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Raspberries: Starting Over

Ron Ross, Phonograph Record, September 1974

IT'S A TEEN-CLUB midsummer Saturday night at Papa Joe'sParlour-pizza, pinball, pretzels, and pop-available without I.D. Raspberries, with no fewer than three Top Forty hits in less than two years, are rocking smooth as brushed steel for a buncha kidz who just won't dance, give it a chance, try a romance. You get the picture? Yes, we see. As the Buckinghams, pop pride of the Windy City, would've said, it's kind of a drag.

But like the survivors from the wreck of a supposedly unsinkable ship, the Razz rock on, more sure of themselves than their audience, more into playing than posing, more mod than they are marketable. They've returned to the Midwest teen scene, 'cause it's rent money, jack; not that they don't appreciate the thirty flirty pre-pubescent punkettes who storm their hotbox beerless dressing room to Demand, rather than request, autographs, souvenirs, anything pop, anything to prove they were there when the Raspberries were. Even to the point of pressuring the visiting rock writers who all at once understand what it's like to be Maureen Starr, let alone Eric Carmen.

But Papa Joe's is more a place to smoke menthol cigarettes and rack up free games than an au-go-go haven, so the better than ever big beat band of today and tomorrow anticipates the release of their fourth album Starting Over. Hoping for that "Hit Record," they wanna hear it on the ray-Dee-oh, so that a million at least can get the picture and learn to dance.

Starting Over is the beginning of yet another hard day's night for Raspberries, who have been underestimated by so many that we almost don't deserve them. It comes down to a matter of attitude: theirs and ours.

Theirs is that they had a Concept – to be clear, tight, sharp, familiar, dynamic, positive, but most of all Pop. A band with a sound as natural and as thrilling as holding her hand. I don't thing Raspberries ever worried much at first about who they'd reach; if their music and material came up to their own high standards, then the message and magic would just feel right to whomever watched, listened, and (crossed fingers) screamed. It wasn't a question of what would sell in the Seventies, though simplicity and salesmanship were part of it.

What the Raspberries were out to prove was that they were as gear as any guys that ever worked a Liverpool cellar into a sweat. Groups like the Who, Small, Faces, and Stones, not to mention the Fabs, provided the most basic kind of challenge. Girls are only as impressed with you as you are with yourself, and four very self-impressed young mods could be very impressive.

Pop gave the emerging mods of the Midwest something to master, to get down letter perfect – as essentially pointless a goal, perhaps, as memorizing the Bible, but undeniably a kind of code that only a few could speak as it was meant to be spoken.

It's especially sweet and particularly important for the Raspberries to stay in touch with each other and audiences as living proof that neat can be nice and still have a heavy backbeat. But as much as they're practicing popstars, they're also accomplished record people. Thus, Starting Over, the first record by the reformed Razz is a deliberate extention of the image directly responsible for the original band's personal and musical split late last year.

Wally Bryson and Eric Carmen are one of the great ambivalent couples of rock, along with Mick J. and Brian J., Ray D, and Dave D., David J. and Johnny T., Pete T. and Roger D. Eric knew that Wally was "his" guitarist the first time he heard him years ago, while Wally is one of those rare students of the medium who can notice the size of another guitarist's bands before they've met and still like lyrics. When just about every other raver in Cleveland had defaulted on his original mid'-60s promise of pop Potential, Wally and Eric agreed that theirs was no longer a marriage of convenience, but if simple sexy songs were to be "preserved", one of necessity.

So Wally, a rebel to the last, came a full circle from when he was the first kid to be kicked out of school for shoulder length hair: he cut his mane thrice to become a Raspberry, no small sacrifice and definite declaration of spiffy intentions distinctly out of time in the late acid-laced sixties. One imagines the individual members of the Nazz subjecting themselves to similar soul searches at about the same time.

You can imagine as easily, then, how Eric and Wally felt when original Razz David Smalley told them he still loved the Beatles, but his thus far closeted Colorado tendencies were getting the better of his songwriting, and couldn't they go back to wearing jeans on stage? Kee-Rist! And then, to really aggravate the jam Raspberries found themselves in, Jim Bonfanti, the powerhouse lunatic behind 'Ecstasy' and 'Tonight' on Side 3, refused to accept the need to present himself as anything but a Drummah. "His idea of a good time after a show," Eric recalled with rueful regret, "was to go back to the motel and do the band's books. He was really happy adding columns of figures in his head.

"I was writing all these Beach Boys and piano-based tunes, and Jim just stubbornly stuck to his perfect Ringo. He looked the youngest of us all and he'd been married the longest." When Wally and Eric, David and Jim, all comprehended that the rhythm section of 18 was going on 40, the time had come for a mutually desirable change.

To patch up the berry-basket came Mike McBride, a nonstop drummer with lungs like Jagger's, who had worked in Cyrus Erie with Eric and Wally, as well as fronting Wally's Stones Copy-band, Target. McBride is strikingly strong, physically and percussively, and it's unusual for a blond to be so imposing as a rock Face. He's got all the butch charisma of Sweet's Brian Connolly, without the responsibility of carrying the group. Mike wears white coveralls when the rest of Raspberries wears black, and everything he plays looks as good as it sounds.

Scott McCarl, newly recruited bassist and writer, provides a balance for the teenego energy of the others. From Omaha, Nebraska, Scott's "Beatle band" experiences (as he himself calls them) led to nought until he sent tapes to Todd Rundgren and Eric Carmen, in hopes of getting himself produced. McCarl's days as a roadie with an all-girl group had evidently lent him a modesty and romanticism Eric admired, as well as his ability to write and sing just like "1965 John Lennon."

