Music Rules: Carole King’s “Tapestry” turns 50


Carole King‘s legendary album “Tapestry” was released on February 10, 1971.  Her second solo album is one of the biggest selling albums of all time, over twenty-five million copies, five million in the first two years alone.  And keep in mind it was released at a time when a platinum album was considered a big seller.  Imagine how many it would have sold were records sold in that day as well as they sold in the 1980s and 1990s.

King was born on February 9, 1942.  She began working as a songwriter in 1958, age sixteen, at the Brill Building in New York.  Brill is home to many major record company offices and studios in the industry.  She and her first husband Gerry Goffin were a hit machine, producing dozens of hit songs for Motown groups plus many others.

All the songs on the album were written by King or with Goffin, Toni Stern.  It is a mix of new material and songs that were hits for other artists.  Despite being soft rock, its emotional level is as hard hitting as any album you can name, and has affected millions of people, as if she were speaking to them personally.  It produced four hit singles, including the biggest two songs of 1971 (“I Feel The Earth Move” and “It’s Too Late”).  Ten of the twelve songs could have been hit singles in their own right.

Below the fold is a personal song by song breakdown of the album.  Oh – and her cat’s name was Telemachus.

Side 1

“I Feel the Earth Move”

From the opening piano riff to King’s vocal fade at the end, this is a powerful song.  It’s raw emotion and physical desire.  Despite how lean it sounds, the understated guitar solo in the middle, this is as hard rocking and sexual as any song of the day.  Then, or now.

“So Far Away”

In a sharp contrast, “So Far Away” tells how distance strains and tests friendships.  Sometimes we have to do things that take us away from people we love.  But the song also reminds us that separation doesn’t have to be permanent or last forever.

Write that letter.  Tell people you love them before it’s too late.

“It’s Too Late”

This is a song about the end of a relationship.  Sometimes things do end.  Sometimes one or both are to blame, and sometimes we grow apart.  All we can hope for is to leave on good terms.

“Home Again”

I know and live this song.  Sure, being apart doesn’t have to be permanent, but you never know if it was until you’re back together with those you love.

It doesn’t even have mean being together.  I’ve spent the last four years trying to reconnect with people from my past.  Many were ecstatic to hear from me and the distance apart doesn’t matter.  Then there people who rejected me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“Beautiful”

Beauty isn’t a physical thing.  It’s how you feel about yourself, how you live.

I have seen so many Trans people online who look so much better in their after pictures.  It gets me to hear them worry about “passing” when being happy is what matters, what makes you beautiful.

“Way Over Yonder”

When I was younger, yonder was a place where my life got better.  Little did I expect it to be here.  Now yonder for me is across the Pacific Ocean where my old friends are.  I hope someday I’ll see them again.

Side 2

“You’ve Got a Friend”

“When you’re down and troubled, and you need some loving care,

and nothing is going right.

Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there

to brighten up even your darkest night.”

I never used to have friends like this.  Now I try to be one.

“Where You Lead”

Arguably the weakest song on the album, it still produced a hit for Barbra Streisand who covered it.

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”

The song was a number one hit for the Shirelles in 1960, when King was only 18.  It’s was the first number one hit for Black women artists, whether a group or a solo artist.  But it’s the song’s lyrics and meaning that are devastating.  It was 1960, a decade before “free love” and the sexual revolution.  King wrote about a young, unmarried couple having sex, at a time when even talking about it was scandalous and would result in a shotgun wedding.  To write a song that gained mainstream acceptance was astounding.

“Smackwater Jack”

Frustration and shotgun murder, and vigilante “justice” in response without any attempt to address the cause.  Sounds very american, and all the more timely in 2020 and 2021.

“And on the whole it was a very good year for the undertaker.”

“Tapestry”

A story in a song.  Characters we meet and know for only three minutes, yet you love and care for them.  The ability to do this within 200 words is staggering.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

I love Aretha Franklin’s powerful 1967 version, a recording that has endured despite how forgotten most of Motown’s music has become.  But I also love King’s gentler take, like she’s telling a man how she feels as they lie together.  The narrator is a woman talking about emotions, love and desire in song at a time when “married” TV and movie couples slept in separate beds.  Sexual overtones were rarely seen in popular culture, never mind sex or nudity.

 


 

Tapestry is an album I have never tired of, nor have those who know about it and lived these past decades.  It was still popular when I first became interested in music in the mid/late 1970s, and remains popular today, a landmark and landslide album.

