Reconstructing The Carpenters

I’ll cop to being a fickle, fairweather fan of The Carpenters.

I was about four or five when their hits started, and about 11 when they stopped. Their years of smash success coincided almost exactly with those of the Nixon era, and it’s impossible for me not to regard it as the soundtrack of his Presidency. The Carpenters actually met with Tricky Dick at the height of their fame, had photo ops with him in 1972 and performed at the White House the following year, when he was already in deep doo-doo from Watergate. The Carpenters were actually apolitical, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? To be disengaged during a time of struggle is to take the side of the status quo. The Carpenters were a pop act, not a rock one, though they affected the shaggy look of hippies. They came across as clean and wholesome, and everyone but the critics embraced them. My dad, a sort of one man combo of Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the Hard Hat Coalition said to me one time of “On Top of The World”, their 1973 #1 hit anthem to endorphin elation, “Now THAT’s what I call music!” It was kind of like the musical equivalent to a Ziggy mug, tailor made for the tastes of file clerks and secretaries and scout troops in the back of station wagons. I always think of the opening lyrics to their first hit, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (1970): “Why do birds suddenly appear/every time you are near?” The imagery caused me to associate Karen Carpenter with Snow White and Cinderella.

No human being is pure, precisely, but the Carpenters had that image, and for some reason, that was the sought-after quality of the time. As a brother and sister act, one easily associates them with Donny and Marie; Karen had actually dated one of the older Osmonds. Hey, man, JESUS was a Carpenter! The Carpenters themselves weren’t hugely religious in their music (although “Top of the World” does mention “creation”) but they just kind of seemed that way. Like The Beach Boys and The Cowsills (and of course the fictional Partridge Family), they were siblings who had started out playing and singing together in their living room and garage. Richard Carpenter (b. 1946) was the musical director, arranger, producer, piano accompanist, harmony vocalist, and sometime songwriter. Karen Carpenter (b. 1950) was of all things, the DRUMMER! as well as the lead singer, with a very easy-to-listen-to contralto, which sometimes sounded as low and rich as a male voice, kind of a rare and unique quality in a young woman. It was soothing, kind of maternal. And, this is not an afterthought: they were very, very, VERY white. While their influences were eclectic and certainly included things like the Beatles (they covered several of their songs), they were just as apt to radiate the sounds of Sinatra.

And like the Beatles and Sinatra, they had a string of major hits so popular they were slammed into the popular consciousness, one after another, starting with the aforementioned “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, followed by “We’ve Only Just Begun” (1970 a #2 hit, co-written by Paul Williams), “For All We Know” (#3, 1971), “Rainy Days and Mondays” (#2, 1971, also co-written by Williams), the incredible “Superstar” (#2, co-written by Delaney & Bonnie and Leon Russell), “Bless the Beasts and Children” (1971, not a big hit but it was the theme to a Stanley Kramer movie), “Hurting Each Other” (#2, 1972), “It’s Going to take Some Time” (#12, 1972, By Carole King), “Goodbye to Love” (#7, 1972, co-written by Richard), “Sing” (#3, 1973, a children’s song which had originally appeared on Sesame Street), “Yesterday Once More” (#2, 1973, co-written by Richard), “Top of the World” (#1, 1973, co-written by Richard), “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” (#11, 1974, co-written by Williams), “Please Mr. Postman” (#1, 1974, a cover of a tune that had been a hit for The Marvelettes and The Beatles), “Only Yesterday” (#4, 1975, co-written by Richard), “Solitaire” (#17, 1975, co-written by Neil Sedaka), and a cover of “There’s a Kind of Hush (#12, 1976, which had been a hit for The New Vaudeville Band and Herman’s Hermits.) I’m a little shocked to see that their 1977 single “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” only went to #32. Somehow I was very much aware of the tune at the time. That one was also a cover, originally recorded by Klaatu. I guess it got decent radio airplay where I lived for whatever reason, or perhaps I saw them perform it on television.

I would be remiss in my duties as a chronicler of television variety if I didn’t report that The Carpenters were also frequently on shows like Ed Sullivan, American Bandstand, The Tonight Show (Johnny was a fan), Carol Burnett, etc. They also had their own TV variety show Make Your Own Kind of Music in 1971, and numerous TV specials of their own between 1970 and 1980. These appearances, and the fact that we had most of their records, in addition to their radio presence, made me very much aware of them during the peak years.

The Carpenters rapidly dropped out of favor in the second half of the decade, in the face of stylistic challenges from disco, hard rock, punk, funk, new wave and so forth and a mass sensibility that was much more openly embracing of content that was overtly sexual and hedonistic in nature. By contrast, the past hits of The Carpenters seemed saccharine, insipid, and bland, and they were relegated to the radio ghetto of “soft rock” and “easy listening”. The pair had one additional Top 20 hit, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” in 1981, which went to #16. It was an obvious attempt to tack with the times for which they seemed ill-fitted.

Then in 1983, Karen Carpenter’s shocking death, which made her the poster girl for the growing national problem of anorexia. Karen had only been 20 when The Carpenters hit it big and 15 when she began playing professionally with her brother. Though she had briefly been married, she never had much time for a personal life. She’d lived with her parents until she was 24! If you think about it, there’s something manic about her music. Its not relentlessly, exclusively positive. Some of the tunes are about being really up; but others are about being really down. SPECIFICALLY. About the state of the mind, the emotion. Show business is a relentless, sometimes fatal exercise, in self-consciousness, including body consciousness. The body of an anorexic literally consumes itself. Can there be a better metaphor for the life of a performer? As always when somebody dies, you go back and you look for clues. Naturally, photos of Karen in her last years are alarming. Her sudden, unexpected death caused an explosion of genuine journalism as well as tabloid sensationalism. There were made for TV-movies and talk show conversations about anorexia. CBS made a documentary bio-film called The Karen Carpenter Story in 1989. Todd Haynes first gained fame as a filmmaker with his now banned all-Barbie short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story in 1987.

When I was a young kid, I’d loved The Carpenters. In a way, kids were a perfect demographic for their singable, digestible, and relatively innocent songs. Puberty hit just as they were falling out of favor, and I’m afraid I joined the herd in regarding them as a punchline for a time. Years and years later, I was at the Charleston Bar and Grill in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and my friend Johnny Hoppe suddenly pulled out his rendition of Sonic Youth’s take on “Superstar”, from the all-star 1994 tribute album If I Were a Carpenter…with its chilling, disturbing, crazy and yet universally relatable lyrics. It was like I heard them for the first time, even though I’d heard the song a thousand times before.. Today I regard the Carpenters as a rich, eloquent phenomenon, a complex one. They are as one with the country that loved them so much for a time: an accessible, candy-coated outer shell, concealing dark, deeper layers.