Thursday, July 31, 2014

Episode 159: Elliot Easton

Episode 159: Elliot Easton
Pat makes Christy's dream come true as legendary guitarist Elliot Easton sits in to talk about his musical career as a member of The Cars and beyond.
From July 31, 2014

With your hosts:

Pat Francis

Christy Stratton

00:00:00 Pat welcomes us to the show. Pat and Christy are brimming with excitement, especially Christy, because today's special guest is the guitarist for The Cars, the great Elliot Easton!
A lot of prep went into this one. Pat and Christy exchanged texts. Christy didn't know if she could do this today, what with emotions and childhood heroes and all. Elliot is very flattered.
Pat has something very special that he brought in to play. It's an audio clip from a radio show called Rockline from 1985. Elliot was on as a guest. And wouldn't you know it, a 15-year-old Texas teenager by the name of Christy Stratton called in to ask him a question. She wanted to know why he didn't sing lead vocals on The Cars' albums and what his birthday is. Christy was very starstruck. Elliot was born December 18, 1953, which was ten years to the day after Keith Richards was born.
Speaking of old British rockers, Elliot was watching the 50th anniversary special of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. They showed footage of screaming girls surrounding the hotel. One of the girls is Meryl Streep. Around that same time, Elliot was already playing guitar. His mother was a Julliard-trained singer. When he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, that was it. He couldn't sleep at all that night. Elliot also listened to The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Stones, The Zombies, The Animals, etc.
00:05:00 Christy asks Elliot what high school was like for him. Elliot had a routine. Every Monday he would take his dad's pocket change, save it up, and buy a new album that was carefully chosen for the guitarist on the album. He needed an album that he could learn from. Elliot would come home everyday from high school and play guitar with the records. He did that for most of his high school life. He even discouraged girls from being his girlfriend because he was afraid they would interrupt his guitar playing. Holy shit, that is serious dedication to the craft. Goodbye boobs, hello fretboards.
Elliot was obsessed with guitars. He's also a lefty. He read guitar catalogues in class secretly. Elliot's wife Jill is in the room too. He's never been jaded about his guitars. They still make him happy. How many guitars does he have? Somewhere around 100. At one point he had 347!
00:10:00 Pat says that Elliot is a guitarist with a distinct tone. Where does it come from? Elliot says it comes from your heart, your soul, your nervous system. It just depends on how you're wired. Elliot will never be a shredding virtuoso like Steve Vai or Joe Satriani because he wasn't born for it, while guys like Vai or Satriani were. He wants to think about every note. That's his speed.
"I never wanted to play faster than I could think."
- Elliot, speaking about his playing style.
After graduating from Berklee College of Music, Elliot took odd jobs to make money. He worked as a janitor, he worked at a burger joint, and at Lord and Taylor. This was around the time Elliot got together to form the band Cap'n Swing, circa 1975, 1976. Elliot's roommate answered an ad for a sound man. The gig was at a skating rink. The band playing was Richard and the Rabbits, with Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr, and Greg Hawkes.
00:15:00 Elliot liked them a lot because he liked their original songs. But he felt their guitarist wasn't the right guitarist. He thought he could it better. Richard and the Rabbits broke up, and Ric and Ben kept playing together as a duo. Elliot's friend Alan kept bugging Ric and Ben about Elliot and his guitar. They finally relented and Elliot met them with his guitar. They played a few songs together and Elliot joined them onstage permanently. Meanwhile, Greg Hawkes was playing saxophone with Martin Mull. Who knew?
Elliot, Ric, Ben, and some other guy formed Cap'n Swing, the precursor to The Cars. They weren't really sounding like The Cars, more like Steely Dan. At a gig at Max's Kansas City in New York, some big time managers saw them. They saw great potential and gave the band advice to consolidate their sound and image. Greg and David Robinson joined the band and The Cars was born.
00:20:00 Ric was at the forefront of deciding the style of the band. He was writing the songs. Elliot never wanted to show off, he only wanted to play for the songs and make them better. He credits Greg for making the hooks as great as they were. They made the songs from very skeletal demos. Pat asks why not get a songwriting credit? Elliot says that that is a whole other can of worms. Different bands do it differently. Some bands share credits, some don't.
Two record labels wanted The Cars: Arista and Elektra. Elektra won out. In one night, the band met Clive Davis from Arista and two guys from Elektra. They went with Elektra because they had more experience with rock bands. Also, Clive wouldn't concede to a point the band wanted. What that point was, Elliot doesn't remember.
