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Music

When the Carpenters took on The Beatles' heaviest song

@TylerGolsen

The reputation of the Carpenters has turned quite a bit in the past 40 years. During the duo’s 1970s heyday, they were as white bread and harmless as could be: during the same time when Black Sabbath, the Ramones, Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Frank Zappa were pushing the boundaries of popular music, the Carpenters were the safest and least offensive act anyone could find.

In time, the merits of the band’s music began to come to the fore. Karen Carpenter’s superb skills as a drummer were obvious, as was the pristine vulnerability of her voice. Richard Carpenter might have had a heavy hand when it came to production, but his arrangements were undeniably lush and fascinating in their construction. It became slightly less embarrassing to admit that ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and ‘Superstar’ were great songs, and Karen’s tragic life put the entire story of the group into a new light.

But no amount of cultural acceptance or Sonic Youth covers/odes will ever make their cover of The Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ anything other than pure pap. It’s perfectly fine to stand up for the Carpenters today, but there was a reason why they got so much flack and ridicule during their contemporary career: they had some real schmaltz. This was especially true when it came to covers – exactly nobody’s favourite version of ‘Please Mr. Postman’ is the Carpenters’ version, despite it ascending all the way to number one in America during the early months of 1975.

On the duo’s debut album, the Carpenters crafted a soft rock piano ballad arrangement out of The Beatles’ riff-centred original version of ‘Ticket to Ride’. For a song that John Lennon once called “one of the earliest heavy-metal records”, the Carpenters sure do strip any menace, and frankly any excitement, out of the song. Slowing down an up-tempo track isn’t a bad idea in and of itself – the down-trodden cover has found a prominent cultural place in modern-day movie trailers – but the Carpenters just can’t sell it.

For whatever reason, the pair decided to try again on their follow up album, 1970’s Close to You. This time it was transforming the classic frantic plea of ‘Help!’ into… fairly generic ’70s pop song. At least the Carpenters’ version of ‘Help!’ makes the wise decision to keep the energy up, unlike the total snoozefest that was ‘Ticket to Ride’. But both covers helped solidify the Carpenters’ reputation as cheap imitators, a reputation that would begin to grate on Richard and slowly erode Karen.

The Carpenters were one of America’s most popular acts in the ’70s – three number one singles, five songs that topped out at number two, and millions of albums sold. But their image as overly-wholesome all-American siblings hid darker realities, including Richard’s drug use and Karen’s eating disorders. The limelight would only exacerbate these issues, with the squeaky-clean Carpenters facade finally and irrevocably being destroyed by Karen’s death from heart failure in 1983 at the young age of 32.

Check out the Carpenters version of ‘Ticket to Ride’.