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Related resources

www.ericcarmen.com has original interviews and press clippings from the '70s, including NME, The Scene, and Circus, as well as some embarrassing photos.

The official Raspberries site is a good resource for Raspberries-related artyfacts.

Power Pop News has a few links that are worthwhile.


 

Adrift in the Seventies

Matthew Weiner

Eric Carmen
Boats Against the Current
1977

CBGB's murmurs aside, the late 1970's were, in many ways, a horrendous era for American popular music, as the most corporate of sensibilities ruled the airwaves. In stark contrast to the free-wheeling, if na´ve, experimentalism that carried the day a decade earlier, late-seventies Los Angeles was anything but. Disaffectionately and hilariously deemed "El Lay" by American rock critic dean, Robert Christgau, the sound of lazy, uninspired craftsmanship in Southern California was typified by the turgid funk of Joe Walsh-era Eagles, the melodic-but-faceless blanche of Seals and Croft and smack-addled whine of James Taylor, not to mention about a thousand other well-meaning, if totally despicable bands and artists. It was as if sheer talent were the only standard by which musicians were judged and all of the inspiration were somehow filtered out by custom-designed mixing board transistors made of cocaine.

And the worst offender, biggest seller, and warmest embracer of all wasn't even American. Indeed, the spectre of Elton John on this scene was so massive by 1976 that, though he had hardly made a single record that lived up to its inflated sales (or its creator's ludicrously banal stage ensemble), no singer-songwriter hoping to receive any airplay could openly deny his influence. John, ne. Reg Dwight, was the all-consuming monster of the period.

Of course, though nobody knew it, John's period of remarkable, if shallow creativity was over by the bicentennial year's Blue Moves, for all intents and purposes. With "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word," he ended the run of hits that had begun with 1970's "Your Song," heavily orchestrated by Paul Buckmaster. Almost everyone who was associated with John was, by this time, an industry heavy, including most of his band, producer Gus Dudgeon, and not least of which, Buckmaster himself.

It was with this backdrop that scrawny 5'7" Cleveland-boy Eric Carmen emerged from the shadows in 1976. Fresh off a frustrating four-album stint with his hometown power pop band, Raspberries, Carmen was a comer in every sense of the word. His previous band had been critically, if not commercially, lauded, with Rolling Stone selecting the band's final release, Starting Over, as 1974's Album of the Year. With the final track on the album, the title track, for the first time Carmen, the band's most eager rocker and shameless entertainer, indulged what would later become his trademark style. Even in this context, though, Carmen's quirkier, rougher-hewn side would emerge. The first line of the tender piano ballad, "I used to feel so fucking optimistic ... " was an aesthetic indicator of what was to come. But despite the praise, the record sank like stone and Carmen went solo, amidst intra-group squabbles.

From the ashes of Raspberries, 1976 saw Eric Carmen, on the strength of its first single, make its creator a household name. "All By Myself," was not only a massive success, it became the single of the year. The sweepingly orchestral ballad was also everything Carmen as lead singer of the Raspberries could never be: classicist, romantic and mature. The remainder of the album was hardly any less successful: on nearly every track, Carmen perfectly fused Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys with his love of Rachmaninoff (from whom Carmen had proudly lifted the melodies of "All By Myself" and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again"). From start to finish, Eric Carmen was a breakthrough in every sense of the word.

In many respects, the album's complete success artistically and commercially (possible during that era) made it difficult for Carmen to record a follow-up, as evidenced by the sheer mass of time he would log in the studio. A Cleveland boy perhaps all-too-eager to transcend his cultural background, what he had achieved with his debut (at a mere 26 years of age) certainly outstripped the cliched rock n' roll stardom most working class Northeastern Ohio boys dreamt of as in their teens.

With that under his belt, Carmen set off to record what he was clearly aware would be the pinnacle of what he had worked towards, the apex of his creative vision. Assembling the Eric Carmen band, Carmen recruited John producer, Gus Dudgeon to help him realize that vision and set off to L.A. to get it on chromium dioxide.

But shortly after sessions began, it wasn't his vision, but conflicts with Dudgeon that were being realized. After firing his Cleveland band on the producer's advice, Carmen and Dudgeon parted ways nastily early on, leaving Carmen to finish the album on his own with a handful of session players and leftovers from the Dudgeon tracks, not to mention a label-boss in Clive Davis who was anxiously awaiting another "All By Myself."

Davis wouldn't get it, though Boats Against the Current would be Carmen's masterpiece, an opus of orchestral swell and yearning. The title track which began the album would represent virtually everything its author had wanted the record to achieve: romantic and literate prose (inspired by The Great Gatsby), taut but classical scope, and epic melodrama. Carmen would later deem it his finest song.

The record wasn't without its moments in which Carmen overreached: the singer proclaimed shortly after the album's release that he wanted to be "the Fitzgerald of Rock," by any measure one of the stupidest claims in pop history. But such hamfisted boasts aside (really a byproduct of his Midwestern upbringing), Boats Against the Current was another unqualified success, almost single-handedly rushing to rescue the late-seventies singer-songwriter idiom Elton John defined without flouting virtually any of its conventions. Indeed, Carmen embraces them, leaving virtually all of the sixties confections of his debut behind, dismissed as immature and reminders of the teeny-bopper past that he was trying so hard to escape, though he no longer needed to.

