There is a history of bands that clicked after they changed their name. The high marks became The Who. Smile became queen. Wicked Lester became Kiss.
And Cap’n Swing became The Cars.
In 1976, Ric Ocasek and his friends Ben Orr, Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton played the clubs in Boston and found their way. “It was a potpourri of styles, almost like a jam band,” Ocasek told me in 2007. “But I don’t think the songs were right. When David [Robinson, drummer] got in the band and we started calling it The Cars, it all came together. It redefined our style.”
Robinson, who described Ocasek as “Mr. Suave,” also changed the fashion sense of the group. “David said, ‘If we want to look like a band, let’s try to dress like a band.'” They took on a simple black and white palette, with pinned-on pants, blazers, and skinny ties. And the music soon reflected that sleek, streamlined vibe.
That’s true My best friend’s girlfriend came inside.
Ocasek told me, “It was one of the first songs I wrote for the band. I remember playing a lot of acoustic guitar, and I always kept the eighth notes on the acoustic, to keep time and feel the rhythm , which made it sound more like a rock thing. When I got an electric, I kept that eighth note thing going. It set that precedent for that feeling in the sound of The Cars.”
Words and music came together. While the lyrics “wasn’t something that happened to me personally,” Ocasek said he imagined it was a universal theme. “I thought a stolen girlfriend was probably something that happened to a lot of people.”
The song also forged a sort of lyrical blueprint for how Ocasek would approach many of the band’s hits, which was to put barbed elliptical verses against simple choruses. Think of rules like ‘You got your nuclear boots and your dripping glove / Ooh, when you bite your lip it’s a reaction to love’leading to the repetitive chorus.
“People tend to forget the verse when they hear the chorus,” Ocasek said. Chorus.”
Ocasek liked how the chorus also added a twist to the story. “Until then, you think the singer stole his best friend’s girl based on how good he feels for her. With the last line of the chorus – ‘But she was mine’ – you realize the guy didn’t steal his best friend’s girl – his boyfriend stole her from him.”
In the studio, producer Roy Thomas Baker took Ocasek’s simple demo and added grandeur to widescreen, juxtaposing the band’s sleek instrumentation with flashes of stacked vocals. Baker had already perfected the massive harmony sound with Queen, especially in the 1975’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Ocasek said, “When we recorded vocal harmony on the line”Here she comes again,’ Roy had us record one set of vocals. He tripled them so that there were 24 votes. Then he used the Stephens machine [a multi-track tape deck] to get them to about 70 votes. At one point we said ‘Roy, we can’t do that’ for fear that the vocals would sound too synth-y. Roy said, ‘You’ll get used to it.’”
Another key texture in the song was Elliot Easton’s rockabilly lead licks, inspired in part by the Beatles’ I will, and as Easton put it, “kinda contradicts Ric’s strong 8th note feel.” David Robinson said, “Elliot’s guitar really raised the level of joy.”
While the band listened to what they had created, Thomas Baker was still not completely satisfied.
Ocasek said, “Once we finished recording the song, it was a tad too slow. Roy wanted it a little faster. So he went back and picked up the tape, pushed the song up one key, from E to F.”
Ocasek gave an acetate of My best friend’s girlfriend to two radio stations in Boston, where it quickly became a locally requested favorite. Officially released worldwide in October 1978, the song reached #35 US and #3 UK (where despite negative reviews such as NME‘s, who called it “A Sweet throwaway”, it was the band’s highest hit). In the UK it was also one of the first picture-disc singles, featuring a cartoon of a sporty red car.
When I asked Ocasek (who died of heart failure in 2019) if he knew the song was going to be a hit, he said, “No. I don’t think I could ever turn a song into a single. I think you can see which ones are a bit more catchy. In The Cars, I could bounce on the guys and they’d say, ‘That’s a single.’ But when I write songs, I don’t think like that. I just think it’s all chapters in the book for that one record.”