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1971 revisited: Carole King and the beautiful legacy of Tapestry

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Rob Steen

Hyde Park, July 3, 2016. For the first time, Carole King, one of the most successful songwriters of the 20th century, is about to play her best-known album live from start to finish. Meanwhile, in deepest Sussex, a man is trying to escape the psychiatric ward of a hospital where he is being confined for the crime of being excessively and intolerably happy.

A cab awaits outside as he barges through the door to the main entrance, but the mission ends in the firm grip of three failed bouncers. Those two tickets to the Hyde Park show, £350 apiece, would have to go to waste.

The loss hurt heart considerably more than pocket. One album changed my teenage worldview, irrevocably and, so I like to think, for the better – that album was Tapestry.

April 10, 1971, and the most fabulicious year in the brief but astonishingly fertile annals of The Album is finally showing signs of hitting its stride. Entering the Billboard Top 200 at No79 is King’s Tapestry, released on February 10 and the first of 1971’s canonical 33-and-a-thirders.

Over the next few months it will be joined by what many still consider career peaks from Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Allman Brothers, Yes, Jethro Tull, Curtis Mayfield, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Leonard Cohen, not to mention groundbreaking stylistic shifts from Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, The Temptations and Isaac Hayes. Messrs Lennon and McCartney, moreover, would regale us with their most adventurous and indelible solo work.

Indeed, for innovation, quality and range, the Billboard Top 15 for the week ending September 4 might well qualify as the most resounding of salutes to public taste, encompassing as it did Tapestry, What’s Going On, Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, LA Woman, At Fillmore East, Ram, Aretha Live at Fillmore West, Every Picture Tells A Story, Aqualung and the soundtrack to Shaft.

The estimable David Hepworth devoted an entire book to the fruits of 1971, Never A Dull Moment; that that also happened to be the year when, financed by my newspaper round, I bought my first albums (Teaser and the Firecat followed by Imagine, Fog On The Tyne and Elton John), was the most wondrous of coincidences. The biggest imprint, though, was left by Tapestry, which I’d shrewdly persuaded my mother, then awaiting a belated divorce from my Beethoven-mad father, to buy in a radical new format called the cassette. Much as she loved Lennon’s Oh Yoko and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s No Matter How I Try, the reverberations of It’s Too Late, So Far Away, Beautiful and You’ve Got A Friend struck a deeper chord.

First, the baubles. The Artist Originally Known As Carole Klein was enthroned at No1 that first weekend of September, just as she had been since mid-June, resisting newies by Janis, Jimi and CSN&Y, not to mention Broadway and Hollywood titans Jesus Christ Superstar and Love Story (more than half a dozen platters drawing on the latter had charted). Tapestry would not be toppled by Rod the Ex-Mod’s Every Picture Tells a Story until October 2, after 15 consecutive weeks at the summit – still a record for a woman solo songwriter.

Grammys would flow: for Album of the Year, Song (You’ve Got A Friend), Record (It’s Too Late) and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Only Dark Side Of The Moon would exceed the album’s 313 weeks on the Billboard 200; among albums by women, only Blue (No3) would rank higher than Tapestry (No25) in the 2020 roll call for Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time.

Half a century on, its runaway success still feels both improbable and inevitable. Improbable because of the sheer scale of that success, but also because the author was a young, divorced mother; inevitable because abortion, that most essential of women’s rights and primary focus of the nascent feminist movement, was now just two years away from legality in the US.

Emulating fellow 60s songstresses Felice Bryant, Ellie Greenwich, Valerie Simpson and Cynthia Weil, all of whom had shared creative duties with a chap, King had enjoyed early success in harness with lyricist Gerry Goffin, penning hits for The Byrds, The Shirelles, The Drifters and The Monkees among others. As a feminist symbol, however, she had been pre-empted by a fellow New Yorker, Laura Nyro.

A teenage hit machine half a decade earlier, Nyro had been the first solo female singer-songwriter to reach wide acclaim, albeit via interpretations by Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, The Fifth Dimension and Blood, Sweat And Tears. In Emmie, she had also written what is widely agreed to be the first lesbian love song. More importantly, her early albums, most notably Eli And The 13th Confession, New York Tendaberry and Christmas And The Beads of Sweat, had revealed a woman of rare musical talent, strong political views, spiritual leanings and emotional fearlessness. Joni has acknowledged her indebtedness.

