Heartbeat City review by The Cars

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  • Released: Mar 13, 1984
  • Sound: 8
  • Lyrics: 9
  • Overall Impression: 8
  • Reviewer's score: 8.3 Superb
  • Users' score: 8 (2 votes)
The Cars: Heartbeat City

Sound — 8
The Cars - the Boston bastion of pop and rock - of punk and new wave, that did not veer too far in either direction that they could cultivate mass appeal, and here, they REALLY do that. This is the big hit album - "Heartbeat City"!

"Heartbeat City" was a huge departure for The Cars, even as high tech as they were, this album is no-expense-spared-level-cutting-edge complete with a CMI Fairlight (one of the first sample based synthesizers ever created - a $300,000 synth in 1984 money), vocoders, hoards more of synths - actually now Ric Ocasek joins in on the synth action here. But despite all the synths, the guitar is still there (mostly) and they still can rock pretty hard when they want to.

The album was recorded in six-eight months in England with a new producer for The Cars at the helm: the infamous Robert John "Mutt" Lange behind the desk. Lange is best known for working with Def Leppard on their mega hit "Hysteria," and AC/DC on their black album, the first album with Brian Johnson after Bon Scott's untimely passing.

On top of all that above - off this album, they made a music video for the lead-off track ("Hello Again") with famous artist Andy Warhol, ran a contest on MTV where The Cars would play your private house party, had a cutting edge video for "You Might Think" - one of the first, if not THE first music video with computer based animation and graphics. Now let's talk lineup...

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Ric Ocasek - Principal songwriter, singer, rhythm guitarist. He's back to being a Gibson/Marshall man on this album in a big way, lots of big distorted humbucker tones everywhere. He also played synth, at least on tour, for at least one of the songs.

Elliot Easton - Backing Vocals, he also got quite the feels for Telecasters before this album, the entire "Heartbeat City" tour, Elliot was playing Telecasters 90% of the time including a late sixties Paisley (or a new Japanese reissue of such), a 1960 style Telecaster Custom in sunburst, a red Fender Custom Shop before-it-was-the-custom-shop Telecaster Custom (seen in the Magic Video), a Vox teardrop guitar (or custom luthier replica of which). For Magic he uses the old Fender Lead 1 1/2 from the Panorama tour, now outfitted with a Kahler vibrato - which Benjamin Orr was also endorsing at the time (the bass version). Most notably though, is the Roland GR707, which he uses son various songs for synth leads - cutting edge as cutting edge can be for 1984.

Benjamin Orr - The vocalist pulling all the girls, and bassist. Benjamin Orr by this point found favor in a Precision Active bass that was black with gold hardware, which seemed to stay his #1 favorite bass thorough the rest of The Cars existence as a band. But he also was still using his white one from the Panorama album/tour (now equipped with a Kahler Bass Vibrato and shown in an ad for it with Benjamin Orr). Ben also found favor in Guild Pilot Basses at this point and was also seen using a Yamaha SB-series or two at the same time.

Greg Hawkes - Keyboardist, Vocals. Greg Hawkes has a TON of new toys to play with on here, including Roland Juno-6, Roland Jumpiter 6, Roland Jupiter 8, the CMI Fairlight sampling synth, vocoders, sequencers, and effects boxes galore. This is a big reason this album is so heavy on the synths - with all that high tech going on, the sound changed to a more mid-80's synth pop meets hard rock sort of sound, almost meeting up with Loverboy of the same era, but a little softer and more refined.

David Robinson - David Robinson started using electric drums during this time, and it was said he programmed most of the drum parts for this album rather than played them. Guess out of The Cars, he had the lightest workload of the lot. Which probably was fine with his bang up choice of album cover ("Art-O-Matic Loop Di Loop").

The Cars were one of the fastest productions done with Mutt Lange at the board. Lange was best known for being super meticulous, especially about guitar sounds, and he takes no exception here - despite being very synth driven at this point, The Cars guitar line is mostly Marshall amps now, and growls a lot more than usual, but is tastefully edited so as to not get in the way of the pop-feel of the album. Every member recorded their parts one at a time with overdubs taking a long time and some re-arranging going on during the recording process. This sounds like it was an album that was groomed to be a hit from the very beginning with it's no expense-spared production helping propel everything forward.

