I was a pretty big fan of American rock band The Cars during their heyday that lasted from 1978-88. Formed in Boston in 1976, they consisted of Ric Ocasek (rhythm guitar), Benjamin Orr (bass guitar), Elliot Easton (lead guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards), and David Robinson (drums). Ocasek and Orr shared lead vocals, and Ocasek was the band’s principal songwriter and leader. Emerging from the late-70s new wave scene, they were among the bands who were instrumental in merging 70s guitar-oriented rock with the newer synthesizer-oriented pop that became dominant in the early to mid 80s.
I love many of their great songs, including “Drive”, “Shake It Up”, “Just What I Needed”, “My Best Friend’s Girl”, “You Might Think” and “Magic”, and one of my favorites of them all is the gorgeous title track from their brilliant fifth album Heartbeat City (which also contains “Drive”, “You Might Think” and “Magic”). That album, which was produced by legendary music producer Mutt Lange, is filled with so many fantastic songs, it could almost be a ‘greatest hits, volume 2’ album for The Cars. I bought it when it came out, and nearly played it to death. I still cherish my vinyl copy.
“Heartbeat City” was released as the album’s sixth and final single in September 1985, a year and a half after the album’s March 1984 release. Shockingly (to me at least), the single did not chart in the U.S., though it did reach #78 in the UK and #75 in Australia. I suppose the album and string of singles had probably run their course by then. Interestingly, prior to its release as a stand-alone single, “Heartbeat City” was the B-side to “You Might Think” in the U.S. and “Why Can’t I Have You” in the UK.
The song is a sonic feast for the ears, opening with ominous industrial synths that are soon joined by a pulsating, reverby guitar line. The music then expands with a powerful hypnotic drumbeat, accompanied by a thumping bassline, beautiful chiming and jangly guitar notes and magical atmospheric synths, while that pulsating guitar line continues throughout the song. It all serves to create an enchanting soundscape for Ric Ocasek’s distinctive vocals as he plaintively sings of a woman named Jacki who went away, but made him happy when she eventually returned to Heartbeat City: “I’m glad you made it. I can’t complain. I missed you so badly when you jumped that train. Oh Jacki, what took you so long, on just a holiday. I thought you knew the way.” The ethereal backing vocal harmonies are sublime, adding to the song’s overall captivating sound.