The Carpenters and Me

This week marks a strange milestone. Born 2 March 1950, Karen Carpenter (who died aged 32) has now been dead longer than she'd lived. Strange too, my relationship with the Carpenters' music.

This week marks a strange milestone. Born 2 March 1950, Karen Carpenter (who died aged 32) has now been dead longer than she'd lived.

Strange too, my relationship with the Carpenters' music.

In the 1970s you never seemed to be more than a couple of hours away from hearing one of their tracks. Yet despite the ubiquitous air play, their singles never did make it to number one in the UK. Not that they didn't come close. In August 1973, Yesterday Once More was kept at number two by - ironically - Gary Glitter's Leader of the Gang and then, Donny Osmond's Young Love. Less than two years later, Please Mr Postman was kept off the top slot by Pilot's January.

By then end of the decade, it all seemed to have fizzled out. I vaguely remember the news about Karen Carpenter's death in 1983, and the turntable hit Make Believe It's Your First Time that followed.

Fast-forward a little, to the summer of '87, and that anxious time waiting for my 'A' level results. In a rush to find a cassette to tape something - in those days when we all taped stuff from the radio - I checked one of my sister's tapes and randomly came across a fragment of an interview. The interviewer was saying, in his Scouse accent, that his favourite song was the one that went 'Long ago, and oh so far away'. 'That's Superstar!', an American voice jumped in.

It meant nothing to me. 'That's that', I thought. 'It's fine for me to tape over this rubbish.' I started rewinding to the beginning of the tape, then on second thought, decided to listen to a bit more in case I was deleting something important.

This time it was part way through a song:

Some can even make my cry,

just like before - it's yesterday once more...

Suddenly, I was back at infants' school. One of the boys in the year above had brought in a tape recorder - this was a good old spool-to-spool model and that song was being played. Despite liking the familiar sound I was probably the only one in class who couldn't put my hand up when the teacher asked us to name the singers.

The recording of the radio interview escaped execution.

The nostalgia, the mixture of silly sentiment and real pathos, and of course - that voice. I went out and bought the Singles 1969-73 cassette album. And so began a time as closet Carpenters fan. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure, a secret to savour. Like the school dinner tapioca puddings you're supposed to hate - 'Urrrgggh, frogspawn!' but secretly savour.

By the early '90s I knew I wasn't alone. Plenty of people were rediscovering Richard and Karen. There was even an album - If I were a Carpenter - featuring rock bands doing cover versions.

And out went the need for pretence. Music to unwind to. Music to strip wallpaper to. Music to write Christmas cards to. Maybe it's a remnant from those days when they were on the radio all the time, but they really did seem to provide a soundtrack for daily life, and seemed so comfortingly familiar. The music never captured the dramatic moments in my life, nor do I think of it accompanying any big historic events. The beauty lies in its soundtrack for the mundane.

And there was something else - the attitude they exuded. In retrospect, they were so young, but they somehow sounded wise - as if they'd really lived. Of course, they had their difficulties, troubles, the illness that eventually ended it. Yet you'd imagine none of this from the lyrics and Karen's soothing voice. They sounded hopeful, even when wistful, of love that would work out, a life with possibilities. Actually, I suppose that's what the dawn of the '70s was about to many people - new lifestyles, freedoms and possibilities opening up. If previous norms were seen as naïve, it was still too early for the cynicism that followed. No wonder it still appeals.


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