Why the Raspberries will ALWAYS matter to me, and why they SHOULD matter to you
The focus of the new HBO series Vinyl has been the music industry of the early 1970s – specifically the happenings around one fictitious record company, American Century (likely an amalgam of a few companies that existed at the time).
The stories behind the music and musicians are an integral part of the show, helping to develop and shape some of the plot lines. From the New York Dolls to the Good Rats, early episodes indicate that Vinyl is intent on bringing light to some of the lesser-known acts of the day. This was further exemplified when another overlooked band, Cleveland’s Raspberries, was featured in a recent episode.
In an era littered with acts that had success as well as those that came and went quickly, the producers of Vinyl could have chosen any band for the episode. Therefore, the choice of Raspberries is curiously interesting.
Even though their scene was brief and somewhat insignificant, (the band is seen playing in the background during a company function), Raspberries’ inclusion in Vinyl tells me that someone involved with the high-powered series was either a fan 40 years ago, or is a fan today. The episode fortified my belief that there are still fans who care about Raspberries. So what better time to revisit their story?
I’ve been asked the question many times: “What is it about Raspberries that makes you believe they were something special?” The truth is, they remain a mostly-forgotten, somewhat-maligned band, that attained much of their critical praise and admiration long after they were done. Most people who don’t know the band know Go All the Way, the song that brought them onto the charts in 1972.
But they were more than that. They WERE special.
One assertion that cannot be denied is, Raspberries were a misunderstood band. Misunderstood by their record company (who couldn’t figure out which hole to pigeon them into), and misunderstood by the general record-buying, music-listening population.
If ignorance is bliss, then there was no group more blissfully ignored.
Now before you scoff, I realize that music fans everywhere could each pick an artist who they feel have been similarly ignored. Fair enough. In my own library there are other artists who I feel very strongly about, who have been unheard by the public. Raspberries, however, were musically different from the rest of the class that was receiving airplay in the early 70’s.
Raspberries songs were built around strong musicianship and thrilling vocals. Lead singer and songwriter Eric Carmen, understood how to construct an addictive melody, and just as importantly, how to deliver it vocally with passion and intensity. While many people would get to know him better in future years as a solo artist (he’s the singer and songwriter of All By Myself and other hits like Hungry Eyes), during his tenure in Raspberries, Eric was among the best and most dynamic lead singers.
And Raspberries were not a one-trick pony. Wally Bryson was an inventive lead guitarist whose exciting fretwork was matched by his captivating stage presence, and his own strong song contributions. The band’s first three albums had Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti holding down bass and drums, respectively.
For their final album Starting Over, Scott McCarl and Mike McBride took over the rhythm section responsibilities. Both Dave and Scott managed the McCartney-esque feat of playing melodic bass lines, while also contributing to songwriting. Bonfanti (a recent inductee into the Classic Drummer Magazine Hall of Fame) and McBride could go from the bombastic attack of Keith Moon, to the subtle percussiveness of Hal Blaine. Here was a band that was able to shift musical gears without missing a beat.
So what went wrong? Let’s once again go back to those radio days of yore. This was a period in music that regardless of the genre, with the right push, you could get your song on the radio. A time when you could hear artists as varied as Alice Cooper (School’s Out), Lynn Anderson (Rose Garden), Al Green (Let’s Stay Together) and Andy Williams (Speak Softly Love) on the SAME station!
Within this musical mish-mash, Raspberries made their way onto the charts with Go All the Way, a Top 5 single in 1972. The song’s combination of electrifying musicianship and vocals, surrounded by a melody with roots in the 1960’s, grabbed you and didn’t let go until the final power chord. It sounded like a musical anachronism. It captured the pure essence of the band, giving an early indication of how exciting Raspberries were. It would be the song that would set the bar and define their career.
After this initial success, there might have been an expectation for a similar sound in their songs. That was not the case. From the Beach Boys-ish Let’s Pretend, the country-rock of Should I Wait, and the Free-sounding Party’s Over, the musical depth in the band signaled that there would always be experimentation with style. For some it was this diverse tapestry that added to the fascination and maybe some of the misunderstanding.
Over a 2 ½ year period, the band released four albums: Raspberries, Fresh, Side 3, and Starting Over. By today’s standards, this might seem like an incredible output for such a short period. What was more unbelievable was the maturity shown from album to album. Very few bands were showing similar artistic growth. But Raspberries did. They really were THAT good.
Talent in spades. Strong songwriting, and the band still didn’t seem to fit into an easy marketing plan or radio slot. They looked like they could be on the cover of Teen Beat, but played and sounded like they should be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Maybe the public couldn’t be faulted for its confusion, but Capitol Records, Raspberries record company, certainly wasn’t helping matters.
Perceptions changed slightly with the release of Starting Over. Now publications like Circus, Hit Parader and Rolling Stone, finally began to notice. Music critics were universal in their praise of the first single, the magnificent mini-overture Overnight Sensation, but without support from the promotion machine, the album stagnated on the charts. This lack of commercial success would take its toll, and in 1974 the best band that no one knew about, Raspberries, broke up.
In 2004, over 30 years since the release of their first album, Raspberries reunited for a series of concerts in the U.S.
Thanks to a buzz created by among others, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Paul Stanley and Steve Van Zandt, all speaking about how much the music had meant to them, the reunion concerts were extremely well-received, and the band played with the same fervor as they had done in years gone by. But once again hard work, great songs, and new-found fans still couldn’t make things click, and the reunion did not lead to anything permanent.
Over the years there has been much dialogue and head-scratching as to why things went wrong. Was it a lack of proper promotion? Was it radio indifference? At a reunion show in New York, I had a conversation with a fellow fan who in the early 70’s had worked for Capitol Records. I jokingly accused him for not marketing the band properly.
He smiled and replied, “We were so busy promoting acts like Grand Funk and Steve Miller that were having chart success, we lost focus on bands that mattered, like Raspberries. We should have been pushing and developing them because they WERE the REAL thing.”
When the term “power pop” started to gain acceptance, one of the first bands that everyone agreed deserved the title of “Kings of Power Pop” was Raspberries. There was finally acknowledgement that their music had influenced generations of musicians, and that their songs still had the ability to make a listener sit up and take notice.
As the years have passed, my passion has never dissipated. I’ve also come to the realization that Raspberries will likely remain just a footnote in Pop music history. When I play a Raspberries song today, the music still sounds as refreshingly powerful and clear as when I first heard it. It still manages to bring back the initial passion and fervent belief that I once had in the band.
I’ve almost gotten over the disappointment that they never made ‘it.’ Almost. Thankfully, Vinyl has offered a bit of redemption to long-time fans. A good friend who once said to me, “Musically, they were America’s Beatles.”
Yes, they were. They mattered to me in 1972, they still matter to me today, and they SHOULD matter to anyone who has an ear for good music.