From New Statesman, January 2021:

Why Carole King’s Tapestry still speaks to us

In 2021, this extraordinary album still warms a room much the same way it did 50 years earlier.

In the Seventies I worked in a large London record shop. There I learned the crucial difference between records that were merely hits, which were ten a penny, and records that were steady sellers, which were much rarer. The former would shoot to the top of the LP charts upon release, stay there for a couple of weeks and then fall away, once all the fans had bought their copies. The steady sellers, on the other hand, might never scale the same heights but they would keep ticking over year in year out, regardless of the convulsions of the pop charts or the vagaries of fashion. The prime example was Carole King’s Tapestry. Years after its release in 1971 we still regularly re-ordered copies, 25 at a time.

Most pop records over-promise and under-deliver. Tapestry did the opposite. From the cover, which pictured King at home with her needlework and her cat Telemachus, to the running order – through which the producer Lou Adler set out to emulate the smooth journey of June Christy’s 1954 record Something Cool – it had a modesty that even the most preposterous success could never tarnish. By the middle of the decade even the millions of people who owned a copy of Tapestry still felt as though they were sharing in a secret and not merely tagging along with a crowd.

I disagree with Howard Moore of Chicago Now.  Minimal arrangements are often better and allow the song to shine through.  If it can’t stand up with one voice and instrument, no amount of production will make up for it.  But I agree with his love for the album.

How does Carole King’s “Tapestry” sound fifty years later?

The year was 1971. The singer-songwriter era of classic rock music was beginning. Musicians were no longer dependent on getting their material from the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. They were writing and performing their own material. One of the artists poised to make the most of that transition was Carole King.

She had been writing music for more than a decade. Her songs, mostly co-written by Gerry Goffin, had been recorded and been hits for the Chiffons, Bobby Vee, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and the Beatles. But by the start of the 1970s, King had moved to southern California and it was time for her to start recording and performing her own music.

[. . .]

While the sales, awards and reviews mean “Tapestry” will be an album that will be remembered and talked about for generations, the question asked is how does it sound fifty years later. Is the album as good and relevant in 2021 as it was in 1971? Is “Tapestry” an album that is still in your record listening rotation?

The songs themselves are still great. “It’s Too Late”, “You’ve Got A Friend”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “A Natural Woman” remain classics. The problem I have with it is the arrangements. “Tapestry” is mostly a bare-bones piano and voice album. There was nothing wrong with that in 1971. It’s a major reason why the album sold so well and was so critically received. But now, I want more sound. I need more sound. I’m not asking for a Phil Spector Wall of Sound, but give me something other than a piano.

Cleveland.com makes a bold statement about 1971 in music, but it’s hard to disagree with.  The link lists “fifty best albums of 1971”, but what’s noticeable is the number of great albums missing from the list (Chicago III, MC5’s “High Time”, Uriah Heep’s “Salisbury”, Jerry Reed’s “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”, Laura Nyro’s “Gonna Take a Miracle”, Lighthouse’s “One Fine Morning”, ammong others).

Carole King comes in at number eight on their list.  The emphasis is mine:

50 greatest Rock & Roll Hall of Fame albums of 1971

You could make the case 1971 marked the true end of the 1960s from a music standpoint.

It marked the start of a new era. The Beatles split in 1970 with “Let It Be” serving as The Fab Five’s final curtain call. That paved the way for other artists in various genres to work their way to the top of the popular music landscape.

The 1960s may be known as music’s greatest decade. But album for album, 1971 may be the greatest single year in music history.

Those historic 12 months offered up landmark albums and, arguably, the greatest releases from Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Sly and the Family Stone and The Allman Brothers Band. Fittingly, it also gave us, perhaps, the finest solo albums both Paul McCartney and John Lennon released during their post-Beatles careers.

Fifty years later, we count down the greatest albums of 1971 by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. Limiting the list to inductees ruled out amazing work from Jethro Tull, Gil-Scott-Heron, Can, Harry Nilsson and a few others. But we were still left with several of the greatest albums of all time.

Comments

  1. DonDueed says

    I was a high school senior when it came out. Instant classic.

    My most vivid memory of “Tapestry” occurred when I was at a small house party. Some of us were listening to the album; another group were watching TV in another room. There was a commotion in the other room, then someone came in and announced, “Nixon’s going to China!”

    It was so out of character for the old Commie-baiter. My reaction was along the lines of, “Good riddance!”

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