The Cars – Heartbeat City (1984)

“Hello! Hello again!”

The immediately recognizable images of female beauty by Peter Phillips are back after taking a couple albums off.

The Cars were four successful albums into their career by the time they entered the studio with producer John “Mutt” Lange in 1983. At the time, Lange was mostly known for his production work on mainstream rock albums from bands such as AC/DC (“Back in Black”), Foreigner (“4”), and Def Leppard (“Pyromania”). The Cars, while considered a popular rock band, did not necessarily fall into the same category of rock that the aforementioned bands were associated as. The Cars were always considered a bit more New Wave due to the sound of their first couple of late 70s albums, the multi-platinum selling “The Cars” and “Candy-O”. These albums not only sold millions of copies but also spawned enduring radio hits like “Just What I Needed”, “Best Friends Girl” and “Let’s Go”. Their subsequent releases in the early 80s, the more experimental “Panorama” and their first comeback attempt, “Shake It Up” both sold well but didn’t elicit the same spark and sense of excitement. The Cars then said goodbye to their longtime producer, Roy Thomas Baker and enlisted Lange to help get them back onto the pop music upper echelon by adding a shiny, perfectionist sheen to their already accessible sound. The result of this collaboration was “Heartbeat City”, The Cars 5th studio album and return to multi-platinum, multi-top 10 single arena for the first time in 6 years.

Photos of the band from the interior sleeve. From left to right: Ric Ocasek – vocals, guitar; Elliot Easton – guitar, vocals; Benjamin Orr – vocals, bass; Greg Hawkes – keyboards, vocals; David Robinson – drums

Unlike Mutt Lange’s producing and co-songwriting work with Def Leppard, “Heartbeat City” was still entirely written by Ric Ocasek, The Cars primary songwriter and co-lead singer. The essence of The Cars previous albums is still intact but when the album was released in March of 1984, MTV and pop radio stations immediately took notice thanks to the lead off single, “You Might Think”. Music video and The Cars had never really been much of a match prior to the release of “Heartbeat City”, but the band’s decision to embrace the burgeoning medium proved to be extremely fruitful, especially considering that The Cars, save for bassist/co-vocalist Benjamin Orr, were not exactly pin-up material.

The music video for the lead single, “You Might Think” was primarily created using early computer graphics mixed with actual footage of the band along with model Susan Gallagher as they interacted in a surreal and fantastic manner. The intent of the video was to provide visuals that matched the song’s lyrics about a man’s obsession with the beautiful woman set in his lovelorn sights. The CGI turns Ocasek into a fly buzzing around the woman’s head, as a periscope in her bathtub while the band plays their instruments on a bar of soap, as well as a lanky version of King Kong grabbing her out of her bedroom window, among others. The end result was innovative, expensive (the video cost three times as much as the average video at the time) and ground breaking enough to win Video of the Year at the inaugural MTV Music Video Awards in 1984. Sure, it’s aged pretty badly as any CGI based visual media tends to do over time, but I remember seeing the video many times when it was popular and always stopped whatever I was doing to watch it all the way through. It doesn’t hurt that the song is excellent as well!

“Heartbeat City” spawned numerous other hit singles, all with notable music videos, which certainly helped the songs and album’s popularity last throughout 1984 and into 1985. This was during MTV’s heyday and creating memorable music videos was an extremely important part of the promotion of music. MTV was still in its infancy, therefore any music video that contained a plot, interesting visuals, or extremely attractive actors/models (especially if the artists themselves weren’t exactly teen idols, sorry Ric!) was going to get noticed and significant airplay. The Cars already created music that had the necessary ingredients for success (catchy pop hooks, crunchy guitars, new wave keyboards) and pairing it up with music videos that enhanced the audio, was the key ingredient and made “Heartbeat City” a unexpected return to form.

“Magic” was the next single to be released and The Cars created another surreal video by casting Ocasek as a sort of messianic/cult figure who can walk on water while eliciting an eclectic group of followers to fawn over his every move and word. The entire video is essentially Ocasek singing the lyrics to the song, which is about how being with that special someone feels like, well, “magic” and how that feeling grabs a hold of you and won’t let go. The video isn’t quite the literal take on the lyrics that it could have been (Ocasek as magician!) and feels less like magic than obsession or cultist behavior being addressed. Regardless, the video does a good job of providing memorable images such as the opening scene where an portly man lies by a mansion pool only to become overrun by Ocasek’s characters followers or the end scene where the followers jump into the pool to try to get closer to Ocasek’s water walker. Unfortunately, the rest of the band has very little screen time, only really present during the song’s guitar solo, but this tends to be the norm for Cars videos. This video, similar to “You Might Think”, is all Ocasek.

The album’s third single, “Drive”, was also its highest charting, reaching #3. Bassist Benjamin Orr takes lead vocal duties from Ocasek on this power ballad that isn’t so much about being in love with someone as it is about telling someone how much they are going to miss you when you’re gone. The song’s lyrics ask rhetorical question after rhetorical question, ultimately ending the chorus by asking “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?”  The song eschews guitars that many of The Cars biggest hits are known for and instead utilize synthesizers to evoke emotion in this sad yet beautiful song.