00:25:00 At this point, the band was clicking musically and personally. There was a big age spread and a bunch of very diverse backgrounds. Ric was the oldest, Elliot the youngest. Ric was married with a kid, Elliot was a wild-eyed 22-year-old. They weren't a band that was best friends in high school, but they did love each other and found common ground. Each brought something different to the band. Sometimes the creative process can be painful, but it made for a unique sound. Pat says that nothing sounds like The Cars. Elliot wanted a band that people would know right off the bat if their song came on the radio.
Okay, enough jibber jabber, let's hear some music. We start with the band's 1978 debut album, The Cars. It's an absolute masterpiece. A lot of the songs are crossfaded. The producer Roy Thomas Baker did it so radio DJs had to leave the record on and let the second song play. That crafty British son-of-a-gun. We listen to the song "Don't Cha Stop". It has the only first take of a solo on the album. Elliot did it in a day and a half because he had dysentery. It's his "Indiana Jones shoots the swordsman" moment.
00:30:00 The whole album only took 12 days to make. It was basically their club set. How did the band meet Roy Thomas Baker? The record label envisioned big things for the band, so they sent Roy to one of their shows in Worcester… during a snowstorm… in front of 7 people. Elliot calls Roy a "Monty Python character." He loved the band and brought them to London to record in George Martin's studio. They lived in a nice apartment. It was amazing. Pat brings up the album's sequencing. It starts off with "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl", and "Just What I Needed." Christy says that a radio station in Texas would play all three songs in a row. Texas was very kind to The Cars.
00:35:00 Let's listen to another song from the first album, "All Mixed Up". It's that damn sexy Benjamin Orr on lead vocals. He's so……… sexy. Christy discovered The Cars in 1981. She was listening to Donna Summer and Olivia Newton-John. She went to her cousins' house and discovered the first Cars album. She became obsessed with it. It was how she got into rock and roll. For Pat, he was listening to Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. His neighbors had a Cars album, he borrowed it for weeks.
The covers of The Cars' albums are great. Elliot says that David was sort of the in-house art director. The inner sleeve of the first album was supposed to be on the front cover. Elektra didn't get it, so they did the girl cover. The Cars didn't like it, but it has become iconic. It was much more "LA."
Christy, recreating the first album cover. Looking good, Stratton.
00:40:00 We move onto the second album, 1979's Candy-O. Roy is back as producer. Is it a sophomore slump? Pat and Christy love the album. It isn't a sophomore slump in quality. Pin-up artist Alberto Vargas did the cover. David is a fan of pin-up art. It's a bit of a racy cover (not that I'm complaining.) Vargas had never been to a rock concert. He saw The Cars and loved the whole thing. A real sweet guy. We listen to two songs from Candy-O. First it's "Let's Go". Then we hear "It's All I Can Do".
00:45:00 The solos are great because you can sing along to them. Elliot was trying to play to people, not guitarists. The Cars are a band for everyone. When coming up with the solos, Elliot would whistle or sing notes, then duplicate them on his guitar.
The third Cars album is Panorama from 1980, again with Roy Thomas Baker as the producer. It's certainly the quirkiest Cars album, according to Christy. She LOVES Panorama. It's just different. For the band, they never wanted to do something different. It was just "this batch of tunes." Elliot and the band were surprised by the feedback. They were just moving along. With Ric writing the songs, who decided to sing which songs? It was a collaborative decision, says Elliot. We listen to the first single from Panorama, "Touch and Go".
00:50:00 "Touch and Go" is one of Elliot's favorite solos. It's so crazy. He actually had to fight to get it on the album. He expected everyone to like it, but they didn't. The engineer thought it was too worked out. Elliot tried doing it differently, but they still didn't like it. Eventually, Elliot just ripped the solo with tears in his eyes and fire in his belly and everyone liked it. It was spontaneous. We hear another song from Panorama, "Getting Through".
00:55:00 Does Elliot understand Ric Ocasek's lyrics? Because we don't. Elliot thinks Ric's lyrics are poetry and impressionistic. Everyone has a different image of what it means. With Panorama, The Cars started doing music videos. Those were fun, but getting up early sucked. Panorama did not do as well as the first two albums. But they never got any interference from the record label. Nowadays if you don't do well on the first album, you're done.
Panorama may not have been a success, but the band certainly remedied that with their fourth album, 1981's Shake It Up. Roy again is back as producer. The title track was written during the Panorama sessions.
