Having a good taste in music is like having a good taste in wine – it takes time, effort and practice to acquire. Sometimes though, people just want to get sloshed and then vintage, vineyard and finesse count for little. It is the same with music, one day we want to appreciate, explore and learn, while the next we want to party, dance, wallow and weep.
Musical snobbery – a crime of which I have been guilty – is just as tiresome as wine snobbery – and ultimately just as useless, because a person needs a rounded appreciation in order to cater for any mood.
Yes it is fun, advantageous even, to develop a good taste in music and it is wonderful to adventure through the esoteric fringes of the musical universe. But, this is not a trip that should be taken for the sake of building street cred or while chasing some impossible definition of that ultimately undefinable word “cool”.
The truth is that some wonderful things are not cool and never will be, but you may still need them in your life. If you define yourself by “cool” alone then you will miss out on so much that is good.
I was thinking about this recently while I read Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson. It caught my eye because it finally confirmed my long-held – often privately long-held – belief that the Carpenters deserve a bit more respect from toffee-nosed music connoisseurs.
Well, first of all, there are only a handful of bands in music history – and the Carpenters are surely one – that are so distinctive, so immediately recognisable, that you place them as soon as you hear a few seconds of a song.
For some reason, I have always had a kind of strange photographic memory when it comes to the Carpenters. The moments – entirely innocuous – when I have heard a song of theirs in public are seared into my brain and I cannot explain why.
Most recently, last Christmas, I heard a song of theirs playing in a pub in Yorkshire while I was ordering lunch, and I remember sitting in Bermondsey in London, in a tea-total hotel bar, sipping a glass of hot chocolate as Superstar came over the sound system.
Why do I remember these things? I have no idea.
All you need to hear though is the drifting harp at the start of Superstar – which sounds like the start of an underwater scene in an old movie set in a kingdom of mermaids – to know exactly who you are listening to. Then along come those minor oboe chords that lead us to the deep, deep sounding vocal, “long ago, and, oh, so far away, I fell in love with you after the second show…..”
I only recently discovered that the song is a cover of one originally written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. It sounds so much like a Carpenters song. It sounds like the pinnacle of Carpentry. But that is the hallmark of a brilliant artist, someone who can entirely inhabit something that is not their own and then record the definitive version.
I mean, technically, Frank Sinatra was a covers artist, but he often recorded what ultimately would become the most famous version of whichever song he touched, such was his talent.
Karen Carpenter has gone down in history as a tragic figure, a tragic singer of sad songs, when in fact she was an exciting, young, vivacious woman and something of – which the Tongston book highlights -a feminist hero.
I’ve always thought that she deserved a lot more respect for not only being a singer, but a drummer too, and not only that but a singing drummer all at once, a very rare feat in music and one that few do well, with only Ringo Starr, Levon Helm of The Band and The Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker coming immediately to mind.
And not only did she just sing and play the drums. She sang and played the drums with a voice that could stop a room, one of the most note perfect voices in music history.
She also – rather marvellously – upended the assumption formed by her supremely talented and dorky older brother – Richard – that he was the musical genius of the family, only to be lapped several times over when his sister’s extraordinary vocal gift became apparent. Ouch.
We can’t kid ourselves though. The Carpenters have baggage. They were safe, unthreatening, apolitical in an era when it was almost impossible to be so, plus they were white, as white as white can be. And, let’s not forget that they played at the Nixon White House in 1973 and were introduced by the president as ‘the best of young America’, which is not exactly the kind of endorsement that does wonders for your image.
Yes, they could be corny, but they produced music with a unique sound, music that makes you feel something, be it good or bad. Music that sounds perfect, yes, but as we all know, came from a struggling central source.
It is perhaps that we know the tragic end of her story that we can feel the same way listening to Karen Carpenter as we do when we hear John Lennon sing (Just Like) Starting Over.
If either Lennon or Karen Carpenter could win the chance to start over, it is doubtful that either one would want to be famous all over again.
Oh, and John Lennon was a Karen Carpenter fan, by the way.
It is rare that my increasingly irrelevant and out of touch musical opinions gain any justification through books published or articles written, but in this case, the Karen Carpenter case, I was right. Karen Carpenter matters.
In fact, I would say that all music matters, no matter what its reputation, from Harry Styles to Wolfgang Amadeus, as long as it makes you feel something.
So what’s next? I’ve always said Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat is one of the best pop songs of the late-1970s. Maybe ever. So, Al Stewart matters?
And what about Rickie Lee Jones? Rickie Lee Jones certainly matters. I mean, have you ever heard Pirates? Now there’s an album to savour….