Finding the Song Within the Song

Elliot Easton reflects on The Cars' long road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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When The Cars were whisked off to London in early 1978 to live in a luxury house and record their self-titled debut album at Sir George Martin’s famed AIR Studios, a minor miracle occurred. Not one person from their label, Elektra Records, dropped in on the recording sessions to monitor their progress.

Easton performs at the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony.

Easton performs at the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony.

“They never interfered,” says lead guitarist Elliot Easton, who, along with his bandmates, cruised into the Rock and Hall of Fame earlier this year. “We never got any of that ‘I don’t hear a single’ nonsense that so many bands have to deal with. Obviously, they believed in us.”

One reason Elektra had faith in their new signees surely had to do with the fact they had placed them in the capable hands of producer par excellence Roy Thomas Baker, who was fresh off “Bohemian Rhapsody” and other triumphant Queen sessions. A bigger reason for Elektra’s confidence in the Cars, however, was probably that the label already heard a single—perhaps even several. After all, the band’s demo recordings of “Just What I Needed”—which had already proven popular on Boston radio—and other future hit songs were already quite close to album quality.

“We recorded most of those demos live, straight into a 2-track machine,” marvels Easton. “By the time we went into AIR, we already had our songs together. I tracked all my guitar overdubs in just a day-and-a-half. And we did some cool stuff in the studio that I had never tried before—such as the arpeggiated part on the intro to ‘Bye Bye Love.’ Instead of using my Roland chorus pedal, Baker had me record the part dry. Then, he had me double the part with the tape machine slowed down to put my guitar slightly out of tune with the first track to achieve the chorus effect. Today, I get a very similar effect with my Keeley 30ms Double Tracker pedal.”

That debut album, The Cars—featuring “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” and other hit singles—is almost on par with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in terms of a ’70s hit-song count.

“Although we had many hits on future albums, we used to joke we should rename our debut The Cars’ Greatest Hits,” says Easton.

But while The Cars made the art of hit-songcraft look easy, the band’s songs weren’t always so polished. Just before they morphed into the Cars, Easton, principle songwriter Ric Ocasek, and bassist Benjamin Orr had a group called Cap’n Swing that landed a showcase for high-level management companies in New York City. The night proved to be a harsh reality check.

The Cars in 1978- Left to right: Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, David Robinson, and Benjamin Orr.

The Cars in 1978- Left to right: Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, David Robinson, and Benjamin Orr.

“Ben was singing lead,” says Easton, “and after we played, they said, ‘Visually, you guys are all over the map. You should get your image together. And you’re too jammy. Shorten the solos and make the songs more concise.’ It was tough to hear, because for some people in the band who were a little older than me, if this didn’t fly, they were about to throw in the towel. So we went back to Boston with our tails between our legs and ended that band. We took their advice seriously. We pared down the songs, created an image, and formed the Cars.”

Real advice like that is not only tough to hear, it can also be tough to dispense—which is why Easton’s “keep it real” ethos earned him the respect of everyone in attendance each time he was a judge at GP’s annual Guitar Superstar talent competition (which ran from 2005 through 2011). One year, after a finalist took the stage and played a piece that featured melodic patterns played seemingly as fast as human knuckles and tendons would allow, Easton was quite frank with the player. In front of a packed house, he questioned the player’s need to fire off incessant volleys of notes.

“Well, I wouldn’t be doing anybody a service if I just said, ‘Great playing,’ when I wasn’t feeling it,” he says. “I was there to critique, so that’s what I did—and mine was just one opinion of many. Obviously, I’m not a shredder. I could practice from now until doomsday and never be a shredder, because it’s not how I’m wired. But I said what I said because I just don’t believe in playing faster than you can think. I like to mean every note. All the players I loved so much—Cornell Dupree, Roy Nichols, Jesse Ed Davis, Steve Cropper, Reggie Young—all played much more economically. The analogy for me would be someone like Miles Davis versus someone like Maynard Ferguson. Maynard played a million notes, but, to me, Miles was more like Picasso—seven lines and it’s done and perfect.”

Indeed, when it comes to crafting solos that act as memorable “songs within songs,” it’s hard to name a rock guitar hero who has done so more effectively than Easton—which is why his lead breaks have earned the admiration of many a rock notable. For instance, there’s a selfie video on YouTube of Jack Black making ecstatic, over-the-top guitar faces while rocking out to Easton’s “Just What I Needed” solo. Meanwhile, Steve Lukather recently raved on Twitter that “You can sing Elliot’s solos, and that’s the best compliment you can give a guitarist.”

“I try to tell a little story with each solo,” says Easton, who is known for composing most of his guitar solos in advance of the recording session. “I take off from the vocal, play through the changes, develop a nice melodic contour, and set it back down so the vocal can come back in. I like to have things worked out. In that sense, I’m more like Amos Garrett and George Harrison than I am a typical rock player.”

Now that we’re in the age of box sets and bonus tracks, Easton has noticed something profound about the world’s most celebrated improvisers: Many of them actually worked out elements of their solos ahead of time, as well.

“Almost every time I listen to a Wes Montgomery or Miles Davis alternate track, I’m struck by how similar the solo is to the keeper version,” says Easton. “You’d think with these guys each take would be totally different, but from how they start off the solo to points they hit in the middle, there’s often a lot of similarity.”

Easton’s lyrical lead playing extends to the songs of his newest band, the Empty Hearts—a pop-rock supergroup of sorts that also features fellow Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Famer Clem Burke (Blondie) on drums, Romantics frontman Wally Palmar on lead vocals, and Chesterfield Kings bassist Andy Babiuk. While the band’s material is rife with big guitar riffs and solos, the quartet’s chief focus is delivering good songs. In fact, when you look at Easton’s career and zoom out beyond his stellar guitar playing, his knack for sniffing out great songs and songwriters has proven an equally valuable skill.

“I’ll always remember that night in 1976 when my roommate answered a newspaper ad posted by a local band seeking a sound person, and I tagged along,” says Easton.

That was the night Easton saw, for the first time, Ocasek, Orr, and future Cars keyboarst Greg Hawkes performing. They called themselves Richard and the Rabbits.

“Watching them play, I thought, ‘This is the first unknown band I’ve seen in Boston with songs that I can imagine being hits on the radio.’ They also had a lead-guitar player, but he was coming from what I perceived to be a more fusion-y kind of place, and I remember thinking I could come up with stuff that fit better. These were pop songs. I liked the songs, and I knew just what I wanted to do with them.”