Sunday, April 5, 2015

“Passage,” by Carpenters

Richard and Karen Carpenter were, arguably, the most popular and influential North American pop music act of the early part of the 1970’s, placing a remarkable 15 top 40 singles in the first half of the decade and holding a ubiquitous presence in popular culture during that timeframe, with constant touring, television specials, guest appearances, and even shout-outs on The Brady Bunch! Seriously. The one-and-only Marsha Brady name-checked the Carpenters in the Davy Jones episode. Rock critics, on the other hand, while conceding raw talent and admitting fondness for Karen’s unmistakable vocals and Richard’s composing and arranging, universally hounded the duo throughout their meteoric success. And the reason? Carpenters were, simply put, not cool. After all, they were a nerdy brother-sister act from suburban Downey, California, and in the early-1970’s, Rolling Stone magazine cast them out of the “cool kids club.”

Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame-er, Linda Rondstadt, recently noted with dismay how Rolling Stone magazine widely determined “rock cred” and peddled a “cooler-than-thou” posture in the industry:
That was sort of the attitude of wanting to get with the hipper side. But I never bought into that. It was so competitive and all about looking down at other people and trying to trip them up and make them look bad…Rolling Stone magazine really encouraged that attitude. It was kind of Puritanism, and I never liked it.

Carpenters’ 1975 album, Horizon, a departure from their early 1970’s, trend-setting style, was thought to be the album that would finally bring credibility to the duo, the anticipation of which ironically placed them on the coveted cover of Rolling Stone in the summer of 1974. In the winter of 1974, the duo released the first single from that album, the bubbly, and, in hindsight, throwaway remake of the Marvelette’s 1961 #1 hit, “Please Mr. Postman,” which itself hit the #1 spot in January of 1975, setting the stage for the coming-of-age for the pop duo. The follow-up single, “Only Yesterday,” was released in March of that year, reaching an anticipated #4 in late May (and serving as the duo’s last top 10 single in the U.S.). And while the Horizon album was released the next month, due to label delays and possible over-confidence, the next single, “Solitaire,” wasn’t released until July and only reached #17. The Horizon album only reached #13 on the album charts, signaling the beginning of the long-term downward spiral of the duo that plagued the siblings for the remainder of Karen’s short life.

Richard and Karen rebounded by dutifully (if not mechanically), returning to the studio that winter to record their follow-up, the paint-by-numbers approach of an album, A Kind Of Hush. The title tune was a cover of Herman’s Hermits 1967 top five hit, and Carpenters’ version eked to #12 on the pop charts, further indicating a drop in the duo’s popularity, being the first lead single from a Carpenters album to fall short of the Top 5 since the group's debut, while the #33 chart peak of the A Kind of Hush album was their first Top 20 album shortfall also since their debut. The subsequent singles from that album, “I Need ToBe In Love,” and “Goofus,” both fell short of expectations in the summer of 1976, peaking at #25 and #56, respectively.

All of this set the stage for their next album, Passage, of which Richard recalls,
I was hardly surprised then, when I heard from (A&M label boss) Jerry Moss, relating his concern about relatively lackluster sales by A&M’s biggest worldwide record sellers…us.  As an owner’s eyes fall on the manager when a fine baseball team doesn’t perform as expected, so the eyes of the record company fall on the producer when a successful artist’s record sales falter. This, by the by, is the way it should be, so I was perfectly willing to let someone else take over my role; it would be a lot less work for me and, as previously mentioned (Carpenter was battling addiction to Quaaludes at the time), I was not 100% myself. The problem was, not one major producer would sign on; radio was not quite as friendly at that time to our type of sound and to be honest, my track record on the whole was a tough act to follow. Accordingly, I remained producer, but I did try to approach this new project from a different angle, hence my selection of songs for this album made Passage a bit of a departure from our previous recordings.

“A bit of a departure” is putting it mildly. This album, to my ear, is a pull-out-all-the-stops, shotgun approach to record making and smacked of desperation and audience pandering. The duo, per Richard’s above recollection, was desperate for a MEGA hit record and made an album designed to appeal to everyone, and in doing so, made an album that appealed to relatively few at the time (but was not altogether unsuccessful, as singles “All You Get From Love Is A Love Song” and “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft” both scraped the surface of the Top 40 in 1977 as well as the surprise Country Top 10 hit, “Sweet, Sweet Smile," the following Spring). 

I’ll discuss the Passage album, here, song by song:

B’Wana She No Home: This jazz-fusion opener, while featuring a fun, funky, stylistic vocal departure for Karen, was a cringe-worthy, privileged slice of oblivious racism, where the narrator barks at her paid, brown-skinned help, “Got to learn these words, and I know you will, or I'll send you right back to Guayaquil,” and “I want you to speak the English right; I want you to smile and be polite…” Ugh. Gawdawful. Of the hundreds of funky songs out there at that time, why’d they have to pick that one?

All You Get From Love Is A Love Song: More along the lines of what one might expect from a Carpenters track at that time and featuring Tom Scott on saxophone, this song was understandably pulled as the album’s first single, reaching the top 40 (#35) in the summer of 1977. This jazzy pop tune, while not one of their best-known singles, features a playful, pre-MTV music video and remains a fan favorite.

I Just Fall In Love Again: If released in May, 1978, this old-fashioned love song would have pre-dated Anne Murray’s #12 hit by one year and would have easily gone as high on the Billboard chart, if not higher. A&M Records decided not to release it as a single, because it was considered too long for Top 40 radio stations to play at the time (it was just over 4 minutes). Instead, it remained a forgotten album track. Fun fact: Carpenters also recorded another would-be hit, “Trying To Get The Feeling Again,” in 1975, during their Horizon recording sessions, but they shelved the track, not seeing its hit potential, only to have Barry Manilow’s version peak at #10 the following year.

