Bleep. Bloop. Bow bow bow…bow buh bow bow…fwee…zip zoooooo…blip blip…Bah bah bah! Bah bah bah!
That’s my interpretation of “Niagara Falls,” the first solo album by The Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes.
This might be a hard review to write (and read, for that matter).
Okay, so you’ve probably heard a few songs by The Cars, right? “My Best Friend’s Girl”? “Just What I Needed”? Maybe even “Let’s Go” or the super duper hit “Drive.” Drive by The Cars. Heh Heh HEH.
The Cars were an amazing pop band led by the super tight pop smarts of Ric Ocasek and featuring the amazingly underrated lead work of Elliot Easton. Ocasek was a solid rhythm guitarist who could compose a great pop song in his sleep.
However, when you think of The Cars, do you think of the ultra clever lyrics? Or the blazing guitar solos? Maybe you think of Ric’s detached vocals or ugly mug crooning out backing vocals for “Drive”?
You probably do. I know that I do. But the thing that stands out the most for me and which always brings me back to The Cars is the keyboard work of Greg Hawkes.
Hawkes was probably the most talented member of the group, instrumentally: he was not only a great keyboard player but he could also play bass, a little guitar, some drums and even saxophone. He later recorded an album of all ukelele covers of Beatles tunes with the uke taking up every single instrument part.
Mostly, however, Hawkes was a master of weird keyboard textures, layering his synths creatively and creating independent melodies and counter melodies that almost always served as the song’s main hook.
For example, sing “Let’s Go” in your head. Right now. Did you sing the vocal melody or the rhythm guitar part? Or did you start singing “bow bow bow…bow buh bow bow”? Of course you did! That weird little keyboard melody is a perfect hook and it combines with the tight melodies and harmonies of Ocasek to create an unforgettable tune.
Maybe every single note Hawkes played was dictated to him by Ocasek: I’ve never heard any Ocasek solo albums and couldn’t really tell you. However, listening to this 1983 solo album (released at the height of Cars mania (which didn’t exist)) I get the distinct feeling that Hawkes had a lot more to do with the keyboards parts and general arrangement than most people realize.
Basically, this sounds exactly like the Cars but with almost no vocals and a lot more keyboards. Hawkes plays every instrument on the album (except for a brief flute part by his wife, Elaine). Instruments include thousands of keyboards, some rhythm guitar and programmed drums.
I mean, it sounds EXACTLY like The Cars circa “Shake It Up” and could perhaps be an album of outtakes for all I know.
As a result, it sometimes sounds like slightly cheesy keyboard pop but without the amazing pop songwriting gift of Ocasek. Hawkes is smart enough to avoid singing and lyrics (only blathering out “Jet lag, it’s a drag” and “Voyage into space, check out some other place” into a vocodor on “Jet Lag” and “Voyage Into Space” respectively.
The album definitely sounds good while it plays but as mentioned Hawkes is no songwriting: none of these songs feature a real distinctively, instantly memorable instrumental melody to guide you. Yes, they all do have melodies but they aren’t exactly…the best.
That said, the album does feature a barrage of interesting and well arranged keyboard parts and tones that show off a lot of imagination, talent and playing skill.
It really gives you a great insight into the band, especially around the time of “Heartbeat City”: by the evidence of this album, Hawkes was definitely arranging and probably completely playing at least 80% off the music on that album by himself.
But it’s lack of good melodies means it can’t really sit on the same podium as the best Cars albums or probably even the best Ocasek albums. Instead, it serves as fun piece of background music that should instantly transport you back into the 80’s and may even make you get up and dance…
Or not; after all, it has yet to be released on CD. As far as I know, cept I saw an image of it in a CD case on Google while searching for an album cover…Intriguing.