When Eric Carmen first heard The Byrds’ debut album, he knew his budding classical music career was over.
“I loved the Beatles, of course, but I actually liked the Rolling Stones better,” the Cleveland native says, “but it’s The Byrds that got me into rock ‘n’ roll. One day, I was listening to the radio and I clearly remember hearing ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ for the first time and those harmonies and that 12-string Rickenbacker.
“Then I went home that same day and turned on the TV to see ‘The Lloyd Thaxton Show,’ and who was the musical guest? The Byrds. They did ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ That was it. It was all rock ‘n’ roll for me after that.”
The classically trained pianist bought a Beatles chord book and taught himself how to play the guitar. His goals were ambitious – he wanted to join The Choir, one of Cleveland’s biggest garage-rock bands in the 1960s. They had a huge regional hit with “It’s Cold Outside” in 1967, but it was only modestly successful nationwide.
“The Choir, they were my heroes, they were our Beatles,” Carmen says. “They were playing all the right chords, they knew how to deconstruct a song, they played like no one else in our area. And I felt like their guitarist, Wally Bryson, was the yang to my ying.”
Carmen managed to hold The Choir’s attention long enough for an audition, but they passed on him. He went home despondent but undeterred; he joined another local garage-rock group, Cyrus Erie.
As luck would have it, The Choir started to fall apart. Carmen recruited Bryson, and when Cyrus Erie dissolved, they teamed with Bryson’s former Choir bandmates Jim Bonfanti (drums) and Dave Smalley (guitar) to form … the Raspberries.
They would, along with Big Star, become the definitive power-pop band of the 1970s.
For four years (1970-74), they cornered the market on melodies and harmonies, prominent guitar riffs and three-minute, radio-friendly pop-rock gems like “Go All the Way,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Tonight” and “Let’s Pretend.”
The Raspberries were exactly what they were intended to be: a return to the pop/rock basics of The Beatles, The Who and The Small Faces.
“I think I first heard the phrase ‘power pop’ back in the mid to late ’60s,” Carmen says. “I used to read Rave Magazine. I would read about The Who and The Small Faces, before they even made it big in the States. I was just as interested in their fashion sense as much as the music.
“Pete Townshend was interviewed in like ’67 and was asked to describe The Who’s music. He said they were a pop band but they were powerful. And that just stuck: power pop.”
Carmen theorizes that he, Alex Chilton (of Big Star) and Badfinger’s Pete Ham, without knowledge of each other, simultaneously got turned off by what radio was playing in the late ’60s.
“Instead of The Beatles and The Who, FM was playing Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull, playing 20-minute flute solos, and Traffic’s 12-minute keyboard solos,” he says, with a laugh. “I was bored by it. I longed for the days of Pete Townshend jumping 5 feet in the air and winding his arm around.
“We were guys that liked melodies and songs. Power pop became the name of the genre, but it’s very broad. It could encompass a lot of sounds.”
Carmen found his Townshend in Bryson, and together they sought to put the pop back in rock.
“Stoner music was starting to get big in the early ’70s, and everybody had long hair,” he says. “I wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to give people joy like the early Beatles records. ‘Beatles For Sale’ and the pre-‘Tommy’ Who, they were my test period.
“We wanted to play with the power of The Who but sing like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but also have an image. We made Wally cut his hair twice before he joined the band. He was very unhappy about it. We wanted no jeans, no beards or mustaches. I hoped it would differentiate us from the others.”
It worked, mostly, up until they sported white suits on the cover of their second album, “Fresh” (1972).
“That was a nightmare,” Carmen says, laughing. “I just remember how miserable we were, wearing those suits and how hot it was that day. And the photos turned out terrible.
“And it didn’t help that Capitol Records didn’t understand who we were. They didn’t even understand our name. It was a twist on ‘blowing a raspberry,’ a Bronx cheer. We were sticking it to the eye of prog rock. Capitol thought, ‘What are they, the Osmonds?’ They marketed us to teen magazines, who were asking us questions like ‘What type of girls do you like?’ That’s exactly what you should not do if you want to be taken serious.”
By 1974, frustrations overflowed and the group disbanded, with “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” oddly enough, being its final chart hit.
Carmen went solo and his early classical influences surfaced in his first two hits, “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”
“When I was in the Raspberries, I wrote to tailor the strengths of the other guys,” he says. “When that was gone and there were no boundaries, it opened up a whole new world for me. I had my power-pop moments, but Arista wanted the ballads. They wanted the ‘Son of ‘All By Myself.’ “
The 1980s were lean for Carmen until 1987 when the Raspberries’ producer, Jimmy Ienner, asked him to sing “Hungry Eyes” for the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack album. The movie’s sleeper success led to another Carmen hit, “Make Me Lose Control” (1988). Both went Top 5.
These days, it takes a lot to get the 64-year-old Carmen excited, but he’s genuinely elated about “The Essential Eric Carmen,” released on March 25. The two-CD, 30-song set covers his time in Cyrus Erie, Raspberries and on his own.
“It’s the best package I’ve ever been involved in,” he says. “I’ve never plugged any compilation before, but I’ve been telling everyone that this is the one to buy. Mark Wilder, who is a Grammy-winning engineer, did a magnificent job with it.
“I am my harshest critic, I always knew where all the mistakes were in the songs. But I can honestly say that whoever buys this set, they will feel that these songs sound brand new. And I have Mark Wilder to thank for that.”
222 Sing, Travis
231 Crybaby, Utopia
234 Feel, Big Star
244 ELT, Wilco
Editor’s note: Eric Carmen photo taken by Alex Castino
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