On The Balcony Of The Casa Rosada / Don’t Cry For Me Argentina: It takes over three minutes to get to Karen’s remarkable, higher-register vocal on this orchestral tune from Evita, but Carpenter’s performance on this track is, by my ear, the definitive version of this well-known song, which has been covered by, officially, and as of 2015, everybody. I’m glad they recorded it.

Sweet, Sweet Smile: The third and final single release from Passage, this Juice Newton tune (“Queen Of Hearts,” “Break It To Me Gently,” “Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me”) was intended for Newton, herself, to record, but first went to Carpenters when Newton's manager played the demo for Karen, who brought it to Richard, who noted, "I liked it there's one that, to me, should have done better than it did…I think if someone else had done it at that time, it would have been a bigger hit." Not that the song was a complete flop, falling just short of the American Top 40 at #44 and giving the duo their sole Country hit, rising as high as #8 on the Country chart and as high as #7 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart.

Two Sides: Another country-flavored tune, this particular track was a bit of a departure for the duo, as the background vocals on the verses feature a Karen duet (as opposed to their stacked vocals), something the duo initially tried on their previous album, A Kind Of Hush, with album tracks and fan favorites, “You” and “I Have You.” I suspect this song might have been a hit on the Country charts in the winter of 1977 or the spring of 1978 had it been released as a single.

Man Smart, Woman Smarter: Originally a calypso tune harkening back to the 1930’s, the duo’s funky little head-scratcher of a recording whistles, wheezes, jerks, pops, and burps (Literally. There’s an audible burp in there; I’m not kidding.). And after many years of wondering, “why this song?” I think I’ve recently landed on what might have been going on: the duo, always weary of their saccharine image (which, in hindsight, turned-out to be fairly spot-on), started pushing back (hard) against the “goody four shoes,” “Pepsodent Twins” image on which the rock press overly focused on, especially as more and more Top 40 stations ignored their “unhip” love songs. It was the mid-Seventies, after all, and the specter of Disco was rising with New Wave close behind. The Clash and The Sex Pistols released their debut albums that year, Elvis died in August, and fly-by-night acts like The Captain & Tennille had stolen the Carpenters’ pop crown two years previous by performing similarly silly (“Muscrat Love”) and/or irreverent songs (“Love Will Keep Us Together”).

I suspect songs like “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” (and “Goofus,” and “B’Wana She No Home,” and “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”) were a strategic career move to show a less stodgy, more playful image. Bad call. And when it didn’t work (and after a stint in rehab for Richard and a shelved solo album from Karen), the siblings reverted back to formula on their follow-up album, 1981’s Made In America, and while it boasted their final top 20 hit, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing (#16), the album failed to find an audience, and subsequent singles only scraped the bottom of the Hot 100. Maybe the duo had run their hit-making cycle and (had Karen lived) were destined to spend the remainder of the 1980’s in no-hit, adult contemporary hell, only to reemerge in the 1990’s as an oldies act with a flukey hit single or two from a movie or an unexpected duet with Bryan Adams or Gloria Estafan. Who knows? Maybe they were onto something and could have had an unexpected and extended hit-making shelf life had they stuck with recording goofy songs like this one:

Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day): Released as the second single to Passage, Carpenters’ version of “Occupants” climbed to #32 and was first released by Canadian rock group, Klaatu. John Woloschuk, one of the song's writers, noted the idea for this track came from an actual event: in the early 1950’s, the "International Flying Saucer Bureau" sent a bulletin to all its members asking them to participate in "World Contact Day," where, at a certain date and time, members would collectively send out, telepathically, a message to nearby visitors in space. The message began with, "Calling occupants of interplanetary craft…"

And a groovy, silly, space-age song was born. The duo have often noted that their song was well underway well before the “space craze” of the later part of the 1970’s, recalling taking a break from recording the song to watch Star Wars the week it was released. I was 6 years old hearing this song when my sister played it for my siblings and me on her wood-grained stereo. Tony Peluso’s reprised, “All Hit Radi-ooooo!” DJ bit from the Now & Then album was hilarious to us at the time, especially the “aliens” monotone, robotic voices and the mimicked, “ba-by” that bled into the first few seconds of the song. It was a laugh riot. Who could ever think these two wacky kids from Downey were nerdy?

The framed artwork for this album hangs in my office today; it’s probably their best album cover (in a career of poorly-conceived album artwork). But beyond being the least-known Carpenters album of the 1970’s and their first album since their 1969 debut not to make the Top 40, what most intrigues me about Passage is not the calculated approach to getting a hit record, nor the daring-to-questionable song choices, but it’s brevity, at only eight songs. Were they so burned out and second-guessing by then that they couldn’t add two more songs to make ten? Probably. 

To wit, a tender, unreleased track from the Passage sessions, “You’re TheOne,” an exquisitely performed ballad (and a potential 1977 top 40 hit) that finally surfaced on the 1988 CBS made-for-TV Carpenters movie, reiterated the questionable artistic choices the duo was making at that time, further exposing the fact that, in 1977, all was not well in Carpentersville. With “You’re The One” being brushed aside, one has to wonder what other lost gems might remain in the vaults? The relative failure of this album led the duo limping through the sessions for their unexpectedly triumphant (and essential) Christmas album the following year, and after that, a career free-fall from which they never recovered. Nevertheless, the album holds some of the duo’s most imaginative performances, Karen was still in terrific voice, and Passage is, unquestionably, the most adventurous album the group ever recorded.