Certain Songs #175: The Cars – “Just What I Needed”


Album: The Cars.

Year: 1978.

Has there ever been anything more precise than “Just What I Needed”?? From the guitar & drum crashes on the opening, to how the instruments build during the first verse, and then the introduction of Greg Hawkes’ synthesiser hook where you would expect the chorus to be.

It’s that synth hook, of course, that grabs you. Once it enters your head, it never goes away, and it shows up during the back half of the rest of the verses just to remind you who the boss of the song is.

It’s all so precise – with every single note exactly where its supposed to be – that you almost fail to notice how weird it all is. I mean why would they put that synth hook in between verses? Why did the archetypal new wave vocalist have what sounded like Queen singing backing vocals on the big hard rock chorus? Why did the drummer do a secret double-time during the last verse? “Wasting all my time time?”

It was a mystery. How could something that was made so precisely from such familiar materials feel so strange?  “Just What I Needed” was like a UFO made from Mercedes-Benz parts. 

In early 1978, I’d been reading about “Punk Rock” and its immediate record-company-sanctioned twin the “New Wave,” in Rolling Stone and Creem, but precious little of it had made the Fresno airwaves. Maybe a stray Talking Heads song, possibly even a Ramones tune. But nothing had penetrated my thick, white, suburban classic rock skull.

Until “Just What I Needed.”  It was cool and mysterious and new and not too threatening all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I heard a New Wave song on the radio and thought: maybe I should find out what the rest of the album sounds like.

Next time on Certain Songs: 15-year-old Boy Decides to Buy The Cars, and You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next!!

Fan-made video for “Just What I Needed”

All of the songs I’ve written about

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