Tapestry, which hit the racks less than two months after Christmas, was a similar fusion of honesty, courage, love and global concern. The difference lay in the musical approach: Nyro was an explorer, King a traditionalist. By the turn of 1971 Nyro was keener on jazz than pop; for King, a graduate of the Brill Building hit factory, the hook was always uppermost, the tunes more adhesive than glue. An accomplished pianist, she also knew the best instrument to deliver them.

The beauty of Tapestry thus lies in its simplicity and directness, handy assets in an increasingly diverse and competitive marketplace. There are three Goffin co-writes – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Smackwater Jack and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? – while Toni Stern verbalises It’s Too Late and Where You Lead to imperishable effect, but the words that rang loudest for the 13-year-old me, and still resonate loudest, are King’s in Beautiful:

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face

And show the world all the love in your heart

Then people gonna treat you better

You’re gonna find, yes you will

That you’re beautiful as you feel

From the pounding opening piano chords of I Feel the Earth Move to the soul-baring closing rapture of A Natural Woman, Tapestry remains an assertion and celebration of womanhood and selfhood, but also a soul-felt plea to the human race: be kinder, fairer, more honest, less selfish. ‘Carole spoke from her heart, and she happened to be in tune with the mass psyche,’ reckoned Weil. ‘People were looking for a message, and she came to them with a message that was exactly what they were looking for.’ Tapestry, in short, was the hippie dream purified: peace and love without the drugs.

That Joni was simultaneously recording Blue down the hall at A&M Recording Studios – and added backing vocals with James Taylor on You’ve Got A Friend – did not make the standard-bearers close, anything but. In fact, although a virtually incontrovertible case can be made for Blue’s A Case of You as the first popular song where a woman asserts her superiority to a man, Joni always distanced herself from the sisterhood, Tapestry can be seen as the more urgent call to arms, contextually if not lyrically. Having given her daughter up for adoption, Joni had been crowned Queen of Laurel Canyon, the thinking musician’s prototype ladette; Carole composed the bulk of Tapestry while she was a single mother of two pre-teen daughters.

Not that King sees her masterwork through a feminist prism. ‘I wasn’t consciously trying to write about feminism as a political issue,’ she wrote in her 2012 autobiography. ‘I was simply writing about my life.’ All the same, she would strike other blows for feminists: she broke up with co-writer and co-parent Goffin after he became addicted to philandering and hallucinogenics, then stood up to a subsequent abusive husband who died of cocaine poisoning the day after they parted.

Despite the pain inflicted by Goffin, Where You Lead and Natural Woman are both paens to menfolk, as, to a rather lesser degree, is Smackwater Jack, revolving as it does around a couple of mockable bruisers, Jack and Big Jim the Chief. Only on the title track is there so much as a hint of a woman scorned, and even then the abiding sense is of forgiveness:

He moved with some uncertainty

As if he didn’t know

Just what he was there for

Or where he ought to go

Once he reached for something

Golden hanging from a tree

And his hand came down empty

Soon within my tapestry

Along the rutted road

He sat down on a river rock

And turned into a toad

It seemed that he had fallen

Into someone’s wicked spell

And I wept to see him suffer

Though I didn’t know him well

As I watched in sorrow

There suddenly appeared

A figure grey and ghostly

Beneath a flowing beard

In times of deepest darkness

I’ve seen him dressed in black

Now my tapestry’s unravelling

He’s come to take me back

He’s come to take me back

The final verse, perhaps the most naked and vulnerable she ever wrote, suggests King either feared Goffin’s return or saw, in his conjugal successor Charlie Larkey, another brittle, unreliable, untrustworthy man. Larkey played bass on Tapestry and gave her two children, but they split after five years of wedded unbliss.

Yet if Tapestry teaches us anything about King it’s that bitterness isn’t her style. Compassion and empathy most certainly are, as underlined by the centrepiece of the album, You’ve Got A Friend. Written in response to Taylor’s bleak confession on Fire And Rain (‘I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend’), and in her own words ‘as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever achieved’, it contains the purest, most selfless sentiment in music history not to include the sentence ‘I would die 4 U’.

Winter, spring, summer or fall

All you have to do is call

And I’ll be there, yes I will

Fifty years old Tapestry may be, but it still sounds timeless, not to say peerless.


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