Picture sleeve for The Cars' single "Just What I Needed". The cover model is Natalya Medvedeva, a Russian-born model, journalist, and musician who died in 2003.
Long before The Cars had formed, Rik Ocasek (rhythm and lead guitar) and Benjamin Orr (bass guitar) met at a party in Columbus, Ohio and began performing as a duo, covering rock and roll classics. After deciding that Boston would be a better place to break into the music business, Ocasek and Orr relocated there. There they met keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who had studied music at the Berklee School of Music, and the three, along with lead guitarist Jas Goodkind, combined to form the folk band Milkwood. They released an album called “How’s the Weather” (1973) on the Paramount label. The album failed to chart. After Milkwood, Ocasek and Orr formed Richard and the Rabbits with drummer Thomas Tapley (the name was suggested by Jonathan Richman). Hawkes joined Orphan, a soft rock band, and Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture, a musical comedy act fronted by Martin Mull. Ocasek and Orr eventually performed as an acoustic duo called Ocasek and Orr, and performed at the Idler coffeehouse in Cambridge. Eventually, Ocasek and Orr teamed up with guitarist Elliot Easton (who also studied at Berklee) and formed the band Cap’n Swing. This band also featured Kevin Robichaud on drums and a jazzy bass player, which clashed with Ocasek’s more rock and roll leanings. Eventually Ocasek got rid of the bass player, the keyboardist and the drummer. Robichaud was replaced by David Robinson, whose main claim to fame up to that point was as the bass player for Jonathan Richman. Hawkes joined the band, and Robinson suggested a new name for Cap’n Swing: The Cars. The band spent the winter of 1976-1977 playing throughout New England, developing and honing the songs that would comprise their debut album. Local station WBCN started playing the demo of “Just What I Needed”; this led to a contract with Elektra Records. “Just What I Needed” b/w “I’m In Touch with Your World” was released as the lead single from their self-titled debut album. This is today’s featured single.
In “Just What I Needed”, The Cars recorded a song that captured their blend of garage rock energy and new wave finesse in a perfect mixture. Rik Ocasek’s deadpan vocal delivery seems ideal for the lyrics, which is an interesting play on the traditional love song: “I don’t mind you coming here/Wasting all my time/’Cause when you’re standing oh so near/I kinda lose my mind”. The protagonist’s attitude seems to cross over from indifference to a more menacing attitude with the chorus: “I guess you’re just what I needed/I needed someone to bleed”. Bassist Orr also lays down an appropriately restrained backing vocal during the chorus. The musical accompaniment complements the lyrics well; the interaction between Easton’s guitar and Hawkes’ cool, almost hypnotic synthesizer melody is great, and about 1 minute and 48 seconds into the track, we even get a brief Easton guitar solo. Ocasek’s vocal delivery becomes more insistent towards the end, and the music builds to an appropriate crescendo before ending. Producer Roy Thomas Baker made a crystal-clear, radio-friendly recording, and as a result, “Just What I Needed” got considerable radio airplay, helping the song become a Top 30 hit; it is still a staple on classic rock stations throughout the United States.
Red vinyl version of the "Just What I Needed" single.
The B-side of this single, “I’m In Touch With Your World”, is a much more restrained, low-key song with nonsensical lyrics: “You can tuck it on the inside/You can throw it on the floor/You can wave it on the outside/Like you never did before”. Unlike the previous track, in which the duel between Easton’s guitar and Hawkes’ synthesizer were key to the musical content, on this track, Easton guitar seems much more fey, save for a brief period during the chorus. Hawkes’ synthesizer punches through the musical landscape on occasion, giving the song an appropriately otherworldly sound. While “I’m In Touch With Your World” lacks the pop-like sheen of “Just What I Needed”, it nonetheless showcases The Cars’ ability to craft clever, memorable songs.
This single (catalog #: E-45491) was released on May 29, 1978. It was issued with a picture sleeve (the picture on the cover was identical to the cover of the debut album, with the name of the band and the track listing across the top. It was also issued, with the same catalog number, on colored vinyl. The success of this single would prove to be only the beginning for The Cars, who eventually would go on to become the most successful new wave band. The first album peaked at #18 and remained on the Billboard album chart for 139 weeks, spawning two more charting singles. The second album, “Candy-O” (1979) was also successful, spawning such hits as “Let’s Go”. The third album, the more experimental “Panorama” (1980), was not as successful, producing only one Top 40 single (“Touch and Go”), but it nonetheless went platinum. The next album, “Shake It Up” (1981), was seen as a return to form; the title track became a Top 10 hit, and another song from the album, “Since You’re Gone” was also a hit. The band took a break for solo projects, but re-emerged a few years later with “Heartbeat City” (1984). The first single off the album, “You Might Think”, was a major hit and also boasted a groundbreaking video. Other hits from the album included “Magic”, “Hello Again”, and “Why Can’t I Have You”. Their next album was “Greatest Hits” (1985), which contained one new track, “Tonight She Comes”, which was released as a single and reached the Top 10. Their next studio album, “Door to Door”, contained the Top 20 hit “You Are the Girl”, but the album failed to approach the success of previous albums, and in February 1988, The Cars announced their breakup. Benjamin Orr died in October 2000 from pancreatic cancer, but the surviving members of The Cars placed a photo of themselves together at a Boston studio on their Facebook page, suggesting the possibility of a band reunion.