When the news broke of Karen Carpenter’s death in February 1983, the world was sent into a state of mourning that it’s never really recovered from. Carpenter had long suffered from body dysmorphia and eating disorders, and it was heart failure, a complication from anorexia, that eventually claimed her life.
There was little awareness of eating disorders at the time, and afterwards, people’s eyes were finally opened, starting us on the long path to the more open discussion that we have today. We still have a long way to go before the stigma is gone, though.
The drummer and frontwoman of The Carpenters, alongside her brother Richard, Karen delivered some of the most iconic tracks of all time, and her soulful, passionate delivery remains as emotionally cutting as it was 50 years ago, compounded by her death. Whilst Carpenter is a tragic figure in many ways, thankfully, she continues to be remembered for her stellar musical output as well as the lessons we can learn from her illness and death.
It’s a testament to Carpenter’s skill that she had such a tangible effect on everyone that listened to her music, which includes some of music’s most revered figures. Reflecting this, Elton John once labelled her “one of the greatest voices of our lifetime”. Perhaps even more indicative of her talent is the story recounted by her friend Nicky Chinn in the BBC documentary Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story. Chinn claimed that John Lennon once walked up to Carpenter in a Los Angeles restaurant and said, “I want to tell you, love, that you’ve got a fabulous voice.”
Augmenting this idea of Carpenter’s star quality is the fact that, in 1975, she shocked the world when she was voted the best rock drummer in a poll by Playboy, beating the man who is often considered to be the best drummer of all time, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
It’s not a coincidence that everyone from Madonna to Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain and Kim Gordon all cite Karen Carpenter as a critical influence. Following on from the likes of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, she was an artist who showed the men how to do it, rising to the top despite her personal demons and the misogyny that permeated the industry.
In short, she was a trailblazer for all strong female leads that followed, opening up the gates for all the legends we see ubiquitous today, such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Lorde.
Showing just how far her influence reaches, in 1994, perhaps the best covers album of all time was released, If I Were a Carpenter. Featuring some of the biggest stars of the day, and some of the most lauded alternative rock acts of all time, the album is magnificent from start to finish. The most notable track is Sonic Youth’s cover of ‘Superstar’, but there is so much more to it.
Japenese heroes, Shonen Knife, deliver a brilliant punk rendition of ‘Top of the World’ and The Cranberries’ cover of ‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’ is hauntingly beautiful, and their late frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan really shines. It was as if she was born to deliver this interpretation.
Sheryl Crow’s ‘Solitaire’ is one of the most powerful moments on the album, and strangely, she sounds a lot like Fiona Apple, but we’re here for it. In addition to this, there are fantastic covers from Babes In Toyland and 4 Non Blondes.
The best point on the album has to be the closer, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ by the influential Californian rockers, Grant Lee Buffalo. Starting off with that trippy, reverse tape effect, it’s just so good. A languid take on the original, frontman Grant-Lee Phillips is untouchable here. Emotive and touching, as he sings “so many roads to choose”, a very large shiver runs down your spine. It then takes off into the major key, and it’s a heady delight.
An incredible tribute to the work of Karen Carpenter and The Carpenters, If I Were a Carpenter is a fascinating album and one that deserves a place in everyone’s collection.
Listen to If I Were a Carpenter below.