This is expressed in most masterful fashion by Raspberries; new single, 'Hit Record (Overnight Sensation)'. A record about records that says straight out that records aren't records unless somebody hears them, 'Hit Record' is full of words like "bullet", "Extra", "demos", and "program Director" instead of "beach", "dance", and "mother" which were staples of the previous Razz vocabulary. The song has the best production any hard rock band has benefited from in years, and that includes the best "sound" per se to come from the Stones or the Who.

Jimmy Ienner has taken the Spector Wall of Sound one step further. Like Tony Visconti, he's in a class by himself for crating impenetrable density from perfectly distinct elements mixed in layers. His dynamic sense is unmatched as the shifts easily from Eric's Left Banke piano intro to the thunder of Drifters-type percussion in the chorus. Throwing 'Yeah – Number One' at us in a million different ways, 'Hit Record' acts subliminally at the same time as it is campishly over-obvious, ending with the faintest echo of 'Go All the Way' in the segue groove to the Carmen-McCarl collaboration 'Play On'.

'Play On' is perhaps the most significant song on Starting Over, because as one of the first Eric/Scott compositions it indicates most clearly the direction Raspberries are going in. "Side 3, as happy as I might have been with it at the time," Eric explained, "was our 'white album'. Things had gotten to the point where we could play together but we couldn't write together." Eric had every interest in ending this state of affairs by bringing Scott into the group.

Scott sings with surprising assurance of the torn fingers and throats endured when you spend "every night in a different bed". The youthful sexual intensity of 'Play On' is underscored by a jangling John Lennon guitar riff countered by a beautifully harmonized chorus that is a ray of idealism bursting through clouds of fatigue. Scott sounds jaded before he's even had that Hit Record; coo, huh? You oughta see him sing it; shy and sure, all at once.

'Party's Over' is as delightfully dumb and right on as 'Play On' is satirically subtle. Wally, its punk purveyor, had the reputation as the "Baddest guy" in town 'cause all the birds thought he left eggs in every nest, but "I was a virgin, believe me," Wally can say years after the fact.

So far as Starting Over is concerned, Wally Bryson is a man of contrasts. His co-penning with Scott, 'Hands On You', is the Beatles Fan Club Christmas record of 1974, with a 'Do It in the Road' Liverpudlian tongue in cheek complete with hee-haws from the other boise. Wally's solo on 'Cry' is also as metallic and methodical as any you'd want to hear in this day and age.

The first side of Starting Over is conceptual in the sense that all the Raspberry writers had been thinking along the same thematic lines in the past year and it seemed smart to sequence the tunes that dealt with their creeping disillusionment. In the midst of 'Hit Record', 'Play On', 'Party's Over', and 'Rose Coloured Glasses', is Eric's 'I Don't Know What I Want (But I Want It NOW!!)'. 'I Don't Know' is the meatiest beatiest Who-snatch since the Move's early singles, John's Children's first; you name it, Raspberries got it on this one in Happy Jacks.

"It sounds awfully realistic," said one blindfold listener, afraid to guess it wasn't the Who, too smart to think it was. How hypocritical that we should be breathless with expectation about a film version of Tommy when the Raspberries can compress Quadrophenia into three minutes, besting Bowie's better than alright cover of 'I Can't Explain' in the process. Wally's been known to break four strings at once with his birdman wrist action on this one, kids, so bear with us. The Raspberries' new manager says he likes to think of the new band as "mature", but if their idea of mature is to sound like a Shepherd's Bush Saturday Night, then 'I Don't Know' is my idea of a rock dream.

'Cruisin' Music', Carmen's blockbuster on side two, should have been the anthem for the Endless Summer that has seen the Beach Boys become chart-toppers once again. Sleigh-bell sleek, 'Cruisin' Music' is better than Columbian coffee to wake up to. The Raspberries sing together as one, "We could use a little sunshine", and "more of that good good music, cruisin' music" on the radio. Promoting good vibrations 'til Daddy takes the T-Bird away, Eric was long on striped T-shirts, tennis sneakers, and white Levis in his teens, and even today, his bouffant-banged shag can't hide the Surf City gleam in his eye. Two girls for every boy, and twenty for every rockstar, right?

I think Carmen's eclecticism gets the better of him on the album's title track; 'Starting Over' would make the same kind of sentimental soppy single as Elton John's 'Your Song', and could be just as big for the Razz. But if it's pulled as a hit and makes it, then all of the disbelievers' prejudices against Raspberries will be confirmed and good fight they've fought for years unwon.

Chances are that won't happen as long as Wally can steal your heart away with buzzer-Berry leads that breathe fire into 'Oh Carol'. And as long as the Raspberries can whip up a rocker like 'All Through the Night', as if Rod Stewart were singing in Keith Richard's lap, they'll be on top and in touch. Like Bowie, they'll try everything once, hoping to carch our eye and ears by their sheer audacity. But the Raspberries have an even more illuminating insight into their place in the pop picture: "We hope the Dolls make it huge," Wally told me, "because right now we're the Only Ones."

If it makes it easier for you to swallow the Raspberries, though, don't think of them in the same situation as the Dolls, who were apparently too much too soon for their own good. Think of the Raspberries as the band breathing right down the neck of fastbreathing piece of hot manufactured goods like Bad Company. If a band that sounds like the seventies Stones, had they never met Brian Jones or Andrew Oldham, can break overnight as the group everybody dislikes least, then the Raspberries should be underwritten by a philanthropic organization as a positive force in American education. They're the most accessible band around performing and writing on the same scale as any of the Invasion era greats. They aren't snide or snobbish, true, just guys with guitars who want to "woo you, ooh ooh you, all night." But you just got to learn to dance if it takes you all night, and day-time, too.

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