Coming on like the anomic New England cousins of Blondie without the girl, Boston’s Cars offered a gleaming New Wave take on post-punk rock ’n’ roll seemingly designed for FM radio motoriks; an experience one might revisit years later when hearing, say, The Strokes for the first time.
Did Ric Ocasek, the power pop band’s predominant creative force, write a more visceral, vibrant track than Just What I Needed?
Maybe not, but Double Life, Let’s Go and It’s All I Can Do from their sophomore long player Candy-O certainly built on the masterstrokes of their self-titled debut album.
But if UK radio play was a reflection of a band’s output, The Cars were two hit wonders. Their 1978 hit My Best Friend’s Girl, followed a whopping seven years later by Drive and its unlikely prominence at Live Aid guaranteed that. But Cars were so much more – particularly on their side of the pond.
Heartbeat City, the band’s fifth LP, was one of the biggest albums on the Billboard charts of 1984, spawning a quartet of Top 12 hits, including You Might Think, Hello Again and Magic.
It was the third single, though, that became the biggest record of the group’s career: the gorgeous introspective ballad Drive.
Floating over majestic waves of alluring electronica, bassist Benjamin Orr’s beautifully nuanced, emotionally-charged vocal performance is note-perfect for the haunted vibe of the song. And let’s be honest, as great as Ocasek was, his arch, often mannered Bowiesque vocal affections just wouldn’t have worked here.
So it’s more than a little ironic Drive was recorded at the former Morgan Studios in London’s Willesden High Road where the Major Tom one had recorded Space Oddity a decade and a half earlier.
Poignant and pointed, Drive’s lyrics seem to be asking someone whose life is going downhill fast, to honestly examine their situation and take their foot off the gas before it’s too late.
Moreover, the opinion Rolling Stone offered when the song was released, in a perceptive review, suggested a “subnarrative of love and drug addiction” running through Heartbeat City, which lines up with Drive.
Searching questions like “Whose gonna pick you up/When you fall?”; Who’s gonna plug their ears/When you scream?”; and “Whose gonna hold you down/When you shake?” all suggest someone in the throes of drug addiction and withdrawal.
Drive’s atmospheric, almost dreamlike quality was reflected in the Timothy Hutton-directed video that featured the Czech model Paulina Porizkova, then just a teenager. Meeting her future husband on the set in New York’s Astoria Studios, she would become Ocasek’s widow upon his death in 2019.
With MTV giving the clip constant rotation, Drive was propelled to No. 3 in the US and No. 5 in the UK in September of ’84. However, there was an even more dramatic film that would seal the song’s legacy when the organisers of the Live Aid transatlantic charity concert used it to soundtrack footage of starving Ethiopian children, in a move that the archangel Gabriel will explain on the Day of Judgment.
Actually I can do that for you right now.
When Drive was coupled with a disturbing video of African famine victims and shown on the big screens at Live Aid in Wembley Stadium and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia and around the world it had a gigantic impact on people. And it was all thanks to David Bowie.
As well as his 20-minute main set, Bowie was also appearing that day in a specially recorded video of Dancing In The Street with Mick Jagger, and part of the chorus helping Paul McCartney through Let It Be, and leading the all-star finale of Do They Know It’s Christmas? during the London finale. He felt the onus was on him to sacrifice part of his allotted set time to introduce a certain video that had moved him to tears.
In a terrapin hut backstage before the concert, “Sir” Bob Geldof, the show’s organiser-in-chief, had shown David a film compiled from newsreel footage of the Ethiopian famine, shot by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, even though he was refusing to allow the video to be shown due to time constraints. The Boomtown Rats singer only relented when Bowie, who had the unenviable task of following his erstwhile Under Pressure partners Freddie Mercury and Queen on to the Wembley stage, offered to drop a song from his main set as a trade-off.
“Bowie was sobbing … he says, ‘I want to drop a song and introduce this’.”
Received wisdom is that the song Bowie cut to make way for the CBC clip was the opening track from Ziggy Stardust, the apocalyptic Five Years, largely repeating a claim that Geldof’s wife and Tube presenter Paula Yates made on a documentary later that year. However, Thomas Dolby and the late Matthew Seligman, two members of Bowie’s hastily assembled bright young things on the day, have both assured me in the past that the sacrificial lamb was actually Fascination, from 1974’s pseudo soul set Young Americans.
Excerpted from an interview I conducted with the seminal synthmeister himself in 2013, the indeed very brilliant Thomas Dolby takes up the story of a fluid, fluctuating set list.
“David would keep changing his mind about what songs to do. He initially wanted to do his current single, Loving The Alien, but as he got focused on what the event was he realised that it wasn’t about promoting your current single. Because he was shooting Labyrinth, we only had four short rehearsals in the evenings, and each time he would change his mind about what we should do. So we only settled on the four songs that we did on the last day.”
Sure enough, as the band left the stage Bowie announced, “Lest we forget why we’re here. I’d like to introduce a video made by CBC Television, the subject speaks for itself. Please send your money in.” [cue toothy grin.]
