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Songs of '74: The Raspberries, 'Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)'

A closer look at the song Bruce Springsteen called 'one of the great mini-rock-opera masterpieces of all time.'

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Source: Capitol

The cover art for the Raspberries' 1974 album, 'Starting Over'

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When Eric Carmen passed away last week at the age of 74, most obituaries lead with mentions of his adult contemporary solo hits: "All by Myself," "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again," and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack smash "Hungry Eyes." But prior to going solo, Carmen staked his real claim to immortality as the leader of the Cleveland-founded pop-rock band the Raspberries.

When the Raspberries released their self-titled debut album in April 1972, the future looked bright: while their debut single, “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye,” had only just cracked the Billboard Hot 100, topping out at No. 86, the follow-up, “Go All the Way,” was a smash hit, climbing all the way to No. 5. Meanwhile, the album hit No. 51, and when the band released their sophomore LP, Fresh, a mere seven months later, it charted even higher, making it to No. 36 and spawning the top-20 single, “I Wanna Be With You” (No. 16) and the additional top-40 hit “Let’s Pretend “ (No. 35).

Unfortunately, their third album, 1973’s Side 3, stalled at No. 128. None of the album’s three singles (“Tonight,” “I’m a Rocker,” and “Ecstasy”), cracked the top 40, and “Ecstasy” failed to chart completely. By the time the Raspberries went into the studio to record their fourth album, bassist Dave Smalley had been left go and drummer Jim Bonfanti had quit, leaving Carmen (vocals, piano, and rhythm guitar) and Wally Bryson (vocals, lead guitar) to bring in two new members: bassist Scott McCarl and drummer Michael McBride.

Appropriately, the name of the Raspberries’ fourth album would be Starting Over.

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Source: Capitol

The cover art for the Raspberries' self-titled 1972 album.

Adopting a slightly harder sound for the LP, one inspired at least somewhat by the Who, the album kicked off with the song that would also prove to be its first single, an epic track that took listeners on a ride through a band’s career and – more specifically – the struggle by a band’s songwriter to fight off all of the music industry obstacles and come up with the perfect single.

It was clear that the Raspberries were unabashedly lunging for the brass ring again, aiming squarely at the upper reaches of the top 40, so why not be patently transparent of their goal and just call the song “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)”?

Not that it worked, mind you.

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“We did the Starting Over album, and Rolling Stone picked it as one of their seven best of the year in their annual writers and critics poll, and they picked ‘Overnight Sensation’ as the best record of the year, and we subsequently sold the fewest number of copies of any of our records,” Carmen told Bullz-Eye in 2007. “We played every hole on the East Coast for six or seven solid months of demoralizing gigging, and that was pretty much the end of it.

"We realized at some point that there was no way to climb out. What we had tried to do had been successful on one level, and a complete bust on another level. The rock critics got it, and the 16-year-old girls got it, but FM radio was just not about to play a band that sounded like they were making singles, and so it was kind of like beating your head against the wall at a certain point. It was time to move on and try something else.”

For what it's worth, though, "Overnight Sensation" did, in fact, end up becoming a hit record: it made it to No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. And when no less a musical authority than Bruce Springsteen said, "'Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)' should go down as one of the great mini-rock-opera masterpieces of all time," he was right...and, thankfully, it has. The song continues to be cited by critics not only as one of the Raspberries' best songs but, indeed, one of the best songs of the '70s.

Needless to say, when the Raspberries reunited in 2004, you'd best believe that they played it, complete with a sample of the tinny "transistor radio" version of the chorus at the appropriate juncture.

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