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  • #42: "Just What I Needed" - The Cars

#42: "Just What I Needed" - The Cars

one of my first obsessions besides The Beatles & Michael Jackson as a kid was this band and their debut, which is track-for-track perfect

I love a lot of songs by this band that it’s hard to pick just one. But of course, the one that creeps up to the top of my list of favorites is the one that started it all. Out there in the world of home movies, you’ll see me being far more excited about playing DJ with my dad’s record collection than socializing/dancing. To me, it was a treasure trove of discovery each time I put on something different. But one of the very first records I listened to on repeat that he owned was the self-titled debut by The Cars. It also came out the year I was born and was one of those albums that both my dad and I went back to constantly when making mix tapes.

My dad was particularly obsessed with the back-to-back tracks that begin Side B. He would blast those on the home stereo more than anything else which is how they became ear worms early on. But I was partial to Side A and the opening three songs maybe because they could also appeal to a younger audience. They felt accessible to anyone even if I had yet to be infatuated with a best friend’s girlfriend at the age of 6. One might say that the reason I ended up enjoying the band as much as I did was witnessing my dad’s enthusiasm. I loved this band by osmosis to a degree but the more I dug into new wave music from this era, the more pleasure I found.

This was also a great way to bond with my dad - being as excited about the same things especially when sports really didn’t appeal to me the way they did for him. He didn’t always get excited about movies, but he was excited about being able to kick back with a beer and listen to his record collections through an incredible sound system that he put together himself. We even had a reel-to-reel for a short time but my memories of using it are slim to none. There’s no denying the fact that my dad was a true blue audiophile - the speakers needed to be top-notch, the bass and treble properly mixed and having top of the line stereo equipment / record player. He may have even used one of the songs off this record to ensure the EQ was just right. Either that or the attack scene from Apocalypse Now featuring “Ride of the Valkyries.”

The Cars debut on vinyl was in constant rotation in our house. I think now as I’ve gotten older, I’d say the two tracks that kick off Side B are even stronger than even the song I’ve chosen here. Plus, my associative memories of my dad provide a lot more of a personal response to the bombast of “You’re All That I’ve Got Tonight,” followed by “Bye Bye Love,” which segue into one another effortlessly recalling what Led Zeppelin did with the start to their Side B of Led Zeppelin II. In some instances, classic rock radio wouldn’t just play one or the other, they had to play both because they complemented each other so well. Not to mention the flange-covered drums on “You’re All That I’ve Got Tonight” are banging right from the get-go. Let’s stick with the first song I was obsessed with.

“Just What I Needed” almost serves as a template for the power pop rock I would later grow to love and appreciate in high school and college. Hidden harmonies, little licks, even a tricky riff during the chorus. No doubt that artists like Matthew Sweet and Weezer and Fountains of Wayne cite The Cars as a huge influence to the point of Weezer even working with Ocasek as a producer. He worked on a number of records that I had in my CD collection throughout high school and college. It felt like he followed me from childhood into adulthood.

Everything about this song is so polished, refined, memorable and accessible. The muted chords in the key of Emajor, the gliding moog-synth riffs that show up after the first verse, the drum fills, the backup harmonies courtesy of Ocasek. All of it felt so new to the new wave scene at the time. There’s even a guitar solo that doesn’t grate but just sounds perfectly produced. The Cars just seemed so cool to me when I was younger even if the image on the back of the vinyl album always kinda spooked me a little. (Not to mention the fact that the image of Ric Ocasek as a fly in the music video for “You Might Think” would go on to haunt my dreams for quite some time). 

According to Ric Ocasek, the inspiration for “Just What I Needed” came from a real-life experience. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he explained: “I remember lying in bed very early in the morning, listening to the birds outside, feeling the sun coming up and feeling very much alone in the world. I think I’d gone through a really bad break-up, and I was just feeling very vulnerable. And suddenly this riff came into my head, and I just started playing it over and over again on my acoustic guitar. It just felt like the right thing to do.” You wouldn’t think this song was written as therapeutic catharsis but sounds like that’s exactly the case. Still wild to me that Ric Ocasek didn’t sing lead vocals on this, but instead, bassist Benjamin Orr did (sounding very much like Ocasek to where I couldn’t tell the difference). The other time this happened was with the even more successful radio hit a decade later with “Drive” from Heartbeat City.

Always wondered why the lyrical content includes lines like, “I needed someone to feed” and “I needed someone to bleed” when otherwise, it is a fairly straightforward romantic pop ditty about accepting someone for the person that they are even if they’re wasting all your time. A genius annotation reads: “Here is the darker side. Nurturing is coupled with conflicts – “taking” over giving.There is probably a hidden word – “…someone to bleed (me)”, where bleeding is the metaphor of reaching each other’s core.” Perhaps the song is hinting at co-dependence - feeding, needing, even bleeding out. Maybe this guy is obsessed with her to an unhealthy degree. Which does give this song more of an edge that I never would’ve picked up on as a kid who just loved the way this song sounded, including the very end where the synth flutters off like a theremin.

What makes this band even more special is the recent pre-Covid excursion I took on a cold winter night to the Empty Bottle for a sold-out show featuring Michael Shannon & Jason Narducy performing various songs by The Cars. I got incredibly lucky in being able to get in via a waiting list and watching my favorite actor performing one of my earliest favorite bands was a joy from beginning to end. Not to mention that one of my more popular recent covers on Soundcloud is of another favorite tracks of theirs, “You Might Think,” one of my earliest memories of being awe-struck and scared by an MTV music video, which was groundbreaking and award-winning for its time.

Finally, it’s funny to discover that they also ripped off the opening of the song “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by Ohio Express for “Just What I Needed” too. Everybody is influenced or inspired by everybody. It comes down to something very similar when I covered a Fountains of Wayne track. Nothing groundbreaking, but just simplified, beautifully written and full of positive vibes. This song just feels right in every way - pure power pop rock of the highest caliber, ditto the entire debut record which is track-for-track fantastic all the way to the very end. Perhaps when I first heard it around the age of 6 or 7, The Cars were just what I needed to become a music freak and musician for life. Oh and did I mention how damn-near perfect their debut record was?

Sidenote: I believe this is me on the left next to the guy in the Cheap Trick shirt


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