Music

All By Himself No More: An Interview With Eric Carmen

Dan MacIntosh

"We had banged our head on the wall long enough and said, 'This isn't going to work,'" remembers Eric Carmen, but the reunited Raspberries show that 30 years later, they're no overnight sensations.


Raspberries

Raspberries Live on Sunset Strip

Label: Rykodisc
US Release Date: 2007-07-31
UK Release Date: 2007-07-31
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"We thought that before any of us die, this would not be a bad time to do it," Says Eric Carmen in describing why the Raspberries chose 2005 to mount a ten-date reunion tour. The last stop on this trek, at Hollywood's House of Blues, was recorded by Mark Linett and recently released as a two-disc set by Rykodisc entitled Live on Sunset Strip.

Perhaps Carmen's recent jaunt with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band gave him new urgency to reunite the band. After all, only Starr and Paul McCartney are left from the Beatles, making any future Fab Four reunion anticlimactic.

Unlike the Beatles, the Raspberries weren't together nearly long enough to get sick of each other. They released only four studio albums, the last one ironically titled Starting Over. But rather than being crushed by the weight of personality clashes -- an all-too-common cause of death for many rock bands -- Ohio's Raspberries quickly realized their unusually melodic rock just didn't fit well in the midst of the overblown '70s progressive rock age.

"The Raspberries was formed as kind of a reaction to prog rock, which we didn't like." Carmen explains. "'Let's bring some songwriting and harmonies back to music.' And we did that. And the idiots that we were, we actually had hits, which is the absolute kiss of death. Rock critics seemed to get what we were about. The 16-year-old girls seemed to get it. But their 18-year-old album-buying brothers, who were listening to Jethro Tull, didn't get it; didn't want it. So eventually our sense of frustration caused the band to implode, which we did in about 1974. We had banged our head on the wall long enough and said, 'This isn't going to work.' And I guess we weren't the only ones that felt that way. From what we read, Big Star and Badfinger were kind of feeling the same way."

These days, the Raspberries are viewed as a groundbreaking band. The music they made, along with Big Star and Badfinger, inspired oodles of great modern acts. But while the critics picked up on this quartet's rare beauty -- as did guys like Bruce Springsteen, who wore out his Raspberries cassette tape -- the wider public did not.

"It was easy for people to be derisive about our music because they saw what we were doing as retro," Carmen elaborates. "But we were like barbarians trying to crash the gates of the bloated progressive rock that we despised. A lot of people just didn't get it. But over the years, it seems like they [began to] get it. Sometimes it takes a while, but now there's a whole different kind of reverence for what we're doing, which didn't happen at the time."

Carmen is sometimes surprised by the Raspberries' unusual fan demographic.

"Some of our biggest fans are musicians, which you would have thought in 1972 that the musicians would have really been big fans of Jethro Tull [instead], not these lightweight Raspberries," he marvels. "When I was on tour with Ringo, we had Jack Bruce, the bass player/singer of Cream, who was their head songwriter; we had Simon Kirk on drums, who was from Bad Company and Free; the great rock guitarist Dave Edmunds; and Ringo and me. We were sitting in a room one day doing an interview and the interviewer said to the band, "Whose songs were hardest to learn?" And without a second beat, the entire band wheeled around and pointed at me: 'Eric's!' I think Dave Edmunds said, 'There's a fucking chord for every word!' He'd never seen anything like that when I tried to show him 'Go All The Way'. 'I've got to sing and play all these chords and remember all this stuff?'"

Raspberries appealed to budding recording engineers, as well.

"I bought a number of the group's singles when they first came out, but the first album of theirs I got was Starting Over and I loved it," Linett remembers. "As an engineer who longed for the 'big time' the subject mater of 'Overnight Sensation' really appealed to me, and I loved the production of the whole album. I guess it all reminded me of the great 45s I bought both before and after the British Invasion; the kind of records that got people excited and that made me want to be a recording engineer in the first place."

