Cult heroes: Raspberries – 60s-loving progenitors of powerpop
by Michael Hann
Like Big Star, this Cleveland quartet ditched the beard-stroking of prog to channel the wham and bam of pop’s golden age into something catchy and current
‘We tried to fill the void the Beatles left’ … Raspberries in 1974: bassist Scott McCarl, singer Eric Carmen, drummer Michael McBride and guitarist Wally Bryson. Photograph: Waring Abbott/Getty Images
Even if you don’t know who Eric Carmen is, you probably know one of his songs. He was the writer and original performer of the none-more-mopey power ballad All By Myself, which reached No 12 in the UK and No 2 in the US in 1976. And if you don’t know his version, you perhaps know Céline Dion’s cover from 20 years later, a No 6 hit in Britain and No 4 in the US. If that’s all you know of Carmen, you might be inclined to turn away: All By Myself is Without You’s equally cheerless cousin. Put the two songs side by side and you’ve got a segue to end all hope.
Carmen has continued to work steadily since, but it’s not his post-smash career we’re interested in here. It’s the four albums he made between 1972 and 1974 fronting Raspberries, the Cleveland group who serve as a cleancut, wholesome mirror to the decadent, self-destructive Big Star, 730 miles away in Memphis. Even now, more than 40 years on, you can find powerpop fans arguing about which of the two bands was better. Paul Stanley of Kiss cited both groups as key influences on his band’s early records: “Give me the Raspberries. Give me Small Faces. Give me Big Star.” Big Star’s Alex Chilton recognised a kindred spirit: “I remember when I first heard the Raspberries,” he said. “Big Star were in a van travelling around doing some dates and we heard Go All the Way on the radio, and we said, ‘Wow, those guys are really doing it!’ I thought that was a great song.”
Yet while it sometimes feels as though you can’t pick up a classic rock magazine without stumbling over a lengthy article about Big Star, Raspberries (no definite article) don’t get the same respect. Partly that’s because they lack Big Star’s oddness and darkness: unlike Big Star, the chord changes in their songs go to the places you expect – they always sound comfortable, as a result – and their music never descended into the morass of despair Big Star waded through on their third album. Partly it’s because Chilton’s post-Big Star career saw him embracing the hip and outré, making him ripe for reappraisal, whereas Carmen made "All By Myself." And partly it’s because Raspberries did that thing that is the kiss of death for cult rock bands: they neither crashed nor soared, but were instead moderately successful (their biggest album reached No 36 in the US, and Go All the Way reached No 5 in the singles chart), and where’s the romance in moderate success?
At this point, I should make the case that Raspberries are in fact by some distance the better group. But I won’t. Listen to both groups’ albums and you’d have to be a buffoon not to think Big Star are better: quirkier, spikier, more interesting, more emotionally resonant. Nevertheless, Raspberries are deserving of your time and attention.
Raspberries formed in 1970, a four-piece with the classic Beatles lineup of two guitars, bass and drums. Their music rejected contemporary rock’s flight into portentousness: they were interested in neither endless blues extemporisation nor in the navel-gazing of post-hippy singer-songwriters. They loved the Who and the Beatles. They loved pop songs (Carmen’s three bandmates in the classic Raspberries lineup had been in the Choir, whose single It’s Cold Outside was a smash in Cleveland, and is one of the classics of the US garage rock explosion), and they wanted to play pop songs whether or not anyone else wanted to hear them. They just wanted to play them with big, crunching guitars as well as perfect harmonies.
“As a writer, I’ve always been the sum total of my influences, and those are all over the spectrum: Rachmaninov, the Who, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, Burt Bacharach and Leonard Bernstein, the Rolling Stones and the Small Faces,” Carmen said in 2014. “Progressive rock had taken over the pot-addled airwaves of FM radio, and to me, long, boring flute solos and endless jamming had replaced the great songs I grew up listening to. Instead of the Beatles, we got Jethro Tull and Traffic and the like. I hated prog rock; to me, it was the ultimate expression of a bloated sense of self-importance and mindless self-indulgence. I wanted to have a band that could rock as hard as the Who and sing like the Beatles and the Beach Boys; a band that could play concise, three-and-a-half minute songs with power and elegance. Apparently, there were a few other guys that had similar ideas. Alex Chilton comes to mind, although we went after things in different ways. It wasn’t until after Raspberries, Big Star and Badfinger came to exist that powerpop became a genre. In each case, I suspect Pete Ham, Alex Chilton and I all felt the same void after the Beatles broke up, and somehow we were all trying to fill it.”
Their first, self-titled album, released in 1972, didn’t quite hit the mark. Though "Go All the Way" was a storming opener, all Pete Townshend powerchords before soaring into its candy-sweet chorus, the rest of it drove too rigidly down the middle of the road. Its follow up, Fresh Raspberries, released the same year, got closer to what they were aiming for, and critics – especially those who longed for rock’n’roll to return to being a wham and a bam of teenage kicks, rather than something to stroke one’s beard to – took notice. Greg Shaw, the great champion of rock’n’roll that “Put the Bomp”, condemned “today’s stale, inbred rock scene” and said Fresh Raspberries is “every bit as enjoyable as the classic Beatles albums”. In Creem, Metal Mike Saunders was even more effusive: “This is the best album I’ve heard in a long time, and it looks like we have an important group on our hands.”
The third album, Side 3, was tougher still, a rock album with a pop sensibility – the track "Ecstasy," especially, sounds as if they had finally achieved their aim of melding the Who and the Beach Boys – but it couldn’t match its predecessor’s success, peaking at No 138 rather than No 36, and things started to come apart at the seams. Bassist Dave Smalley and drummer Jim Bonfanti departed, keen to pursue a more American rock direction and stop wearing white polyester suits. Or as the band’s label, Capitol, put it – rather startlingly – in its 1974 press biography of the band: “After nearly a decade of playing English rock, Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti began to drift away from the … ideal of a flashy mod-oriented Beatles-Who-Small Faces style, and toward jeans, moustaches, and ‘more mature’ countryish music. Name calling on a level of ‘Fags!’ … ‘Well, I’d rather dress like a fag than an itinerant farm worker!’ started interrupting rehearsals.”
Still, Carmen and guitarist Wally Bryson recruited a new rhythm section and began again, releasing a fourth album, Starting Over, whose opening track would stand as a monument to the best of 70s rock even if it had been the only song the band had ever recorded. "Overnight Sensation" is a song about being in a rock band – specifically about being in a rock band who are trying to get their first record on the radio and become the titular overnight sensation. In that respect, it joins Bob Seger’s Rosalie in that weird 70s genre of songs about radio station programmers. (“Well, if the programme director don’t pull it / Then it’s bound to get back the bullet / So bring the group down the station / You’re gonna be an overnight sensation,” Carmen sings.)
More than anything, though, "Overnight Sensation" is a feat of arrangement and production. It combines every facet of the Raspberries: insanely Keith Moonlike drumming, hard rock guitars, piano balladry, multi-part harmonies Brian Wilson would have been proud of. It throws in a fade to AM radio sonics, at three minutes (still my favourite record production trick) to create the sensation of the group actually getting played on the radio, a false ending another minute or so later, ended by drums that sound like the end of the world. And then, when the song finally does end, you can hear – very faintly, way in the background, if you’re wearing headphones – the sound of Go All the Way playing, as if on transistor through an open window way down the street.
It’s marvellous. And it’s the only reason you need to give Raspberries a taste.
—The Guardian, July 12, 2016
good read...well said.