LEAD SISTER: The Story Of Karen Carpenter by Lucy O’Brien

If ever a girl seemed destined to marry her childhood sweetheart, have 2.7 children and become a ‘home-maker’, it was Karen Carpenter. Unfortunately for her, it didn’t happen that way. Blessed with a deep, honey-drenched and distinctively pure contralto voice, and a natural talent for the drums, she became one half of the Carpenters, the brother and sister easy listening duo that in the 1970s sold over 100 million records and rallied behind the Stars & Stripes for Republican America when all around them the rock world was bent on delivering something entirely different, musically, politically and socially. This brought renown and anguish in opposing measure, and when anguish won Karen died from anorexia, aged just 32. 

        This, in a nutshell, is the story adeptly conveyed by Lucy O’Brien in Lead Sister, the first biography of Karen Carpenter that I have ever read so I can’t compare it with others. Judging from the diligence reflected in her earlier work, however, and the list of interviewees at the back, among them myself, it’s a safe bet to assume it’s the best yet. 

        Among them myself? Yes. In complete contrast to the kind of music to which I was inclined, the first substantial interview I did when I arrived in Los Angeles as Melody Maker’s man in America in the autumn of 1973 was with Richard and Karen Carpenter at their family home in Downey, a conservative suburb south of LA. Then aged 27 and 24 respectively, I was astonished that they still lived with their parents in this comfortable detached house, at the back of which was their own recording studio and music room where we sat down and talked for an hour while Agnes, their mum, delivered tea and biscuits. 

        Lucy O’Brien spoke to me about this encounter and it’s relayed in her book. “They were really sweet people,” I told her. “They struck me as the kind who got dressed in their Sunday best and went to church. Karen looked like a bank teller, not Hollywood flash at all, no glamour, no tights and plunging neckline. At that point I was immersed in the rock scene, men in denim shirts unbuttoned to the waist and girls flaunting themselves. Richard looked like an estate agent. They seemed like a suburban couple, even though they were brother and sister.”

        Sweet as they were, they seemed strangely naïve about the rock world, set apart from it yet rubbing shoulders in the charts with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Stones. In this respect they were the American equivalent of Abba*, creators of precisely produced pop perfection that catered to a large but undemonstrative constituency discomfited by the vigorous sedition of long-haired musicians in faded jeans with wailing guitars and sleazy habits. 

Lucy O’Brien traces the Carpenter family’s upwardly-mobile journey from the East Coast of America to the West when Karen was 13, not an age when girls appreciate being separated from their friends, as I learned myself when we yanked our 14-year-old daughter from West London to deepest Surrey and all hell broke loose. But I digress. Karen was on the timid side and, even then, concerned about her weight. A bit of a tomboy, she found a life for herself through the drums, which she played in her school’s marching band. The vocals came later. Richard, meanwhile, was a musical prodigy, expected to become the star of a hard-working, all-American, Christian family keen on self-improvement. 

As with any determined act, there are false starts but eventually their hard work and talent win out, and by the end of the Sixties they have secured a contract with A&M Records for whom they would record their most successful work, which OBrien analyses comprehensively. Richard and Karen befriend the strata of musical families you would expect, the Boones, the Jacksons and the Osmonds, one of whom, Alan, ‘dates’ Karen when the pair meet in Las Vegas but it’s unlikely the dating went much further than simply holding hands. 

While this is no rags to riches story – the family’s work ethic ensures a degree of comfort from the outset – it seems to enact the American Dream insofar as honest toil, clean living and deference to the Flag will be rewarded. Unfortunately, the family, especially mother Agnes, smother Karen who feels unable to break away, “like a bird in a gilded cage”, even as her star rose and the money rolled in. Boyfriends are kept at arm’s length, not least because Agnes believes they must be gold diggers. In the meantime, Karen worries about her image, her looks, her clothes and – most pressingly – her weight, even though in realty she has no need to. 

        With the benefit of hindsight and medical texts published since Karen’s death, O’Brien addresses the cause of her demise perceptively and in ways that leaves readers in no doubt that the need to conform to an unwritten law that female entertainers must be thin leads to her undoing. “I never thought of her as fat but she had that complex,” says video director Clare Baren. “Now you can have a big ass and be a huge star, like Lizzo. But it was different for women in the 1970s. All those handling her career were men. I’m sure she got told, ‘You have a big ass’ by the wrong people, many times.”

        Similarly, friends note that when Karen did finally manage to break away from the family home, moving into a luxury apartment building at the age of 26, she appeared to suffer from OCD. “Her clothes were hung exactly a quarter of an inch apart and rigidly grouped according to type,” notes one, while her pal Olivia Newton-John says her apartment was “always immaculate. She was very clean, very tidy.” Compulsive tidying, notes O’Brien, was reminiscent of Agnes. 

        In a more enlightened age, better advice would have been sought and given but when the Carpenters were on top of the world this wasn’t available. It’s no surprise, then, that the second half of Lead Sister charts Karen’s foreseeable decline, a sorry tale exacerbated by brother Richard’s increasing dependence on sleeping pills. Psychotherapy proved ineffective – she’s economical with the truth about the medication she’s taking – and the failure of her brief and somewhat hasty marriage to Tom Burris seems to have been the last straw. When the end came, it was sudden. On the morning of February 4, 1983, Karen awoke at her parents’ house, went downstairs to make coffee and returned to her bedroom where she suffered a cardiac arrest. She died in hospital shortly afterwards.   

        While acknowledging that Karen’s death will forever dominate her story, O’Brien concludes Lead Sister by returning to her theme of how outside pressure was its prime cause. “Karen kept her battle secret,” she writes, “but many younger female singers – like Taylor Swift, Kesha, Halsey and Lady Gaga – are critiquing that cultural idea of thinness. What contributed to Karen Carpenter’s isolation was the belief that anorexia was shameful and taboo. Younger women, emboldened by Third Wave and MeToo feminism, are calling for more support.” 

        Lead Sister, a salutary tale, offers just that. 


*While both acts chose to sweeten one of their most popular songs with a children’s choir to an extent that would see off an entire hospital ward of diabetics, there are notable differences between Abba and the Carpenters. Abba relied exclusively on their in-house songwriting team, principally Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, but the Carpenters cast their net wider for material, reinterpreting tested classics alongside Richard’s own songs, and the ratio of ballads to up-tempo material is much higher in the Carpenters’ oeuvre than it is in that of Abba. Perhaps more importantly, the Carpenters are Conservative with a capital C, while Abba, musically bolder, sexier and more visionary, are apolitical. Nevertheless Universal, which by the turn of the millennium owned the catalogues of both acts, saw fit in 2000 to release a hits compilation called Carpenters Gold, no doubt hoping to emulate the extraordinary success of Abba Gold eight years earlier. In a further bid to attract a similar demographic, the packaging was identical. 


Keith Carley said...

Thank you for that review. I didn't pay it any attention when I first saw it (yesterday, I think), but today as I scrolled down to check something in the article about David Crosby, I noticed the footnote comparing the Carpenters to ABBA. That prompted me to read the whole thing. Also, I was puzzled by the last line. What exactly was the title of the book? Sister or Singer?

Chris Charlesworth said...

My error, sorry. It's Lead Sister.