‘I’m On the Top of the World’-Six Matchless Carpenters’ Classics!

Karen and Richard Carpenter
Karen and Richard Carpenter together on We’ve Only Just Begun. Listen for a choir of harmonies arranged by Richard. And dig his funky ’70s haircut.

The book review is quite nice too and is titled Sorrow in Her Voice by James Gavin. Gavin points out that Randy Schmidt has uncovered new reasons for Karen’s condition of anorexia. It’s now beginning to look as if the immediate family, which would include Richard, will have to absorb much of the blame for the bizarre psychological condition that emerged in Karen around the mid-1970s.

Anyway, The NY Times has a teaser from Chapter One: California Dreamin’, if you care to get a taste of how this whole Carpenters’ story came about. For me, it may be some time before I can get my paws on this must have monograph. In order to appease my inner desires, and to satiate a blazing lust for all things Carpenter, I bailed out over to iTunes and snatched up ten of my all time favorite Carpenters’ ditties.

Karen Carpente
Karen Carpenter singing their signature song, We’ve Only Just Begun. This was their second big hit, and was released on August 21, 1970.

My working playlist, which has been burned onto CD already, has the following ten classic: (They Long to Be) Close to You, We’ve Only Just Begun, Rainy Days and Mondays, Only Yesterday, Top of the World, For All We Know, It’s Going to Take Some Time, Superstar, Goodbye to Love and Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. Nice selections, right?

I culled this down to six tracks to write about, as I felt as if these six cuts were the Carpenters’ absolute pinnacle of achievement. Furthermore, I chose these six because of the beaucoup bullion of personal memories they seemingly conjure up. A final consideration is the ways in which they call to mind that Blast From the Past decade of the 1970s. So sit back and enjoy the ride. “Calling occupants of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft!”

(They Long to Be) Close to You is the Carpenters very first hit and was released on May 15, 1970, right near the end of my Junior year at Jesuit College Prep. School. The tune is immediately familiar as a Hal David/Burt Bacharach composition, the kind of syrupy pop music that can brighten a dull day and take your cares away.

Herb Albert, a part owner of A & M label and the man who actually signed the Carpenters, helped Richard with the arrangement, and even has a trumpet part in the song. It became their first smash hit and remained at # 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks. I remember hearing it in malls whenever I was shopping. Malls and nostalgia go hand in hand, wouldn’t you agree?

The lyrics on the bridge have always stuck with me. “On the day that you were born, the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true. So they sprinkled moondust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue.” If you can’t get to heaven via organized religion, you can always take the A Train to heaven on the Carpentersville Express, if you get my drift!

We’ve Only Just Begun was issued as a single on August 21, 1970, just when I was beginning my senior year at Jesuit College Preparatory in Dallas, Texas. Richard heard it on late night TV as a Crocker National Bank commercial. The composers are Roger Nichols for the music and Paul Williams for the lyrics. The Carpenters considered it to be their signature song; it made it to # 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

The tune is characterized by lush harmonies that sound like an entire choir and Karen’s haunting delivery of some very crisp, refreshing lines that fill you with hope and aspiration for the future. This is practically an anthem for the seventies, as I reflect back on how the tune hit me as I coasted a spaghetti-web of freeways in Dallas with the AM radio blasting.

“And when the evening comes we smile, so much of life ahead, we’ll find a place where there’s room to grow. And yes! We’ve just begun.” Things get very peppy on the bridge, which Nichols and Rogers had to pen rather quickly before Richard came by to hear the complete song for repertoire consideration.

The bridge is my favorite part of the song. “Sharin’ horizons that are new to us. Watchin’ the signs along the way. Talkin’ it over just the two of us. Workin’ together day to day, together, together.” Angelic harmonious zephyrs of fresh ’70s air breathe over you as you cruise an LA freeway.

I need not leave out my kudos for the two-handed piano playing of Richard Carpenter. Also, the flute (which may be just a keyboard voice) at the beginning and end adds a perfect touch, a pop sensibility that makes it memorable.

This isolated, somber flute is how I remember the song. The innocence of the 1950s returns as the 1970s take off. “White lace and promises, a kiss for luck and we’re on our way.” And indeed they were!

No song tosses me back to the devils den of the ’70s like Rainy Days and Mondays. And no song reminds me more of the tragedy that would befall Karen with her vexing condition of anorexia nervosa. This is a bluesy one which fully utilizes Karen’s ‘lower register’ vocals to perfection. Rainy Days is another Paul Williams and Roger Nichols composition and went to # 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the Carpenters.

