Do you remember what your first musical memories were? Other than the drone of loud church music, whatever pop (or devil’s music) I could hear on the radio got my attention. For me it was mostly from a fake woodgrain plastic SoundDesign clock radio. For most of the 1970s I would listen to Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Fleetwood Mac, Carol King, Stevie Wonder and many others. The memories were warm and fuzzy with the fidelity of AM radio and my little white ear plugs.
As a reprieve from the loud jubilant church music I endured on the weekend, I was naturally drawn to what seemed to me like the sonic opposite on my little radio. Of this music the Carpenters were especially intriguing. My love of dance music was still years away, so during this time I was attracted to nearly any artist who sung calmly as opposed to screaming their lyrics.
Although, I would be a teen before I realized that it was not cool to like this particular brother and sister team, I’d be lying to myself to say I was never a fan of their brand of white middle American melancholy. I wasn’t the only one, their songs have been covered by everyone from Luther Vandross to Rod Stewart. As a kid the Sunday paper sales circulars for Zayre, K mart and Peaches Records would be my graphic windows into the world of secular music.
One particular album got my attention, mostly because of it’s puzzling cover. The 1973 release ‘Here and Now’, featured a painting of Karen and Richard driving by a suburban house. The house, presumably the one they grew up in was a reminder of their humble suburban roots, while the shiny red Ferrari Richard drove by in signified their rapid rise to fame and the wealth that came with it.
Album and sci-fi paperback cover browsing was once one of my favorite things to do as a child. Even before I had an attention span longer than my arm, I would imagine what albums sounded like based on cover art. Books had summaries on the back that left little mystery, but albums were wide open to interpretation – especially in the mind of a child. Hear and Now would be one of the first covers that illustrated how important album art used to be when it had to sell concept and attitude to record buyers.
This cover disturbed me, although I could never really figure out why. Was it the style of illustration? The photorealisim reminded me of the si-fi paperbacks of the 1970’s – very surreal and intriguingly disturbing. While I was busy speculating about the cover’s meaning, Now and Then would be the latest in The Carpenter’s list of hit albums. Songs like ‘Yesterday Once More’, are now a favorites in department stores and buffets everywhere.
Now and Then contributed more than it’s share to the Carpenters’ domination of Adult Contemporary radio, even though the critics were not always impressed. Some elements of the album like it’s tribute to the then popular ’50s retro craze in the form of a medley did not wear well as the years passed.
While there was nothing about the Carpenters music that was particularly disturbing, there was a kind of pint up sadness in songs like ‘Sing’ or the vaugley country sounding ‘Top of the World’. Even when they were trying to be whimsical, it carried a touch of sadness. Ironically ‘Sing’ would be a popular song played in school (or at least in my 3rd grade class) thanks to the then still young Sesame Street children’s show.
It may have been the element of irony that the cover picked up on, a kind of sadness that suggested that Karen would later loose her battle with depression. Of course at the time, I simply could have red too much into it, as the imagination of a child wonders when fundamentalist church duties called.
My AM radio had become a Toshiba stereo boombox and in time I discovered the angst of David Bowie, George Clinton and Gary Numan. I had entered my teen years moving further from the calm inspired by The Carpenters.
As an adult I have experienced The Carpenters music in the form of as greatest hits or tribute albums, except for Then and Now. I still enjoy its cover and the odd feeling of uneasiness I gives me, even after all these years. Fortunately, The Carpenters’ music had the opposite effect on most people, even if “hip” critics have taught us music snobs to hate their kind of uneasy joy.