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Why Carpenters Were Cooler Than You Think

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Being hailed by a Watergate-shamed President Nixon as “young America at its best” is probably not the best thing for your street cred or reputation. For years thereafter, Carpenters were pigeon-holed as AOR or soft-rock – tags that belied the duo’s musical boldness and creativity across a remarkable body of work that is being revisited in a new collaboration between Richard Carpenter and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Those who listened closely, however, knew far better.

Richard Carpenter gained a grounding in music through his father’s 78pm records, an eclectic collection that included Nat King Cole, Perry Como and the Dixieland jazz of Red Nichols. In his late teens, he formed The Richard Carpenter Trio – a band in which he was pianist, sister Karen Carpenter played drums and friend Wes Jacobs was on upright bass and tuba – and the group won a prestigious battle of the bands, in June 1966, at the Hollywood Bowl. However, even Richard admitted that “our brand of rock-tuba was never going to catch on”.

When Richard and Karen moved away from instrumental jazz, they recorded a song he had written called ‘Looking For Love’. Despite the rawness of a track recorded in a garage lock-up in Los Angeles, the song had innovative elements, such as the phrasing of 16-year-old Karen’s vocals to the use of the flute. The demo tape impressed A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert.

Richard was subsequently given carte blanche by Alpet to writer songs for their 1969 debut album, Offering. The title track, a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Ticket To Ride’ (which later gave the renamed album its title), was innovatively arranged as a slow ballad. It’s fitting that a gorgeous reworked version for the new orchestral album was recorded in August 2018 (with Richard as arranger and conductor) at the iconic Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles first cut the track in 1965.

Though there were glimpses of real talent in Richard’s arrangements – including his use of the harpsichord in a baroque pop way – his promise was not really fulfilled until Carpenters released their second album, Close To You, which came out a year later. Richard said of the inspiration for the sound of this album that “Les Paul and Mary Ford probably had the biggest influence on me because of the overdubbed sound. Boy, did Karen and I take to the whole multi-track thing.”

‘(They Long to Be) Close To You’ was a breakthrough song for the duo. It was a chart success – No.1 on the Billboard charts for four weeks in 1970 – and earned a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus a year later, when Richard and Karen beat The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to the trophy.

Indeed, Carpenters deserve credit for their bold and progressive version of the song, composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. There had been previous versions by Dionne Warwick (and Bacharach himself), but even the original songwriter paid tribute to the free-flowing arrangement Richard Carpenter devised (using his Wurlitzer piano) to showcase Karen’s vocals.

Carpenters’ version was punchier than the original, with a swinging harmony and shorter pauses. Richard used a click track to synchronise the vocals (masterfully arranged into four-part harmonies tripled into 12 overdubbed vocal parts) and achieve the right effect. It took 47 takes just to get the extended “wahs” the way he wanted on the closing chorus. Trumpeter Chuck Findley had to repeatedly modify the trumpet part to get the sound waves to modulate in the way the producer wanted. “People were coming in during recording and saying, ‘We’ve never heard anything like this,’” Richard recalled.

Singer, producer and record company owner Linda Perry said, “Richard is up there with Brian Wilson. He had the same kind of perfectionism and did such interesting things with the production and arrangement he put together.”

The song was an instant hit, and even Dionne Warwick noted, “Carpenters’ version was new enough, fresh enough that people did not associate it with me. It was a unique sound. They made the song their own.”

Richard’s perfectionism carried over from the studio to their gigs. He would spend up to an hour before some concerts balancing the mics for instruments and vocals, a job usually left to the sound engineer.

As well as writing great songs, Richard had a knack for spotting winners. He first heard ‘We’ve Only Just Began’ as the music on a television advert for Crockers Citizen Bank Of California and thought “this sounds like a hit record”. Richard rang songwriter Roger Nichols to ask whether the simple jingle had a bridge and a third verse. Nichols said that Richard’s genius for deft arrangements allowed the grace of Karen’s voice to turn lyrics “that were more greeting-card quality than Keats” into a hugely popular tune.

‘Goodbye To Love’ is another song that shows Carpenters’ enduring relevance. Richard had been watching TV when he saw the 1940 Basil Rathbone/Bing Crosby/Mary Martin movie Rhythm On The River, in which the song title is mentioned but never heard. His instincts were usually spot on; he recognised that the title alone was the building block for a future Top 10 hit, but it was his arrangements that created a sensation. Richard said, “I pictured something that was a little off the beaten path. I wanted two things that ordinarily don’t go together: a melodic fuzz guitar solo.”

