For many bands, the third album is where it all comes together and masterpieces are produced. 1980’s Panorama, The Cars’ third album, may not have been a masterpiece. But it was the album that they needed to make at the time, a dark, challenging record that seemed to recoil against public perception and reception of the band.
As Cars’ songwriter and frontman Ric Ocasek explained to Rolling Stoneat the time, the band was both flummoxed at how they had been thrust into the spotlight and frustrated at how quickly people seemed ready to jump off the bandwagon. “We had abruptly moved from a point in our career of being told, ‘You’re worthless,’ to, ‘You’re everything,'” Ocasek recalled. “So it wasn’t coldness so much as cold anger: we were angry at the people who had failed to understand us before, and angry over what they suddenly expected from us.”
While Panoramaas a whole might not have been what the fans expected, it did contain one of their most epic tracks in “Touch And Go.” There might be no song in the band’s catalog that better plays to the band’s instrumental strengths. The strange interlocking of Greg Hawkes’ icy synths, Ben Orr’s rubbery bass, and David Robinson’s stop-and go beat propels the verses. In the run-up the refrain, the band unites for a galloping groove. And Elliott Easton’s ridiculously precise lead guitar work provides thrills throughout the song’s second half.
Tying it all together are Ocasek’s vocals, as he weaves a tale of obsession and distance. Ocasek was rarely interested in the sentimental versions of love that populated most songs. He much preferred exploring modern relationships in a truthful fashion, looking at the sexual dynamics, the power plays, and the lengths that lovers will go to hide their true selves. All of that is on display in “Touch And Go.”
Ocasek’s narrator begins the song with what seems like a pretty simple statement: “All I need is what you’ve got.” But his next few lines provide some misdirection, as if even he isn’t sure that he’s found: “All I’ll tell is what you’re not/All you know is what you hear.” And he closes it out by giving the reason for his confusion: “I get this way when you come near.”
When he sings in the second verse about “Flying like a cement kite,” his ambivalence is undeniable. But the physical pull brings him back in every time: “In your headlock on the floor/Who could ever ask for more.” There are double meanings at play with the headlock line, as it could signify the control that this woman has over him as much as it does a passionate encounter.
In the final verse, he comments on the tightness of her dress and how it “does make me shake.” But then he qualifies it with “It almost looks too good to fake.” He can’t quite be sure if he can trust what’s right in front of him.
This guy knows he’s in over his head; when he sings heading to the refrain that “I touched your star,” you get the feeling that, as thrilling as it is, it’s something that he can’t quite handle. “It felt so right/Just like the hush of midnight,” Ocasek sings. “Then you said, with me, it’s touch and go.” Again, a double meaning, as that’s a phrase that speaks to uncertainty, but it also refers to the way these two come together briefly only to pull apart again.
Ric Ocasek’s death last week roiled the music world, in large part because he was a true original as both a songwriter and as an architect of sound. The Cars as a band gave him his ideal outlet for those talents. And “Touch And Go,” though it may not be as well-known as their biggest hits, could very well be the ultimate Cars tune.