But in retrospect, this is very obviously an '80s album - while the older Cars sound is a subset of things that have come back into vogue - what The Cars here would be what today would call "New Retro Wave." - it sounds of the time. While "Candy-O" was standing outside your Eldorado with Sears Roebuck sound system in your white leather jacket looking tough - Heartbeat City was standing outside your Jaguar in a suit and tie with a Rolex on your arm looking very corporate.

But The Cars were saved from becoming another "Corporate Rock" group because they KEPT their wackiness, when even The B-52's were shedding their quirk in favor of MTV friendly cool-ness, The Cars found a way to keep it and not become easily pigeonholed into a lot of musicians/bands because they still stood out. This is undeniably The Cars despite the synths - the quirk is still there, if a bit subdued by pop production.

Still though, it lives well. I give it an 8 for the sound, because at this point, it still sits in that area of running dangerously close to mainstream pop of the time, but The Cars stand out via keeping some of their quirk and applying it tastefully to some places.

Lyrics — 9
In-keeping with the pop feeling, The Cars become a little less cryptic this time out... or do they. Ric Ocasek still has his touch, but he seems to have refined it to a point that the poetic-ness of the lyrics slips past you and becomes even more a part of the instrumentation. Like I said - and forgot to cover on my last review - this is a story within the album from end to end.

"Hello Again" - A high tech pop-rock greeting to the fans, or an inspirational piece of change penned by Ocasek. It's chock full of orchestra hits, and had a Andy Warhol music video around it that came in 2 versions - a quasi-X rated version complete with light nudity, and another G-rated version for MTV. this could also be called "Rio Ocasek Raps"

"Looking for Love" - Nope, this is not a country twanger, anything but. Elliot Easton gives us some spacey guitar lines including a tasteful middle+bridge Strat guitar solo over a dreampop landscape. Ric Ocasek shows us his vocal difference this go out, a bit more hollow voiced, sounds more like your collegate older brother showoing you how to record an album. Our character's lady of affection is looking for love - and he's willing to meet up.

"Magic" - A hard rocker with a killer whammy bar guitar solo from Elliot Easton and featured a music video with a Hal-Needhamesque cast of stereotypes for Cars fans following a Ric Ocasek "faith healer" type character who walks on water of his mansion swimming pool while the band rocks out by the pool nearby. It's summertime fun, all over again...well, Ric DID say summer was his favorite season.

"Drive" - The Cars hugest hit to date, the ballad drive, with Benjamin Orr on vocals. Benjamin gives one of his best on-record performances ever here, out besting some big names in the industry with his vocal work. The song could be about driving someone home or about a breakdown. The Music Video finds Ric Ocasek keeping watch on his (in the video) "Insane" future wife Paulina Porzikova whose going through manic episodes and scribbling on walls, while Benjamin croons from an empty bar room with a mannequin version of the band in the background (gee, did she thrash his bar and THAT is how she got committed).

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"Stranger Eyes" - A techno-rocker, with Orr on vocals, and seems to be one of those "I'm feeling frisky, let's get it on" songs (Ride me High, STranger Eyes). I'm guessing it's about hooking up with a stranger. Also, subtle note - sounds like Benjamin Orr is using the Kahler bass trem during the breakdown (pulling up on the notes).

"You Might Think" - In the spirit of "You're All I've Got Tonight" - this is sort of the reverse, now our amourous narrator is the one I'm not so sure is doing a subtle self put-down for chasing after this unattainable girl, whcih plays out in the music video with Ric Ocasek being everything from a gondola crooner, to a fly on the wall, to Riczilla, to flattening the girl with a toy car... go see that video, it's nuts and awesome, and it won a award at the VMA's IIRC.

"It's Not the Night" - Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek team up for a Duet again for the first time since "You Wear those Eyes" off Panorama. Sounds kind of powerful and dark, or like one of the more frisky nights.

