Thursday, February 4, 2016

WHEN CARPENTERS WERE ON TOP OF THE WORLD -- OF MUSIC

     The anniversary of Karen Carpenter's passing on February 4 (now 33 years ago) generally prompts SR to commemorate that beloved songstress with some hopefully enlightening insights on the musical legacy that she and her brother, Richard --  internationally renowned as the Carpenters -- have bestowed on the world's musical culture.  In a darkening age when Western culture is epitomized by the acclaimed triumph of a bearded Austrian drag queen at the highly publicized Eurovision musical contest, the preservation and perpetuation of genuinely beautiful and edifying musical treasures is more critical than ever.

     It is well documented that the Carpenters produced more hit singles in the decade of the 1970's than any other American group or solo artist.  Only three non-American superstars -- Elton John, Paul McCartney, and the Bee Gees -- surpassed them in that regard, as detailed in Joel Whitburn's The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits.  And the Carpenters may well have surpassed even those luminaries in that ranking had their amazing run of recording supremacy from 1970to 1975 not been cut short by the onset of Karen's ultimately fatal debilitation by anorexia nervosa starting around 1976.

     Apart from their prominence in this ranking of singles artists, however, the Carpenters are rarely, if ever, recognized among the genuinely elite musical superstars of their era.  As this blog has previously noted and decried, for example, the Carpenters have long been perversely excluded from admission to the ill-administered Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while performers of vastly inferior accomplishments and talent are consistently admitted.

     Although cultural bias may bar the Carpenters from that Philistene institution, the straightforward historical record can still accurately recognize the remarkable musical legacy of the sibling Duo from Downey.  And there is a very important aspect of that legacy that has apparently never been recognized:  During the period of 1973-75, the Carpenters were almost certainly the most successful pop or rock recording artists in the world.  In particular, historical Japanese chart data maintained by Tokyo's Oricon, Inc., has proven especially helpful in documenting the Carpenters' particularly impressive popularity in the world's second largest music market.

                                                                 
                          The concentration of vocal genius in the A&M studios

     There are three main measures of success for evaluating recording artists during the Carpenters' era (today one would probably add videos):  album sales, singles sales, and concert attendance.  And the measurement should take into account the international market, not merely the United States.  In that respect, the top three markets during the seventies were (as they are today): 1. United States; 2. Japan; and 3. the UK. Other significant markets of note would include France, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands.  But the top three markets provide a valid marker for international success, based on their pre-eminent importance and availability of data.

     Taking into account all three success markers, across the three leading international markets and others, the Carpenters accomplishments from 1973 to 1975 were simply unequaled.

Albums

     Carpenters recorded three general release albums during this period:  Now and Then (1973), The Singles (1973-74), and Horizon (1975).  In addition, they released three albums for the Japan market only: Gem II (1973), Golden Prize II (1974), and Live in Japan (1975).  The success of all of those albums in the Top 3 markets was nothing less than astonishing.

     Now and Then reached No. 1 in Japan and No. 2 in both the U.S. and UK.  It also hit No. 1 in Australia and No. 2 in Canada and the Netherlands.

     The Singles hit No. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Albums chart and held No. 1 for a stunning 17 weeks in the UK, where it was far and away the top-selling album for 1974.  The Carpenters' competition on the UK charts for that year included Elton John, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Rod Stewart, which demonstrates just how difficult it was for Carpenters to achieve the success they did.

     Horizon scored No. 1 again for the Carpenters in both the UK and Japan in 1975.  It reached only No. 13 in the U.S., however.

     In Japan, meanwhile, Gem II reached No. 3 in 1973, Golden Prize scored another No. 1 in 1974, and Live in Japan reached No 8 in 1975.  The Carpenters had 2 of the top 4 albums-- Golden Prize and Now and Then -- for all of 1974 in the entire Japanese market.  Ultimately, the Carpenters were topped only by the Beatles in album sales by international artists in Japan during their era (Mariah Carey has since exceeded them both).

     The Carpenters' success in topping the charts with all these albums in each of the world's three leading markets clearly established their superiority in the international albums sector in this period.

                                                             
                    Karen and Richard in the peak years of their recording success

Singles

     The Carpenters single sales during this period were no less impressive, although not quite so imposing on the international side.  In that respect, a peculiarity of the Japanese record market warrants mention.  For esoteric reasons non-Japanese artists rarely crack the top ranks in single sales there, although they fare much better in album sales.  Consequently, although the Carpenters were far and away the leading "foreign" singles artists in Japan (above the Beatles and everyone else) --  and remained so until 2012 -- their rankings on the Oricon singles charts were not so astronomical as their albums rankings.

     In 1973, Carpenters released three U.S. singles:  Sing, Yesterday Once More, and Top of the World.  Each of them was enormously successful on both the national and international level.

     Sing reached No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart (AC)  and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Internationally, it scored No. 1 in Hong Kong and on the Oricon International chart (ranking foreign artists in the Japanese market), No. 4 in Canada, and No. 18 in the overall Japanese market.

