The Carpenters – Rainy Days and Mondays. It’s Monday and it’s been raining, so this song comes up on my radar.
Apart from Beethoven, there wasn’t much in the way of recorded music in our house, growing up in the seventies in rural Worcestershire. A few cassettes – Beach Boys, Bread, Bay City Rollers, The Wombles and The Carpenters – got played and replayed – well, not the Bread album, but the others, in particular the Beach Boys and The Carpenters. Cheerful pop songs with weird lines about ‘Sloop John B’ and optimistic ones about singing and being on top of the world – easy to sing along to – without needing to understand the words, when you’re under 10.
Then later, The Carpenters were very uncool, as I got into heavy rock and adolescence. the epitome of easy listening – manufactured music with no grit, I thought – what they play on Radio 2.
And then, as is always the case, the wheel turns, and with Sonic Youth dedicating a song to Karen Carpenter and her drumming skills brought to the fore, re-evaluation was in order. But I think I had heard the songs too often as a child to be able to hear them with fresh ears. It was enough that prejudice against them was dissolved – I didn’t need to listen to them again.
However, listening to the song tonight, apart from a slight aversion to the harmonica, which puts me in mind of the worst sentimentalisms of Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick (That’s What Friends are For), the parping saxophone and the wall of strings, and possibly the backing vocals, I quite like it. I know that doesn’t leave much in the way of the music, but the subdued drums, the piano and organ fills and the bass gently upholding Karen’s voice are pretty fine. And even the bits that initially turn me off, are intrinsic to the song -they just need a bit of adjusting to.
And then there are Karen’s vocals themselves. Is there a tradition of happy songs with themes of mental desperation? The Beatles ‘Help’, Leonard Cohen ‘Diamonds in The Mine’. Is this perversity, black humour, a cry for help, manic rejection of the emotional state, an attempt to smile through the tears, a coping mechanism? Possibly all of these, but in this case, it doesn’t sound like that.
Here, the quality of the singing possibly masks the true feelings underneath. It’s not easy to say if there’s a tone of wistfulness, of resignation, of studied neutral self-observation. They are all there, but most of all, there seems to be an acceptance, a living with depression, a recognition and as importantly, a description painted for others, of its cycles of highs and lows. I’m like this, I cannot do anything about its passage through my life, but I can express what it’s like – elegantly, sincerely and without self-pity.
When I think back to those early years of mine, listening to songs like Ticket to Ride and this one, I don’t think I had any idea of the pain and sadness behind such apparently upbeat songs. And now, decades later, I’m listening to the same songs, but with different ears, picking up on the backing rhythms,the pauses, the dynamics in the song – which were always there but not heard.
“Talking to myself and feeling old”. Yep. I know that feeling.