocal tag-team — they sounded similar enough so that it wasn’t jarring for the listener to hear two different people singing lead on a given album but there were enough differences so the band could choose one or the other based on what was best for the song. Elliot Easton was a fantastic, if somewhat underrated lead guitarist who was very good at coming up with guitar solos for new wave and pop songs, genres that don’t always lend themselves to extended displays of musical virtuosity. Drummer David Robinson had a steady and versatile style that allowed him to sit back and provide the backbone for a song, or take center stage with his melodic flourishes, like on “Let’s Go.” And keyboardist Greg Hawkes played distinctive melodies and riffs that complemented and stood out from Ocasek’s and Easton’s playing, giving them a quasi-second lead guitarist. Throw in a healthy sense of humor and unique style and look, and you have a band built for dominance.
From 1978 to 1986, The Cars parked themselves at the top of the charts with five consecutive platinum or multi-platinum albums (six if you include a greatest hits compilation) and 12 Top 40 singles (plus three that peaked at #41, weirdly enough). With the advent of MTV, the band took advantage, producing several memorable music videos that made them into bona fide superstars. At the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, “You Might Think” won Video of the Year over several other iconic videos, including “Thriller” and “Rockit.”
But there was only one guy who could be the driver, and that was very much Ocasek. Sure, Orr could take the wheel every once in a while (and shine, like on “Drive” or “Let’s Go“), but Ocasek was always the one in control. “Ben and I had a real cold war going that lasted about 23 years,” Ocasek told the New York Times in 2011. “I could never really figure out exactly why, but I think there was a lot of jealousy because I wrote the songs and I got a lot of attention.” (You’d think the handsome Orr would have been made for the video era, but the band’s quirky videos really played more to Ocasek’s strengths and unique look.)
The Cold War had become a hot one by the time of Door to Door. During a break from the band following its 1984 smash Heartbeat City, both Orr and Ocasek had released solo albums. Orr hit #24 on the Billboard singles chart with “Stay the Night,” while Ocasek peaked slightly higher, reaching #15 with “Emotion in Motion.” Maybe experiencing some solo success exacerbated long-simmering tensions between the two. “Ben and Ric were not getting along,” Hawkes recalled to Rolling Stone about the Door to Door sessions. “The recording sessions were basically unpleasant. In retrospect, we should have had an outside producer to mediate.”
According to Joe Milliken, who published Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr & The Cars in 2018, their differences boiled down to Ocasek’s domination of the songwriting process. “[B]y the end of the band, it had become a dictatorship. [Ocasek] kind of took over everything in the band,” Milliken told Cleveland.com.
Ocasek more or less confirmed that, admitting to Rolling Stone in 2011 when The Cars finally reunited that he could be “controlling” when it came to songwriting and musical direction. By the time of Door to Door, he and Orr were barely on speaking terms, and during the ensuing tour, Orr rode in his own bus, separate from the rest of the band. Substances were also an issue, as both Ocasek and Orr’s then-girlfriend stated that Orr was drinking a lot during that time period.
But the main conflict seemed to be creative. During the Door to Door tour, Orr had proposed that the band record some songs he had written with his then-girlfriend. “I said, ‘That’s not gonna happen,'” Ocasek recalled to Rolling Stone, adding that the band had played some of Orr’s songs in the early years but that Ocasek had never been able to get into the lyrics. “I almost didn’t want them part of the thing,” he said to Rolling Stone. “Maybe it was the controlling.” He said something similar to the New York Times, saying that he had flatly told Orr: “No, that’s not The Cars.”
Then again, it probably wouldn’t have mattered since it was clear that the band was running out of gas. According to Ocasek, the band wanted to get back to their original sound after veering hard into the slick production and heavily synthesized stylings of Heartbeat City. For one thing, Robinson had barely played live drums on that album, instead his parts had been mostly sequenced and sampled through drum machines. “It’s more down-to-earth and less synthesized,” Ocasek told the Boston Globe (as recounted in Ultimate Classic Rock).
One way they tried to accomplish that was to formally record two songs they had demoed way back in 1977: “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo” and “Leave or Stay.” In one way, it made sense to record these two songs since they were looking for a sound closer to their classic 1978 self-titled debut, and those two songs were from that time period. But by revisiting old material, it raised questions as to whether or not the band had lost some of its inspiration. Plus, there’s a reason why they never recorded those songs — if they were so good, they would have already been on a Cars album (for the record, I actually quite like “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo,” but let’s face — it sounds a lot like a demo and the title seems like one of those temporary placeholders songwriters use until they think of something better).