01:00:00 We listen to "Shake It Up". Elliot takes us through the guitar solo. The whole idea of the guitar solo is to make it sound like two guitars trading off, as if two guys are talking. The first half of the solo is one type of guitar, while the second half is a different type of guitar. Pat calls it a three-and-a-half minute perfect pop song. What Christy likes about the Shake It Up album is that you have the happy poppy songs, but you also have the moody, dark stuff.
01:05:00 "Cruiser" is an example of said moody stuff. We listen to it. Elliot says that the solo at the end was inspired by the guitar solo in "The End" by The Beatles. It has different guitar "characters" trading off riffs. So cool.
Pat, recreating the Shake It Up album cover. Pat, one question: WHERE THE HELL ARE YOUR EYEBROWS?!?!?!?!?!
After four albums, The Cars get a new producer, Mutt Lange. Mutt's worked with everyone from AC/DC to Def Leppard to Foreigner to Outlaws. Mutt doesn't like to be photographed. What is he, a vampire? The band met him and he looked like a surfer dude. Mutt produced their fifth album, 1984's Heartbeat City, which was a monster album. "You Might Think" won the first ever MTV Music Video Award for Video of the Year.
01:10:00 Pat asks Elliot what Ben Orr was like? He was funny, kind, ambitious, and always looked like he was up to something. He was taking care of family members financially that he never mentioned to the group. Elliot calls him "a closed book." When he got sick, did they know? He told them eventually. Ben was playing in the band Big People and kept his disease quiet. When The Cars did a reunion interview in 2000, Ben looked very weak and wasted away. Christy thinks Ben was underrated as a singer. Elliot says Ben never pampered himself nor did he do any special voice lessons. He just did what he did.
Rock in Peace, Benjamin Orr.
What were The Cars like behind the scenes? Because we never heard about any debauchery. None of the band members every OD'd or had huge addictions. One of their ideas of trashing hotel rooms was making the pictures slightly askew. Slightly askew, those reckless bastards!!! They decorated the dressing room with cold cuts. Just a bunch of goofy guys. The Cars Unlocked is a great DVD because it shows the doldrums of being in a band. The 22 hours of the day you aren't onstage are the hardest parts.
01:15:00 Being in The Cars was fun. They always flew. Elliot would rather be on a bus because it's easier than flying.
Pat wonders what working with Andy Warhol on the music video for "Hello Again" was like. Andy didn't say anything to Elliot. He let his people do all the work. Gina Gershon was also in the video. We talk about the video for "Drive." Elliot could feel the sparks between Ric and Paulina Porizkova, the actress in the video who Ric eventually married.
01:20:00 Recording an album was very different with Mutt than it was with Roy. It took a year to record Heartbeat City. They were in London. Elliot tuned more than he played. The band sat around a lot. Mutt was very tedious. It got to the point where Elliot didn't bother going in somedays because he knew it would be pointless to go to the studio just to do nothing. He watched TV and shopped for shoes while the band tried to get something going. Mutt was so anal about everything.
Mutt Lange, the man behind the "Magic." Literally.
01:25:00 Elliot says that Mutt's brain is a frequency analyzer. He hears things other people can't. Christy calls bullshit on that. After Heartbeat City, they liked the result, but they knew they didn't want to work with Mutt again. Elliot regrets not taking a hiatus after Heartbeat City. Instead, the band did the ill-fated sixth album Door to Door in 1987. Most of the songs were the rejects from the other Cars' albums. Elliot doesn't know what to say about Door to Door. There was some burnout going on. Ric was producing, so there wasn't an impartial voice. But Pat, Christy, and Elliot do admit that "You Are the Girl" is a good song.
01:30:00 Let's talk about Elliot's one and only solo album, Change No Change from 1985. The songs were co-written with the great Jules Shear. They collaborated on some songs together and the solo album just kind of came about because of it. Elliot didn't have to fight the band about it. His managers might have had to do some scuffles, but Elliot didn't. We listen to one of the songs, "(Wearing Down) Like a Wheel". It doesn't sound like The Cars. "It sounds like 1/5th of The Cars," laughs Elliot. We hear another song from the album, "Wide Awake".
01:35:00 Pat has some questions about The New Cars. How did he and Greg get Todd Rundgren to come in and sing these songs? Elliot remarks that Todd has a history of covering songs. The William Morris Agency actually called him up. Elliot and Greg wanted a full reunion, but they couldn't get it done. Todd brought his A-game, however, and it was a great show. Pat and Christy both saw them, twice in Pat's case.
Pat dares to say it: The New Cars played with more excitement live than The Cars did on their most recent tour. Elliot understands. After Ben died, the pressure was put on Greg to do both keyboards and bass. Elliot wanted to get a new guy on bass, but that wasn't gonna happen.
