Elliot Easton Reflects on 'The Cars: The Elektra Years, 1978-1987'

Fans of the Cars and guitarist Elliot Easton got an unexpected treat when The Cars: The Elektra Years, 1978-1987 [Elektra] was released this spring.
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Fans of the Cars and guitarist Elliot Easton got an unexpected treat when The Cars: The Elektra Years, 1978-1987 [Elektra] was released this spring. While a couple of “Greatest Hits” compilations have seen the light of day since the original lineup dissolved in 1988, The Elektra Years marks the first time the complete Cars catalog has been polished to a modern-audio sheen.

“Listening to the remastered albums is somewhat of a revelation,” says Easton. “The clarity is great. I hear all these little things that I’d forgotten about.”

The new box set—which includes all six Elektra albums—provided an opportunity for GP to check in with Easton about his classic Cars solos, as well as get his memories of how he and vocalist/guitarist Ric Ocasek, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, drummer David Robinson, and bassist Benjamin Orr (who died of pancreatic cancer in 2000) were able to create such pop-rock magic.

What were the song demos like when Ric initially presented them to the band?

The demos got more sophisticated as time went on, but, at first, we’d get a cassette with Ric sort of clicking away on eighth-notes along with a Rhythm Ace drum machine while he was singing the song. They were fairly skeletal.

The Cars were known for a modern, stark, and perhaps cold style with synthesizers and sparse drum-machine-like grooves. How did the material develop from those skeletal demos to the sound that became the band’s signature?

We were very different people from different parts of the country with different tastes in music. We weren’t five kids who went to high school together and had the same record collections. We didn’t always like the same things, but I think the juxtaposition of styles is what made the Cars unique. Of course, when not everyone relates to someone else’s enthusiasm, it can make for a painful creative process. Sometimes, you had to fight for your ideas to be accepted. But even with friction, you can create a pearl. I always knew each member appreciated everyone’s contributions, and they all got a kick out of seeing where a song would land once everybody got their hands on it. We’d often surprise each other, because what the guy standing next to you was playing was probably something you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, and vice versa.

So the band sound wasn’t strictly calculated or designed?

No. We didn’t try to come up with a formula, or anything as cynical as that. It was the five of us playing in a room together. I give credit to Ric for assembling the band, because each member was not necessarily an obvious choice, but it worked.

Your rhythm-guitar parts were always so fresh and unique. How did you develop them?

We were making pop music, so I had to frame the vocal, weave around it, and support it. From there, I would try to complement what the others were doing. For example, if Ric was stabbing eighth-notes on his Jaguar—he used to call them “clickies”—I would try to find a recurring motif that would propel the song along. I was always conscious of how the song would build, so I’d never show all my cards initially. I might not play at all during the first verse. Then, I might bring in a little line on the second verse, and explode on the chorus [laughs].

I’m always floored by the tremendous amount of “singable” solos you played on the Cars tracks. Where did that stuff come from?

Your heart tells the brain that a song needs something special, and analyzing the initial inspiration is not always easy. Luckily, I had players who influenced me on what it took to craft a meaningful solo. I grew up on the Beatles and AM radio in the ’60s, so I learned early on how a hook functioned, as well as how to make a concise, short solo that was meaningful, and perhaps quoted a little bit of the song’s melody. It was important that the solo was a part of the song. I took that whole concept quite seriously, and I worked really hard on those things.

Can you share some specific influences that informed the creative direction for your solos?

I have a pretty good musical vocabulary, and a good, overall grasp of all the idioms you can draw upon to create a solo, so a lot of my parts came from pure instinct. All I could do was draw on what I loved. But, to this day, I can’t remember why I played the rockabilly and chicken-picking licks in “My Best Friend’s Girl.” There’s nothing in the song that would suggest that approach. It’s just E, A, B—a I-IV-V progression—but somehow I heard a lick that reminded me of the Beatles’ “I Will,” and I took it from there. I remember playing the solo in a rehearsal, and the guys had big smiles on their faces, even though they certainly weren’t expecting James Burton [laughs].

