Rhino Records to Release Limited Edition of the Cars' 'Live at the Agora, 1978' for Record Store Day

click to enlarge Rhino Records to Release Limited Edition of the Cars' 'Live at the Agora, 1978' for Record Store Day
Janet Macoska
It’s been nearly 40 years since the Cars played their first area show at the Cleveland Agora. The show was broadcast live by WMMS-FM and has circulated in bootleg form for decades since then. Fans will now have the chance to buy it officially when it’s released this coming Saturday as a limited edition vinyl pressing for Record Store Day.

Rhino Records executive John Hughes, an Elyria native who now lives in the California area, says that Live At The Agora, 1978 is the latest wave in a reissue campaign that began last year.

“I remember the show and I remember the WMMS live concert broadcasts. I thought that there was a Cars show out there and sure enough, I went to the vault with our team and found this tape. There it was. We took a listen to it and were amazed,” he says. “I think that people will be really pleasantly surprised when they hear the energy of this show. It’s very early on in their career. I think it’s probably one of the higher profile shows they’d ever done outside of the Boston area since getting signed. I’m not kidding when I say that it’s kind of a fierce live set.”

click to enlarge Elliot Easton - Janet Macoska
Janet Macoska
Elliot Easton
He adds, “We’re not done yet,” indicating that additional releases  will arrive in 2018 to mark the band’s 40th anniversary.

Singer/producer Ric Ocasek supervised the remastering of the original two track stereo mix and drummer David Robinson oversaw the packaging design, which includes a custom tire tread etching on the fourth side of the double LP set, and is limited to only 5,000 copies available at independent retailers.

“I was really pleased that it sounded as good as it did. And after the remastering, it sounded even better,” Hughes says. “I was kind of worried when we found the tape that it was going to be, you know, a radio broadcast recording basically. But it was better than that.”

The Agora performance was recorded by Agency Recording Studios, located above the club. They typically had a 24 track sound mix coming off of the stage, which they would mix down for the WMMS broadcasts.

“They did a great show and it shows up on tape if you listen to the performance. It was great," recalls Henry LoConti Jr, son of the late legendary Agora owner, Henry “Hank” LoConti. “For bands to come into the Agora on 24th Street, whether it’s the Cars or Bruce Springsteen, to play in that intimate setting with the sound that came off of that stage and then to be replicated into that studio, it was an amazing time for bands. Because there wasn’t a lot of facilities around the world that even had the capability of doing that all in one package.”

Former WMMS programmer John Gorman, now chief content officer at oWow Radio, knew that he was going to get a good sounding show, but as he points out, he had to consider the caliber of the band that he was going to surrender an hour of airtime to — and whether they would keep the listeners of the radio station from tuning away.

“I had to think about that, ‘Well, how is this band going to sound on the air?’ Because you know, for the next hour or so, nobody’s going to hear anything but this band,” he laughs. “So there was always that too. [But] let’s face it, almost all of the bands that played there were great.”

Gorman coordinated the collaborations between WMMS and the venue and remembers that Agora talent booker Buddy Maver would often call him at least twice a week to take his temperature on certain bands and artists that he was being pitched — and would find out how their music was performing if WMMS was playing it.

“I don’t remember the conversation that we had about the Cars, but it would have started with, ‘Do you know about this new band called the Cars? I think they’re on Elektra.’ ‘Yeah, they’re pretty good.’ ‘Well, what do you think of them?’ ‘Well, we’re playing a couple of cuts.’ Those were the basic conversations that we had.”

LoConti Jr. adds that Maver was juggling a lot with his Agora duties.

“Buddy was a fabulous drummer with Rainbow Canyon. So bringing a musician to work at the Agora, he had a lot of credibility. He wasn’t just a drummer — he was a great musician,” he says. “And he was bright, a really smart guy. When he started booking multiple — it’s hard to book multiple dates. You know back then, with logistics, pre-computers. You couldn’t just get on the computer and say, ‘Okay, we can’t book Atlanta, because the Atlanta Braves are playing that day.’ You had to get in there and do work and your research when you’re booking 13 Agoras, which was amazing. People say that there’s 13, there was actually 15, because if you count the one in Little Italy and the one at 24th Street, there were actually 15.”

click to enlarge Benjamin Orr - Janet Macoska
Janet Macoska
Benjamin Orr
Thanks to the support of the record companies, Buddy Maver remembers they booked “incredible, incredible shows” with bands that are now classic household names as they were on their way up.

“At the time, record companies were still giving tour support to baby acts. So I would say there are at least three dozen of the groups that we played there as a baby act that are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Maver says. “Part of the thing was in those days, with the tour support, a band couldn’t afford to go out and play initially without that. You know, because you’ve got to pay [for a lot of different expenses]. The Cars were one of those baby acts.”

