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The Carpenters and The Weirdest Cover Song Ever

karen carpenter

By 1977, The Carpenters had had several hits on Billboard and sold millions of records, but there was one thing they hadn’t been able to reach: critical acclaim. The press wouldn’t come around to them until the 90s, well past the point of the band’s hot streak (and the tragic death of Karen in 1983) when alternative darlings like Sonic Youth expressed a not-so-ironic appreciation for their music during the Decade of Irony.

Still, that doesn’t mean they didn’t strive for respect. That’s in big part how you get Passage, their eighth studio album. It was a clear departure from their usual sound — to say the least.

It featured everything from country to show tunes, and probably one of the most unexpected covers of the ’70s; the Carpenter’s own version of Klaatu’s Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft. As if such a title wasn’t long enough, they made sure to add the tagline “The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day” about establishing communication with aliens.

And the weirdest thing is that this risk kinda worked. Kinda.

Klaatu was a Canadian band that won some fame in 1976 when the rumor started that they were secretly The Beatles, and Calling Occupants had some minor chart success. At first, it didn’t seem like a natural song to cover for the brother-sister team, but context matters. Music’s landscape was transforming: the moment for soft rock and sugary ballads was starting to fade away, and disco struck with full force.

And to be honest, even at their prime, compared to other big names, The Carpenters were never truly “cool,” and as the decade progressed, they seemed like a relic of a different time.

So while it was expected for them to not see the critical acclaim other acts received, now even the commercial success wasn’t even a guarantee moving forward. They either adapt to the times or become irrelevant.

Did it make sense to release such an unusual cover? At the time, I’d say yes. 1977 was also the year of sci-fi and space opera movies that changed cinema forever. Star Wars made aliens and starships cool.

It wouldn’t last, but when a disco and orchestra re-working of the film theme was a hit in their own right, you can’t blame The Carpenters for thinking it was worth a shot.

But the strangest part isn’t the fact that such a cover was attempted at all, but after all was said and done, The Carpenter’s version… works.

The arrangements and variations surely helped, but the key is Karen Carpenter herself. The contradictory fact is that what made her successful was also what ended up limiting that same success.

Karen’s voice was a little unusual; she wasn’t the bombastic balladist, nor the raspy rocker. She wasn’t a disco queen. She had a more ethereal, otherworldly vibe, and a very distinctive tone. In biological terms, she was a highly specialized animal for her environment, but outside of it, she struggled to adapt.

And yet, she found the right place in such a strange song. If anything, those same “cons” played strongly in her favor. With an “out of this world” voice, let’s sing about making contact with extraterrestrial life. If The Carpenters came off as too sugary, who better to make an invitation to whoever listens through the stars? Others already did space-themed songs? Yeah, I think this is still different enough to not be confused for a David Bowie track.

Their cover reached 32 on the Billboard 100; it surely is higher than Klaatu’s original version but low for what was expected from the siblings. It’s easy to write off the song — as well as the entire album — as a failure, but remember that the music panorama was already transformed. By then, their style was already out of place and there was a clear trend of diminishing returns from their previous singles.

Hindsight has been pretty generous with this song. True, it’s not one that immediately pops into everybody’s mind when we remember the duo, but even to this day it still has a cult following. In 2016, the British documentary series The Nation named it their fifth favorite song from the band. In terms of reaching “new artistic ground,” it makes more sense than Liz Phair going from indie darling to Avril-Laving-esque rock-pop or Garth Brooks going from country superstar to a proto-emo balladist. and seems to be at least more fondly remembered, you could even argue that this weird experiment fits even better with the cult it developed in the ’90s.

In the end, Calling Occupants performed by the Carpenters was weird… but just weird enough to do alright.

-Anthony Arrieta

Photo: Karen Carpenter (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

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12 comments on “The Carpenters and The Weirdest Cover Song Ever

  1. With a gentle voice that sounded like she was sitting in your lap, crooning softly into your ear, Karen Carpenter became the finest female vocalist of the 20th century. That fact, though, was not considered “hip” enough at the time for smug, self-important and far less talented stuffed shirt critics to admit. Karen and I talked about that in 1978. I pointed out to her that the Carpenters’ music was cherished by the only critics who actually count — members of the public who’ve become moved enough by the Carpenters’ creative output to buy their records and attend their concerts.

    • Barbara Silber

      Agree with the sentiment that Karen became “the finest female vocalist of the 20th century.” Sadly, we were never given the opportunity to see where her voice and talent could have taken her in the decades beyond. Richard’s own brilliance as a writer and arranger has, in my opinion, never been truly appreciated by later generations.

  2. Yeah, this was a super strange direction for The Carps. Their unprecedented pop chart domination waning they went for broke. I admire the unconventional effort.

    If not so much the result.

  3. Gary Theroux

    Actually, the weirdest song the Carpenters took on was their 1976 cover version of “Goofus,” a 1931 hit for “the Waltz King,” big band leader Wayne King. Les Paul also scored a hit with the song in 1950. When I worked with Richard to assemble the CD box set “Carpenters: Their Greatest Hits and Finest Performances,” I wanted to include all 25 of the Carpenters’ Billboard chart singles. Richard agreed — as long as i left out “Goofus.” I never got a straight answer from him as to why.

  4. Wow. “Goofus”? So damn obscure I don’t even recall…to hear you tell it, GT, that’s exactly the way Rich wanted it, too.

  5. Gary Theroux

    “Goofus” (A&M 1859) reached #56 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in September 1976. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg0kPchnaoA

  6. No less than John Lennon rated her voice very highly; but she was so insecure she thought he was taking the piss. This anecdote was in Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story, an insightful documentary from 2007.

  7. Mark Alexander Hudson

    Strange song choice indeed, but Karen could sing the phone book and it would sound good. Almost as weird was disco queen Donna Summer’s decision to cover Jon & Vangelis’ “State of Independence” a few years later and she also did a fine job of it.

  8. In 1977 the Carpenters were far off my radar Occasionally in my car, in an unfamiliar listening area, I’d hear this and say, “What the hell was that?” I love it.

  9. Gary Theroux

    Karen grew up in home where all attention was paid to Richard’s musical skills (especially by their mother) and Karen was considered an untalented afterthought. To try to win some parental approval, Karen joined The Richard Carpenter Trio in which, once again, she could only stand un the shadow of her brother. Richard is, indeed, a first rate songwriter, arranger, producer and instrumentalist, but as things worked out, once the Carpenters were established, it was Karen who radiated in the spotlight — not Richard, who slipped into HER shadow. Aware of her long established “place” in the family dynamics, Karen always deferred to Richard as he remained the true talent in the family. The truth is — and this is hard for Richard to live with — Karen was the star with Richard taking a back seat. It’s notable that for all of Richard’s undeniable skills, the bottom fell out of his career the day that Karen slipped away forever..

    • Floyd Burney

      …. Klattu’s original is still the better version. But I remembered the 1st time I heard the Carps redo & I give them credit for even attempting it (“Sub Rosa Subway” from the same Klattu record Calling Occupants came from, I think would have been a better fit) The Carpenter’s were a classic case of being in the right place/time. I was age 11 when they broke & thought nothing special of them. I was more into the 1st two Led Zeppelin records, The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, & a new band out of Ohio called James Gang (Joe Walsh) But I heard of the Carpenters & they were a “safe” music to listen to. Not very inspiring but they had their audience & in the music business that’s all that matters. Ps- I do not listen to the Carpenter’s but do still listen to Klattu (Klattu, Hope & Sir Army Suite are excellent records & the songwriting still holds up to this day) Take it for what it’s worth.

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