Although Carole King is not as “big” a name as she once was, her place in music history was assured decades ago. She started off as a songwriter, in partnership with husband Gerry Goffin. The Goffin-King duo was extremely successful, responsible for such classics as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” among many, many others. One amazing bit of trivia I came across about King is that according to Billboard magazine she is the most successful female songwriter ever. As either writer or co-writer, she is responsible for 118 songs reaching the Top 100 over the years between 1955-1999.
Those are numbers that cannot be denied. Yet for many, King remains inexorably tied in with the early ’70s singer-songwriter genre. After divorcing Goffin, she went solo. In 1971 she released Tapestry, a veritable greatest hits record in itself. Tapestry was a brilliant album, featuring songs such as “I Feel The Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” and “It’s Too Late.” Believe it or not, those are just the first three tracks. Tapestry has sold over 25 million copies, which again are numbers that cannot be denied. There was much more to come, too, but King hit her commercial peak with Tapestry.
In conjunction with Concord Music, King’s own Rockingale Records label has just released four of her later albums. These are Simple Things (1977), Welcome Home (1978), Touch The Sky (1979) and Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King (1980). Outside of Pearls, none have been previously released on CD in the United States.
Looking back at the musical landscape of 1977, the singer-songwriter era had been replaced by disco, punk, and the “corporate rock” of groups such as Foreigner and Boston. While I do not consider six years between albums to be a very long time, back then (especially) it was an eternity. Sometimes a great record is recognized by the public and becomes a Tapestry (or Thriller for that matter); more often, though, only the true fans really listen and care after the initial thrill has waned.
Take the first entry, Simple Things. King had just transitioned from the Epic label to Capitol. This was an interesting period in her life, as she brought in her songwriting husband Rick Evers to the project. Simple Things was an apt title, too, because the album reflects her move out of the New York-Los Angeles axis and into the wilds of Idaho. There are a huge number of guest stars on the record, which reached number 17 on the charts. It also was King’s last album of original material to reach RIAA certified Gold status.
Simple Things was very definitely the beginning of a “new” era for Carole King, one in which she hoped to focus on with her husband. Sadly, the song “Hold On” seems prophetically written for him with the line, “Hold on, and all the dark forces will be gone.” It didn’t work out that way, though, for within a year after their marriage Evers died of a heroin overdose.
The two had recorded the follow-up to Simple Things, titled Welcome Home, in January 1978. Evers passed on March 18, 1978 according to the dedication King wrote for him when the album was released. Although Welcome Home does not contain a great deal of material by him, there is still a great deal of joy in its songs, which again focus on the gentle “simple things” in life.
One of the more amusing tracks on Welcome Home is “Disco Tech.” I am not really sure if King expected this to actually catch on with the disco crowd or if the whole thing was meant as satire. It certainly stands out like the proverbial sore thumb among the ten songs which make up the album. Much more to my taste are “Venusian Diamond,” “Welcome Home,” and “Sunbird.” As King writes in her liner notes, “Venusian Diamond” is a somewhat explicit Beatles tribute, while Evers wrote the lyrics to “Sunbird,” which are quite moving.
The release of Welcome Home must have been an emotionally bittersweet moment for King. But as anyone who is familiar with the story of her life knows, she is nothing if not a survivor. Still, it was inevitable that Touch The Sky would reflect the sad events of the previous year. That is not to say it is a “morose” album, which is actually a little surprising. Listen to the lyrics and consider the title, though, and it is pretty obvious that there were things on her mind that could only be expressed through song.
Even though King had moved out of “city life” a couple of years earlier, of the three late ’70s albums Touch The Sky has the most pronounced country feel. Not that it is country music by any stretch, but there are definitely country elements to it. There is also some fine jazz on display. Somehow in the song “Move Lightly” she manages to blend these two styles in a very unexpected, and satisfying manner.
Touch The Sky was virtually ignored upon release, it took a critical beating, and peaked at number 104 on the Billboard chart. To be honest, I think it was just dismissed out of hand with nobody even bothering to listen to it. There are some great songs here. Both “Dreamlike I Wander” and “You Still Want Her” remind me of what Van Morrison was doing around the same time with his Common One album. “Passing of the Days” is the most “country” song on the album, and it is a nice sound. What is striking about this record is how varied its music is and how well it all fits together. Touch The Sky is a vastly underrated entry in the Carole King discography.
The fourth and final entry is Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King, in which King revisits 10 songs written with Gerry Goffin. Well, Pearls is an appropriate title as those songs speak for themselves. Yet it is kind of strange to hear these early ’60s tracks done in a “contemporary” (for 1980) style. There really isn’t much that can be done to change “The Loco-Motion” except for adding a cool sax break. I always thought the Todd Rundgren-produced Grand Funk version of that song was the killer reinterpretation.
“Dancin’ With Tears In My Eyes” definitely has that 1980 sound to it, though, for good or ill. “Hey Girl,” and “Oh No, Not My Baby” actually sound like they could have fit right in on Tapestry with the new arrangements. And I guess I had forgotten that “Chains” was a Goffin-King song, because The Beatles did such an excellent job with it on their British debut Please Please Me way back in 1962. From the first time I heard it, I have always associated it with them.
In the 32 years since Pearls, Carole King has stayed busy. She has continued to record, and has gotten very involved in environmental and political issues. I am really happy that she has decided to reissue these albums, because with 20/20 hindsight, it is obvious that they were unfairly ignored. If you ever considered yourself a Carole King fan but passed on these later recordings, do yourself a favor and check them out. I know I was pleasantly surprised at just how good they actually are.