“Lead Sister”: Karen Carpenter’s Life In Music

karen carpenter

Considering the identity crisis percussionists suffered during the 1970s when drum machines and synthesizers were threatening their legitimacy in the world, Karen Carpenter’s work as a drummer was remarkably sure of itself. It was all there in her playing: a latched pedal that slowed and raced when it needed to; a playful demonstration of cymbal display that echoed The Beatles; a selection of drum solos performed with tremendous urgency and fire; and best of all, an ability to play drums as she sang lead vocals on a series of haunting pop pieces.

And while The Carpenters had a calm appearance, the duo nevertheless boasted a more rugged interior life just beneath the surface. Lead Sister – Lucy O ‘Brien’s portrait of a drummer in creative revitalization –  demonstrates the band’s eagerness to explore their confessionals, whether it suited the market or not.

Underneath the sweet flutes of “Superstar” stood an insecure woman who was determined to show she was capable of competing with the hardest, the fastest, and the most furious, regardless of gender. “It hit me that I could play drums as good as nine-tenths of those boys,” Karen said. “When I got into the marching band I immediately fell in love with the drums and I was the first female drummer. The band thought I was crazy, but luckily I took to them right away.”

This book is not a cheap Spice Girl-like fable about “independence,” but a deeply feminist apotheosis. It’s the last couple of chapters where the book truly lives up to its potential, painting a brother and a sister in their attempts to make peace with both their legacy and their lives. Karen Carpenter died at the tender age of thirty-two, leaving Richard as the sole custodian of the legacy. (Incidentally, drummers John Bonham and Keith Moon also died at that age, making it one of the more unfortunate coincidences in rock.)

There’s a lot to absorb in the book – O’Brien casts a wider net than she did on Madonna: Like an Icon – and the book rushes to explore the latter, more pop-oriented aspect of The Carpenters’ trajectory that it seems to overlook the formative lessons Karen and Richard discovered on their way to pop glory. It’s a good thing that O’Brien writes with razor-sharp precision, or the reader might get bored in the process.

It also feels like the book is reluctant to waver from the central character: there are some snippets on Richard that could be expanded upon, considering that he was the one who composed and arranged the band’s work.  Still, O’Brien recognizes the artist, the woman, and the drummer in her work, and weaves a tightly coiled narrative that explores all three of these aspects of the central figure.

If her drumming was sidelined by the trendy presses, there was no denying the fact that Karen Carpenter possessed a singular voice, capturing a unique midway point between the uber-hip girl groups of the 1960s, and the more ragged vocals bellowed by Blondie and Siouxsie and The Banshees.

One way or another, Karen charmed her way onto the music charts, but she was equally as fascinating as the songs she produced. The richness of O’Brien’s book fleshes out a person who was committed to the history books too early in her career, giving a new overview of her work and her character. Also featured is a scientific account of anorexia, which is a timely reminder that even the sturdiest can fall victim to the disease.

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo: Public domain image of Karen Carpenter

PS – How about a quick “pop” of today’s music history?


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8 comments on ““Lead Sister”: Karen Carpenter’s Life In Music

  1. Gary Theroux

    Regarding The Carpenters, it is incorrect to state that Richard Carpenter “was the one who composed and arranged the band’s work.” While Richard did do most of the arranging, he actually wrote or co-wrote the minority of the Carpenters’ output. I knew Karen and Richard and both assembled and annotated the three CD box set “Carpenters: Their Greatest Hits & Finest Performances,” which includes my interview with the two. Some of that interview also turns up on the soundtrack of the new feature documentary “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection.”

    • Diane Sampson

      Richard wrote Top of the World, Yesterday Once More, Only Yesterday, Goodbye To Love, I Need to be in Love and other hits.

      • Gary Theroux

        Richard co-wrote several of the Carpenters’ 28 chart hits with other collaborators (such as John Bettis) but, as noted, did not contribute to the music or lyrics of the bulk pf TH e Carpenters’ output (which includes B sides and album-only tracks. He DID do most of the arranging, though,

  2. Pol Newman

    Phil Collins was better.

  3. Edd Davies

    Karen Carpenter was a good and accomplished drummer and had a gorgeous voice, but keep in mind that the drummer on just about all of their hits was Hal Blaine.

    • Amy Hughes

      You can note that Karen did all of the drumming (except for “Jambalaya”) on 1973’s ‘Now & Then.’

  4. Henry Smith

    Can’t wait to read that book and see the aforementioned new documentary. As always, thanks for the heads-ups, CultureSonar. (Although both undoubtedly will break my heart in so many ways.) Although I was playing in a Rolling Stones cover band at the time (and, to paraphrase Paul Williams, even though In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was the big Top 40 phenom when We’ve Only Just Begun was released), I immediately went crazy for the Carpenters on first listen and especially for Karen’s remarkable singing and drumming (when she, and not Hal, was drumming). Although my bandmates and much of the music press didn’t share my views, it was affirming to hear many respected folks finally come forward to say things like “anyone who doesn’t like The Carpenters just doesn’t like music.” (Might that have been Ahmet Ertegun?) And of course Herb Alpert — one of my absolute all-time musical heroes — loved them. I often engage in rousing “best-of” discussions with my musician and musical friends, and even though the towering greatness of female vocalists like Linda Ronstadt and Alison Kraus certainly puts them in the absolute top tier, every listen under the headphones to Karen always puts her at the very tippy top for me, for a number of reasons. For such a talent to have suffered so much and left the world so soon is beyond tragic. (Heading off now to find some more videos of Karen behind the kit.)

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