Entertainment Music

Monday 19 March 2018

Carving out a place in history - the legacy of the Carpenters

Richard Carpenter is suing Universal over unpaid royalties for he and his late sibling Karen's music. The duo's sound epitomised easy-listening in the 1970s - but his sister's artistic legacy deserves to be celebrated once more

Sailing on the tide: Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter
Sailing on the tide: Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter
John Meagher

John Meagher

Todd Haynes, the celebrated American filmmaker behind Carol and Far From Heaven, made his directorial debut with a labour of love that's now regarded as a cult film. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was released in 1987 and focused on the short and troubled life of the Carpenters singer, who had died four years earlier.

But this was no ordinary biopic. Rather than cast an actress to take on the role, he used a Barbie doll, filmed in Barbie-sized sets, to capture the significant moments in Karen's life. And that doll became more 'emaciated' as the film went on. While sympathy was lavished on Karen, many around her were demonised, including brother Richard.

It surely came as little surprise to Haynes that Richard Carpenter didn't let the matter lie and successfully fought to have the movie banned. (A very grainy version exists on YouTube, though.)

Richard is in the news once more and this time he's got Universal Music Group in his sights. The 70-year-old is suing the record company giant for $2m, arguing that he and the Carpenters estate have only received a "minuscule fraction" of their digital royalties.

It's doubtful that Richard is short of money. The duo he formed with Karen in 1969, when he was 23 and she 18, were among the best-selling American acts of the era, shifting more than 100 million albums. They were no strangers to the hit business, either, enjoying 17 US top 20 singles between 1970 and 1984.

Karen certainly knew how to wring emotion from a well-written line and Richard's arrangements were exemplary, but most of the songs we associate with them were penned by others. 'Superstar' was written by husband-and-wife team Bonnie and 'Delaney' Bramlett while '(They Long to Be) Close to You' was penned years previously by two of the giants of 20th Century songcraft, Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

The siblings had started their music apprenticeship early, and Karen favoured the drums, an instrument she played in studio on several Carpenters recordings. (She was considered by percussion giant Buddy Rich to have been exceptionally gifted.)

In the late 1960s, they performed as Spectrum, a group built around songwriter John Bettis. He would play an important part in the Carpenters story, co-writing with Richard most of the songs on their 1969 debut album, Offering (later renamed Ticket to Ride), as well as several of their biggest hits over the next decade.

But while that debut got the Carpenters noticed, it was their second album, 1970's Close to You, that really set them on the road to fame and misfortune. Its 12 tracks featured just four songs that were co-written by Richard (including 'Maybe It's You' and 'Crescent Noon'). The remainder were smartly chosen covers, including Roger Nichols and Paul Williams' 'We've Only Just Begun' and Bacharach-David's 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again'.

It was an album that ushered in huge sales and Grammy nominations and seemingly from nowhere, the wholesome-looking pair from California were seen as the pin-ups of easy-listening. But their best work made for very uneasy listening indeed thanks to Karen's extraordinary voice and the sense that she was digging into her own life to sing songs soaked in disappointment, heartbreak and betrayal. Few, with the exception of Abba's Agnetha, could coax the same sort of pain out of, say, a key line from 'Superstar', "Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby?"

Karen certainly had troubles in her romantic life - not least when she married a man who neglected to tell her he had had a vasectomy; she desperately wanted children - but her most difficult relationship was with her domineering mother. According to her biographer, Randy Schmidt, Agnes Carpenter favourited Richard and had little feelings of love for her daughter. And although Richard was by her side in every concert and on all those album covers, Karen felt mother and brother ganged up on her far too often.

By 1975, Karen's troubles could no longer be disguised. She was one of the first celebrities to put anorexia in the public's mind and her eating disorder was such that for most of the decade, her weight hovered around the six-stone mark.

It was an unspoken topic for years until Karen was asked about it by the BBC's Sue Lawley in 1981, although Richard stepped in to suggested that the interview be brought to a close. Karen suffered from anorexia for most of her adult life and died, at 32, of cardiac arrest brought on by the illness.

So much has been written about the disease that characterised her life and death, but The New York Times' Rob Hoerburger captured it best: "If anorexia has classically been defined as a young woman's struggle for control, then Karen was a prime candidate, for the two things she valued most in the world - her voice and her mother's love - were exclusively the property of her brother Richard. At least she would control the size of her own body."

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment