Tuesday, September 16, 2014

This Day in Pop Music History (Raspberries’ ‘Starting Over’ Becomes Swan Song)



September 16, 1974—The title of the fourth studio album by the power pop group The Raspberries not only tried to capitalize on one of the LP’s more commercially viable songs, but also a new direction and new hope in the replacement of two members. But, despite possessing what many fans consider its greatest production masterpiece and winning critical approval for once, Starting Over proved to be the group’s final collection of original material.

I have already written posts about what may have been the group’s zenith, its 1973 Carnegie Hall gig; the group’s infectious tip of the hat on Starting Over to one of their influences, the Beach Boys, on “Cruisin’ Music”; even another post on Starting Over. But that hardly exhausts what can be said about the group’s denouement.

Hopes were high, as Starting Over was released, that Michael McBride, a former member of lead singer Eric Carmen’s prior band, Cyrus Erie, would fill Jim Bonfanti’s shoes on the drums, and that Nebraska bassist Scott McCarl would not only prove an adequate permanent substitute for Dave Smalley but that he might form a creative songwriting combo with Carmen, much like their heroes, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Expectations were even greater because producer Jimmy Ienner had crafted Carmen’s "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," into an exhilarating, Spectorian five-minute suite that began to climb the Billboard charts.

But “Overnight Sensation” could climb no higher than #18 on the singles chart and the album as a whole only reached #143. By early the following year, after a grinding tour, continuing intra-band tensions and not enough money, The Raspberries split for good.

Carmen told his side of the story in the song “No Hard Feelings”from his first, bestselling eponymous solo album:

“While we were locked in image prison waiting for that break
 We were raped, reshaped, and trying to escape
 Caught in a rock 'n' roll time warp and trying to find a way to get out."

With a record company keeping them “in image prison,” it was all a product of circumstances beyond their control, he suggested: “There isn’t anyone to blame.” In truth, the causes of the breakup were small, petty—but, because they were myriad, all that much harder to repair the damage. While the lack of money coming certainly didn’t help, group members also seethed and sometimes fought over songwriting credit, the direction of the band—even the apparel they wore onstage.

Carmen was considerably more prosaic about the group’s breakup in an interview with Bullzeye.com seven years ago:

“We did the Starting Over album, and Rolling Stone picked it as one of their seven best of the year in their annual writers and critics poll, and they picked 'Overnight Sensation' as the best record of the year, and we subsequently sold the fewest number of copies of any of our records, and played every hole on the east coast for six or seven solid months of demoralizing gigging. And that was pretty much the end of it. We realized at some point that there was no way to climb out. What we had tried to do had been successful on one level, and a complete bust on another level. The rock critics got it, and the 16-year-old girls got it, but FM radio was just not about to play a band that sounded like they were making singles, and so it was kind of like beating your head against the wall at a certain point. It was time to move on and try something else.”

The cumulative toll of four years of wayward promoting by Capitol Records—who, seeing the quartet’s lack of facial hair and affinity for The Beatles and The Beach Boys, had promoted them as teenyboppers (even dressing them in matching suits)—had proven too much to overcome. Yet critics from the time who found the band overly derivative would be astonished to find that, four decades later, the Cleveland Fab Four have won a cult following as progenitors of power pop.

It might be a stretch to call Starting Over “a loose concept album,” as one online review I read called it. But let’s just say that a strong connecting thread among the songs is the rock ‘n’ roll life, starting with the title track and proceeding through “Play On,” a McCarl tune where the bassist seems to channel John Lennon; "The Party's Over," lead guitarist Wally Bryson’s sayonara to the old incarnation of the group; “All Through the Night,” Carmen’s winking narrative of a close encounter with a groupie; and “Hands on You,” Bryson and McCarl’s louche follow-up to Carmen’s prior quartet on teenage lust: “Go All the Way,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Ecstasy” and “Tonight.”

Fans of The Raspberries are a different breed of animal, showing up in the most unexpected situations. Several years ago, I followed up on a kind note on this blog from a reader who told me he was a church musician. How had he come across my stuff?  I asked.

I half expected to hear that this person had read a “Quote of the Day” featuring a pope, a spiritual writer, maybe even one of the psalms. But such was not the case. Instead, the church musician responded, he came upon the blog through something I wrote about The Raspberries.

It was fans like him—or, to confess my allegiance frankly, like us—who kept the dream of a Raspberries reunion going, even when the peace among its members proved so terribly fragile. In 2005, after 30 years of going solo, Carmen reunited with Bryson, Bonfanti and Smalley in what was originally supposed to be a one-shot gig at Cleveland’s House of Blues but that soon ended up creating a small concert tour. The product of that coming-together, Live on Sunset Strip, gave their rabid cult following what they had awaited all these years.

Relations among group members—particularly Carmen and Bryson—have proven so delicate that their sweet moment of the reunion might be all their fans get for their patience. But that might be enough.

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