Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter

Being of a certain age, growing up on Top of the Pops and Saturday night general entertainment shows in the 70s, Karen Carpenter was a noticeable feature on the box in the corner. Little was known about the condition Karen suffered through her short life and we are now so much more aware of anorexia nervosa and its impact. Lucy O’Brien has taken a forensic approach to Karen’s life, unearthing all sorts of details, minutia and placing them in the context of her world as she matured into an outstanding artist, was side lined as a drummer and ‘pushed’ to the front to be the eye candy of the Carpenters as it would sell more records. Shocking in today’s climate but everyday behaviour of record executives in the 70s.

The spirited life and essence of Karen runs through this book and as well as being a tragedy that she didn’t get the help needed it is also an uplifting journey in many ways as she was so accomplished and determined a musician punching way above her weight in what was a man’s world.

Richard Carpenter, Karen’s brother, and piano player is often given slightly more credit than is deserved, still nonetheless defends his music with aplomb. ‘Only Yesterday’ the strongest track on the Now & Then album was criticised as ‘muzak’, the track has been called power pop, Lucy writes that it has ‘a transformational force that goes beyond that generic description’, “It’s not muzak.  We have fairly strong backbeats… maybe next to Led Zep it seems quiet, but next to muzak it sure as hell isn’t quiet. There is a hell of a lot going on with the arrangements and the colour” Richard said in a reflection of the song.

Lucy has delved deep into not only what made the Carpenters a musical phenomenon but just how they did it and with whom. All the sessions and its players are woven into her narrative, but it doesn’t feel like a long list, more an enhancement of the story. Karen may well have lived with imposter syndrome muses Lucy, she lived in the shadow on the face of it, of her more talented brother, she didn’t actually realise how talented she was, even doubting the accolades, even when John Lennon stopped her and said, “I just gotta tell you, love I think you’ve got the most fabulous voice”.  Richard Carpenter commented that “when it came to running into …Lennon or Streisand she seemed sometimes like a teenager aspiring to greatness, whereas in fact she was recognised not only as great but world famous”.

If you are remotely interested in the music of this period or crave to learn more about a superb talent taken too soon, I urge you to delve into this well written, accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable book by Lucy O’ Brien which is available from Blackwells, Waterstones and on Amazon.

Karen Carpenter Book Sleeve

Publication date: 2nd March 2023
UK Price: £22.00
ISBN: 9781788708241
Format: Hardback
Pages: 368

Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter
By Lucy O’Brien
Published by Nine Eight Books

Author Bio:

Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers and contributing editor.

Photograph by Neil Hennessy-Vass

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