He calls Gorman “a real relentless guy who was out there to promote ‘MMS and make it number one in the market.”

“Denny Sanders, when he came into the picture, Denny actually brought Gorman into Cleveland, because Denny wanted to be on air [at WMMS] — he didn’t really want to be the program director,” Maver explains. “Gorman could be tyrannical to an extent, but he knew how to put it all together. You know, when you’ve got nothin’, you’ve got nothin’ to lose. So he came into the market, started from scratch and it wasn’t like he was a big shot radio guy coming from another city. He came into the market and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to do my thing.’”

The Cars had caught the ear of Gorman and the WMMS staff with their sound, which stood out against the rest of the music that was circulating at that time.

“The great thing about the Cars album in the context of a radio station was that there was a lot of good songs on it. They weren’t formula, although they were,” Gorman says. “They weren’t the typical album rock formula songs, but they really worked in the context of everything that was out there and they stood out, because they didn’t sound like everything that’s out there. Although music was definitely pushing in that direction, they were definitely early on as far as that electronic style.”

For Cars singer/bassist Benjamin Orr, who was born in Lakewood and grew up in the Parma area, where he attended Valley Forge High School, the Agora concert would be a homecoming performance. He had played with area band the Grasshoppers in the mid-’60s and the group spent 13 weeks working as the house band on The Big 5 Show, which later became Upbeat. Born as Benjamin Orzechowski, not surprisingly, he quickly picked up a nickname, going by “Benny 11 Letters” during his time in the Cleveland music scene.

“You just have to know his last name and spell it out, well, count it out. It was just one of those things,” longtime local rock photographer Janet Macoska says. “And that’s the cool thing, you know? It’s so Cleveland. It’s so ethnically Cleveland that he had to shorten it to be in this band, the Cars, because nobody could have pronounced it! [Laughs] But for people in Cleveland, you know, it’s ‘Benny 11 Letters.’”

“He kind of looked like Elvis,” Maver remembers, who played with his band, the Quantrells, on The Big 5 Show at the same time that Orr was on the program with the Grasshoppers. “He was a good looking kid with a pompadour.”

Ocasek, interestingly enough, also spent time living in the Shaker Heights area where his dad worked for NASA and he connected with Orr after seeing the Grasshoppers perform their final gig on Upbeat. The pair began to write songs together and would spend time in Columbus, followed by stints in Michigan and Greenwich Village before eventually landing in Boston.

Gorman, a Boston native, became familiar with the music that Orr and Ocasek were making under the band name Cap’n Swing, just as he was leaving to move to Cleveland. Even though the group began after he had already departed, he would make the occasional return to the area and he remembers one particular trip where he saw Cap’n Swing perform live.

“Somebody had suggested, there’s this band that you ought to check out. They play around and they call themselves Cap’n Swing,” Gorman recalls. “They have this cartoon character, this bearded guy, that’s supposed to be Cap’n Swing. They’re supposed to be pretty good. The person who had told me about them had seen them one other time. It was a club somewhere in the North Shore of Boston, just north of Boston, along the shore. I went off to see them and I was pleasantly surprised. They did all originals. They were short tunes and they were catchy. Ric Ocasek looked like a grasshopper, even back then. I had no idea that Ben was the [same guy] from the Grasshoppers that I heard about when I came to Cleveland. So even though I went to that show, I had no idea that I was seeing an ex-Clevelander, or else I would have found a way to say, 'Hey, I’m from Cleveland!'"

When Gorman received his copy of the Cars self-titled debut album in 1978, he realized that he had crossed paths with the band’s music at some point, even though he couldn’t pinpoint where right away.

“I’m listening to it and I’m going, ‘Some of these songs sound familiar.’ Then I realized, just looking at Ocasek and Ben Orr, I remembered him and then by that time, I knew that [Orr] was that guy who used to be in the Grasshoppers. And then, you know, you see Ocasek once, you never forget his face.”

Seeing the band live at the Agora concert in July of that same year, Gorman was impressed. He saw the results of a band that had spent a lot of time honing their live performance and songs as they were playing shows in the Boston area.

“When I saw them in Cleveland, it was a slightly different band, but definitely, Orr and Ocasek stood out, just being on stage. They were the most visible people on stage and trading vocals and all of that. It was enjoyable. I finally met Ben Orr and told him that he went in the opposite direction that I did [with Gorman moving to Cleveland and Orr moving to Boston] ,” he recalls with a chuckle. “But the thing that I remember about [the show] is saying, ‘I like this band [better] live than the studio,’ when I saw the Agora concert. I said, ‘These guys are really good.’ You know, even though they were pretty much sticking to almost the exact length of the songs on the album, they were very entertaining.”

