Graded on a Curve:
The Raspberries, Starting Over

Celebrating Jim Bonfanti who turns 73 tomorrow.Ed.

It’s a miracle that anyone survives adolescence. And I’m not talking about drugs or driving 110 mph while on drugs or any of the other healthy activities normal teens engage in—no, I’m talking about potentially lethal sperm build-up. Speaking just for myself, I was a lusus naturae of unsated lust, and often found myself leering at vacuum cleaners. One day I discovered that my skull was producing an oily discharge, and it took a physician to inform me that I was literally secreting sperm through the follicles of my hair.

It was a lonely and demeaning condition, but fortunately I had The Raspberries. They were more than just the greatest power pop band ever—they were the Masters and Johnson of Rock. No other rock band has ever given more eloquent voice to the victims of adolescent hormonal overload. In such ardent and urgent songs as “Go All the Way,” “Tonight,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Ecstasy,” and “Let’s Pretend,” The Raspberries spoke to the only subject that really mattered to poon-crazed teens like me—namely getting some, and preferably tonight.

The Raspberries formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1970, the year after the Cuyahoga River caught fire: an ill omen in hindsight, for despite their polished Beatles and Mod-influenced sound, irresistible melodies, arresting guitar hooks, and heavenly vocal harmonies, The Raspberries never scored a No. 1 hit on the singles or album charts before breaking up in 1975. The band’s first single, 1972’s brilliant “Go All the Way,” rose all the way to the No. 5 spot. They were never to come as close to the top of the pops again.

While The Raspberries’ first three albums (1972’s Raspberries and Fresh, and 1973’s Side 3) contain all of the odes to teen lust the band is most famous for, I have always preferred their farewell LP, 1974’s Starting Over. Disappointing sales of Side 3 led to the replacement of bassist Dave Smalley and drummer Jim Bonfanti by Scott McCarl and Michael McBride, respectively, and McBride’s Keith Moon-like drumming in particular lent the band a much harder kick. Starting Over also has a slightly—and I do mean slightly—scruffier sound than its predecessors, and the combination of McBride’s drum pummel and less glossy production gives the album a sound that is more power than pop.

Starting Over opens with a bang in the form of “Overnight Sensation,” that brilliant song—it’s been on my Top 10 list since I was 16—about wanting a “big hit record/One that everybody’s got to know.” “Overnight Sensation” is a marvel from its pretty introductory piano interlude to its false fade-out, which is followed by some barbaric drum crash and the band singing, “Want a hit record, yeah” and “Number one” for what seems like infinity. “Overnight Sensation” may well be the only song Carmen ever truly wrote from the heart: “Well I know it sounds funny/But I’m not in it for the money, no/I don’t need no reputation/And I’m not in it for the show/I just want a hit record, yeah/Wanna hear it on the radio.”

Chock full of insider lingo (“Well if the program director don’t pull it/It’s time to get back the bullet”), the song’s most sublime—and innovative—moment comes when the song suddenly sounds as if it’s emanating from a tinny transistor radio, only to be drawn back into full stereo sound by the crash of McBride’s drums. That moment has always given me shivers—it’s the sound of Carmen’s imagining his dream come true—and the fact that Carmen was never see it come to fruition only lends the song an added poignancy.

The first three songs of “Starting Over” constitute a sort of mini-concept LP about the dreams and tribulations of playing in a rock’n’roll band. As for the great “Play On,” it’s a song about the hardships of life on the road. Wally Bryson’s stinging guitar (including an excellent solo), the rock-solid drumming of McBride, and some fantastic vocal harmonies form the perfect backdrop for newbie Scott McCarl’s urgent vocals: “It’s a hard life but you play it for laughs/It’s a cold-hearted business keep away from the trap/And your fingers on your throat get sore/But they’re out there beggin’ for some more.” Throw in a wonderfully melodic chorus, one very cool bridge, and even a Paul McCartney-like scream, and what you’ve got is a tune so catchy even Spiro Agnew would have been hard pressed to resist dancing to it.

