It was one of my favorite songs (and bands) to listen to on my 8-track while I was in college, and it (and they) still are today.
The cover of the album (shown above) was also a classic.
So I was quite happy when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this month.
And today, the Wall Street Journal had an article, “The Story Behind the Cars’ ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’”, so the band is kind of having a moment here.
These stories behind a song are fascinating, and this story was no different.
While there were no surprises with what the lyrics meant, what I found quite interesting was reading about how the album was put together, and all the work that goes into it.
Here are some of the insights from the band members:
Ric Ocasek, songwriter, lead singer, and guitarist: At some point, I realized my lyrics didn’t include the words “My Best Friend’s Girl.” So I pulled out the lyrics someone had typed up and added a chorus in the margin in pen: “She’s my best friend’s girl / she’s my best friend’s girl / but she used to be mine.” I liked the twist. Up until that point, you think the singer stole his best friend’s girl based on how good he feels about her: “When she’s dancing ’neath the starry sky / she’ll make you flip.” With the last line of the chorus, “But she used to be mine,” you realize the guy didn’t steal his best friend’s girl—his friend stole her away from him.
In the studio, “My Best Friend’s Girl” didn’t need much. It was all there on the demo. But Roy made the song sound much bigger. It opens with me picking on notes in the middle position of my Fender Jazzmaster guitar. My guitar went through an Ampeg VT-22 amp, which let me turn up the middle part of my guitar. The Jazzmaster was perfect, with that thud-y sound. The handclapping in the first verse was us clapping, not a synthesizer. Roy had brought in a 40-track recorder built by Stephens Electronics. Even though it broke down a lot, the two-inch tape machine let us use more mics to make the album sound large. When we recorded vocal harmony on the line “Here she comes again,” Roy had us record one set of vocals. He triplicated them so there were 24 voices. Then he used the Stephens machine to get them up to around 70 voices. At one point, we said, “Roy, we can’t do that,” fearing the vocals would sound too synth-y. Roy said, “You’ll get used to it.” Roy placed the mics 10- to 15-feet away from us for a more dimensional sound. He knew how to do this from recording classical music.
David Robinson, drummer: What made “My Best Friend’s Girl” special was Elliot’s guitar. It really elevated the joy level.
Elliot Easton, lead guitarist The inspiration for my rockabilly riff and solo was the guitar lick from the Beatles’ “I Will.” I mutated it a bit to counter Ric’s strong 8th-note feel. While our song’s melody chords are E, A and B, I played E, C-sharp minor, F-sharp minor and B, to offset them. I played my solo on a new Fender Telecaster I had brought to London along with my Martin D-35 acoustic and Gibson Les Paul Standard. The Fender was twangy to begin with, but we added a little slap-back echo so it sounded fatter and jumped.
David Robinson: Roy loved loud drums. I had tuned them so they were boom-y and bass-y. I also had super-thin wood drum rims, which helped my tom-toms pop. I overdubbed timbales to add a Latin feel. They’re the bright, metallic-sounding drums that appear just before we sing the chorus: “She’s my best friend’s girl.” After, Roy mixed the drums loud.
Ric Ocasek: When we finished recording the song, it was a tick too slow. Roy wanted it a little faster. So he went back and sped up the tape, pushing the song up a key, from E to F.
I guess part of my fascination is due to the fact that I have no what goes into recording a song. For the most part, I just assumed the band gets together in a recording studio and just keeps recording until they are happy with the final product. Apparently not.
I was also unaware that there are subtle sound differences between various brands and models of guitars and drums:
- The Jazzmaster was perfect, with that thud-y sound.
- The Fender was twangy to begin with
- I also had super-thin wood drum rims, which helped my tom-toms pop
When Easton talks about offsetting one set of chords (E, A and B) with a different set of chords (E, C-sharp minor, F-sharp minor and B) it was like a foreign language.
Perhaps what I found most surprising is when Ocasek talks about how the band’s voices were transformed to make it sound like there are 70 voices singing the line, “Here she comes again“. I just assumed it went from the lead singer singing solo to the rest of the band joining in at certain points, not realizing it was made to sound much fuller than that.
And then when they were all done recording, it sounds as if they used technology to speed the song up, which moved it from a key of E to F (as f that means anything to me).
So it’s no wonder they were successful, they were both artists and professionals, taking great care to get things just right.
And I guess that’s why the song sounds just as good today as it did 40 years ago.
Congratulations to The Cars on a well-deserved honor!