The Agora set opens with “Good Times Roll,” on the heels of a stage introduction by legendary WMMS DJ Kid Leo. The band sounds tight, but it’s the moment that they go into “Bye Bye Love,” the second song of the set, where things really kick into gear. Orr takes the lead vocal, and the group tears through the song with a noticeably fierce, increased amount of energy. At the end of the song, he says “It’s good to be home,” as the group moves into an early version of “Night Spots,” offering a punchy advance preview (although the audience wasn’t aware at that time) of their next album, 1979’s Candy-O, nearly a year before it was released the following June. There’s not a lot of talking from that point forward, but there doesn’t need to be — the band replicates the material from its debut album with an impressive precision that presents a new argument against the popular statement that the group was never a great live act. The Agora tape tells a different story.

“They were out to prove themselves. You could tell that, just looking at them on stage,” Gorman agrees. “The rest of the band [besides Orr and Ocasek], they weren’t very animated [Laughs] They sort of just stayed where they were and just played. But I remember, Ben Orr, he was a good looking guy and then you have Ric, who’s the lanky guy, and they’re trading vocals. They were definitely the frontmen. It was a unique band and they were definitely out to prove themselves and they did. They won the crowd over.”

Members of the Cars were not available for interview for this story, but keyboardist Greg Hawkes offered the following comment via email, remembering that their Cleveland gigs often came with special perks courtesy of Orr’s family. “I remember that Ben's mom used to come to all the Cleveland shows and [would] usually bring food that she had made,” he recalls.

Macoska shot the entire show and the cover artwork of the Live at the Agora release features one of her pictures of Orr, whom she remembers talking to backstage after the show, along with guitarist Elliot Easton. She and Orr talked a lot about Cleveland and knowing that Easton was a fellow Beatles fan, they traded stories about the group — and she could hear a definite Beatles influence that was part of the Cars’ music.

“It was good pop/rock music [that] wasn’t overly complicated. It was just interesting. The fact that Elliot Easton was such a big Beatles fan, what was happening for me in the '70s [was that] all of these people were my age. They were all my contemporaries. So we all had the same kind of music influences. They were just churning it out themselves. But you could hear pieces and parts of bands that you really liked. So I could hear the influences in their music.”

Recently, she uncovered a cool photo from Orr’s Grasshopper days.

“WHK disc jockey Joe Mayer used to manage the band. So just recently, I was going through photos and I found a picture of Joe and Benny. I don’t even know where we’re at. But he thought of Benny as his son and Benny had the same kind of affection for him,” she says. “It was a cute picture of the two of them hugging. It was cool. He was definitely a Cleveland boy and if nothing else, we would have gone to support that. But you know, the Cars were good! [Laughs] So that was another benefit.”

And you couldn’t beat the price of the WMMS Agora gig, as Scene writer Dave Voelker wrote in his review of the July 18 Agora show, which ran the week of July 27.

"Why is it that the best things are always the cheapest? For $10-$15 you can throw your lot in with 50,000 other zealots at the Stadium and risk getting sunburned and M-80'd — all to catch a few strained notes. By those standards, Tuesday night's outstanding area debut of the Cars, at a mere $1.01, may well prove to be the entertainment bargain of the year.

By now, abundant airplay has programmed just about everyone's fingers to subconsciously tap along with "My Best Friend's Girl" and "Just What I Needed." They've already become minor classics, and if hearing them on your car radio compels you to turn the wheel from side to side to the best (car dancing), seeing them performed live is an even more possessing — if somewhat safer — experience."

Seeing the band live confirmed Voelker’s “suspicion” that the album had been overproduced. The live show had “a wholesomeness and urgency absent in the garnished LP versions.” He called the group “a well-oiled machine, a band of substance and direction,” one which shouldn’t “rely on frills or gimmicks.” In the closing moments of his review, he said, “Whatever initial skepticism I had about this band when I walked into the Agora had been forged into unbridled enthusiasm by concert's end. The Cars are going places, and I wish them godspeed.”

Brook Park resident Joe Babin was 19 years old in 1978 and working at the Shoppe in Berea when he first discovered the music of the Cars.

“The Cars released ‘Just What I Needed,’ Babin recalls. “That was their first single, but it came out on red vinyl. It was a limited edition red vinyl single. So of course when it came in, we were putting out the 45s, ‘Oh, look at this red vinyl!’ We played it and everybody fell in love with it.”

Thanks to work perks, Babin found himself at the Cars Agora gig and even though the house was already packed upon his arrival, he found his way inside.

“The owner of the Shoppe, Dennis Selby, did a lot of work with the Agora, so we had free passes. Me and one of my co-workers went down there,” he says. “It was a sold out show and they were turning people away at the door. They said, ‘Oh, they’re not going to let you in.’ We pounded on the door and they finally opened up the door and we showed them our passes and they let us in. We missed the opening band, so while everyone was going to the bar, we walked right up in front of the stage."

