A friend recently sent me a 1998 book, The Mansion on the Hill, by Fred Goodman, about the yin yang of rock music’s capacity to both inspire youth and bankroll corporations. Goodman struck a chord with me in his prologue, describing the role music played in forming friendships during his high school years in the 1960s.
“When you first met someone, the conversation turned immediately to music because once you knew which bands a person listened to, you knew if you were going to get along…. First you’d check to see if the basic language was there—the Beatles, the Stones…Motown and Stax…Dylan. After that you’d probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For example, a passion for perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth …. It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.”
I had a similar code, and as I recall, being a fan of the Carpenters was pretty much a deal breaker. Goodman corroborates this in that the 19-page index in his well-annotated 400-plus page book lists many of the top acts of the 1950s through the 1970s—but no Carpenters. The duo was too conventional, too square to gain a foothold in the counterculture.
Of course, the Carpenters later gained a little cachet when Karen died young and Richard revealed he’d battled drug addiction. And over time I lightened up on my musical code, recognizing that Karen sang really well, that the duo made some enduring music—and that there was something wrong with a rating system that rewards people for getting addicted and dying young. And so it was with vague thoughts of reconciling all this that I tuned in to a YouTube video of The Carpenters in concert at the New London Theatre in 1976.
Taking a New Tack
I’ve subsequently learned that at the time, the Carpenters were looking to better focus their performances, partly in response to newly stagnating record sales. They had been selling well and touring heavily since 1970. But in 1975, they paused their non-stop work schedule, partly in response to Karen being hospitalized for anorexia that summer, leading them to cancel two international tours.
Also at this time, Richard was developing a Quaalude problem. It would have its biggest professional impact on Sept. 4, 1978 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when Richard’s dependence led him to abruptly cancel the night’s second show and the remainder of their two-week engagement. It turned out to be their last public performance.
But in 1976, Richard’s problem wasn’t yet dire, and Karen had regained some of her weight and strength. They also took a new approach to their performing. Where for years their concerts simply presented their songs faithfully as recorded, now they were setting out with their first scripted stage show. And that’s what they present at the New London Theatre.
Performance-wise, the Carpenters appear to be at the top of their game, backed by their crackerjack five-piece touring band—including former Mouseketeer Cubby O’Brien on drums—and a full orchestra for broadcast on the BBC.
I was a little surprised that the duo was introduced separately, not as a group. Apparently, that was to ensure Karen wasn’t overshadowing Richard. As musical director, he came on first, appearing a bit imperious, she second, a bit gaunt.
Perhaps the show’s biggest surprise, though, was their version of “Close to You” (9:55). Richard sang it in a precisely executed Spike Jones arrangement, the band revving up to a Wile-E-Coyote-chasing-the-Roadrunner tempo, punctuated by honking and clanging on a generous line of novelty instruments.
It’s pretty great, and it seems wickedly out of character for the sensitive, soft-rock duo. But it’s also revealing. When they play with convention, they make fun they way their parent’s generation did. I’m a Spike Jones fan, and I like this performance, but 23-skidoo humor wasn’t exactly a calling card for the underground rock crowd of the day.
Likewise their show’s structure borrowed more from cabaret than counterculture. Between songs they embraced the time-honored shtick of telling the glossed-up story of their rise from obscurity to fame, and they crammed their hits into a medley, a form that hipper bands avoided in favor of extended solos and psychedelic light shows.
Virtuosity on Display
The siblings also worked in a few segments to showcase their virtuosity. Richard played a classical piece, the Warsaw Concerto, in a moment reminiscent of Wayne Newton playing “Orange Blossom Special” on fiddle and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on banjo in his Las Vegas revues. None fit the context of the show, except to demonstrate that the artist can match the performances of the masters. Like they have a chip on their shoulder.
At that point in her career, Karen was no longer the Carpenters’ drummer, having abandoned her instrument to adhere to the common show business dictum that attractive female vocalists do not sit behind drum kits. But her showcase segment—also part of the “rise-to-fame” script—tracked her youthful development as a drummer playing and soloing on a series of ever-larger drum kits. She had real chops, and plays on this night with unmistakable tomboyish passion.
Had the Carpenters tapped more of the counterculture spirit, Karen would have played drums all night (maybe double-drumming with Cubby!), Richard would have demonstrated his virtuosity in a 15-minute version of “Superstar,” and the stories of achieving success would have been left to be told by music journalists.
But then I guess they wouldn’t have been the Carpenters.
Photo at the top of the page:
The Carpenters meet with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on Aug. 1, 1972. Not sure how much the Carpenters were paying attention to current events, but that’s just a little more than two years after Nixon was prompted to call protesters “bums blowing up campuses” following the the Kent State massacre. Today marks the 51st anniversary of that mass shooting in which four unarmed students were killed and nine injured by National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus.
The Aug. 1, 1972 date also has historical significance, as it was the day The Washington Post reported a $25,000 check for the Nixon campaign was discovered to have been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, tying the burglary to Nixon’s campaign for the first time.
You can hear the Nixon Library’s low-quality recording of the Nixon-Carpenters Oval Office meeting here, and you can see video of the photo session here.