I guess I had a wacky perspective. While my generation was a lot about the big three—Clapton, Beck, and Page—I listened to everything, including the Bakersfield sound. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo showed me that country could be cool. I was drawn to great pickers like Clarence White, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, and Roy Nichols. I also liked the clean, economical lines of Miles Davis. I was never into a lot of filigree. I loved Amos Garrett—he had as much impact on my playing as anyone else at a certain period in my life.

What did Amos show you?

People know him from the solo to Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” and that’s a great solo, but he’s really about a lot more than that. He would do these twostring bends in opposite directions and have them sound like a tritone resolution. I asked him where did he come up with that stuff, and he said from trombone players. One of his favorite things was to listen to Frankie Trumbauer’s playing with Bix Beiderbecke. Amos was really creative, and he played things that were unexpected. I was drawn to that.

Did you work out your Cars solos in the studio?

No. I would take a rough cassette mix back to my hotel room—on my own and away from the band—and start carving away at it. I wanted my solos to be satisfying pieces of music with beginnings, middles, and ends. I would very rarely wing it, because I wanted every note to count. A lot of other players might play bluesy licks in the key of the song, but I liked to play through the changes. Once I figured out how the solo should begin, I’d have a doorway in, and, from there, one thing would lead to another, and I’d add or subtract bits. Most of the time, I would think about stuff with the guitar in my hand. Once in a while, I would try to sing the solo in an attempt to break out of those pentatonic boxes that guitar players resort to when they can’t think of anything better to do. I didn’t think the Cars’ music called for that kind of a solo. Also, I would never have an amp with me. Most all of my solos were created unplugged.

As you developed your solos away from the band, were there ever any “oops” moments where they didn’t like something you brought in to record?

Oh yeah. I was really proud of the solo for “Touch and Go.” I thought it was perfect. When it was time to record it, I played pretty much what you hear on the record. When I finished, there was silence. Nothing. And then they said, “It sounds too worked out.” The blood went right to my feet. I thought, “You are not saying this to me right now! I worked so hard on that solo!” They asked for something a bit twangy, so I played ball. I grabbed one of Ben’s basses, turned it upside down, plugged it into a Twin Reverb, and tried to play a “Wichita Lineman” style solo. I got so frustrated that I was fighting back tears. I said, “Listen—just give me one more crack at the solo I want to do.” I was so angry that I ripped the solo in one take. They said, “Yeah! That’s it. Now it doesn’t sound like you were thinking about it so much.”

To this day, people compliment me on that solo, and it almost didn’t make the record. That was a situation were I had to fight for something, and if the guys didn’t eventually see it my way, I think I would have been scarred for life. I envisioned that solo as something more sophisticated—like a Steely Dan solo—and it was a big step forward for me. A big moment. The fact they didn’t instantly jump up and down when they first heard it was really painful.

Was the track on the record really that much different than what you initially played?

Good question. The take they didn’t like sounded a lot like the one that made the record, but maybe the previous one had a little less fire. Maybe it was neater or a bit fussy.

From your “insider’s perspective,” what do you think made the Cars so popular?

People still try to figure out what made the Cars tick, and I think that’s great, because it means we weren’t doing what everybody else was doing. We kind of had our own language and we never really fit in with anybody. In fact, I feel the Cars are one of the most misunderstood bands of that era. We have that image of being sleek and cool, but we were actually goofy and funny. What you see in all the promo photos—nobody smiling and everybody in sunglasses—was not really who we were as people. We had a lot of fun.

Speaking of being misunderstood, a fair amount of the GP readership considers you an extremely underrated rock guitarist.

Perhaps what I did was a bit on the subtle side and not so easy to define, but all I was trying to do was make the songs as great as they could be. That was my role, and, at times, it might have been a selfless and thankless task. But, then again, how underrated can you be when you’ve sold more than 30 or 40 million records and people can whistle your solos?