The late guitarist Tony Peluso, who was a mainstay of Carpenters’ band for a decade, said Richard told him to “play the melody for five bars and then burn it up! Soar off into the stratosphere. He wanted an aggressive solo in the middle of this Doris Day easy-listening-style record. I thought, He can’t be serious. Inadvertently, Richard had broken new ground. No one had ever really mixed the elements of rock’n’roll and easy listening. Totally crazy but a great idea. From then on, it became very commonplace for a big power ballad to have a raging guitar solo.”

The reaction to this innovation was not universally positive. When Carpenters first heard it on the radio, a DJ joked about them “doing a Jimi Hendrix song”. They also received mail from fans upset at a perceived musical heresy.

Ever ambitious, however, Richard was always searching for new orchestration, whether it meant using woodwind instruments, strings, harp or tambourine, or even a blend of them all behind overdubbed harmonies. On ‘Make Believe It’s Your First Time’, he adapted what he called “tap dancing cheek” – the sound of Karen making three quick pulls on her cheek, with her thumb and forefinger – to produce a tap dancing sound. On ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ (a song he heard Bette Midler singing on The Johnny Carson Show) he wanted a lusher sound and laid down a choral arrangement involving a 13-part 39-voice chord. This song earned Richard one of his five Grammy nominations as an arranger.

Carpenters had more hits throughout the 70s and Richard continued to experiment. On the 1977 album Passage he got the most out of Karen’s voice by having a solitary soloist (oboe, flute, harmonica) as the counterpoint to her voice. That album also featured a cover of Canadian band Klaatu’s space anthem ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognised Anthem Of World Contact Day)’, a seven-minute blend of orchestra and guitar. As Peluso said, “It’s certainly not the kind of thing you expect from Carpenters. From a creative point of view, we all had a blast. Commercially? No, but I don’t think Richard cared.”

Another track on the album, ‘B’wana She No Home’, written by jazz singer Michael Franks, demonstrated an innovative use of conga and percussion, and has the unusual quality of seeing what happens when talented session musicians are let loose to strut their stuff.

Richard admitted he understood why he and his sister were dubbed as “goody four-shoes”, and he contested that “crappy” album covers, such as the cosy image on Close To You, did not help the group’s credibility.

Carpenter was a master of getting the best out of Karen’s exquisite voice and on the A&M/UMe album Carpenters With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra he has taken full advantage of the opportunity to set their classics on a larger scale, with an orchestra of nearly 80 top-class musicians, covering classics such as ‘Top Of The World’ (1973), their US chart singles hits ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ (1970), ‘Superstar’ (1971), ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ (1971), ‘Hurting Each Other’ (1972) and ‘Yesterday Once More’ (1973).

But, nearly 50 years on from their first record, Carpenters now receive the critical acclaim that is rightly theirs. Their exquisite multi-layered harmonies, novel arrangements and creativity helped shape modern pop music.

Look beyond the coy images – and the later tragedy of Karen’s death, aged just 32 – and it’s possible to see that Carpenters were musical mavericks: not least for selling 150 million “soft vocal” records in an era when rock, punk, prog rock and heavy metal were supposed to rule music.

Carpenters With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is out now and can be bought here.

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17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Kym

    November 15, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    Didn’t get them then. Love them now.

  2. Ron

    November 15, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    I thought that it was ‘Superstar’ that Rivhard heard Bette sing on the Tonight Show. A very nice article-thanks!

    • Doug

      November 16, 2017 at 3:21 am

      Correct Ron

  3. Ken probyn

    November 15, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I bought this box set 20 years ago.

    • Kenny Palmer

      November 15, 2017 at 11:12 pm

      Me too
      The CD collection
      100 quid and worth it

  4. Kenny Palmer

    November 15, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    The Singles 1974-8 ,The 2 haunting Xmas lps and
    As Tine Goes By lp NOT included ???????
    Another RIP off
    Buy all Carpenters Lps in there original single edition
    Much better Cheaper
    I thought we were getting Sommat great but yet again the fans are being xxxxed over by greedy comercialism
    I wouldn’t waste my money

  5. Kenny Palmer

    November 15, 2017 at 11:33 pm

    Another mosh mash
    This set DOESNT contain the Brilliant Singkes 1974-8 or the 2 haunting Xmas Lps nor does it contain the 2 “Live” or their great As Time Goes By from 2001/2
    Why not??
    For a better cheaper idea buy all the Lps on a single basis from amazon and forget this RIPOFF
    I thought us fans were gonna get a real treat this time but yet again the greedy powers that be xxxx us over with this badly done compliation
    I won’t waste my money

  6. Helenaprince

    November 15, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    I love all the Carpenters music I play them all the time

  7. Kathyl Vance

    November 16, 2017 at 2:37 am

    Thay
    Were the Greatest team
    Together

  8. Jimmy Chast

    November 16, 2017 at 2:39 am

    Proofreading no longer exists in “journalism”.

