The Raspberries, one of the earliest power pop bands, often strike me, in their ballads, as too stiffly reverent of their forebears to be worthy of them. A song like “Let’s Pretend,” as studiedly lovely as it is, lacks the spark of invention, compelled by artistic restlessness as much as expressive need, that gives life to the Beach Boys songs it emulates. Brian Wilson wanted to write perfect 3-minute pop songs, but he also felt called to write teenage symphonies to God; Eric Carmen just wanted the perfect 3-minute pop songs. As admirable as this goal is, Carmen’s craftiness can result in songs that are a little too calculated for my liking. But then it wouldn’t be power pop if it weren’t self-conscious, second-generation stuff.
The Raspberries did stake out slightly new territory in their upbeat numbers, which often split the difference between the Beatles of “Please Please Me” and the bluesy riff rock that would come to dominate the 70s. This is certainly true of ”Go All The Way,” a song whose charm, for me, comes from the way it’s perched awkwardly between 70s raunch rock and starry-eyed 60s cooing. Coming from a meticulous formalist like Carmen, the slight stylistic disjointedness probably isn’t intentional, but it fits: the deep-fried riffs and lusty yelps of the “mama, yeah!” fanfare give the lie to the sparkly crooning of the verses, which attempt to conceal the let’s-fuck-now push of the song with dewy promises that it’ll “feel so right” like an old teen idol ballad. This kind of sexual two-facedness was hardly new when The Raspberries did it, true, but it’s still bracing from a band whose image is otherwise so squeaky clean. For a song or two at a time, The Raspberries succeed in making it the early 60s all over again, imbuing lyrics and gestures that no longer shocked in their time with a tinge of the old risqué tone.
What I think Raspberries songs like “Let’s Pretend” have up on the templates that Carmen and company were working from is the slippery element—the modifier in front of the word “pop.” Which is not to say that the Raspberries or Blue Ash are better bands overall than the Beach Boys or the Beatles, but that “power-pop” isn’t simply a term of periodization, as it’s often used; these aren’t just second-generation pop bands who worked strictly within existing guidelines. You couldn’t reasonably mistake the Raspberries for their influences (even if other early 70s bands that came to be designated as power-pop, like Badfinger and Big Star, could probably pass at times).
If the Raspberries colored within the lines drawn by their forebears, in their best moments, they used brighter, bolder crayons, which I think makes all the difference. For my money, their worst moments weren’t when they adhered to formula, but when they self-consciously deviated from it, like in the hoedown sections of “Last Dance” (maybe a failed nod to the Byrds’ country period?).
They continued to undermine the squeaky-clean image after “Go All the Way.” Some of their later stuff’s far more sexually direct, like “Tonight.” Exactly how old is this girl who looks “too young to know about romance,” but to whom Carmen nevertheless directly poses that most subtle of come-ons, “won’t you let me sleep with you”? He can almost get away with it, too, since he sounds so young and naive; Vince Neil, whose voice radiates raunch, didn’t even attempt innocence when he tried it.
The final Raspberries album, incidentally, is substantially angrier and more cynical than the rest of their work. It’s not exactly Big Star Third, but it’s pretty jarring to hear Eric Carmen sing “I used to be so fucking optimistic / ‘Til she said goodbye.” It’s a pretty logical step from there to the snide, funny social commentary of early Cheap Trick.