“I always felt that she knew how to integrate the drums with the vocals. She knew just where to place her fills so they worked with the lead and harmony vocals. That was a big influence on me, as I tend to do the same. I’ve recently seen footage of her doing drum solos, and man, she nailed them! She really was quite an exquisite drummer.” Debbi Peterson – The Bangles
The voice of Karen Carpenter is sometimes thought of as the very definition of that kind of soft focus, easy listening, 1970’s schmaltz, and exactly the kind of thing that Punk was poised to provide a potent antidote to. Karen has been seen as the sonic crimplene in pop’s musical wardrobe, and with a voice like warm syrup, for some it’s hard to think of her as anything else.
The early 1970s had provided us with very few visible female musicians, let alone high profile, successful ones that we might see on TV. Yet there, amongst all the sweaty faced boys of rock, we had Karen. In the 1975 Playboy poll, Karen was voted Best Rock Drummer of the year, even pipping Zep’s John Bonham to the post, all at a time, when as a female drummer, Karen was pretty much in a field of one. You see before slipping into that nylon leisure dress and taking the spotlight at the front of the stage, Karen’s first love was drumming. Begging her parents for a Ludwig drum kit, she had initially formed a teenage all girl band with High School friends, going by the name Two Plus Two, who lasted right up until the day she suggested her brother Richard join the group as well.
As part of The Carpenters, Karen still considered herself to be “a drummer who sang” but even as the face and the main vocalist of the band, Karen still drummed in the studio, providing the beat on tracks including “Close To You”, “Please Mr Postman”, “Yesterday Once More” and “Sing”.
Forced by the era’s recording techniques which included difficulties with isolating the drums and the vocals, along with the physical demands of simultaneously drumming and singing, Karen resigned her drum stool, leaving most of the drumming to session players like Hal Blaine.
By the mid 1970s The Carpenters were huge international stars, and were so in demand that they were often on the sort of mainstream, early evening TV shows and specials that we would get to see, and sometimes, as a sort of TV party piece, Karen would get to play the drums.
Just as Suzi Quatro was our first reference point for girl bass players, Karen was probably the first female drummer that we saw, and what a truly great drummer she was, with a natural talent, rock steady tempo and a real mastery of technique.
The end of Karen’s life is of course sad, but watching her play the drums you can see the joy on her face. While she might seem like an odd choice to crop up in a punk girl post, Karen had that same love of music, that same feisty disregard to the “rules” of a girls role in the band, and by sticking to her drumming guns, we think she also helped to plant a seed in the next generation of little proto-punks. Karen we love you.