Born: March 23, 1944;

Died: September 15, 2019

RIC Ocasek, who has died aged 52, was an American singer, songwriter and musician best-known for his work as a founder member of the New Wave group, the Cars, who played their first show together on New Year’s Eve 1976 and split in 1988. They were particularly popular in America and Australia, where they had several hit albums and singles, and Ocasek became a mainstream pop star whose appeal crossed over from the punk era to the early days of the MTV generation.

In the UK, much of the group’s career had a more cult appeal, as borne out by their chart placings; while four of the Cars’ six albums in their original incarnation reached the US top 10, in Britain only two broke the top 30. On these shores they were known for two major hit singles in particular, and these perfectly illustrated the development of the band’s sound throughout its existence.

Reaching number three in 1978, My Best Friend’s Girl is a compelling punk-pop composition, all rock ‘n’ roll guitar lines and bubblegum lyrics about illicit love. 1984’s Drive, meanwhile, which reached number five and charted again a place higher the following year, after its use during Live Aid, was a mournful ballad to lost love built around frostily synthetic keyboard sounds. Entirely in tune with the apparently time-locked aesthetic of the 1980s, its composition now seems like a precursor to the chillwave movement of three decades later.

In America the Cars’ roster of well-known tracks is more extensive, with their major hits ranging from Let’s Go (1979) to Shake It Up (1981), You Might Think (1984) and the propulsive synthesiser soft-rock of Tonight She Comes (1985), whose eye-catchingly designed monochrome clip won Video of the Year at the first MTV Video Music Awards. Following the release of their relatively unsuccessful sixth album, Door to Door (1987) theydisbanded, with the founders (and old friends), Ocasek and Ben Orr, becoming estranged.

Together, the Cars left a powerful legacy behind in American music, a route map through which the genres of punk, new wave, rock ‘n’ roll, soft rock and synthpop could all be marshalled into something more expansive and timeless, without losing any of the integral credibility of both image and compositional originality. With this breadth they were ahead of contemporaries like Blondie and even Talking Heads, in that neither managed to occupy quite so many camps as the Cars did.

Their self-titled debut album spent 139 weeks on the Billboard Album Chart, with guitarist Elliot Easton joking that it should have been titled the Cars’ Greatest Hits, so perfect was its realisation of their sound. Their second album Candy-O (1979) was notable for a very of-its-time pin-up cover painting by the famed Playboy and Esquire artist of the 1940s and 1950s, Alberto Vargas; they enlisted actor and director Timothy Hutton to create the video for Drive, and Andy Warhol to direct Hello Again (both 1984); and the group performed at Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985.

Although Ocasek claimed when they split that the Cars would never reform, and Orr’s death from cancer in 2000 appeared to seal this pledge – Ocasek wrote and released the song Silver in tribute to his old friend – the surviving original members did get back together in 2010. The album Move Like This (2011), their last one together, charted in the US top ten, with a tour to follow. In 2018, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ocasek released seven solo albums between 1982 and 2005. The two which came out while the Cars still existed (1982’s Beatitude; 1986’s This Side of Paradise) were modest successes, while his 1986 single Emotion in Motion was a big hit in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

After the Cars’ split, he became more famed as a go-to producer for major indie-rock groups, taking charge in the studio on three albums by Weezer, Guided By Voices’ Do the Collapse (1999), selected tracks on No Doubt’s Rock Steady (2001), the Cribs’ For All My Sisters (2015) and many others. His production collaboration with electro-punks Suicide and their founder member Alan Vega throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s are the stuff of underground legend.

Richard Theodore Otcasek was born in Baltimore, Maryland, moving to Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 16 thanks to his father’s work for NASA. Here he met Orr, and the pair formed their first band together. After moving together to Boston in the early 1970s, they created and disbanded a range of groups, each one gathering more members of what would eventually become the Cars.

Ocasek released two books of poetry, created drawn and mixed media artworks, acted (he had a bit part in John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray) and appeared occasionally on TV’s The Colbert Report. He was married three times and divorced twice. He and his third wife, model Paulina Porizkova, whom he met during filming of the video for Drive, separated in 2017. Ocasek is survived by her and by his six sons.

DAVID POLLOCK