The final song of the band’s mini-trilogy is the punch-to-the-face that is “Party’s Over.” A surprisingly rough-edged pub rocker in the tradition of Rod Stewart and The Faces, it rejects long-time producer Jimmy Ienner’s slick studio sheen in favor of a tougher, punchier sound. Opening with a rock steady beat by McBride—including cowbell!—“Party’s Over” is a showcase for McBride’s powerhouse drumming, Carmen’s inspired honky-tonk piano playing, and Bryson’s raunchy guitar riffs. As for Bryson’s vocals, they’re positively inspired. He practically shouts out the lyrics, from the time-to-get-serious chorus (“Ain’t it a shame the party’s over/Yeah, we couldn’t keep fooling round/Ain’t it a shame the party’s over/Yeah, we’ve got to keep our feet on the ground”) to the great “My old lady don’t see a lot of love/But my guitar, I give it all it can get.” And he totally manhandles the lines, “So I’m older and brighter/And a bad criticizer/And I’m crazy but I don’t give a shit.” Call it what you will, “Party’s Over” puts paid forever to The Raspberries’ rep—established during its early days, when the boys wore matching raspberry suits and sang all those songs about going all the way while the little girls swooned—as a bubblegum act.

“I Don’t Know What I Want” is both a hard rocker about teen confusion and—how do I say this politely?—a full-fledged ripoff of the Who, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in particular. I dare anyone to tell me they can tell the difference between Moon and Townshend and McBride and Bryson in the song’s opening. Aren’t those Townshend’s windmill power chords? Isn’t that Moon’s carefully controlled caterwaul on drums? That said, I don’t care whether the song amounts to homage or pure theft, because McBride’s virtuoso din and Bryson’s monster power chords bring out the beast in Carmen, who practically screams the final line of the chorus (“’Cause I don’t know what I want/I don’t know what I want/I don’t know what I want/BUT I WANT IT NOW!”) and in general delivers one of the loudest and most impassioned performances of his entire career.

Unfortunately, “I Don’t Know What I Want” is followed by McCarl’s bathetic ballad “Rose Coloured Glasses.” A heavily orchestrated slice of pure pop treacle sung by McCarl in a wimpy voice that kinda makes you want to sock him in the kisser and say, “Don’t sing like that,” “Rose Coloured Glasses” is unpalatable, unseemly, and easily the low point of an otherwise great album, although someone (probably the same people who love Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”) must like it because it’s ended up on several Raspberries “best of” compilations. Its sole good feature is Carmen’s lush piano, but having given it some thought I think the only way to redeem “Rose Coloured Glasses” from utter mediocrity would be to take it to a good body shop and outfit it with a new melody, a new vocalist, new lyrics, and a 5.0-liter, dry-sump, flex-fuel-capable V8 with twin turbos engine for good measure.

“All Through The Night” is best described as a tasty draught of “Faces Lite.” A crowd-pleasing bar-room boogie featuring Chuck Berry-inspired guitar by McCarl, Stewart-tinged vocals and honky-tonk piano by Carmen, and a great horn section, “All Through the Night” is a more slickly produced (its only shortcoming) and somewhat friendlier take on Rod the Mod’s “Stay With Me.” Eric doesn’t tell his one-night stand to “Get down/Get up/Get out” like Rod does, but in the great chorus he does let his her know she’ll be traveling by thumb come daylight: “All through the night/If you play your hand just right/You’re gonna know my bed/Take my head/And hitchhike home in the morning.” And his interest in his bed partner ends at orgasm: “Now that I’ve already had ya/I’m gettin’ bored with the idle chat/’Bout the place you live, what you do all day/Well honey, it doesn’t matter, no.” Eric, you cad. You should be ashamed of yourself. Both for your inexcusably boorish behavior and for allowing Ienner to buff the rough edges off what might otherwise have been a truly great rock song.

The Who, The Faces, and on “Crusin’ Music” The Beach Boys—there was nobody, it seems, those shameless Raspberries wouldn’t burgle blind if they thought it might score them a hit. Which is one of the things I like about them. A lightweight but catchy salute to that band of surf-loving All-American boys—who all went crazy in their own ways, with Brian becoming convinced his songs could start fires and Dennis inviting the entire Manson Family to stay in his home—“Cruisin Music” is pleasant enough with its exquisite harmonies, Carmen’s amiable vocals, and nice bridge, but when it comes to cruisin’ music I’ll take The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner”—or Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band”—over The Beach Boys, or “Crusin’ Music” for that matter, any day.

And you can add The Small Faces, and their “Tin Soldier” in particular, to that list of blatant cops with “I Can Hardly Believe Your Mine.” But Jeff Beck rip or not, “I Can Hardly Believe You’re Mine” is one of the finest songs The Raspberries ever recorded. It alternates relatively quiet verses sung by Carmen with big, impassioned choruses that never fail to bring a smile to my face, thank to McBride’s barbaric drum pummel, Bryson’s divinely inspired power chords, and the band’s harmonies, which are more shouted than sung. “I Can Hardly Believe You’re Mine” is the perfect combination of sweetness and brute force, and Carmen’s vocals—which grow increasingly urgent as the song goes on, culminating in the moment when he sings, “Touch my soul, hol, hol, hol, hol”—are nothing less than brilliant.