The Raspberries play a style that has been termed power-pop. And while I've always loved power-pop, I struggle to define the genre when people ask me to describe it. It's not like reggae, for instance, where you quickly recognize a distinctive beat. Nor is it like big band where it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. You just know it when you hear it, but that doesn't help novices appreciate it.

"Well you know Pete Townshend coined the phrase," Carmen notes. "Pete Townshend coined the phrase to define what the Who did. For some reason, it didn't stick to the Who, but it did stick to these groups that came out in the '70s that played kind of melodic songs with crunchy guitars and some wild drumming. It just kind of stuck to us like glue, and that was okay with us because the Who were among our highest role models. We absolutely loved the Who."

As a matter of fact, the Raspberries cover the Who's "I Can't Explain" on their new live disc, even though they'd never recorded it in the studio before.

"The first show that we played in Cleveland was about two and a half hours long and we played darn near every song that we ever recorded," Carmen recalls. "There may have been ten [tracks] left out of the four albums. We realized that once we got out of our hometown, we couldn't play two and a half hours every single night; some of these songs were pretty obscure for most people. So to keep things interesting for us; every so often I'd come in and say, 'Why don't we throw one of these nuggets in?' We'd either pull out a song we used to play 30 years ago, or the songs that affected me the most; that made me turn from being a classical musician to being a rock musician. I could name them. There were 'Can't Explain'; 'Mr. Tambourine Man' by the Byrds, [which] was the real first one that just blew me out of the car. 'Be My Baby' by the Ronettes was certainly great. All the early Stones stuff. "Ticket to Ride", all the Beatles '65 stuff. So rather than just play our stuff and just to keep us interested, every so often we'd throw in a song or two by someone else. It helped make it more fun for us. And that particular night we did 'I Can't Explain' and I think we did 'Needles and Pins' by the Searchers."

With all his established rock 'n' roll credentials, however, why did the same man who gave us "I'm a Rocker" switch to writing power ballads, like "All By Myself", as a solo artist? Was this really even the same person?

"It didn't start out to be that way," Carmen begins, defending himself. "If you actually go back and listen to my first album, there are some things on there that are kind of rock 'n' roll. And my entire fourth Arista album was a rock 'n' roll album that just didn't get promoted at all. The Raspberries were on Capitol, and after 'Go All the Way', all Capitol wanted to know from us was 'Son of Go All the Way'. Give us another 'Go All the Way'! And we had a lot more that we could do besides just 'Go All the Way'. There were ballads on our first [Raspberries] album that went pretty much ignored. And there were things on our second album that were mid-tempo that people didn't pay much attention to because Capitol just wanted to hear another pop-rock, upbeat, three-minute single.

"So when I went to Arista, I had a period of writing where I suddenly was unrestricted," he continues. "I wasn't writing for a band for the first time. It opened up a whole other arena for me to work within. I was probably listening to Pet Sounds a lot. And without the restrictions of writing for a band that played kind of like the Who, this other stuff started to happen. And then Clive [Davis] decided that 'All By Myself' should be the first single, and I agreed with him. I wanted it to be a radical departure from the Raspberries. I didn't want it to be just, like, 'Here's Eric, and he's a continuation of what he did.' So when 'All by Myself' became a huge hit on Arista, then Arista wanted to hear 'Son of All By Myself" each time I made a record. And they paid very little attention to any of the uptempo stuff. When you have a big hit right out of the box, record labels tend to look at you and think that's what you do because it's easier for them."

Classic Rock magazine picked "All By Myself" as one of the 40 greatest power ballads of all time, by the way.

So let's summarize: When Carmen rocks, he's one of the best. And when he puts on his balladeer hat, he's also one of the greats. Now really, how many other artists can claim that distinction? He was, as he puts, at "one point laughed at for making 'Go All the Way', and then heralded for making 'All By Myself'. And then heralded for making 'Go All the Way' and laughed at for making 'All By Myself'. It's kind of a vicious circle. It comes down to: you can't please everybody."

No, Eric, you're only partially right. You can't please all the people, all the time. But right now, you're pleasing patient Raspberries fans once again. And for that, we give thanks.

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Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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