Graded on a Curve:
Eric Carmen,
Eric Carmen

Eric Carmen wanted a Number One hit record. Badly. He said as much in “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” from his band the Raspberries fourth and final LP, Starting Over. But “Overnight Sensation” didn’t come close to topping the pop charts, and following the Raspberries’ dissolution he considered his options. He could keep trying to woo music fans with power pop, or conquer the world with shlock. He went with the shlock.

The result was the strings-drenched “All by Myself” from his debut solo LP, 1975’s Eric Carmen. An exercise in mock-classical piano and maudlin self-pity, “All by Myself” marked a radical departure from the Raspberries’ oversized Beatles and Beach Boys-influenced sound. It become the official anthem for lonely teen bedroom weepers everywhere, and I’m ashamed to admit I was one of them.

Eric Carmen is the vexingly uneven work of a man flailing around. Carmen expands his range of influences, mostly in the wrong direction. Why else cover the done to-death “On Broadway,” or take things one step further with the show tune in search of a show that is “Great Expectations”? Eric Carmen is the record of a disheartened artist; if the world’s greatest power pop anthem “Go All the Way” failed to put him on the cover of Rolling Stone, desperate measures were in order.

But Eric Carmen has is share of small pleasures, thanks to Carmen’s uncanny ability to shuffle through the used record bins in search of additions to his list of musical inspirations. Shameless apery, I suppose you could call it. But that’s half the fun–Carmen’s skill has always lay in mimicry and his specialty is the homage.

“My Girl” is a joyous salute to the Beach Boys; “Last Night” isa Motown pastiche. “Sunrise” splits the difference between Brian Wilson and Berry Gordy, and throws in Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding” for flavoring. “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” has the Carpenters written all over it, while the kick-ass “No Hard Feelings” channels The Who, right down to Steve Knill’s dead-on John Entwistle impersonation. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of influences, he steals from Sergei Rachmaninoff on both “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which just goes to show you he’s a classical scholar and big fan of Russians with long last names.

Just as “Overnight Sensation” was a commentary on the music biz itself, so are several of the songs on Eric Carmen. Despite its show tune trappings “Great Expectations” is a bitter critique of record label manipulation. “Just when I think things are goin’ right,” sings Carmen, he gets a call from L.A. saying, “Sorry to say we’re changin’ your song.”

But Carmen’s biggest stab at the music business is on LP stand-out track “No Hard Feelings,” the story of a rock ’n’ roll band that dreams big only to get fucked over by an unnamed record label honcho with his “nose glued to the charts.” “We was raped, reshaped and tryin’ escape” sings Carmen, adding “Four years on/And things were really gettin’ too intense/Critics ravin’ ’bout our album/But we’re makin’ fifty cents.” It’s an even bigger denunciation of the star-making machinery than Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Workin’ for MCA,” if only because unlike the Raspberries, Lynyrd Skynyrd got their fair due of fame.

Eric Carmen marked the turning point between Carmen the power pop genius and Carmen the purveyor of pop shlock, but to be fair to the man, power pop had passed its heyday and he knew it. On ”No Hard Feelings” he sings, “Caught in a rock and roll time warp/Just tryin’ to find the way to get out,” and find a way out he did-only to discover he didn’t know where to turn.

“All by Myself” never topped the pop charts; it rose to the number four spot on the Billboard Top 100, only one spot higher than 1972’s “Go All the Way.” It just goes to show–selling your soul to the devil is no guarantee he’ll keep his part of the bargain.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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