35 Years Ago: The Cars Edge Toward Pop Stardom on ‘Shake It Up’
After 1980's more adventuresome Panorama "only" went platinum, the Cars decided to have a little fun. Shake It Up, released in November 1981, was recorded during a period of broad new freedoms for a group who had recently acquired their own studio. Settling into a more every-day routine, the Cars found the joy in music making again.
"Yes, the big return to pop," Ocasek mused in a 1982 interview with Riding the New Wave. "We threw them off with Panorama. They thought we were going insane, and now we came back. Mid-America will be happy once again."
The scene at Boston's then-completely remodeled Intermedia Studios, which the Cars renamed Syncro Sound, only added to a sense of congeniality that surrounded this project. "You just wake up and come in," Ocasek told Freeze Frame in 1982. "It wasn't that we had to tear down and set up every six or seven hours."
Shake It Up would again hurtle the Cars into the Top 10 albums list, but also ultimately doubled the sales figures of Panorama on the strength of the hit title song and "Since You're Gone," which just missed the American Top 40.
Not to say that everything came easy for the Cars. In fact, drummer David Robinson didn't want to do "Shake It Up" – he confided that the tune had been "kicking around for years" and "never sounded good" – while Ocasek has since said he wasn't proud of the lyrics.
"We recorded ['Shake It Up'] a couple of times in the studio and dumped it, and we were going to try it one more time, and I was fighting everybody," Robinson said in the biography Frozen Fire: The Story of the Cars. "So we thought, let's start all over again, like we've never even heard it – completely change every part – and we did. Then, when it was through and all put back together, it was like a brand-new song."
Watch the Cars Video for 'Since You're Gone'
The results marked the exact midpoint between the harder-edged new wave of their classic 1978 debut and the sleek MTV smash Heartbeat City still to come. Mutt Lange, the hitmaker of the moment, replaced long-time Cars producer Roy Thomas Baker for that 1984 follow-up album, but the relationship remained strong on Shake It Up.
"Roy is such a good friend of ours," Ocasek told the Source in 1982. "I think it's so much fun, having him around when we record a record. He's in charge of the sound of the record; he makes sure that all levels are correct – and that the record is going to sound good when it's finished. ... It's just a buffer; it's a good buffer."
Together, they crafted songs that bore the same decade-defining modernity that drove Heartbeat City to four-times platinum status, but without sacrificing grit for Lange's famous sheen. For instance, Ocasek recorded the vocal to "Since You're Gone" in a single live take, later comparing it to Bob Dylan's off-handed style of delivery. You hear that when he lovingly chirps the line "you're so treacherous." It sounds simultaneously hilarious and a little creepy, like one of the last truly weird things the Cars ever did.
They started more prominently featuring the modern sounds of the day, adding pep to shamelessly pop-oriented fare like "Victim of Love," the underrated "I"m Not the One" and "Think It Over." At the same time, bassist Benjamin Orr's "Cruiser" – one of the moodier moments here – features an Elliot Easton guitar part inspired by the Beatles' traded solos on "The End."
Even so, Shake It Up was never destined for the hipster cache of the Cars' career-defining, but much-darker self-titled debut. Instead, what the title-track single provided was a first-ever trip to the Billboard Top 10 – a sign that this more relaxed, upbeat approach could connect the band with a much wider audience.
Solo projects would follow for Ocasek and keyboardist Greg Hawkes, before the Cars took a final turn toward pop stardom.
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