Graded on a Curve:
The Raspberries,
Raspberries’ Best Featuring Eric Carmen

When it comes to Seventies power pop, you tend to be either a Raspberries person or a Big Star person. Me, I’ve always been a Raspberries guy, if only because they were about as subtle as a brick. Now Big Star, they had subtlety and class, but then again they were so subtle and classy hardly anybody heard of ‘em until they were long gone. Say what you will about the Raspberries–you could hear their songs on your car radio.

And as a male adolescent of the time I could actually relate to the Raspberries in a way that I probably wouldn’t have related to the heartbreaking nostalgia of “September Gurls” or “Thirteen” because I was too young to be nostalgic and all I wanted to do was go all the way, which was just about the only thing Eric Carmen sang about. He was the Dante Alighieri of Teenage Lust and as such gave voice to every shrieking hormone in my adolescent zit suit.

Musically, the Raspberries succeeded on a hybrid sound that was equal parts The Beatles, The Who, and The Beach Boys, with a wee pinch of The Faces thrown in for flavoring. Eric Carmen was a clever synthesist and even better thief with grand ambitions, and the epic sweep of his songs is a million miles away from the more nuanced power pop of Alex Chilton and Company. The Raspberries may have been from Cleveland but they were a peek into a rock future that would be dominated by the overblown sonic likes of Boston, and I’m talking about the band, not the town.

Eric, who suffered from delusions of grandeur for sure, aimed for the fences every time out, and he struck out a lot. But when he connected the result was power pop greatness, and his biggest homers can be found on Raspberries’ Best Featuring Eric Carmen (his hubris is right there in the LP’s title). He didn’t hit that many home runs, it’s true, but that’s one of the best things about this particular album. Some best-of compilations hit the skids cuz the people who put ‘em out pad ‘em with too much weak material, but that isn’t the case with this bare bones, 10-song 1976 best-of from a great band that was so much dust in the wind by the time it came out.

Raspberries’ Best isn’t totally great. And the problem lies with the same guy whose name appears in the album’s title. The Eric Carmen who was capable of writing such titanic rockers as “Go All the Way” and “I Wanna Be With You” was also the schlockmeister who gave us the eight saccharine minutes of “I Can Remember,” which squats in the middle of this compilation like a sugar-coated toad.

And it has company. “Starting Over” kinda sounds like an ersatz Elton John piano ballad from the soundtrack to Friends, but is a much higher caliber slice of schmaltz than “I Can Remember.” Meanwhile, “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” sounds like a lugubrious Beatles outtake produced by a strings-mad Phil Spector, but almost redeems itself by picking up speed and showing signs of life towards its middle. As for “Let’s Pretend” it succeeds spectacularly on the basis of its beautiful melody and pure Beach Boys sound, which come to think of it ain’t really pure because there’s definitely some Paul McCartney in there too.

In short, Carmen was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Maudlin type who did his best to scuttle this ego-ridden star turn but failed because the rest of the songs on it are so great. Sure it would have been better (at least in my humble opinion) had he (or whoever put the thing together) stuck to the rockers. If somebody bright had allowed a genius like me to put this baby together I’d have replaced the drippy slow ones (excepting “Let’s Pretend,” natch) with some bona fide ass kickers.

Like the self-explanatory “I’m a Rocker” or the very gutbucket “Party’s Over” which comes complete with some glorious cowbell and one very nasty attitude (Eric: “And I don’t give a shit!”). Or the atavistic first-generation rock’n’roll throwback that is “All Through the Night,” in which Carmen comes on like a low-rent R. Stewart leering, “Stay with me!” Or the shameless Who’s Next rip that is “I Don’t Know What I Want,” which apes everybody’s favorite Mod Rock Band right down to Michael McBride’s very credible Keith Moon imitation.

But you gets what you gets, and Raspberries’ Best is still an absolute must-own on the strength of such immortal gimme poon anthems as “Go All the Way,” “Tonight,” “Ecstasy,” and “I Wanna Be With You,” all of which limn the same glorious theme–namely the desperate desire to crawl into the backseat of your daddy’s car and finally get your rocks off before blue balls kill you at last. This LP gives off a feral teenage horndog funk and really only deviates from formula on the mighty “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” and the Brian Wilson rip that is “Drivin’ Around,” both of which are every bit as self-explanatory as “I’m a Rocker.”

“Go All the Way” is the most blatant of ‘em, and the best; from Wally Bryson’s gargantuan opening guitar riff to Eric’s inchoate yowl this one is a heartfelt plea to the girl of your dreams (or hell, the girl you just met at the 7-11) to just give it up already. The harmonies are heavenly; the guitar is mean; and “Heaven by the Dashboard Light” isn’t far away. “Ecstasy” kicks in like a classic Who song on steroids but Eric’s vocals and the flashy harmonies on the chorus are pure Beatlemania, and the big guitar/handclap breakdown at the end is pure genius.

“I Wanna Be With You” is another hard rocker over which Eric sounds alternately dreamy and downright insistent, as in “I’m so sensitive and yearning, blah blah blah–It’s time to put out or shut up, baby!” “Tonight” is just another iteration on let’s get it on, but it’s chock full of power chords boasts a little more pure leer (“You look too young to know what loving’ is!”) around the edges, to say nothing of some cool primal guitar get down from Bryson, who never met a giant Marshall amp he didn’t like.

Which, if you ignore The Beach Boys homage “Drivin’ Around” which would sound great next to “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Fun Fun Fun,” leaves us with “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” one of the greatest songs ever recorded by mere mortals. I have loved this song since I was kid and it still makes me swoon; the stately piano, the big Beach Boys harmonies and big wall of sound production, I dig it all. Eric doesn’t give a shit about the money or the fame or the groupies even; all he wants is to record a big hit record and hear it on his car radio. And the greatest thing about this greatest of all songs is he does, as do we, get to hear it on a tinny car radio. It’s a stroke of pure genius, that moment, and what makes it even greater is the way the sound grows and grows until all you’re hearing is “Wanna a hit record, yeah” over and over in glorious surround sound with the occasional voice in the wilderness crying out, “Number one.”

It’s gorgeous and even kinda poignant if only because “Overnight Sensation” never (as it should have) made it to number one on the Billboard charts, just as “Go All the Way” failed to go all the way, and in fact poor Eric was never to have a big “Number One With a Bullet” unless you count 1976’s bathetic “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which managed to reach the top of Billboard’s Easy Listening chart, which doesn’t (at least in my book) really count.

You can say all the nasty things about the sapmeister who bequeathed us “All By Myself,” but the fact remains that he spoke for an entire generation of horny teenage boys, and did so with a bunch of songs that still pack a monster sonic punch. His best songs are about wanting something, whether it be sex or a big hit song on the radio, and who can’t relate to desire? The Raspberries’ power pop songs remain my favorite power pop songs because basic human hankering is timeless and as simple as 1,2,3. Carmen never said a complex thing, never wrote a song about peace and love or getting rid of Tricky Dick, and never tackled a bigger theme than please, please, give me what I want. Iggy Pop did much the same thing. Great minds think alike.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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