Karen Carpenter Rainy Days
Karen delivering a bluesy, yet exquisite version of Rainy Days and Mondays. Karen had soul and felt things very deeply. Nice hairdo too!

The harmonica intro is a nice touch and a tenor saxophone blows down the blues on a middle lead. Lush, majestic harmonies against sweeping strings, with incandescent piano chording acting as a bouncing ball, as lyric lines promenade at the bottom of a screen in your mind.

“Funny but it seems that it’s the only thing to do. Run and find the one who loves me.” If great big teardrops are not coursing down your blouse by now, you must be a robot! Karen commands your thoughts and feelings as if you’re merely silly-putty in her delicate hands.

Top of the World was written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis and was released for public consumption on September 17, 1973. In those days I considered the Carpenters to be a joke, because I was obsessed with hard rock or glam acts such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Yes. But this doesn’t mean I didn’t sing along with the brother/sister duo whenever their tunes would come on the radio, I did. “Everything I want the world to be, is now coming true especially for me.”

Top of the World is my favorite Carpenters song. It’s oh so Pop-Country and has a chord progression to it that is irresistible! It jangles along like a bunny rabbit bopping down the lane on a sunny day. It’s purely gleeful, optimistic only in a way that folk who lived (and survived) back in the ’70s will truly understand.

It’s an Everyman Shopping Mall on grand opening day, with balloons, free Kool-Aid and retail girls with bouffant hairdos handing out free samples, a little dab-will-do-ya.

The opening oboe line, which is probably an electronic keyboard voice, is the primary hook in For All We Know. Richard was taking a breather while on tour and heard this one in the movie Lovers and Other Strangers. He immediately knew it would work for the duo.

He was right, it became a # 1 on the easy listening charts and also was chosen as Best Original Song for the 1971 Academy Awards. Petula Clark sang it at the Awards, since the Carpenters had not appeared in the film.

For All We Know is a somber one; there’s a pathos to it and a sad feeling comes with a stunning delivery from Karen’s contralto vocal. “Love, look at the two of us, strangers in many ways. We’ve got a lifetime to share, so much to say and as we go on from day to day…”

Nothing upbeat in the lyric lines, and that somber oboe keeps circling around to bring you down further, like your credit card just got swiped at the Mall, your girlfriend left you, and your pet frog just croaked, but it’s okay, you got a warbling Karen reiterating the hook, “strangers in many ways.”

Superstar has an interesting evolution and tells of the heartache felt by a groupie, who is abandoned by a rock star once he/she has left that town. I believe they call this a ‘one night stand’ in show business. Superstar is written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, and its evolution can be traced from Delaney, Bonnie and Friends to Mad Dogs and Englishmen, then even to Bette Midler.

By the time it gets to the Carpenters it’s been massaged and tenderized into a delicate chunk of Pop-Pork-Roast, with a near orchestra of strings and horns that pipe in delightfully during the chorus. “Don’t you remember! You told me you loved me, baby. You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby. Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, I love you! I really do.” In an interview Karen once commented on this ‘groupie phenomenon.’

“I’ve seen enough groupies hanging around to sense their lonliness, even though they usually don’t show it. I can’t really understand them, but I just tried to feel empathy and I guess that’s what came across in the song.”

Another sullen oboe intro, with Karen’s pathos-laden vocals, singing in the role as the strung out groupie, with a thumping bass against her lines, plays out as a modern miracle play of pop-diva histrionics. She’s in the role because she’s lived the role.

That is: it seems as if Karen C has been there before, on relationship skid row. The pathos in her throat is real. Karen C feels as down and out as Leon Russell, who must have conceived of this groupie/rock star desolation-zeitgeist that seems to be intrinsic within the music business.

So there you go, six Carpenters’ classics that transcend the ravages of time. My best theory for why the Carpenters assumed the ‘Pop-Throne’ in the early 1970s, is that America desired a return to the anesthetized simplicity of the 1950s. The ’60s were wrought with chaos, revolution, drugs, and a conscious jettisoning of our collective identity. Don’t forget the dismantling of identity caused by Vietnam.

Carpenters allow a harmony to re-enter society. Remember how the 1950s did the exact same thing after WW II. We needed to mellow out and Karen and Richard allowed us to do this in a very creative fashion. Yet Karen becomes an unanticipated victim as our ‘Mellow Queen’ and disintegrates in the fray of societal pacification.

*My sources are The New York Times, Wikipedia, the actual Carpenters’ recordings and oodles of ancient memories.