As for the music video, it’s shot tastefully in black & white by the actor Timothy Hutton, best known at the time for his Oscar winning performance in 1980’s “Ordinary People”. Orr, who has the most movie star (or video star in this case) ready good looks sits forlornly in what appears to be an old and unused bar filled with mannequins, some of them creepily moving around the room. Other scenes show Ocasek and the beautiful brunette model Paulina Porizkova fighting and along with solo shots of her that imply that she has quite simply gone mad over the dissolution of her relationship. Porizkova is shown scribbling on a blank wall while her back is turned to it as well as laughing and crying hysterically, sometimes in the same shot. It’s not impossible to think that her character in the video is quite mentally unstable and that is the cause of her break-up with Ocasek, but it remains unclear. The final shot of the video, showing wax mannequins of the band all dressed up in suits on stage at this decrepit bar while Porizkova stares at them through a window, is a haunting image that sticks with you long after the video ends. Hutton did a great job providing visuals that match the tone of the track and as a heavy watcher of MTV when this song and video were popular, I can say it’s very hard for me to hear “Drive” now and not immediately go to the black and white artistic style and imagery presented for the music video. Ocasek and Porizkova met while on set and would eventually marry, where they remain as husband and wife to this day.

The album’s fourth single, “Hello Again”, is another synth rock masterpiece that utilizes the similar froggy guitar sound that could be found on the hit single “Let’s Go” from “Candy-O” several years prior. The song is great on its own but when you throw in some surreal imagery from the music video director, Andy Warhol, you have 1980s MTV gold! Admittedly, this video is the most confusing and odd of the bunch (that’s saying a lot), as it begins with what appears to be a teenage talk-show (Rocktalk) where the panelists talk about sex and violence in the media in context of the sex and violence they see in high school. After this intro, the majority of the rest of the video takes place in a seedy, yet bright nightclub, where Warhol plays bartender to the band as men and women stare blankly, gyrate/dance or make out in various stages of undress. The end scene with Ocasek as telephone operator is probably the most head scratching as its unclear what this has to do with the imagery and theme of the rest of the video beyond the obvious take on “hello” from the song’s title and the connection that word has to telephones and making telephone calls. Either way, I didn’t see this video on MTV quite as often as the previous singles, likely due to the sexual nature of the visual content presented by Warhol.

“Why Can’t I Have You” was the fifth final single and video from “Heartbeat City”. Another ballad, the video for “Why Can’t I Have You” goes for a very stylish approach where the band plays on a sparse sound stage with shots of a beautiful dancer and flowers being stepped on and shattering. The director utilizes shadows and lights to emphasize portions of the woman’s face (lips, eyes, mouth) while simultaneously obscuring portions of her face. The same lighting trick is used for shots of Ocasek and the band as well. It’s a pleasant looking video with some nice images but overall, its the most forgettable of the five that The Cars made in support of the album.

The rest of the album’s non-singles, “Looking for Love”, “Stranger Eyes”, “It’s Not the Night”, “I Refuse” and “Heartbeat City” are all very solid to exceptional tracks, making “Heartbeat City” an album with virtually no weaknesses. Some Cars purists might consider this album their “sell out” moment thanks to MTV, but when selling out sounds this good, I don’t think anyone should really care.

Memory Bank Withdrawal

My original cassette tape from 1984 as well as vinyl copy of the album I picked up much later.

“Heartbeat City” has the distinction of being the very first original cassette that I owned at the age of 9. Along with my sister, I had been recording songs off the radio onto blank tapes for about a year prior to Christmas 1984, but I remember distinctly asking for a tape player of my own as I was needing to borrow my older sister’s Boombox to listen to these recorded tapes and that was becoming less and less acceptable in her eyes. I needed my own device and in turn, my own music. The device was a simple tape recorder, not a boombox with a radio option, and the music was The Cars “Heartbeat City”, which I had requested from my parents. By Christmas of 1984, the album had already spawned 4 singles so I knew that there was plenty of good music contained within the plastic and tape. My sister already had a copy of my favorite album, “Purple Rain” so it didn’t make sense for me to ask for another for myself. “Heartbeat City” felt like the perfect album filled with songs that I enjoyed but if I have to be honest, it was likely the music videos that set The Cars apart from some of the other artists with great albums that I could have asked for that Christmas. The Cars would not be able to duplicate this level of success with their next album, “Door to Door” and then would break-up shortly after. However, “Heartbeat City” was their commercial apex and I firmly believe MTV had a significant role in that success.

My order of preference of “Heartbeat City” tracks from most favorite to least favorite with my personal ratings next to them.

  1. Drive  5/5
  2. Magic  5/5
  3. Heartbeat City  5/5
  4. You Might Think  5/5
  5. Hello Again  4.5/5
  6. Looking For Love 4.5/5
  7. Why Can’t I Have You  4/5
  8. Stranger Eyes  4/5
  9. I Refuse  3.5/5
  10. It’s Not the Night  3/5

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