Never Had a #1… The Carpenters

Part II of our mini-series on artists who have never had a UK #1 single, despite hits-a-plenty… And it’s a slight change in musical tack.

As much as I can find plenty to admire in Bob Dylan, I’ve often found his giant back-catalogue slightly daunting. Where to begin? With Karen and Richard Carpenter, however, you know where you stand. A huge chart presence throughout the early to mid seventies, here are their five biggest hits that never quite made it to the top…

‘Only Yesterday’ – reached #7 in 1975

The Carpenters were on cruise control here, with one of their later hits. I can’t help notice that it recycles the best bits from earlier releases (‘Goodbye to Love’s guitar, ‘Yesterday Once More’s nod to sixties girl-groups). Still, Karen Carpenter could, as they say, sing the phonebook and it would still be worth listening to.

‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’ – reached #6 in 1970

The duo’s breakthrough came with this cover of a Bacharach and David number, which went all the way to the top on the Billboard 100 and firmly planted itself in the UK Top 10. To me it’s a quintessentially sixties song, having been around since ’63 and having passed through hands as illustrious as Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. However, the video above screams ‘1970!!!’ louder than anything else I can imagine. Just look at Karen perched in that ‘U’, like a lovesick puppy… It gave The Carpenters a sound and an aesthetic that they kept for the rest of their career.

‘Top of the World’ – reached #5 in 1973

The Carpenters were a popular band in the UK and the US. Never ‘cool’ but, y’know, well-liked by many. Spend some time in Asia, however, and you start to view them in a new light. I soon came to realise how huge The Carpenters were/still are here… In Thailand, in Japan, in Hong Kong and the Philippines… You hear them in restaurants, in shops, on TV and, more than anything, at karaoke bars… Why? Well, as cliched as it sounds: their lyrics are simple, and easy to make out, and there ain’t nothing controversial about them. And ‘Top of the World’ is the epitome of this easy-listening accessibility.

‘Please Mr. Postman’, reached #2 in 1974

What’s worse than this middle of the road cover of The Marvelettes’ 1961 hit being The Carpenters’ joint biggest chart hit? The fact that it was voted ‘The Nation’s Favourite Carpenters Song’ in an ITV poll! The British public proving once again that they cannot be trusted in large-scale voting situations…

‘Yesterday Once Again’, reached #2 in 1973

Another fave in the karaoke bars of Asia… Apparently The Carpenters are the 3rd highest selling foreign act in Japanese history, behind The Beatles and Mariah Carey (blame that bloody Xmas song!) Now an oldie but a goody itself, and a song that sums up everything that people either love or hate about The Carpenters, ‘Yesterday Once More’ lives on in every sha-la-la-la and shinga-linga-ling… As does Karen’s voice, one of the most effortlessly beautiful to have ever graced the charts.

One more ‘Never Had a #1…’ tomorrow. Another American band, huge in the ’70s, that can perhaps lay claim to being the biggest-selling act never to hit the top spot…

17 thoughts on “Never Had a #1… The Carpenters

  1. Love the Carpenters, but their biggest hits not necessarily representing their best moments, Close To You aside. Classic Carpenters: We’ve Only Just Begun, Superstar, Goodbye To Love, Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft, Rainy Days & Mondays….

    And as always, I’m quick to slag off rock journalists of the time who were merciless towards anything not regarded as cool. 50 years later, Carpenters still hugely popular as people appreciate them for the things the critics didn’t: honeysmooth vocals with feeling from troubled Karen, lush production, great songs and timeless, as in not fitting in with any musical trend then or now, bar Easy Listening which covered a wide variety of genres and styles which amounted to “melodic and well-produced” (see Bread, their main rival in the early days).

    Are we talking that band with the name of the birds that Abba wrote a song about?

    1. Yeah, Goodbye to Love is my favourite, but I’d have Yesterday Once More as one of their top hits too.

      And bingo on the next band… (though I’m not sure they are actually the best selling act never to hit #1on the singles chart – Led Zep might take it)

  2. It’s nteresting how attitudes changed almost overnight about the Carpenters. There was a time in the early 1970s when they were derided as ultra middle-of-the-road, nicey-nicey, complete wimps, garbage that was only fit for the over-50s and the Tony Blackburn breakfast show. Then the pendulum swung, and it was hip to like them, appreciate Karen’s craft as a singer, and admit that if you wanted a bit of easy listening, EL did not get better than this. It’s a shame ‘Goodbye to Love’ wasn’t one of the highest-placed – the guitar solo that ends that song is magnificent.

  3. badfinger20 (Max)

    “The British public proving once again that they cannot be trusted in large-scale voting situations” I am laughing so hard over this…why I don’t’ know.
    You are right they were not cool but they were accepted…Karen’s voice is so distinguishable over many other singers.

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        Yep….like Bob Dylan can sing! lol… all joking aside your article on Bob was great.

  4. What a loss. I was a junior in high school when word came that she had died. What a shock. She had to have the most lovely alto voice, ever. Their music runs thru my birth, childhood years and my teens. They were always on the radio…somewhere. Now, you NEVER hear them unless you have satellite radio.

    Looking at the videos, above, you can see the weight difference from 1973 to 1975. I was reading on their website:
    https://richardandkarencarpenter.com/
    …that she hated her hourglass figure. Wow. Such a beauty on so many levels and so unhappy with herself. It breaks my heart. I always thought she was absolutely gorgeous and her brother, cute.

    1. Yes, it’s tragic the way she went… I read that a lot of it stemmed from her relationship with her mother. I think you would still hear the Carpenters on the radio in the UK today, definitely on one of the easy-listening commercial stations…

  5. For me and what it seems for a lot of people, the Carpenters always seem to represent ’70s music at its lamest and whitebread. They didn’t invent easy listening but, as Tom Breihan said in his Number Ones column, gave a sort of rock sensibility to it creating the sleepy studio-pop sound we tend to associate with the ’70s, and Americans were eating this up in the early ’70s with three #1s and five #2 hits. Granted, they’re not exactly my cup of tea but I will say some of their songs are nice to listen to whether it’s the calm music or Karen Carpenter’s comforting singing voice. Though I agree their “Please Mr. Postman” cover is bad and unfortunately was their last #1 in America in early 1975 probably thanks to the wave of cover songs and nostalgia flooding the charts that year that as Breihan greatly puts it sounds less advanced than the 1961 original. I also am interested at how people in Asia have become big fans of easy listening music between the Carpenters and Air Supply to where the later act has a jukebox musical playing over there. Over in the States, you never hear acts like the Carpenters get that kind of public treatment with people singing them at karaoke or playing in major locations.

    1. Yes, Air Supply are huge here… I think like the Carpenters it’s the easy to understand English, the easy-listening vibes, the lack of anger/bad language that you get in Western rock (and not so much in Asian rock)… But whereas Carpenters remain a loved and influential act in the UK, US etc… Can anyone there name an Air Supply song that isn’t I’m All Out of Love…?

      1. Probably not considering that’s the Air Supply song that gets all the attention today and admittedly that along with “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” are the only Air Supply songs that are decent enough to not be forgettable background noise like all their other big songs are.

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