Tuesday, March 13, 2007
I have always thought it must have been a nightmare for the A/M employee assigned to market The Carpenters in the early seventies. The early 45's of the Carpenters are some of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded but the subject matter, from obsession to stalking and chemical depression must have caused more than a few headaches in the P/R department. And yet they got away with it, put Richard in the cutest sweater you can find and just make sure Karen is smiling and you've got a recipe for one of the most succesful and subversive groups of the seventies. It was no surprise to me when, starting in the late 80's, they began to get embraced by punk. There was something pure about them that most 'great' bands from the seventies couldn't touch, and by the time that the late eighties rolled around and most of those bands had dissolved into everything they had once preached against so loudly; The Carpenters remained untouched.
One of The Carpenters great moments came early in their career with the release of their first major label single, a cover of The Beatles Ticket To Ride backed by Richard Carpenter's own Your Wonderful Parade. The single would barely chart and their first album, Offering was a commercial failure. Within just a year Richard would transform a dark Bacharach/David song about longing and unrequited love into an almost playful love song and The Carpenters were born as one of the most successful groups in the world.
But what of that failed single? Certainly Your Wonderful Parade isn't much of a b-side, just a typical late sixties slice of fluff (even though it would include the ominous lines, "Your daily masquerade, paper masks that hide the faces you have made,
Crumbled down upon foundations you have laid"). Flip that record over to it's A side for one of the most majestic and haunting debut singles ever recorded.
The Carpenter's version of The Beatles classic does something that every great cover version should do, it manages to uncover and expose parts of the original that perhaps hadn't been heard before. Richard Carpenter's mournful and finally majestic arrangement of Lennon and McCartney's song literally pulls out all of the inherent sadness of the lyric and lays it right on top. Whereas there was something triumphant in The Beatles original, The Carpenters version is all about the heartbreak. You get the feeling that John Lennon was okay with the girl leaving, that perhaps just as the girl didn't care that neither did he. When Karen Carpenter sings, "I think I'm gonna be sad" there is nothing ironic or subtle about it. This woman meant it.
Richard Carpenter's most brilliant move in the rethinking of The Beatles classic was dropping the famous guitar line, that had already been copied by everyone from The Monkees to The Kinks. He replaced it with an extended opening piano solo that was odd even for the sixties. The spare piano soon gives way to a typically lovely A/M string arrangement but the song really starts 36 seconds in when Karen Carpenter starts to sing.
Much has been written about Karen Carpenter's voice. It's affected everyone from Elvis Presley to Sonic Youth's Kim Gordan to Richard Nixon. No other woman in rock history has come close to projecting such sincere desperation and depression as Karen Carpenter. More importantly there is a sweetness to it that makes the listener think that everything might be all right, if not for Karen then at least for them.
Karen Carpenter singing Ticket To Ride sounds like a strange call to arms with the line, "Think I'm gonna be sad" repeated at the end as some sort of mantra. She was just 19 when she recorded these words and it already sounds like she has had the weight of the world on her shoulders for years.
Ticket To Ride would continue to play a part of Karen Carpenter's life until her death, appearing first as the b-side to to the massive Close to You then on a slew of best of albums and live performances. The Carpenters would continue to confound the record company whether it be with slashing guitar solos on some of their most romantic tracks to releasing an 8 minute single about aliens and telepathic powers. The record company would continue to market them as squeaky clean squares until Karen died and then it seemed like they would disappear until a entire generation raised in broken homes and isolation re-discovered them.
They would record greater songs after Ticket To Ride but nothing could be quite as stirring as hearing that voice for the first time. John Lennon and Paul McCartney might have written the words but Karen Carpenter meant them.