“Cry” is a Beatlesesque tune in the same vein as “I Can Hardly Believe You’re Mine.” Scott McCarl sings the verses—adding a nice McCartneyesque vocal twist to the words “the way I do”—to the accompaniment of a quietly strummed guitar and some delicious vocal harmonies, then the choruses explode, with the whole band singing, “Never thought I’d never see the day/I’d be happy to set you free/But you made a fool out of me/Now you’re crying, “baby, take me back” while McBride slaps the hell out of his drums and Bryson tosses in some really snazzy guitar riffs. He then proceeds to play a brilliant solo, and the band does the whole thing over again, before Carmen brings the show to a close with a nimble little run on the piano.

“Hands On You” is both Starting Over’s secret weapon and most surprising song—indeed, it’s the most improbable tune in The Raspberries’ entire songbook. An impromptu and hilariously lewd studio lark credited to Bryson and McCarl, “Hands On You” opens with some roughly strummed guitar, a flourish of trumpet, and much laughter and idle chatter. Bryson and McCarl then sing, “How I wish I had my hands on you/Always want to have my hands on you/Just can’t wait to have my hands on you/Bring your friend, she’s welcome too” while the folks in the studio—and it sounds like there were a lot of people in that studio—continue to giggle and chatter away. Then comes a rather wasted-sounding acoustic guitar solo followed by a “Here it comes” and then a shout of “Everybody!” at which point the entire studio sings, “Here we go, I got my hands on you/Take it slow, I got my hands on you/Down below, I got my hands on you/Where’s your friend, I want her too” then cracks up, with somebody adding a refrain of the final line in a very silly voice. It’s one of my favorite songs on “Starting Over” because it demonstrates something no one would have guessed—The Raspberries not only had a sense of humor, but they had it in them to let their hair down and play it loose.

Album closer “Starting Over” is the prettiest song on Starting Over, but not so cloying that it sets off my schmaltz alarm. It features Eric Carmen at his most drippingly romantic, some very Elton John piano, and a big orchestral backdrop, not to mention a fantastic bridge that includes some fine trumpet work. The chorus is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, with Carmen singing, “Though I am starting over under cloudy skies/I say hello to love I’m seeing through different eyes/And if I had a chance to make one wish/And know it would come true/I’d start all over with you.” It’s a salute to the perfect tone of “Starting Over” that nothing, not the Bernie Taupin Award winning couplet (“Buried my romantic inclination deep inside of me/Till I fell for you immoderately”) or Carmen’s surprising recourse to obscenity (“Used to feel so fucking optimistic till she said goodbye/Never thought a love like ours could die”) in the song’s opening couplet can ruin it.

“Starting Over” marked a new maturity for The Raspberries, both in its turn towards more adult concerns and in its subtle move away from the band’s trademark super-polished sound. Unfortunately Starting Over charted so dismally it basically killed the band, and hence we’ll never know where its advances might have led them. All we do know is that a solo Eric Carmen came tantalizingly close to finally scoring that No. 1 hit he so desperately wanted—while selling his soul in the process—with such sappy mooncalves as 1976’s “All By Myself,” 1987’s “Hungry Eyes” (of Dirty Dancing infamy), and 1988’s “Make Me Lose Control.” Meanwhile Wally Bryson joined The Rascals’ Dino Vanelli to form the feckless Fotomaker, which critic Robert Christgau duly dubbed a “dupergroup,” adding, “Beat the rush—boycott now, before anybody has even heard of them.”

Fortunately history has been kind to The Raspberries, and their magnificent power-pop anthems have gone on to influence almost as many bands as The Velvet Underground. But that’s not why I’ll always love them. I’ll always love them because in my moment of greatest need, when I was a perpetually tumescent ticking time bomb of testosterone-fueled lust who seemed fated to go to the grave with a hard-on, The Raspberries were there to let me know I wasn’t alone. “Go All The Way” was more than just a song to me; it was the perfect expression of my single-minded focus in life, namely to get to first base, then second, then third, and then home, home, home with a perfect hook slide—home and smiling and raising my cap to a madly cheering crowd, gloriously limp at last.


This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text