Signing as The Carpenters to A&M records in 1969, brother and sister duo Richard and Karen Carpenter would leave an indelible imprint on the face of music. Musically, The Carpenters were the ’60s and ’70s equivalent of Billie Eilish and her older brother Finneas. Just like with Eilish and her older sibling, The Carpenters’ music was written by older brother Richard and was perfectly topped off by the sweet harmonies of younger sister Karen’s voice.
Richard may feel he gets unfairly overlooked by his late sister, as he wrote countless classics, and without them, the Carpenters evidently wouldn’t have existed. However, the essence of Karen and her vulnerable voice was iconic – even Elton John called her “one of the greatest voices of our lifetime”.
While not a strong voice by any account, Karen Carpenter’s vocals are unmistakable. It was this factor that genuinely augmented the duo’s songs. Pop and soft-rock in composition, the duo’s magic is reflected by the fact that they have influenced no end of acts from across the musical spectrum. Moreover, the fact that she played the drums and sang was a sight to behold.
Tragically, Karen Carpenter passed away in 1983 from heart failure due to complications stemming from anorexia. She was only 32. However, the effect she had in her short life and career is dizzying. It is a testament to her legacy that she has never been forgotten. Her impact was surmised by Paul McCartney in 2015. He said she had “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive”. Her death also led to greater awareness surrounding eating disorders.
For instance, in 1994, A&M released If I Were a Carpenter. The album was a tribute to the band and featured contemporary alternative acts performing covers of Carpenters songs. Artists featured on the album included Sonic Youth, The Cranberries, Grant Lee Buffalo and Shonen Knife.
To fans, Sonic Youth’s cover of ‘Superstar’ is even a standout of the New York noise-rockers back-catalogue, although Richard Carpenter said he doesn’t “care for” their rendition of the duo’s 1971 hit. Which, we might add, was also a cover of the 1969 song by Delaney & Bonnie.
That was not the only sonic appreciation of the Carpenters that Sonic Youth offered listeners. Track two from their 1990 hit Goo is the classic ‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’, sung by frontwoman Kim Gordon in recognition of Karen Carpenter. Verse two of the track goes: “I’m in Heaven now. I can see you, Richard. Goodbye, Hollywood. Goodbye, Downey. Hello, Janis. Hello, Dennis, Elvis, and all my brand new friends. I’m so glad you’re all here with me until the very end.”
Showing that women could have a significant impact in the primarily male-dominated music industry, in addition to Kim Gordon, Karen Carpenter influenced countless iconic female artists. Madonna, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crowe and Natalie Imbruglia are just a handful of those who have cited her as an influence.
Carpenter’s drumming also gained her plaudits. In 1975, she was voted best drummer in the world by Playboy readers, beating none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham to the top spot. Her love of playing the drums and technical precision was displayed in a bizarre 1976 television appearance.
In this surreal clip, Karen Carpenter talks about how she started playing the glockenspiel in her high school band before transitioning to the rhythm section. Laden with cheesy ’70s humour and saturated colours, this excerpt is a time capsule back to the heydey of inoffensive TV.
Soon after the comedy sketch, the most bizarre part of the clip happens. Complete with a set comprised of bright colours, Karen Carpenter runs around the stage, playing breathtaking drum solos on a whole host of kits.
This footage of Carpenter is significant. It shows three things. Firstly, her unbridled talent as a musician. Secondly, it shows her penchant for comedy, her lines are rehearsed, but she delivers them effectively. This presents a lighthearted picture of the woman thought to have been a tortured soul.
Lastly, it displays the corny and downright weird humour inherent to the ’70s. In the clip, the era is shown in all its glory, flares and all. It is a refreshing sight of a simpler time.