To the Electric Theatre in Guildford to hear Lucy O’Brien talk about Karen Carpenter and listen to a trio – keyboard player and arranger Janette Mason, bassist Simon Little and singer Jo Harrop – perform their interpretations of Carpenters songs in a lounge bar style, a bit jazzy, a bit cocktails-at-six, a bit Hotel Ritz.
I reviewed Lead Sister, Lucy’s book about Karen Carpenter, on Just Backdated at the end of January* and in her talk she was keen to stress how, in her opinion, the female half of the Carpenters had more potential, and more imagination, than she was permitted to display. This came across more in her talk than it did in her book, and gave her address, which was punctuated by readings, more weight, and, for those who attended, something to think about on the way home.
Exhibit number one, of course, was the solo LP she recorded in 1979, produced by Phil Ramone, that A&M declined to release, ostensibly because it lacked a ‘hit song’. To add insult to injury, A&M charged the $400,000 recording costs to Karen’s royalty account.
“Karen was deeply hurt at this complete rejection,” writes O’Brien. “She had made a female soul album, her first compelling statement as a solo artist. Listening to the record over forty years later, what comes through is Karen’s own fresh, funky aesthetic. She sings in a higher register than on the Carpenters albums, weaving throughout her own intricate vocal arrangements. Her approach is intimate, light and upbeat, a conscious departure from the low, lush overload of songs like ‘Solitaire’ or ‘This Masquerade’… This is an album of nimble, sophisticated soul; classy and smart like Teena Marie’s Lady T or Patrice Rushen’s Pizzazz.”
The album, which was finally released in 1996, featured on its cover a photograph of Karen in black leather, a departure from the carefully constructed image of her as the ‘girl next door’. Reading between the lines, it seems that when Karen first delivered the LP she was a victim of the ‘don’t rock the boat’ syndrome that afflicted record companies in danger of losing an established cash cow. Paul Simon, of all people, suffered the same treatment after the demise of Simon & Garfunkel when Columbia was strangely lukewarm about his first solo LP. They’d have much preferred an S&G follow-up to the multi-million selling Bridge Over Troubled Water, of course.
Furthermore, O’Brien suggested that Karen was much happier as the drummer in the Carpenters’ band than being promoted to up-front singer. Cubby O’Brien, who became the Carpenters’ drummer when Karen was obliged to abandon them, recalls her missing the drums terribly. “She loved playing, she was one of the first female drummers who got recognition as a good player,” he says. There seems little doubt that Karen’s subsequent anorexia was in part brought on by the need to project a slimline image of herself in keeping with the general assumption that this was what audiences demanded of girl singers – but not necessarily girl drummers, not that there were many role models to follow in the 1970s.
Similarly, O’Brien pointed out that when Karen wasn’t being smothered by her brother, her family and those who sought to gain from the Carpenters’ success, she enjoyed behaving in a manner quite unlike the carefully cultivated, wholesome image foisted on the public. “She could talk like a truck driver,” O’Brien informed us, leaving our imagination to work out what she meant.
As I mention in my review, in 1973 I interviewed the Carpenters at their home in Downey, south of Los Angeles, and Lucy O’Brien quotes me in her book. During a Q&A session that followed the music and talk last night I asked her what co-operation, if any, she had received from Richard Carpenter. Turns out he ignored her emails but didn’t seek to prevent others from speaking to her. “He’s very private,” she added before informing the assembled crowd of about 60 that the bloke in row H who asked the question had spent time with the Carpenter siblings. They all turned to look at me. After all, I was the only one present who’d met them, albeit 50 years ago this September.
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