  9. Katherine Gipple

    November 16, 2017 at 5:10 am

    I want the Carpenters music to be playing at my funeral. My favorite album as a kid.

  10. Iraida Heredia

    November 16, 2017 at 6:09 am

    She was a great singer with her brother as well . I wonder was she died too young. Rest in peace Karen

  11. Dana Countryman

    November 16, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    Just for the record, I met Richard Carpender purely by accident in 1995. I found them to be incredibly warm and friendly, especially after I interrupted his eating his dessert at a music convention. My wife snapped a picture together, and it is one of my proudest possessions. The point is, he is a great guy and I can vouch for it.

  12. Maria

    November 17, 2017 at 8:15 am

    You talk more about Richard, but Karen was an AWESOME drummer and SINGER that other top drummers and singers were envious of. They are the pride of my city, Downey, CA.

  13. Pat

    January 16, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    I always tell people that the carpenter’s were the first real punk band. They were so ahead of their time. The more you listen to them, the more amazing their music becomes. Absolutely incredible, and impeccable. Karen had the most beautiful voice, and mastered that vocal instrument without flaw. If not for Karen being a drummer, how many women would be playing musical instruments professionally today? I love the carpenter’s music. I grew up with it. I play it all the time. I love the Christmas season, because it means the radio stations play the carpenter’s Christmas music on air. I visit vinyl record shops, thrift stores, swap meets, antique and collectibles shops…etc, looking for the carpenter’s records and other merchandise. In my searches, I have come to find, that there still are a lot of carpenter’s fans still out there. They are americana.

  14. Robert A Hajnal

    November 15, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    I am a huge fan. From Wallingford CT. 1973 concert at the Oakdale here in town is the greatest concert of all-time. PERIOD!!!!! Lets look at some facts. First American Band with RIAA Certification of ten 1million selling singles AND!! 10 million selling LPS. Karen selected by Instrumental and Drummers magazine as greatest ddrummer of all time! HANDS DOWN. First woman to produce or co-produce two number one singles, five top five singles and ten top forty singles. Also, Karen is the ONLY DRUMMER TO LEAD SING AND PLAY THAT INSTRUMENT ON THREE NUMBER ONE SINGLES: (THEY LONG TO BE) CLOSE TO YOU, TO OF THE WORLD AND PLEASE MR POSTMAN! Re-did Motowns first number one record Please Mr Postman , and not only hit number one with it but had their biggest worldwide selling smash. Look at original songs they did- This Masquerede, I Just Fall In Love Again, Trying To Get The Feeling Again, and Can’t Smile Without You to name a few. R& R Hall of Fame is an illigitimate fraud without them in it. They ate the greatest American Band, and I will because they are from the USA the greatest worldwide band of all time. For years my niece and nephew, both Millenials, had never heard of them. Niw they can’t get enough of them. Can be called the “Greatest White Rythm And Blues Jazz Band of all-time. Rainy Days And Mondays, Superstar, Plese MrPostman and Man Smart Woman Smarter and the East African Beat in the cut from Close To You- Another Song says it all. May be the most talented act of all. Only American Band and ONLY AMERICAN BAND WITH 11 TOP 4 SINGLES!!!!! Have I said enough! The other acts-dare I say the “cuties” from Liverpool who are not American can rate with them. Try to make a case for someone else. Should have been inducted into R & R Hall of Fame in 1995- their first year of eligibility!!! Also first recording act with 5 “A” sided and 4 “B” sided hits from non greatest hits album ” A Song For You” Also from that same collection became first recording act with FIVE TOP TWELVE SINGLES FROM A NON GREATEST HITS LP.Need anything else be said; their extrordinary talent and all of these true facts roll over the rest of’em like a great TSUNAMI!! Thanks to all for your time!

  15. Gillian

    November 16, 2018 at 12:05 am

    I liked the carpenters and truly lived “I’ll say goodbye to love.” always made me cry when feeling low and lonely and unloved!!

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