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Honest goodness: the legacies of 1971 albums Tapestry and Blue

The 1971 albums by Carole King and Joni Mitchell, recorded in neigbouring studios, continue to inspire listeners and singer-songwriters half a century on


Carole King during the photo session for her Tapestry album cover

Carole King during the photo session for her Tapestry album cover

Carole King during the photo session for her Tapestry album cover

The location was A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles. It was January 1971. Two of the great singer-songwriters of their generation were at work in adjoining rooms. In Studio B, Carole King was galloping through the sessions for what would become the Tapestry album. In Studio C, Joni Mitchell was taking considerably longer to record her fourth album, the aptly named Blue. Studio A, incidentally, was occupied by the Carpenters, who were making a self-titled third album — now considered to be one of their best.

Rarely has any studio been as stuffed with such gilded talent. It had been home to the Charlie Chaplin Studios for most of the 20th century but A&M Records took it over in 1966. The label chose it as the location for its top signings to realise their sonic dreams — and in January 1971, a great deal of gold was mined just off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

King and Mitchell were unlikely to have known it at the time, but the albums they made then would resonate for the next half-century. Both Tapestry and Blue are landmark albums and a pair that help prove veteran critic David Hepworth’s theory that 1971 was pop’s greatest year.

Tapestry came out first. It was released in mid-February and proved an immediate hit with listeners. Not only did it hit the top of the Billboard chart, but it also stayed at number one for 15 consecutive weeks. It would spend 302 weeks on the chart — still the longest run by any female solo artist.

Blue emerged in June. It was critically lauded — just as Tapestry was — but its commercial performance was far more modest. It reached a high of 15 on the Billboard chart and made only a fraction of King’s 10 million sales in the first two years. But those who heard it tended to be evangelical about it.

Taken as a pair, the albums are defining releases in confessional songcraft as well as groundbreaking song suites about the female experience. Countless singer-songwriters who followed in their wake say the albums were formative.

Tapestry was King’s second solo album, following the previous year’s Writer. But she was no ingénue. Having just turned 29 on its release, she had 10 years of songwriting excellence behind her. Together with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin, she had been part of the Brill Building songwriting factory, penning some of the most celebrated songs of the 1960s.

The roll-call of songs really is remarkable: The Loco-Motion, initially recorded by Little Eva; I’m Into Something Good, which was made famous by Herman’s Hermits; and Up On the Roof, for the Drifters (and her own version appears on Writer).

When it came to making Tapestry, she wrote several new songs and borrowed from the compositions she had written for others, including Goin’ Back, which had been a hit for Dusty Springfield in 1966, and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, which she had penned for Aretha Franklin. She also offered her own take on one of her earliest songs, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which she wrote with Goffin when she was 18, and became a big hit for the Shirelles in 1960.

For many, the standout song on the album was It’s Too Late — which yielded King her only US number one single. She had written it the previous year, and appears to document the end of her destructive marriage to Goffin: “One of us is changin’/ Or maybe we just stopped trying.”

The uncomplicated honesty of King’s lyrics coupled with largely understated arrangements connected with listeners powerfully. When asked why it had become such a huge success, the singer quipped: “Right time and the right place.”

Future Springsteen manager Jon Landau, in his Rolling Stone review, captured its essence well, declaring it to be “an album of surpassing personal intimacy and musical accomplishment and a work infused with a sense of artistic purpose”.

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Joni Mitchell and Carole King at the A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles where they were recording their solo albums Blue and Tapestry

Joni Mitchell and Carole King at the A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles where they were recording their solo albums Blue and Tapestry

Joni Mitchell and Carole King at the A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles where they were recording their solo albums Blue and Tapestry

Joni Mitchell appears on Tapestry too, having dropped in one day to perform backing vocals alongside her then boyfriend, James Taylor, who had also been one of King’s former beaus.

If Carole King was stepping into the public eye having spent years as a backroom writer, Mitchell was already regarded as one of the leading singer-songwriters of the day. Judy Collins had had big success with Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now in 1968, while Joni herself delivered a stripped back version of the song on her second album, Clouds. Throw in 1969’s Chelsea Hotel and 1970’s Big Yellow Taxi, and Mitchell was already in the front rank of troubadours, the embodiment of what would soon come to be known as the Laurel Canyon era. Her third album from 1970 was Ladies of the Canyon.

Blue would be more spectral, more fragile than anything she had recorded up to that point. It also saw her move away from the folky material she had written when first moving from Canada to California in favour of sophisticated, introspective songcraft. In order to bare her soul, she opted for a sound that was scrupulously stripped back. Her vocals are to the fore, raw and exposed — and you cling to her every word.

“I perceived a lot of hate in my heart,” she later said of her mood during the Blue sessions, adding that the album was “probably the purest emotional record I will ever make”.


Joni Mitchell in 1971, the year she released Blue

Joni Mitchell in 1971, the year she released Blue

Joni Mitchell in 1971, the year she released Blue

“Everything became transparent,” she added. “I was so thin-skinned, just nerve-endings.” But in her mediations on loneliness, grief and infatuation, she gave voice to countless others who have felt the same.

Several of the songs are among the finest Mitchell ever committed to tape, including the exquisite study of break-up, A Case of You. It’s a song that redefined the idea of confessional songcraft — listening to it anew, all these years later, it’s as though the listener is being taken into her confidence and she is unburdening herself of troubles.

Like much of the album, it was inspired by her break-up with Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and it boasts one of the most striking opening words in song: “Just before our love got lost...”

“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” she told future film-maker Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone in 1979. “At that period in my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”

Both Tapestry and Blue have long been regarded as among the best albums ever made and defining works for what Tom Wolfe, that leading observer of post-war US life, coined the ‘Me Decade’. If there’s one word to encapsulate both, it’s honesty. King and Mitchell poured all the emotions out, giving everything of themselves.

Tapestry won best album of the year at the 1972 Grammys. Strangely, Blue wasn’t nominated, although that other album made at A&M at the same time, The Carpenters, was.

So, which camp do you fall into? Tapestry or Blue? Carole or Joni? For this writer, Blue just about shades it — the untrammelled emotion never ceases to pack a punch. But then, I put Tapestry on and it’s irresistible too…

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