One for the road: The Cars' Elliot Easton - "The registration desk had bulletproof glass in front of it"

(Image credit: Robert Knight Archive / Getty)

The Cars’ Elliot Easton reflects on the wisdom of checking the setlist before embarking on Townshend-style guitar demolition…

What was your first gig and how did it go?

“My first ever gig was probably playing surf music on my backyard patio with some friends for the neighbourhood kids sitting around the yard. But I had a high school band and we won a battle of the bands and stuff like that. One thing we did have was a regular gig on weekends at this place called Mr Magoo’s in the town where I grew up, which was Massapequa in Long Island, New York. 

"We alternated with a stripper! We were just 17 and there was a stage in one corner and another stage for the dancers in the other corner, so we’d play our set and then the strippers would do their thing. I noticed that my dad suddenly became very interested in my career…”

Describe your current stage rig...

I primarily play a Custom Shop Les Paul 1960 reissue, because I like the thinner neck

“I’m using Marshall JCM 800 half stacks. I primarily play a Custom Shop Les Paul 1960 reissue, because I like the thinner neck, and an SG/Les Paul reissue - a ’61 with a wide, flat neck which I also love - and some form of Telecaster. I had a pedalboard made by a company in Ohio called Tonetronix and they just do a great job of routing everything and making sure it’s as quiet as can be. 

“I’ll try and remember everything that’s on there: there’s a Janglebox compressor, a Dunlop Echoplex, an MI Audio Crunch Box, a Hermida Zendrive, a Dunlop reverb, a Keeley 30MS ADT pedal and I have a Dunlop tremolo on there and an ISP Technologies Decimator noise reduction pedal. 

"Then there’s a switcher that makes two loops out of it so if I’m going from the heavier distortion to overdrive with the Zendrive, instead of having to turn one pedal off and another on, you can do that with the press of a button.”

What piece of gear is most essential to your live sound?

“If I could only take one pedal with me I would take the Crunch Box because that can give me a tone that gives me a voice. I can solo on that, turn it down and it cleans up - it’s like a Marshall in a box; I could be given a Twin with JBL speakers in, one of the cleanest amps you can imagine, but the Crunch Box would transform it into a Marshall, even with those low-end transients. 

"That’s like my desert island piece of gear, I can’t say enough nice things about that pedal.”

What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

“It was the last show of a tour, I believe it was the 1982 Shake It Up tour and I wanted to see what it was like to break a guitar on stage like Pete Townshend. So it came to what felt like the last song and I looked over at the rack of guitars - beautiful Gibsons and Fenders - and there’s this Dean guitar painted in a cheetah print. 

"I had my guitar tech hand me the Dean, I played the song and then I did the whole thing; I smashed the guitar on the stage and the neck breaks off, I threw the neck out to the audience… and then I find out we had to do one more song! Anti-climactic, shall we say?”

What’s on your rider?

“There’s always that joke about Van Halen and the brown M&Ms and The Cars had one like that, too. Besides all the usual stuff we had one order of Moo Goo Gai Pan from a Chinese restaurant. 

"Everywhere we went we’d get back to the dressing room at these basketball arenas and there’d be a little paper bag with ‘Chinese takeout’. The reason was the same as the M&Ms - you knew if they’d fulfilled that, they’d fulfilled the other obligations with the rider. So it was a quick way of making sure they were paying attention.”

What’s the best venue you’ve played in from a musician’s point of view?

We got there and the hotel consisted of a bunch or trailers and the registration desk had bulletproof glass in front of it

“Doing shows for Bill Graham in the San Francisco area was always a pleasure. He had a reputation for being a hothead but he was the guy who would always lay on the best accommodations when you played a show for him. 

"You’d go back in the dressing room and there’d be real furniture like you’d have in a living room: sofas, chairs, really comfortable. Good food and he’d have a little gift for everybody in the band - I remember one time he gave us each leather shoulder bags with our initials embossed into them. 

"He was just a great promoter and so doing shows for Bill was a great pleasure because he treated you like a king.”

What’s the worst journey you’ve had to or from a gig?

“For 11 years I played with a band called Creedence Clearwater Revisited with Stu Cook and Doug Clifford from the original Creedence and we played this gig in the middle of nowhere in Canada on an Indian reservation. 

"There was no place to fly into, we had to fly into a local commuter airport and then get this really tiny plane - I was just scared for my life! We landed on a dirt airstrip and it was really harrowing. We got there and the hotel consisted of a bunch or trailers and the registration desk had bulletproof glass in front of it - this was rough. 

"The rooms were so dirty that we slept in our clothes on top of our laundry. That was probably the worst one.”

What’s your favourite live album?

“Jerry Lee Lewis Live At The Star Club backed by The Nashville Teens. Some people would say,‘Oh, it’s got to be BB King Live At The Regal or The Allman Brothers live At Fillmore East or Frampton Comes Alive or all the famous live albums, but that album is the most stomping, out of control, rocking-est live album I think I’ve ever heard.”

Expanded and remastered editions of Shake It Up and Heartbeat City are available now via Rhino

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