After the tragicomedy sob of the opening title track, "Marathon Man," with its mad Olympian rush and heady lyrics, sweatily asserts itself with timpani, driving piano and Buckmaster's contrapuntal strings. But despite a pathetically corny premise both lyrically and musically-or perhaps because of it-Carmen somehow pulls it off with a mix of operatic pomp and denim grit.

Thereafter, the record begins to get murky...and that's a good thing. The strength of those epic records of the seventies is their pop impressionism and lyricism; their weaknesses, their inability to stick to them. Boats Against the Current somehow makes a virtue of both. For every ballad like "Nowhere To Hide," which achingly swims through the listener's consciousness, there is the Faces strut of "Take It Or Leave It" or the crisp pop-funk of "She Did It" to provide a welcome relief from the romantic dross of what has come before.

In the case of the latter, the song's superficial veneer belies the hallmark of a true pop craftsman. "She Did It," a top 20 hit in 1977 and the closest the album came to commercial success, is only moment on the record that could be called "euphoric"; with a vocal arrangement by the Beach Boys' Bruce Johnston, vocals contributed by Sunshine Pop svengali, Curt Boettcher and ebullient Buckmaster strings, "She Did It" was Carmen's pop sensibility spilling over uncontrollably and enthusiastically.

But the doomed-romance theme of the record would prove fortuitous; Boats Against the Current stalled at #88 on the pop charts, ultimately dooming Carmen to the worst fate of all: success, but on the industry's terms (see 1987's "comeback," the hideous "Hungry Eyes"). Embarrassing hits sung by Loverboy and Celine Dion would follow, to pay the bills, but Eric Carmen would eventually limp back to Cleveland, the one-time prodigal son now merely another prisoner of his Midwestern origins. Really, it's a story Fitzgerald, himself, could have told.

 

 

 

 

 


Eric Carmen Capsule Reviews

Raspberries, Side 3 (1973) **** 1/2
Unlike powerpop contemporaries, Badfinger, Carmen's Raspberries made both consistent albums as well as irresistable singles. Side 3, the band's third album, is the place where the teenybopper image of their classic "Go All the Way" begins to recede but the onslaught of hooks continues. Like their aforementioned British counterparts, the band makes use of the multiple songwriters in the band, but in contrast to the 'Finger, all of the Raspberries are actually good at writing them.

Slathered in British Invasion melodies and West Coast harmonies, Side 3 is the sound of Summer Love in the Rust Belt: tuneful, young and full of hormonal longing, but with a tough veneer that makes it clear we're talking Cleveland, not California. From Carmen's taut opener, "Tonight," to bassist Dave Smalley's Eagles-with-a-reason, "Hard to Get Over a Heartbreak," every track is a winner. If there's anything to complain about, it's the record at times sounds a bit too stylistically varied. When the conceit works, as on Carmen's teen epic, "On the Beach," it's brilliant: mixing a goofy chorus about "wooing" a girl all night on the you-know-what with a middle eight that is pure "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." When it doesn't, like on the fiddle hoedown bridge of Wally Bryson's enjoyable "Last Dance,"it just seems a bit trite. But only in the post-Beatles era of the early seventies was ambition regarded as a liability.

Raspberries, Starting Over (1974) *** 1/2
Concluding Raspberries' run of critical, if not commercial, success, Starting Over is in many respects the group's raison d'etre. Trading Glen Frey soundalike Dave Smalley for Scott McCarl's Lennon-esque nostalgia ("Rose-Coloured Glasses"), Raspberries' final record rolls the group's fusion of sixties melodicism and blue-blooded American rock 'n roll into a vague concept not-coincidentally reminiscent in tone of a certain Liverpudlian group's most famous album from 1967. And much like that record, you don't really care that the concept is so thinly realized.

But despite featuring some of their best songs, Starting Over sounds strangely not like a group's last album, but a promising debut, most apparent in the record's sophomoric tendency to hew a bit too closely to their heroes (as on "Cruisin' Music" and "All Through the Night," which sound too similar to the Beach Boys and "Won't Get Fooled Again" for comfort). In retrospect, the concept seems less a stylistic advance than a device to hold a fragmenting band together.

Still, it's a shame Starting Over ultimately turned out to be their swan song. "Play On" perfectly chronicles the joy of being onstage (and backstage). And Carmen's personal statement of purpose, "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," really should've been a monster hit. But even here that song's sweet sincerity ("Well I know it sounds funny, but I'm not it for the money ... ") seems to acknowledge that the band knew its optimism was too dearly held to endure the gamesmanship of early Seventies corporate radio. Sad, really.

Eric Carmen, Eric Carmen (1975) ****1/2
Carmen's debut is so bursting with confidence, that it hardly sounds like his first stab at solo stardom. The moment the Spectorian opener "Sunrise" kicks off, it's clear that Carmen's talent far exceeds what the best moments of four Raspberries albums had even hinted at; the song's coda, announced with a stunning solo piano sequence, is positively thrilling. The ubiquitous AM hits, "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again" and "All By Myself" forever seal Carmen's reputation as a monster-ballad writer; elsewhere, on tracks like "Last Night" and "My Girl," Carmen achieves a sound that delicately balances a Wilson-esque melodic innovation with a contemporary, yet timeless production. Only a stab at "On Broadway" sounds a little forced, as if the label thought the entertainer in him required him to wear blackface. A classic of its time.