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The History of the Cars’ First-Ever Concert

Chris Walter, Getty Images

By most accounts, Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr’s first band was a total failure. In 1976, the duo — which actually went by the name Ocasek & Orr at first — picked up a few members, became Cap’n Swing and gigged around Boston. But they didn’t really catch on. By the end of the year they had a new name, and on New Year’s Eve, they made their public debut. It was only a matter of time before the Cars would drive straight onto radio playlists.

But the road there wasn’t exactly a smooth one. As Boston DJ Maxanne Sartori (who helped break the band) writes in the liner notes to the 1999 deluxe edition of the Cars’ self-titled debut album, Cap’n Swing were “too old, too weird-looking and dressed wrong; they were not an exciting live band; and they had no hit songs.” Or so was the consensus among record-company insiders and some of the band’s peers.

Still, the group’s nervy mix of art-rock, pop music and classic rock clicked with more adventurous music fans. A local radio station even gave a couple Cap’n Swing songs a few spins. But mostly the group was headed for obscurity.

That is, until they restructured and changed their name to the Cars. The band played their first live show on New Year’s Eve 1976 at an Air Force base in New Hampshire, having replaced their drummer with David Robinson, the stylish punk-loving time-keeper who helped drive the Modern Lovers’ classic debut album. Meanwhile, Orr took over bass duties, replacing the jazzy lines laid down by the previous bassist with edgier runs.

Two months after that first show, the Cars had become regulars on the Boston club scene and started recording demos of their most popular songs, including their breakthrough hit “Just What I Needed.” Before long, they were signed to Elektra Records and started work — not even a year after this first gig — on their ground-breaking first album, which was released in June 1978. While it wasn’t an immediate hit, The Cars would go on to sell more than six million copies and launch the career of one of the era’s most popular groups.

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