01:40:00 Ric and David had to sign off on The New Cars. Elliot feels like the word "New" hurt them. When Roger Waters left Pink Floyd, they didn't become The New Pink Floyd. They were still Pink Floyd. Foreigner only has Mick Jones left, but they're still called Foreigner. Also, Elliot broke his collarbone and had to cut short the tour. We hear a song from The New Cars' only album, 2006's It's Alive!, called "Not Tonight".
The New Cars was a lot of fun. Elliot and Greg wanted to play those classic Cars songs and the fans wanted it too. It was just too difficult on a business level to keep The New Cars going.
We return to The Cars with their reunion album, 2011's Move Like This. We listen to the song "Blue Tip". The band only played 12 shows on the reunion tour. Ric isn't the biggest fan of touring.
01:45:00 It has to be said, The Cars need to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Christy wants to know what they can do to help. There are a few Facebook pages out there. It isn't a big concern for Elliot, but he does find it unusual that they are not in. They did do a lot for rock music.
Is there any talk of a new Cars album? Maybe it will happen, says Elliot, but there's nothing scheduled. Elliot has a daughter, Sydney, who has her own band. She sings and plays keyboards. The band is called Dot Connect.
"What would a Todd Rundgren-produced album sound like?"
- Pat
"Ow! Ow! Ow!"
- Elliot, with the line of the episode.
01:50:00 So it's 2014: Elliot joins Clem Burke from Blondie, Wally Palmar from The Romantics, and Andy Babiuk from The Chesterfield Kings to form a new supergroup, The Empty Hearts. Ian McLagan from Faces also plays on some songs. Stevie Van Zandt came up with the band name. Andy called Elliot about doing a band with Clem and Wally. Elliot said yes. They got together, kicked some songs around, and recorded an album. Elliot loved it because there was no bullshit, no drama, just a lot of fun and shared writing credits.
We get a song from the upcoming debut album, The Empty Hearts. The song is called "90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street". Pat plugs the band's website, Elliot says the whole point of the band is to play live. We hear another Empty Hearts songs, "I Don't Want Your Love, (If You Don't Want Me)".
01:55:00 Pat has some signed copies of the album to give away to listeners. He thanks some people who helped get Elliot in the studio.
We're wrapping things up and Christy has some closing remarks. When she was a kid and a teenager, she always felt like an outsider, but when she found The Cars, it gave her tremendous joy. Christy tears up and can barely get the words out. She thanks him for his music. Elliot feels incredibly thankful and honored. He thanks Christy for her continued support of the band because without fans like her, they would have never made it. On that note, we end things with one more Empty Hearts song, "Soul Deep".
Time Song Album Artist Who
00:25:00 Don't Cha Stop The Cars The Cars N/A
00:35:00 All Mixed Up The Cars The Cars N/A
00:40:00 Let's Go Candy-O The Cars N/A
00:40:00 It's All I Can Do Candy-O The Cars N/A
00:45:00 Touch and Go Panorama The Cars N/A
00:50:00 Getting Through Panorama The Cars N/A
01:00:00 Shake It Up Shake It Up The Cars N/A
01:05:00 Cruiser Shake It Up The Cars N/A
01:30:00 (Wearing Down) Like a Wheel Change No Change Elliot Easton N/A
01:30:00 Wide Awake Change No Change Elliot Easton N/A
01:45:00 Not Tonight It's Alive! The New Cars N/A
01:45:00 Blue Tip Move Like This The Cars N/A
01:50:00 90 Miles an Hour on a Dead End Street The Empty Hearts The Empty Hearts N/A
01:50:00 I Don't Want Your Love, (If You Don't Want Me) The Empty Hearts The Empty Hearts N/A
01:55:00 Soul Deep The Empty Hearts The Empty Hearts N/A


  1. Finally got a chance to listen to this interview in its entirety -- and it was awesome. A very funny, insightful, and thorough walk-through of The Cars. I definitely have a new respect for Elliot Easton, and his amazing talent as a guitar player AND as a vocalist. I would love to go to lunch with him because he is such a yakker; would never be an awkward moment. Pat and Christy were terrific, too -- just a perfectly pleasant interview to listen to. Thanks so much!

  2. I just read this article and loved it! I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Easton at MARS music store in Tampa, FL. He signed his solo album for me and posed with me for a picture! I was so excited to meet a member of my favorite band!

  3. I have said it more than once, but here goes again---Door to Door is a FABULOUS album---it was just ahead of its time, people!! Go Away--could be used as a vacation/cruise commercial. Fine Line would be great for the show This is Us. Every song, just about could be marketed, and lots made. Please be sure little Ben is taken care of. That's all I ask for this gold mine advice.

  4. Great interview~ My love for The Cars runs deep, miss Benjamin Orr and his sweet way, he seemed to unite the band with love. Elliot is a much greater guitarist then he is given credit for, sincerely. I love this band for always.