Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The CARPENTERS: The Singles 1969-1973

(#139: 2 February 1974, 4 weeks; 9 March 1974, 11 weeks; 1 June 1974, 1 week; 6 July 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: We've Only Just Begun/Top Of The World/Ticket To Ride/Superstar/Rainy Days And Mondays/Goodbye To Love/Yesterday Once More/It's Going To Take Some Time/Sing/For All We Know/Hurting Each Other/(They Long To Be) Close To You

"Think I'm gonna be sad...Loneliness is such a sad affair...Come back to me again and play your sad guitar...Makes today seem rather sad...Sing of happy, not sad..."

You don't have to know the ins and outs of Karen Carpenter's life to realise the mood which prevails throughout this collection; the word keeps recurring throughout the record, its feeling all-pervading. And while I am not necessarily an observer who bases his judgment of art on the life lived by the artist, it is impossible from these dozen selections to avoid the conclusion that Karen was not a happy person. Even when she essays happy, as on "Top Of The World," she never quite convinces the listener; her brightest thought is "I won't be surprised if it's a dream" and her shaky transition throughout the phrase "be the same for you and me" finds her on the verge of suppressed collapse. As with Perry Como, she cannot quite make "Sing" sing true; she is constantly trying to convince herself that happiness is a good idea.

But flawless sadness was what 1974 Britain seemed to want, indeed luxuriated in; this was its year's biggest-selling album, only beginning to step outside the top ten in November (and it did not leave the top five until September). Part of the duo's core appeal was that they sounded like no one else in their time, be it pop or rock or even easy listening, and it is true in the context of 1974 number one albums that they still did not. Everything on the record sounds beamed down from above, even if its words are frequently more in keeping with hell than heaven; it is quite convenient to assume that the Carpenters might have been among the most radical of pop groups, even if their radicalism had only extended to not sounding like Slade or Foghat.

The Singles 1969-1973 is not quite the straightforward greatest hits album it might initially appear; the majority of its tracks featured remixes, re-recorded lead (and harmony) vocals and, throughout side one at least, a spotless segue complete with new orchestral introductions and interludes. That this would herald a lifetime of endless tinkering with the same material suggested that the Brian Wilson influence was more encompassing, or possibly engulfing, than was sometimes apparent. The album begins with the piano/vibes introduction to "Close To You," recalling George Crumb as much as Burt Bacharach; Karen sings the first two lines before a bass slide and decisive snare drum usher in soaring strings, followed by a harp, and then an oboe/strings theme - travelling in less than a minute from Makrokosmos III to Vaughan Williams' A Pastoral Symphony. All very grandiose and Scott Walker a prelude, and it goes straight into "We've Only Just Begun," the bank commercial that Richard Carpenter decided to turn into a hymn.

Actually the Beach Boys connection is deeper; Tony Asher, the Pet Sounds lyricist, had originally been approached to compose the lyrics to the Crocker Bank ad but fell ill and recommended that Paul Williams take over and articulate the music of Roger Nichols. Both of the latter were writers and performers with a history of enterprising avant-MoR work at A&M - hear, if you can find it, 1968's extraordinary Roger Nichols And The Small Circle Of Friends (the CEO of Crocker Bank certainly did, and approached Nichols to write the jingle) - and when Richard Carpenter came across the commercial on TV one night, they were persuaded to extend it into a full song. Here, all is smooth and hopeful; Nichols and Williams might have written it, but only, I suspect, the Carpenters could have derived hymnal salvation from a bank ad - and, as the "Walrus"/police siren piano chords prove, not to mention Karen's anguished multiphonic "live" in the second verse (a regular trope which Karen would practise when she dropped her emotional guard; see also, out of many examples, the "wind" in "wind up" in "Rainy Days And Mondays"), the future is not quite as bright or uncomplicated as she would like. Similarly, "Top Of The World" plays like a simulacrum of a jaunty country song (that high pedal steel sustain which occurs like a wraith after all but one of the choruses), but the main interest here is Richard's arranging and producing - as with "Penny Lane," he subtly alters the mix throughout the song, emphasising different instruments at different points; the pedal steel, the harp, the Fender Rhodes.

A solo piano passage welcomes a swooning orchestral re-entry, followed by more solo piano, then strings and a strangely harsh-sounding cymbal, and finally cascading tubular bells, strings and harp, all of which alight upon the most desolate Beatles cover I can think of; again, Karen does her best to inject more life, less neutered deadness, into her vocal than the 1969 original - for example, in the rise to the final chorus, she now sings "Ohhh..." as compared with what sounds like "Hell..." in the original - but I wonder whether the original blankness didn't make for a more affecting performance. It's as if the sixties have drained away, and they know it; before they announce their official split, they are already mourning for the Beatles (and indeed the 45 of "Ticket To Ride" sold better immediately following the Beatles' split than it had done in the two months previously) - Karen's "don't care when" is a terrifying admission of nothingness and the Beatles' own "My baby don't care" sequence is jettisoned altogether from both readings; it is replaced by a distant wall of harmonised sadness. Welcome to the seventies; still goodbye to the sixties, even almost halfway into the next decade.