"Why Can't I Have You" - The other ballad on the album, complete with pretty video filled with women stepping on Roses, Ric stands by his guitar rather than plays it, all the while performing in the wing of what looks like the space port part of the Death Star from Star Wars. Again, Ric's after a girl whose barely attainable, and asking that eternal question when in that scenario.

"I Refuse" - A 100% Keyboard driven track with not one bit of guitar on it save for a little bit of Jangle from Elliot Easton, and maybe a keyboard solo that's actually Elliot's Roland GR707. Ric seems to be singing about a difficult woman here.

"Jackie/Heartbeat City" - and we end with the album's title track, originally called "Jackie" on early pressings of the album. Elliot plays a really well executed synth guitar solo on this one that almost fools you as being a regular keyboard, while Ric Ocasek sings about his lost love come back

Overall, at this point, Ric's vocal work has gotten even better and more pop, while Benjamin Orr gives off the vocal-work of a lifetime on every song he's on. It's apparent, The Cars have mastered their craft and their style by this point, all they do from here till the end of the original lineup in 1988 - is keep expanding on it and adjusting to taste.

The lyrics and music convey the mood in a great way, and all the atmospheric elements of the instrumentation provide the proper sonic space to support the story of the Album. 9 it is. It can't hit 10 though because despite, it really is a product of it's time - but that's not The Cars or this album's fault, it's of it's time period, and what a time it was.

Overall Impression — 8
By this point, we are entering the mid 1980's, when quirky, angular new wave like The Cars earlier work, Devo, The B-52's, and Blondie, were giving way to synth pop like A-ha, Kaja Goo Goo, and Duran Duran. MTV was also a thing that was important, and Ric's interesting countance I'm sure was a part of how they kept quirk there visually, while Benjamin reeled in the girls and everyone else showed their distinct personalities through their looks as well. At this point, it was as much about the visuals as the music - a thing that has continued to this day ever since.

The standout tracks of course include the hits "Drive" "Magic" "Jackie/Heartbeat City", and I also think "Hello Again" and "It's Not The Night" have some real stand-out-ed-ness. The thing about this album is, there is not a bad track on it, but because of how high the bar was raised by this album as a pop album, it makes it hard to reach. But as a guitar-rock album, it's a tad lacking because the focus on this album was more on heavy use of the CMI Fairlight and electric drums over guitar riffs like previous Cars records. But like I said in my Shake It Up Review, this is where The Cars were heading during this time - along with everyone else - except it was their own unique brand of that.

In a way, this could be called "The Cars Greatest Hits VOL 2" to allude to a old joke made by guitarist Elliot Easton about the first record. Almost an entire side of the album could be made of the hits.

The only thing I don't like about it really is that much like the first album, it was quite overplayed, especially "Drive" and "You Might Think," which get played pretty much anytime The Cars come on VH-1 or MTV, and it's been that way since the nineties when I got into this band via buying their records for a buck from the bargain bins at Wildman Steves and the Guitar Shoppe. But they were overplayed because they were EXCELLENT songs.

As for stolen/lost, not possible again due to the digital/vinyl/tape thing. I'll say this, this was the most elaborate Cars album packaging wise. It comes in a gatefold fushia album cover with the "Art-O-Matic loop-di-loop" cover - obviously picked by Robinson, and a photoshoot in the inner cover for the girls to drool over, and a pretty comprehensive lyric sheet inside for cover-crazies like me who might fancy singing along or covering those songs at a house party circa 1985 - compared to earlier records like the first three that just had all of the lyrics in a big mess in a single line going across the sleeve inside where one could not figure the structure out so easily.

"Heartbeat City" is an essential for an '80s afficianado - perfect to go next to your A Flock Of Seagulls, Duran Duran "Rio," Madonna "Like a Virgin," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Van-Halen's "1984," and Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet" - to name some landmark albums of that era. But as a guitarist, it is lacking somewhat in the guitar category - something they would address on the next album - Door to Door - for the most part. A solid eight it is.

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