The Raspberries rotted for our musical sins. They weren’t heavy or hairy
and didn’t perform 10-minute songs with flute solos, so, in the ’70s, FM rock
radio was out. And they were too offbeat to be puppeteered onto the AM Top 40
with any regularity. Instead, the Cleveland-based power-poppers suffered the biggest
indignity of all: They were considered uncool. Maybe it was singer-songwriter
Eric Carmen’s Jiffy Popped coif, or the band’s revolutionary matching white suits
on the cover of their splendid second album, 1972’s Fresh — a look whose
irony was obviously lost on all those damned dirty hippies. Possibly, it was because
they had the audacity to craft snug little pop operas in an era of virtuoso wankery.
But if it’s the early ’70s and you’re a 16-year-old from Nowhere, Illinois, none of that stuff matters. You have the keys to Dad’s Buick, and you’re zooming off to a date with the girl of your dreams. Sure, you’ve got butterflies flapping against your intestines, but a blast of the Raspberries on the 8-track — be it “Go All the Way,” “Ecstasy” or “I Wanna Be With You” — provides the necessary rocket fuel to imagine an evening of unlimited possibility.
The Raspberries — Carmen, guitarist Wally Bryson, bassist Dave Smalley and drummer Jim Bonfanti — were a landlocked Beach Boys, serving up three-minute serenades of empowerment to kids with their faces pressed against the glass of sexual discovery. You weren’t gonna get that from the Allman Brothers.
Formed in Cleveland’s suburbs in 1970, the Raspberries were unabashed in their devotion to the preservation of the almighty pop song, then teetering on the edge of extinction. This made them musical revolutionaries of sorts. “When FM radio really took hold and the whole approach to it was, ‘We’re not going to play anything that sounds like a single,’ we were mortified,” says Carmen, 56. “And we kind of felt like there’s gonna be a whole generation of people who are never going to know what the great songs that we grew up with sound like — the Byrds and the Who and the Beatles and the Stones. We thought, we’ll be the next wave of that. We’ll be the bearers of the torch. The barbarians at the gate of the prog-rock mess.”
Instead, they were mostly misunderstood. Over the course of four albums, Carmen and Co. unveiled a succession of pop masterpieces, from the soaring optimism of “Go All the Way,” a million-seller in 1972, to the white-flag resignation of “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” which snuck into the Top 20 in 1974, shortly before the group surrendered for good.
“Mostly out of frustration, we just imploded,” Carmen says. “The Rolling Stone critics’ poll picked ‘Overnight Sensation’ the best single of the year and picked the album Starting Over as one of their seven best albums of the year, and that album subsequently came out and sold the fewest number of copies of any of our records. All the while this is happening, we’re playing at converted toilets and glorified bowling alleys all over the East Coast for no money and beating our brains out every night and driving in a car 500 miles to the next one for six months at a time. At a certain point, we were so frustrated, we all sort of blew up at each other, and that was the end of it. I said, we’re beating a dead horse here. It’s time to move on. This isn’t going to work.”
The end was inevitable, and for all the usual reasons: clashing egos, bad management, demoralizing gigs. “When you walk on a stage and the sound system blows up on the third song, the audience doesn’t know you have technical difficulties and they don’t care, and they shouldn’t have to,” Carmen says. “So a lot of audiences probably walked away and thought, gee, the Raspberries really aren’t very good. And it may not have been that we weren’t very good, it was just that every possible thing that could be stacked against us was.”
But as rock history often shows, funny things can happen on the way to oblivion. As Carmen segued into a respectable solo career (his hits included “All by Myself” and “Hungry Eyes”) and the Raspberries drifted into memory (save “Go All the Way,” a staple of the Jack-FMs of the world), their stature grew. “As the years have gone by, we have a lot of friends in the media who will come back to us and tell us stories about Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses and Kurt Cobain being big fans,” Carmen says. “And we’re like, they were? Really, that’s so cool.”
A one-shot reunion to open Cleveland’s House of Blues last November has evolved into a relaxed 10-gig tour, with the possibility of more to come, including a fresh trip to the recording studio. They’ve been received as conquering heroes in every city: “The audiences seem starved for the whole concept of a band who play their own songs with melodies and some power chords,” says Carmen. “The great joy of doing it this time around is that it has rekindled the feelings that we had back in 1970, when we first formed the band. We get up on that stage and we play the music we love with people we wanted to play it with, and now it sounds great.”
And the white suits look great now too, yeah? Tragically, says Carmen, his voice tinged with mock regret: “If I could take one thing back, it would be the white suits.”
The Raspberries perform at House of Blues on Friday, October 21.