|Karen Carpenter in London in 1976|
Karen Carpenter and the mystery of the missing album
On February 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter, the American singer who with her brother formed the successful Carpenters duo, died aged 32 from heart failure as a result of complications arising from anorexia nervosa. In this article, first published in 1996, Neil McCormick tells the strange tale of how Carpenter's solo album lay unreleased for 16 years.
Next Monday, A&M releases a record described as Karen Carpenter'slong lost solo album. Which raises the question, how do you lose an album? It is not the kind of thing you leave on the bus.
The truth, astonishingly, is that it was lost on purpose. And there are those who appear to wish it had remained so. Heavily criticised at the time by Karen's brother and musical partner, Richard Carpenter, it was rejected by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (the A and M in A&M Records) and consigned to the vaults, where it has remained since Karen's untimely death in 1983.
The music business is not beyond using tragedy to sell records, so an original album by the most popular female singer of the Seventies (the Carpenters back catalogue has sold more than 90 million worldwide) must have seemed a potential gold mine. Yet Richard Carpenter steadfastly blocked the album's release for 13 years. He only finally acquiesced, according to his manager Sherwin Bash, "when fans and writers kept begging him for this last piece of her legacy".
What, you may wonder, could Karen have done that was so offensive? Had she gone punk? Made a comedy record? Sung out of tune?
In fact, her many admirers will be relieved to hear, the album, simply titled Karen Carpenter, is reassuringly bland. As might be expected from a solo project, Karen attempted to stretch her wings, but, while she flirts with some contemporary styles, she never strays too far from the middle of the road. With accomplished producer Phil Ramone behind the controls (a role he fulfilled for Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and Paul Simon) and Billy Joel's band backing her, the album features some lightly disco-flavoured pop, a touch of gentle rock and, predictably enough, an abundance of ballads. Karen never sings a note out of place and fills the arrangements with her trademark harmonies.
The sticking point appears to have been Karen's tentative attempt to shed her virginal image. Come-hither titles such as Making Love in the Afternoon, Remember When Lovin' Took All Night and Make Believe It's Your First Time display a sexual awareness that had never been part of the Carpenters' repertoire.
"Phil's idea of maturity was to have her singing explicit lyrics," Richard complained to the Carpenters' biographer Ray Coleman. "Paul Williams wrote fine lyrics for Rainy Days and Mondays and We've Only Just Begun without any gratuitous reference to sex. Ramone had her singing My Body Keeps Changing My Mind. Is that supposed to be mature?"
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Ever since they first hit number one in 1970 with Close to You, the Carpenters had been the cleanest-cut kids in pop. They had a delicately homespun, easy-listening sound, in which Richard's sympathetic string arrangements underpinned Karen's crystal-clear voice. Rejecting the hedonism of rock and disco in favour of perpetual smiles and old-fashioned values, the siblings appeared as a kind of wholesome, boy-and-girl next door. President Nixon, for whom they performed in 1974, said, "The Carpenters represent all that is true and best in America."
Of course, in hindsight, Nixon may not be considered the greatest of character witnesses. Much like the disgraced President himself, there was a dark underbelly to the Carpenters' version of the American Dream. Richard became addicted to "downers" (Quaaludes), while Karen fell prey to anorexia nervosa. Locked in a relationship with her brother that was intense and controlling, Karen took it out on herself, starving slowly to death while singing about being On Top of the World.
When Richard went into drug rehabilitation in 1979, Karen decided to record a solo album. According to many close to the duo (including their lawyer, Werner Wolfen) Richard behaved as though it were an act of treason. Karen's best friend, Frenda Franklin, sees it from another perspective: "This wasn't just an album," she says. "It was her Emancipation Declaration." The 29-year-old Karen had hoped the record would create a more sophisticated, grown-up image. Scheduled for release in early 1980, it was treated by A&M as a potential blockbuster. Until they heard it.
A routine playback for the label heads, at which Richard Carpenter was also in attendance, proved to be a disaster. Richard claimed the songs were weak, the keys too high for Karen's voice and accused her producer of stealing the Carpenters' sound. Although the official line is that Karen decided to shelve the album in order to concentrate on a new Carpenters project, few remember it quite that way. "Why is this happening?" she asked Phil Ramone. "What did I do wrong?"
Ramone has reflected that there was "a tremendous paternal feeling from the label towards the Carpenters. Maybe we had taken their little daughter into too many risky areas". Instead, Richard and Karen went to work on Made in America. A commercial failure on its release in 1981, it was the last Carpenters album in Karen's lifetime. Less than two years later, at the age of 32, she died of complications from anorexia.
Just as the tragedy of her life has brought the precise sadness of her many ballads into focus, lending them the flavour of white suburban blues, so the breezy optimism in evidence on her solo album is equally bittersweet. It is a minor work, certainly, but one that clearly meant a great deal to the singer. Confident, adult and upbeat, it leaves you wondering what might have been had she been allowed to develop as a solo artist.
On the final track, Last One Singin' the Blues, she could be addressing her brother when she pleads, "I don't really wanna be the last one singin' the blues." Sadly, this is the lost album of a woman who never really found herself.