Saturday 24 March 2018

Music: Carole King's big Tapestry statement

Rare appearance: King's July gig in London will be her first in the UK since 1989.
Rare appearance: King's July gig in London will be her first in the UK since 1989.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The phenomenon of veteran artists choosing to play a significant album from their back catalogue live, and in its entirety, has become so commonplace we barely take notice anymore. Bruce Springsteen will be doing just that when he brings his double album The River to Croke Park this summer. Far-from-vintage acts are at it, too.

But the news that Carole King is going to play her most important album, Tapestry, live for the first time is a very different proposition. She will perform the 1971 album at the British Summer Time Festival at London's Hyde Park, on July 3 - the headliner of a bill that also includes her daughter, Louise Goffin. King rarely plays live and this will be her first UK show since 1989.

It was probably coincidental, but the announcement that she would revisit Tapestry in concert was made on International Women's Day. But it was perfectly apt: any student of music history will know that King played a large part in ensuring that confessional songwriting with a global reach wasn't just a male preserve.

Her candid, emotionally bare songs would influence several generations of female writers, including Irish musicians like Cathy Davey and Mary Coughlan. Both were among a slew of artists - some men, too - who reinterpreted Tapestry at Dublin's National Concert Hall last July.

It's worth remembering just how big a deal Tapestry was. It was a US chart-topper for 15 consecutive weeks - the longest period at number one by any female artist ever. It was on the Billboard 200 for an astonishing 316 weeks between 1971 and 1992 - the second-longest appearance there by a solo artist (after Johnny Mathis's 1958 singles collection Johnny's Greatest Hits).

And when you listen today to evergreen tracks like 'You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman' and 'It's Too Late', it's hardly a surprise that the album connected with so many people. And yet, its predecessor, Writer, made very little impact both critically and commercially. Its poor production certainly didn't help, and it didn't have the sort of magical mix of songs that would bewitch those who gave Tapestry a spin the following year. Many of the songs, of course, were already very well known thanks to King's songwriting achievements the preceding decade.

King was 29 when Tapestry came out, and far from a songwriting ingénue. In fact, she and husband Gerry Goffin had been among the most successful writers of the 1960s, penning 'Goin' Back' for Dusty Springfield and the Byrds and 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow', a number one for The Shirelles, making them the first all-black girl group to top the US chart.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, she started playing the piano aged four and was still a young teen when she recorded rough demos with her friend Paul Simon. Her life would change in more ways than one when she met Chemistry student Gerry Goffin - he also had an astonishing knack for songwriting while in his teens and the pair married when she was just 17 and pregnant with their child [Louise].

New York's Brill Building on Broadway was the great songwriting crucible of the day and the pair moved into a song factory across the road where they set about writing songs in order to make a living. 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' was one of the early fruits of their toils and when the Shirelles duly took it to number one, the handsome young couple were made. They were soon on the Brill Building books and impressing not just with the quality of their compositions - King tended to focus on the music, Goffin on the lyrics - but their productivity, too.

And what an astonishing roll call of songs: 'One Fine Day', 'I'm Into Something Good', 'Up on the Roof', 'The Loco-Motion' and 'Take Good Care of My Baby'. The latter was recorded by Bobby Vee and would be sung by the Beatles during their audition for Decca Records.

Living and working together and being such young parents all took their toll and they divorced at the end of the 60s. Years later, Sheila Weller's gossipy Girls Like Us biography would detail the extent of Goffin's infidelity.

King relocated across the country to Los Angeles and made her home in its then coolest enclave, Laurel Canyon, where she befriended Joni Mitchell and her then boyfriend James Taylor. The former would have a big impact on how her early solo albums sounded - intimate, sparse in places, and recorded in such a way that the imperfections would not be ironed out. Mitchell's Blue was released a few months before Tapestry and would be just as influential to troubadours who followed.

Taylor, for his part, played on those early records and his acclaimed Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon - also released in 1971 - featured a plaintive version of King's 'You've Got a Friend'.

But it was the female songwriter Toni Stern, whom she met in LA, who would have the most profound effect, helping her, as King herself said, to "transition from writing with Gerry to writing songs on my own". Their work is especially magical on 'It's Too Late'.

Meanwhile, another Brill Building alumna, Cynthia Weil, has captured better than most just what it was about Tapestry that connected with listeners, especially women: "Carole spoke from her heart, and she happened to be in tune with the mass psyche. People were looking for a message, and she came to them with a message that was exactly what they were looking for."

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