The blankness drifts easily into "Superstar," that lament for lost rock ("But you're not really here/It's just the radio"). Karen's vibrato is again teary but there are hidden dramatics; the thunderous low piano which rumbles into the picture following Karen's aghast "wait." Note also the especial subtlety; much was made of the rewrite of the line "I can hardly wait to sleep with you again" into "I can hardly wait to be with you again" - and yet they kept the line "What to say to make you come again?" Strings and trumpet move into a reluctant climax before a harp flourish presses everything down again. The segue into "Rainy Days And Mondays" is hardly noticed, and yet this song - another Nichols/Williams composition - gets surprisingly close to the knuckles of the Carpenters' sadness; "Talking to myself and feeling old," murmurs Karen at the beginning, before progressing through the song. The key word is "down" at the end of each chorus; the first Karen weeps in that multiphonic despair again, but with every recurrence she puts more and more force and confidence into the word. It's "what they used to call the blues" but she is not alone. "Run and find the one who loves me" is, however, a strange expression of relief, and Karen's performance now becomes more attacking, aggressive. "No need to talk it out/We know what it's all about" and the meaning of the song suddenly becomes clear, the hidden radicalism revealed - how many hit songs have there been about that time of the month? As Karen continues her gradual emotional opening up, she climaxes on a nearly triumphant "get" before taking the "me down" down to restless quietude.

An oboe bridges "Mondays" to "Goodbye To Love," Karen's new vocal echoing against piano as though in a dungeon. Sung in a deceptively reassuring G major, the self-constructed despair of the lyric chases itself around its own labyrinth (the long sequence in each verse where Karen sings a complex two-octave line over fourteen bars without pausing for breath), trying its worst to convince itself that giving up on life is the best option, but the pain can scarcely be concealed, which is why Tony Peluso's fuzz guitar solos make such an impact (and provoked hate mail from MoR fundamentalists and even Adult Contemporary radio boycotts) since it expresses everything that Karen cannot dare to articulate; it also reminds us, not before time, that apart from Brian Wilson, the Beatles and Bacharach, Richard Carpenter's main early influence was Frank Zappa - were the Carpenters an extended Ruben And The Jets-type study of "easy listening"?

The segue/suite idea does not extend to side two, whether through loss of interest or other reasons, but this side does spotlight the duo's attempts to pick themselves up again. "Yesterday Once More," their biggest British hit single, was allegedly inspired by the revival of interest in pre-Beatle pop at the time (and if so it anticipated American Graffiti and Happy Days, even though it didn't dare get its hands dirty) but there seems to be a much greater process of mourning at work in the song. It contradicts itself - Karen sings of happy times but then says that these old songs can make her cry "just like before"; and who are those "they" to whom she first sang them? A word here for Joe Osborn's bass, which effectively provides a third "voice" throughout the Carpenters' work; on "Yesterday" he is particularly inspired, virtually weeping behind Karen in the first verse before blossoming out (and note also the importance of the Farfisa organ, just before the climax to "Goodbye To Love" and throughout "Yesterday"). It sounds to me as though they are looking to recapture or retrieve something greater and deeper than golden oldies, and for the complete picture I would really have to refer you to side two of Now And Then, wherein the song bookends a long medley of oldies (complete with Peluso's camp DJ routine and 'phone-in quiz). Since the song made number two here as a single, I will leave detailed analysis to Lena, but in passing I would merely note that, the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun" notwithstanding (and even that was recorded on New Year's Day 1964), there is nothing in the oldies medley beyond the autumn of 1963 and that, redone in the 1973 style, the old songs sound sterile to the point of being scary.

They do a fair job on Carole King's "It's Going To Take Some Time" with Karen's new love resolutions ("I can't make demands...I'll learn how to bend") marred only by a clumsy modulation after Bob Messenger's flute solo. Then the forlorn "Sing" despite the efforts of the Jimmy Joyce Children's Choir (read what you will into that name) - the first time that the voices of actual members of Generation X (the generation/movement, not the Bromley punk band) are heard in this tale - and then "For All We Know" with Osborn's high-pitched, questioning bass; unlike the fairly unambiguous path of "We've Only Just Begun," this song is sung in the foreknowledge that everything might not be perfect (as emphasised by Karen's strange English pronunication of the word "know"; see additionally her "down" on "Ticket To Ride" and her "over" on "Top Of The World") and so happiness seems as elusive as ever.

"Hurting Each Other" dates from 1965 - originally recorded by Jimmy Clanton, subsequently covered by inter alia Chad Allan and the Expressions (who eventually mutated into the Guess Who) and the Walker Brothers - and is the nearest the record gets to open emotional candour; it's the only point where the kettle threatens to boil. The song was clearly built for Scott's roller-coaster baritone but Karen puts extra measures of pain and bewilderment into the song, finally climaxing in something not far away from a shout: "CAN'T WE STOP? GOTTA STOP!"

And so the record stops, save but to welcome back the opening theme and the song where it all, effectively, began for the Carpenters - and, again, it was a song with a history dating back to 1963 - and it still sounds immaculate and felt, so much so that you don't realise that, far from being a happy ending, she doesn't have him; "Just like me, they long to be...close to you." Her contralto is as lost as ever but the musical cushion is impeccable; Richard's harpsichord, barely perceptible underneath the piano, Chuck Findley's cheeky Herb Alpert tribute in the break, above all the oceanic "Waaaaaaaah!" which feels like the singer's head emerging above water for the first time, having scuttled underwater, searching for she knows not what, and feeling the warmth of the sun (you see the Beach Boys subtext sneaking in there again?) - the song is about breathing in fresh air for the first time, the Girl in the Bubble breaking out and connecting with the world. Or so she hopes. Happiness is as uncatchable a horizon as ever (and we'll be getting back to that horizon) but you know that she is intently thinking about these songs, even as she sings them - and what are the two of them really thinking? I sense the Carpenters' key work as a kind of numbed, shellshocked reaction to something that has been lost - and in the world of Watergate in particular, we feel, underneath the layers of smoothness, a rumble; perhaps even a buried rage, on the part of a people who felt that those who were supposed to govern them and watch over them had just packed up and left with their money. SMiLE - which the Carpenters can't not have heard - may yet prove the other end of this telescope.