All of that would have been academic if Ocasek, who had always come up with killer singles, had been able to weave his usual magic. However, the singles on Door to Door were fairly mediocre by his lofty standards. Lead single “You Are the Girl” featured a rare double lead vocal from Orr and Ocasek and was paired with a quirky, eye-catching video directed by filmmaker John Waters. The song, however, is fairly weak and forgettable — especially when you think of some of the other classic lead singles Ocasek has written (like “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go,” “Shake it Up” or “You Might Think“).
Much better is the second single, “Strap Me In” (which proved to be the band’s last video until 2011 and the final one to feature Orr). The band considered this to be the best song on the album, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got a good hook, a fantastic solo from Easton and weighty lyrics (and lots of car-related puns) from Ocasek. It’s also about conflict and the video, which features scenes of the band playing juxtaposed with various couples or models fighting, really hammers home that point. It’s an eerie, but fitting denouement for the band, considering everything that was happening behind the scenes.
The third, and last single from the album, “Coming Up You,” features a sweet, tender vocal from Orr. These were always the types of songs where he excelled (see “Drive”) — Ocasek’s voice and delivery were a bit too sardonic and distant to pull them off. As Mike DeGagne of Allmusic put it: “‘Coming Up You’ easily rises above the rest of the album’s lackluster fair, mainly because Orr seems to sound more enthused and more interested than Ocasek does on any of his songs.”
One of Orr’s other lead vocals comes on “Go Away,” which features the line: “Why don’t we go away” repeated over and over in the chorus and refrain. In the context of the song, it’s a suggestion from the narrator to his partner to go away together (of course like many of Ocasek’s songs, the lyrics make you wonder what’s really going on — whether it’s two people going on vacation or if the narrator is thinking about a past love and wanting to either relive their relationship or escape the present). But you can’t help but wonder if the song is really about whether The Cars should go away.
Other songs on the album range from decent to forgettable. Worse, some songs see the band trying to sound like others. The hard-rocking “Double Trouble” sounds like a Def Leppard-esque song, which is ironic, considering they were trying to get away Mutt Lange, the frequent Leppard producer who had worked with The Cars on Heartbeat City. “Everything You Say” sounds a lot like R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” particularly with the driving guitar riff and melody that lasts throughout the song. So much for “back to basics.”
While Door to Door ended up being certified gold by the RIAA, it was a huge drop-off from the band’s previous efforts, most notably its two immediate predecessors: Heartbeat City, which went quadruple platinum in the U.S. and the Greatest Hits collection, which would go 6x platinum in the U.S. As for its singles, “You Are the Girl” hit #17 on the Billboard charts, but “Strap Me In” and “Coming Up You” peaked at #85 and #74, respectively.
All of the drama and lack of quality seemed to catch up to Ocasek, who decided to leave the group shortly after the end of the Door to Door tour. “Ric had been the dictator of a very small country and I think it was wearing on everybody,” said then-wife, Paulina Porizkova, who met Ocasek on the set of the video of “You Might Think.” “All the guys were really fond of each other, but it had run its course at that time. Creatively he really wanted to stretch his wings and get a little weirder. People expected the Cars thing, the hooks. He was like, ‘Fuck that–I want to do something else.’”
And he did. For the rest of his life, Ocasek mostly stuck to production work, as well as his solo career. From 1988 until 2011, he steadfastly refused to reunite with The Cars — other than a joint-interview with his four bandmates in 2000 to promote a DVD release. By then, however, Orr was dying from pancreatic cancer (he looks terrible in the interview, which was sad considering he had always been the best-looking guy in the band) and passed later that year. In 2005, Hawkes and Easton decided to form The New Cars with Todd Rundgren on lead vocals, however, the less said about that, the better.
Finally, Ocasek came around and reunited with the remaining members of The Cars in 2011 for a new album, Move Like This, and a brief tour. Featuring four killer tunes and several other tracks that are better than anything on Door to Door, Move Like This is a much more fitting coda for the band.
They also played one last time together at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2018. Hawkes later said that he felt like the Hall of Fame performance had “sense of finality.” And even if it hadn’t, Ocasek’s death 18 months later certainly sealed it.
At least until the remaining members join up with Right Said Fred to form The Muscle Cars.