When it came time for The Cars to record the band's fifth album, Ric Ocasek was ready for some radical reinvention. After working with producer Roy Thomas Baker on all four of their previous releases, the group would tap Robert John "Mutt" Lange--the man responsible for such hard rock blockbusters as AC/DC's Back in Black and Def Leppard's Pyromania--for the job.
“I think that heavy metal is one of the hardest things to record, especially with the guitars and drums and vocals being all sort of in the same frequency,” Ocasek told The San Diego Union Tribune back in 1984. “I also think ‘Mutt’ is probably one of the best producers for getting that kind of sound, so I thought it would be an interesting crossover to do. It turns out that it was. If anything, he was almost too meticulous, and we ended up having some arguments. Ultimately, in the end, we sort of finished off the record ourselves, (although) it was a good education to work with him.”
More than just an interesting crossover, the resulting album was a smash. Released on March 13, 1984, Heartbeat City peaked at #3 in July for the week of July 14, 1984. The #1 album in America that week: Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA.
The album's first single, "You Might Think," broke into the top 10, peaking at #7 on the Hot 100. The music video won the coveted Video of the Year award at the MTV Video Music Awards. The second single, "Magic," just missed the top 10, climbing as high as #12 in July 1984.
It was the album's third single, "Drive," featuring bassist Ben Orr on lead vocals, that would be the charm. The song was the Cars' highest-charting single ever, peaking at #3 on the Hot 100 on September 28, 1984. The #1 song in the country that week: Prince and the Revolution's "Let's Go Crazy."
“The only video of ours that I’ve taken pretty seriously as representing the song is ‘Drive,’ because that was not messing around," Ocasek later explained of the clip, which was directed by actor Timothy Hutton and starred Ocasek's future wife, Paulina Porizkova. "We actually did prepare for a week in advance, plotting the characters and emotions, and pretty much determining what the song’s mood was about."
The fourth single from the album, "Hello Again," peaked at #20 in December of 1984.
The band was doing so well with singles from Heartbeat City that they just kept going, dropping "Why Can't I Have You" in January 1985. It reached #33 on the Hot 100 in March 1985.
In the summer of 1985, the Cars performed at the massive Live Aid show in Philadelphia. The band's four-song set included an electric performance of the Heartbeat City title track.
“I guess we do have a pretty good aesthetic sense,” Ocasek would shrug back in '84. “But, you know, pop music can be good, too. We just hope that the pop music we make has people think a little more than some of the trash that’s out there.”