Album Review: Rhino Records' Expanded Edition of The Cars' Heartbeat City

March 30, 2018, saw the continuation of Rhino Records’ revamp of The Cars’ classic catalog with the release of the expanded edition of Heartbeat City (in tandem with Shake It Up, previously reviewed on SRO). This wildly unique fifth album from the band proved The Cars to be at the forefront of technological experimentation, cutting edge visual representation (aka music videos), and eclectic synth pop sorcery – all addictive elements prevalent in the 1984 music scene.


Review and photos by Donna Neale

After working with Roy Thomas Baker on their first four albums, The Cars chose to team up with famed producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange for HBC, a decision that would ultimately be the best in terms of commercial success, but possibly the worst for the band’s cohesive future. They lived in London for over six months, undergoing a grueling recording and production process that left them worn thin. In the liner notes for this expanded edition, written by David Fricke with Ric Ocasek, Ric states, “All those months in London, things got out of sync between us. People thought – maybe myself included – that in three or four years we’d come back and do this some more. We just never did.”

Heedless of the personal cost, the album itself was a smash. It rose to number 3 on the Billboard 200 chart and spawned five hit singles, including the upbeat and danceable trio “You Might Think,” “Magic,” and “Hello Again.” The most memorable is the ballad “Drive,” sung by Benjamin Orr, which became the haunting soundtrack to the video montage of Ethiopian famine images during the historic Live Aid concert in 1985. Every song is a grabber: rich, satisfying, and saturated with style.

Let’s take a look at how Rhino treated this iconic album with their expanded edition. As with Shake It Up, they chose to forego the unique album etching on the fourth side, but did offer a limited edition colored vinyl, featuring HBC in a nice marshmallow-y white. The other notable difference with this offering is that the original cover art was revamped. Drummer and designer David Robinson explains in the notes that his original concept featured unique plans for the graphics and color scheme, but they were scrapped by the art department. He said, “I’ve been lucky to finally create the cover as conceived 33 years ago. Thanks Rhino... best ‘do over’ ever!”

Inside the gatefold we find an infusion of graphic imagery and photos that seem representative of the band’s departure from their solid rock days as they embraced the new wave pop style. By itself it might not satisfy the desire for new pictures, but when you pull out the album sleeves there are more than enough beautiful shots of the band in concert to cover any initial disappointment. On the back of that sleeve are some very candid and compelling liner notes in which Ric Ocasek explores the pros and cons of the making of this album. The second sleeve showcases the lyrics with a clean and simple design.

As you may know, the bonus tracks generally make or break the expanded editions for me. This release came with seven additional songs, the most notable being the early demo version of “Drive.” The repetitive samba beat seems a bit silly when compared to the elegant ballad that hit number 3 on the Billboard charts, but the demo is redeemed by the silky, evocative vocals of bass player Benjamin Orr, who clearly communicates the beauty of Ric’s lyrics in spite of the misplaced rhythm.

Three of the bonus songs are not new. There is the remix version of “Hello Again” (released as a 12” single in 1984) that takes the song to the pinnacle of 80s synth glory with a plethora of musical stutters, crazy car noises, and even quirkier sound effects. “Breakaway,” which was the B-side to “Why Can’t I Have You” in 1985, is perhaps a lesser-known track but its pulsing beat fits perfectly in this mix. The poppy “Tonight She Comes” is from the band’s 1985 Greatest Hits album and is indeed one of the band’s highest charting singles.

My favorite tracks are from the early versions that they dug out. Subtle differences between “Jacki” and its final form, “Heartbeat City”, add a bit of new texture to the title track. I also appreciate the evolution of the darker “One More Time” to the ethereal and achy “Why Can’t I Have You". The compelling shift in the direction of the synthesizer part and the softer drum presence take this song from creepy stalker mode to a ballad of legitimate longing.

Now here’s the tastiest treat of them all: “Baby I Refuse.” Similarly titled to the final cut on the album (“I Refuse”), this early incarnation of one of my favorite tunes takes the song in a whole different direction and I am completely addicted. The melodic, gentle guitar stylings of Elliot Easton have me hooked in the sway and make this track worthy of every daily playlist.

These new expanded editions from Rhino Records are available digitally and on CD, as well as the vinyl product reviewed here. Should fans shell out the money for Heartbeat City? For me, Elliot’s signature solo on “Baby I Refuse” alone was worth the price of the whole album set. Add to that the glorious photos, the in-depth liner notes, and the fact that this album just exemplifies all that is bright and beautiful in 80s music, and you’ve got yourself a winner!