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37 Years Ago: The Cars Play Their First Show

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’ 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.

But on New Year’s Eve 1976, the band, restructured and now called the Cars, played its first live show at an Air Force base in New Hampshire. The group’s drummer was replaced by David Robinson, the stylish punk-loving time-keeper who helped drive the Modern Lovers’ self-titled classic debut album. And 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 were 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 their first gig — on their self-titled debut 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.

Next: Top 10 Cars Songs

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