From Big Star to Badfinger, a Beatlesesque group that fails commercially has always been one of the rock scribe's wettest dreams. And after the Raspberries' demise in 1975, this is precisely the myth that rock critics started weaving around the group, which has developed a rabid cult following in the last 30 years.
"The Raspberries cut through the epic pretensions and pomposity of '70s-era rock to proudly reclaim the spirit and simplicity of classic pop," the All Music Guide proclaims. But they were, the guide claims, "a band that . . . never quite lived up to its commercial promise."
With the recent release of Live on the Sunset, Rykodisc's CD/DVD documenting the Raspberries' 2005 reunion in Los Angeles, the label inflates the band's myth to epic proportions. It claims the band influenced Kiss, Nirvana, Mötley Crüe, and the Sex Pistols, and the set includes endorsements from other rock deities: a mid-'70s photo of John Lennon sporting a Raspberries sweatshirt and liner notes from the Boss.
"In the late '70s, I'd drive on Sunday nights to Asbury Park to sit in with Southside Johnny with 'The Raspberries Greatest Hits' firmly stuck in the cassette player," Springsteen writes. "Dismissed at the time of their chart dominance for having 'hits' (Fools!), they are THE great underrated power-pop masters."
The band's members -- Mentor natives Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Dave Smalley, and Jim Bonfanti -- have allowed the critical gush to go straight to their heads. On the Raspberries' official website (www.raspberriesonline.com), they now count themselves "among the most influential bands in rock-n-roll history."
From being seen as underdogs to possessing delusions of grandeur, the band and its legacy have completely severed themselves from truth. We need a double shot of ethanol, washed down with a tallboy of sodium pentothal.
Contrary to claims by Springsteen -- as well as scribes like those of the All Music Guide, who once described the band as "virtually unknown" -- the quartet was not underrated; it was actually pretty damn successful. Between '72 and '74, the Raspberries scored four top-40 singles, including the mega-classic "Go All the Way," which hit no. 5. And Capitol Records has released no fewer than five greatest-hits packages since 1976.
Most reasonable-minded rockers would label that success, but it never satisfied Capitol, the Raspberries, or their supporters in the music press. Just like Badfinger in the U.K., the band was expected to be the second coming of the Beatles. That's absurd in hindsight, but the Fab Four's breakup traumatized the pop world for years. In the early '70s, just about every label, including Capitol, the Beatles' American imprint, scoured the planet for the next John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Needless to say, the search never panned out.
First off, dudes sporting helmet perms and matching disco suits (see the cover of the Raspberries' 1973 LP Fresh) could never replace such snazzy dressers as the Fab Four.
More important, the Raspberries come off like a Vegas tribute to the British Invasion. On breezy, soft-focus pop like "Let's Pretend" and "I Wanna Be With You," Eric Carmen croons with all the hairy-chested schmaltz of a lounge singer; the dude magnifies the most saccharine tendencies of Paul McCartney's "Hello Goodbye."
The Raspberries did cultivate some chops. The layered harmonies on their best tune, the epic "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," are worthy of the Beach Boys. The riffage underpinning "Ecstasy" and "Tonight" hammers away like vintage Mod rave-ups from the Who.
But they're no "power-pop masters." They wrote only two kinds of tunes: sappy ballads about getting it on and anthemic rockers about rocking hard, driving cars, and getting it on. The band never possessed the songwriting depth and clever edge of Badfinger and Cheap Trick. And they sure as hell couldn't touch Big Star, a band that was as good as the Beatles.
In the end, the Raspberries' modest talents achieved the fame they deserved. The band, as Springsteen unwittingly implies, wrote decent pop, perfect for cranking in the car. That's it.
Chopping down a cherished band from a town in need of heroes is coldhearted -- no doubt about it. But saddling the Raspberries with an overblown rock and roll mythology goes against what the band represented: pure fun.