The devastating montage chronicling the human toll of the ongoing famine in Ethiopia, set to the melancholic soundtrack of Drive, was shown to the stadium audiences in London and Philadelphia, as well as on televisions around the world* (though, inexplicably, neither of the two US feeds from ABC or MTV chose to show the film). The rate of donations became faster in the immediate aftermath of the video, and
it remains one of the abiding images of Live Aid, which Geldof readily acknowledges.
“That tape was the turn-around moment in the entire event. More money was pledged immediately after its transmission than at any other time during the concert.”
Bowie told British radio: “I thought it was a very important piece of footage … the point wasn’t to promote singles, the point was to bring awareness to the situation.”
As well as that memorable impression of such a beautifully mournful song incongruously but effectively played against such heartbreaking footage was The Cars’ actual performance in Philadelphia, which came several hours later.
Even though the band were arguably at their commercial peak in 1985, there was so much talent packed onto the bill at JFK Stadium for the event that even a string of recent hits didn’t help them score a slot better than midway through the American show. They came out at 5:39 pm, right after Kenny Loggins played the cheesy Footloose and before Neil Young’s extended set.
The band opened up with You Might Think, but the song wasn’t included on the official Live Aid DVD issued in 2004.
Here’s a video taken from the MTV broadcast, which chops off a bit of the beginning and then, inexplicably, cuts away halfway through to show Phil flaming Collins landing at JFK airport on Concorde after performing at the London concert with Sting. Within a couple of hours, he’d be playing drums with Led Zeppelin in Philly during their sloppy reunion set with Chic’s Tony Thompson.
The Cars were never known as an amazing live band, and their Live Aid performance didn’t do much to change that impression, even if things picked up a bit when Benjamin Orr took over lead vocals for Just What I Needed and Drive. In a way, the latter song had already become the song of the day, and the famine video helped the song rise back up the British charts to No.4, their career best, with the group gave all the new proceeds to the Band Aid Trust.
You might think the attention surrounding Live Aid and Drive gave the group unstoppable momentum, but like Hall and Oates, the Cars barely made it past the first Reagan term—hardly anyone bought 1987’s Nice Price-rack perennial Door To Door, and the band broke up after a brief tour that year. Orr died in 2000 and Ocasek in 2018, having reunited his remaining bandmates in 2011 to record Move Like This. The two ‘O’s left behind seven children between them. And the girl in the video that left such an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness? Amazingly, she survived, and appeared at Live 8, Live Aid’s successor show in 2005.
Life really is a mystery.
BONUS BEATS: I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit this, but after 35 years I think I should, though I’m aware it could come across as a trifle crass.
On Live Aid day, my sister had disappeared to a friend’s place, and I watched the bulk of the London leg with my parents, which I suppose seemed rather fitting, what with the “coming together” of generations and the return of several hoary old rock acts from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were presumed dead and buried. By early evening, my mother had cooked dinner, but conscious of the schedule that had been printed in the day’s newspapers I didn’t want anything to cause me to miss a moment of David Bowie’s set, not even food. We three watched Queen’s showstopper of a performance, and as Freddie Mercury started singing Bohemian Rhapsody my father said of the singer:
“Look how close his mouth is to the microphone. He’s practically eating it.”
I have a love/hate relationship with the band’s music, and it’s become a tedious cliché to bang on about how they stole the show at Live Aid. But it would be utterly churlish not to give them their dues. Watching their set again in the video here, I remember watching Mercury on the day — particularly the moment at 7:40 as he’s dispensed with the first verse of Radio Ga Ga — and chuckling to myself: “He’s outrageous!”, my newfound admiration for his showmanship confirmed just a minute later when this gay immigrant with buck teeth and a cock ring to accentuate his packet has the entire audience emulating his Nuremberg rally type fisting.
David Bowie once described Mercury as, “Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest… he took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once, and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”
There was no greater example of that unnerving power than on 13 July 1985.
A little after Queen had left the stage in triumph, and the campy romp shock of the Dancing In The Street video was premiered (“Why’s David Bowie singing with Mick Jagger? He’s so much older,” was my mother’s withering assessment), My folks chose to eat themselves while the latter part of Simple Minds’ set was beamed in from Philadelphia.
“Your dinner is in the oven,” came the well-worn phrase. And they caught Bowie’s set from the distant environs of the dining room. All of twenty feet away.
Once Bowie’s solid if unremarkable set was over, Dad beamed, happy for his son that I’d just caught the man fast emerging as my favourite pop star live for the first time ever, even if it was a mere transmission on the small screen.
“He can eat his dinner now he’s seen his mate,” he smiled.
“He had tons of make up on, didn’t he? You could see it when the sweat dripped down his face,” replied Mum, evenly.
And so, with no warning of what was about to be shown, there I was, a not so sweet sixteen year old, eating chicken, chips and peas as the famous film of African children starving to death was being shown around the world. What’s the secret of my success? Certainly not timing, that’s for sure.