     As previously documented on this blog, Yesterday Once More was one of the most popular international hits of the 70's.  It was No. 1 on three of the four major U.S. charts, No. 2 in both Japan and the UK, and No. 1 in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Israel, Venezuela, and on Oricon International.  It was No. 7 on the United World Chart ranking the top hits in the entire world for all of 1973.

     Top of the World was yet another monster hit, domestically and internationally.  It was No. 1 on the main U.S. charts, as well as in Australia and Canada, and No. 5 in the UK. It was No. 14 on the United World Chart for all of 1973.

     Carpenters rounded out 1973 with a limited foreign release of Jambalaya, which reached No. 12 in the UK and Ireland and No. 3 in the Netherlands.

     1974 saw the Downey Duo release two more international hit singles.  Their cover of the popular Motown hit, Please Mr. Postman, produced yet another No. 1 for the Carpenters both on all U.S. charts as well as in Canada, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand, while reaching No. 2 in the UK and Ireland, No. 5 in Switzerland, and No. 8 in Brazil.  Their other 1974 release, I Won't Last a Day Without You, was the usual No. 1 for the Carpenters on the Adult Contemporary chart, No. 9 on Record World, and No. 11 on the Hot 100.  Internationally, Won't Last a Day was No. 1 in Hong Kong and on Oricon International, as well as No. 7 in Canada and No. 9 in the UK.

     By 1975, the Carpenters' popularity started to decline somewhat domestically -- driven no doubt by the cynical critics disdain for their civil and congenial style --  even while they continued to excel internationally. Even so, Only Yesterday achieved another No. 1 on the AC chart and a strong No. 5 on the Hot 100, while scoring No. 1 on the Global/United World chart for the entire year, No. 1 on Oricon International, No. 2 in Canada, and No. 7 in the UK.

     It is indicative of just how extreme was the Carpenters' success in producing super-hit singles that their second 1975 release, the moving ballad Solitaire, was considered a major disappointment when it peaked at No. 17 on the Hot 100 -- even though it was No. 1 on the AC chart and No. 12 in Canada.

     With no less than five chart-topping international mega-hits, the Carpenters superiority in the singles field during this period was as imposing as it was in the albums charts.

Concerts

     As difficult as it is to retrieve international record sales data from over 40 years ago, it is even more so in the case of concert popularity.  Indeed, it is futile.  Nonetheless, the information that is available concerning the Carpenters' extraordinary -- and, unfortunately, probably excessive -- concert tour success in the mid-1970's demonstrates that they were certainly at or near the top in this element of pop star achievement.

     The number and geographical range of concerts played by the Carpenters during 1973-75 was staggering, as detailed on the LeadSister.com website.  They played 174 concerts in 1973, 208 in 1974, and 118 in 1975.  They played in convention centers, university field houses, civic centers, coliseums, and state fairs across the United States, usually to packed houses.  Among the huge throngs they played before was a crowd of 50,000 at the Ohio State Fair.  They also performed in many of the most prestigious venues in America and abroad, including Carnegie Hall, the Grand Ole Opry, the Hollywood Bowl (where the 18,000 seats were twice sold-out for Carpenters concerts), the Boston Pops, London's Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall, and Tokyo's Budokan.

     For their 1974 tour of Europe, they sold-out 18 consecutive concerts, including shows in the Netherlands and Belgium that are recorded on Youtube videos.

     But it was their 1974 tour of Japan that epitomized the Carpenters' remarkable international popularity at its peak. Their much fanfared arrival at Tokyo's Haneda Airport drew some 5,000 screaming fans and clamoring photographers and reporters, in scenes reminiscent of the Beatles' arrival in New York in 1964. Their concerts in Tokyo and Osaka sold-out within hours of announcement and the tour sold 85,000 tickets. The enormously favorable impact of their concert performances, and especially Karen's special ability to charm Japanese audiences, left a permanently favorable impression on the Japanese public which has continued into the 21st century.

     By any reasonable measure, the Carpenters' enormous and wide-ranging success as international touring pop performers set a standard that few, if any, of their musical peers could match -- and certainly not during their peak period of 1973-75.  Combined with their extraordinary success topping the singles and albums charts at home and abroad, there can be little doubt that during this peak period of their musical career, the Carpenters were the most successful recording artists in the world.  To borrow the title of one of their iconic hits, they were on top of the world.

     In the end, of course, the cold, hard figures of record and concert sales do not provide the most meaningful measure of a musical artist's achievements.  In the Carpenters' case, the sincere affection and appreciation of their sheer musical excellence expressed by their most prestigious musical peers, as well as by their faithful fans -- from Long Beach to London to Tokyo and even Shanghai -- provides a glowing testimonial that will always assure their place among the legends of popular music.

     Nonetheless, an objective documentation of their international pre-eminence at the height of their illustrious career is worth preserving to counteract the cynical naysayers who occasionally surface to denigrate the extraordinary achievements of Karen and Richard Carpenter.