Although it’s not hard to see their appeal over the years, I confess The Carpenters have never been on the turntable at ST33 towers. Yet the bulky sleeve to their fifth album Now & Then always held my attention when I came across it, with the sort of image you would see in a photo documentary feature on American suburbs; glossy car and anonymous modern house typical of many a sprawling West Coast suburb. As this absolutely mint copy just appeared in a local charity shop I thought I’d satisfy my curiosity.
The first surprise was that it was actually a double gatefold sleeve (or tri-fold as the dealers usually label it, even though there are only two folds), despite being just a single album. The second was that the cover image is more painting than photograph when you look at it closely. The passengers inside the car remain as photographed, yet the rest of the vehicle is clearly airbrushed, as is much of the background. The illustration sprawls across all three faces of the outer cover – as you can see from this image I’ve stitched together.
As with so much of The Carpenters story the details of the sleeve proved to be fascinating. The album came out in 1973, at a time when the duo found themselves under enormous pressure and with little time to write. Realising they’d only mustered enough material for one side, Richard Carpenter decided to fall back on a popular part of their stage act, an oldies medley they’d begun performing the year before. This was now recorded in the studio and became side two of the LP. Helped by a couple of strong selling singles, the album reached number 2 in the US (where it went double platinum) and UK.
In contrast with most big selling acts at the time, where sleeves were given as much thought as the music, The Carpenters seem to have suffered, perhaps from a certain amount of snobbery at the label. Their previous four sleeves had been fairly lacklustre; a couple of publicity photos with cheap typography, then the band’s curved logo used alone. Beyond deciding to feature the duo’s family house, A&M didn’t seem to have much of an idea for the new cover either as Richard recalled in a later interview:
“We were their biggest act, and they hadn’t given it any thought. They said to us, stand out at your front door and we’ll shoot your picture. I said ‘what you mean, like our mother would do? Like a snapshot to go in the family album?”
Richard was not happy with what he felt was a low-budget approach. In the end they agreed to be photographed inside one of the classic cars which he collected, and just drove slowly up and down to allow the photographer to snap away.
“If you look at that, you can tell I am pissed off. I am not smiling on that album cover. All they did was get us driving down the street, and they just shot us with me driving the car. That was it.”
The pictures were taken by Jim McCrary who had joined A&M Records in 1967 as their chief photographer. He was a very good portrait photographer and clearly the problems with the cover photo were not due to a lack of technical skill (he shot over 300 album covers for the label); indeed he’d been over the the house to check the location out the day before to make sure he had the right equipment for the shoot. Looking at this test shot it seems he used a fairly wide angle lens as the street was a cul de sac.
It does rather sound like he was caught up in an argument between art director and band. Given the difficulties of getting a clear shot, they would probably have been better off doing a shot stood outside the house after all (although the concept of a big selling band actually featuring their own house on a sleeve should surely have prompted security issues from someone).
After all the arguing, A&M were not happy with the photographs and decided to turn them into a painting. This is credited to ‘Design Maru’ on the cover, but I think it was done by noted Japanese airbrush artist Shusei Nagaoka. He did a number of record sleeves at this time, the best known of which are his elaborate airbrushed sleeve illustrations for Earth, Wind & Fire and the cover for Out of the Blue by Electric Light Orchestra.
What really pissed Richard Carpenter off was the fact that the car window edge largely hid Karen’s face. “It cost a lot of money to make (the sleeve). Of course by this time, we’re not in the studio, we’re out on the road, so we didn’t get a chance to see what they were doing with it. And they sent it. And it was wrong. If you look at the cover, there’s this thing with the Ferrari Daytona (a 1973 Ferrari 365 GTB/4), where it has a vent window. And it so happens that the way they took it, it cuts Karen’s face in half.”
Not knowing this, I’d assumed the fact that the two musicians were so hard to see was a deliberate decision, a comment on their wish for anonymity perhaps, rather than the outcome of an acrimonious photo shoot!
Further problems arose over the inner sleeve. A&M commissioned illustrator Len Freas to do portraits of the two, but these turned out as rather cheesy oil paintings, particularly the one of Karen (“It’s dreadful” is all Richard had to say).
The album packaging was finished with a special inner bag (as if there weren’t enough room on the cover) which had lyrics and monochrome shots of classic American cars. All in all the art budget must have been huge. And needless to say The Carpenters would have paid for it all whether they liked it or not. Nevertheless almost by accident rather than design, the final cover did end up being quite mysterious and eye-catching.
The house is at 9828 Newville Ave, Downey, California and was built for the family. Richard later moved out but Karen was still living here when she died in 1983. It was sold by the family in 1997 but retained much of the original furnishings (and even the hifi). It became a site of pilgrimage for fans (the new owner reported a party of 300 people from England turning up on one occasion – and one fan site has photos of people posing beside Karen’s bed). By 2007 the property was very run down and there were plans to demolish which sparked a local campaign and so far it seems to have survived.