“It was intimate. It was more than just a different era,” Henry LoConti Jr. says of the old Agora Ballroom now. “You know, everyone will tell you that music was different. Every generation says the music is different. The room was special because of the local scene. The local talent that we had in Cleveland at that time made it. Bands and musicians hung out there. The Agora had multiple rooms to hang out in. You didn’t just walk into a room and there was the stage. So it had more of a club feel.”

LoConti Jr. says that the club evolved organically with the way they booked shows, including the Cars show, which happened on a Tuesday night, incidentally, replacing that evening’s original scheduled headliner, Asleep at the Wheel, according to concert listings from Scene the week of July 13.

“You know, my father never booked concerts on the weekend. The weekends were reserved for local talent. He only booked shows on Mondays through Thursdays and originally, just Monday and it was called Monday Nights Out At The Agora,” he says. “Then Monday sort of rolled over into Tuesday and then Tuesday rolled over into Wednesday and the Coffee Break Concerts on Wednesdays. I don’t think there was any thought out plan, you know, like a five year plan. It just sort of happened with the times and the opportunity was there and my father took advantage of it and put all of his heart and soul into it. I watched my father have many opportunities to go into other areas, making more money in other businesses and he chose to stay in that industry. The reason I’m telling you that is that you know, he helped make that room possible. He really did. His other brothers were making more money in other businesses and he just stuck it out there. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, he must have been a millionaire when he died.’ No, he owed millions when he died. I’m being a little bit facetious with the number, but he consumed the business and it consumed him. He played a big part in that room, obviously.

The history accumulated quickly and LoConti Jr. admits that there was a specific moment when he realized just how impressive the legacy of the Agora was.

“My sister and I cataloged every one of those recordings. There was a flood in the basement on 5000 Euclid Avenue. There was a safe in the basement and everything was stored in there. A lot of stuff and memorabilia,” he recalls. “We had to go down there and my sister and I, it took us weeks to do, but we took every single tape out. Some were wet, some were just damp. We had to redo every single box. What amazed me was...because you don’t think about it, because there were so many years...but when you get your fingers on it and actually get your hands dirty and recatalog every one of those reels? It was like, ‘Oh hey, Lisa, remember that show? Hey Dad, remember this show?’ We didn’t really know what we had in our hands. Really. We’d just leave them out on the counter and go to lunch and anyone could have walked in and taken them. But from our hands and that facility, not one of those tapes ever made it to the street. He protected those. And even when he was offered a lot of money, he turned it down.”

Less than a month later, the members of the Cars found themselves on a much bigger stage — performing as the third band of the day at the latest installment of the World Series of Rock at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The event was postponed and rescheduled several times before it finally took place on Saturday, Aug. 26, with Fleetwood Mac in the headlining position. The Cars were part of the opening slate of bands and artists which also included Bob Welch, Eddie Money and Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. As Dave Voelker recapped in his Scene review which ran the week of August 31, the Boston band had their work cut out for them that day.

“The Cars were left with the unenviable task of following Rundgren's ecstatic set — a position they wouldn't have had if Todd & Co. didn't have to play in Chicago later that same day,” he wrote. “They're still a little unseasoned, but I'm confident that many in the audience now know there's a lot more to the Cars than their main claim to fame, ‘Just What I Needed.’ Particularly, the raw power of ‘Don't Cha Stop’ and ‘You're All I've Got Tonight’ seemed formidable and impressive, marking this sharp new band as an attention-worthy contender."

Nearly a year later, they were back in Hank LoConti’s orbit, performing at Legend Valley (also known as Buckeye Lake Music Center) on July 15, 1979, on a bill that was headlined by Rundgren and Utopia with support from Cheap Trick, the Cars and Eddie Money. It was an astounding day, according to LoConti Jr., who recalls that they were expecting a crowd of 15,000 at best — and ended up selling close to 50,000 tickets to the event.

“You could tell that it blew the band away. The show was so successful that my father — he didn’t have to do this, because they played for a flat guarantee, for an embarrassing low amount of money — he paid them overages,” he says. “And I don’t think they ever forgot him for that. Because he didn’t have to do that. In fact, he paid all of the bands overages. You know, as a thank you for doing so well. But when [the Cars] hit the stage, they already had [several] singles on the Billboard Top 100, so it was amazing when that happened, the response from the crowd and the band themselves. I mean, they lit right up.”

Fans can hear a nice snapshot of where it all began for the Cars with the new Live at the Agora release, and Hughes cautions that copies will likely go quickly, especially here in Cleveland.

“If they want it, they shouldn’t delay. It’s limited to five thousand pieces worldwide, it will go fast. It’s just a great, great show.”

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