All By Himself No More: An Interview With Eric Carmen
"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.
"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."
"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.