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.
In those glory days of the record business, nobody ever did customer research into who actually bought Tapestry – but from my observation they were overwhelmingly young women. That would be borne out over every meal of chile con carne and Piat d’Or I had in the flats of female con-temporaries, as “It’s Too Late” and “I Feel the Earth Move” issued from their Ferguson music centres. They might not all own Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman. They might not all have Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room. But they all had a copy of Tapestry. It was as though it had been issued to them as an element in some sort of starter pack for adult life.
Now we know that big hits are bought disproportionately by women, often ballads with resonant lyrics. King had been writing such songs for years. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, a hit song she had written for the Shirelles in 1960, was on Tapestry, as was “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman”, a composition of hers which Aretha Franklin had anthemised in 1967. Interestingly, both had words written by a man, King’s then husband, Gerry Goffin.
Prior to producing Tapestry, Adler had been plugging King’s songs to recording stars for years. He learned that record companies liked to hang on to her demonstration records, because they loved the confidential way she sang her own material. He later said, “Carole has the kind of voice that all women like to think they have.” There’s a truth there. She certainly has the voice that people hear in their heads when they sing to themselves; warm and candid, with just a hairline crack to indicate where heartbreak has occurred. A style further removed from the melismatic grandstanding that TV talent shows try to pass off as great singing would be hard to imagine.
There are many instruments on the record, but it sounds as if there’s never much more than a piano, bass and drums. It doesn’t sound produced. Maybe this is why, in 2021, Tapestry still warms a room much the same way it did 50 years earlier. The up-tempo first track “I Feel the Earth Move” opens negotiations, but the succeeding trilogy of “So Far Away”, “It’s Too Late” and “Home Again” makes the sale. The last of these is a perfect demonstration of the difference between songwriting and poetry: the line “snow is cold, rain is wet” is entirely forgivable when accompanied by King’s convincing vocals, and her heart-swelling chords on the piano.
Tapestry was recorded in January 1971 at A&M studios in Hollywood. At the time, King was one of the many New Yorkers who had got out of what seemed like a dying city to begin a new life amid the wind chimes of Hollywood’s canyons. At A&M there were three studios side by side. The Carpenters were in the big one recording “Superstar” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Joni Mitchell was in the small one making Blue. The small one had the best piano, so King and her band nipped in there early one morning to cut three songs.
They worked quickly in 1971. Artists tended to make two LPs a year and therefore they didn’t linger long enough to spoil them. During the sessions somebody asked Adler what he thought the record could be. “I think it will be the Love Story of the music business,” Adler pronounced, referring to the Ali MacGraw/Ryan O’Neal hit movie that had been winning back a lost audience from television.
He was right. By the summer of 1971 it had begun a 15-week stand at the number one spot in the US. Among the records it was holding off were the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Jesus Christ Superstar, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. This last contained a King song that was also on Tapestry. When she first played him “You’ve Got a Friend”, he thought it was “the best pop tune ever written” and was amazed when she let him record it first. “You’ve Got a Friend”, which is about finding the consolations of steadfastness and shelter following the upheavals of the 1960s, is still Tapestry’s signature song. Maybe that’s another reason why all those young women took it into their first homes.
People in today’s record business would never permit an album like Tapestry. They would say it sounded unfinished. This would be missing the point. One of the things that made records like Tapestry so powerful in their time to listeners is that they gave them the feeling they were being trusted to appreciate the gem without the polish, the ballad without the strings. And so, too, today, it engages us directly across the years, in a way few records can.
[see also: Bowie the bellwether]
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost