Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, performed by the Carpenters

I have a weakness for well crafted pop songs, the kind that have a great arrangement and orchestration, interesting structures, vocal harmonies and instrumentation. When popular artists have interest in more progressive music, the combination can yield great results. In 1977, as Progressive Rock was losing popularity fast and most of the classic bands of the genre had their best albums behind them, progressive music still managed to find an ear with wide audiences by sprinkling its pixie dust into songs by artists that had both pop and prog sensibilities. In April 1977 Supertramp released Even in the Quietest Moments with the 11-minute multi-part Fool’s Overture. In June The Alan Parsons Project released I Robot and a month later Styx put out The Grand Illusion. The opening for Fooling Yourself could have come from an early 70s Yes. October of that year saw the blockbuster release of Out of the Blue by The Electric Light Orchestra. Mr Blue Sky was a huge hit from it, but the album also included Standin’ in the Rain, a mini pop symphony.

For me the surprise pop-prog release of that year was by a band that many would consider as far from prog as it gets – one of the most popular bands of the 70s, the bro-sys combo known as The Carpenters. After releasing a series of mega hits in the early seventies, starting in 1970 with Burt Bacharach’s (They Long to Be) Close to You, through Goodbye To Love, Top of the World and their last great song of the period, Neil Sedaka’s Solitaire in 1975, the duo was in decline. Other fashionable music styles like Punk and Disco took over and the two siblings’ health issues did not help. By 1977 they were still popular, but their songs did not chart as well as they used to.
The Carpenters
The Carpenters had a knack for recognizing good songs that they could cover and make their own. Their first single in 1969 was a lukewarm cover of the Beatles Ticket To Ride, but they got better a year later after they heard a TV commercial for a California bank portraying a newly-wed couple embarking on life together. The song in the background of the commercial caught Richard Carpenter’s ear and the number one hit song We’ve Only Just Begun was born. Countless of couples used it as their wedding song since then. A few years later they took a song from the Sesame Street show and made another huge hit. That was Sing, covered earlier by Barbara Streisand but everyone knows it as a Carpenters song. In 1973 they covered Leon Russell’s This Masquerade, and their crown achievement in the early 70s was another Leon Russell song, one he wrote with Bonnie Bramlett in 1969 and was performed by Rita Coolidge during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. The song is Superstar, the tale of a groupie abandoned by a rock star. Bette Midler gave the song a great emotional interpretation in her The Divine Miss M album in 1972, but for me the best cover of the song is by the Carpenters. Lot of praise has been given to Karen Carpenter’s voice, and if one song explains why, this is the one.

In late 1976 Richard Carpenter heard a very different type of song that caught his arranger sensibilities. It was much more complex than any song he attempted to write, cover or arrange thus far. Karen Carpenter told an interviewer: “He wanted to do that more than anything in the world. When we got done with it it turned into an epic. We figured out we spent more time on it then we did our third album. That was a job. It was a masterpiece when Richard got done with it.” The song was Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, originally appearing on Klaatu’s debut album 3:47 EST.
Klaatu named themselves after the alien ambassador to Earth from the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, 3:47 EST being the time Klaatu arrived Earth with his spaceship in the film. Klaatu (the alien) also made an appearance on Ringo Starr’s Goodnight Vienna album in 1974, with Ringo’s head replacing him. Continuing with the sci-fi motif, the band’s debut album opener was a reference to World Contact Day, a tradition that started in 1953 by by an organization called the International Flying Saucer Bureau, founded by Albert Bender who later wrote Flying Saucers and the Three Men, telling his encounter with men from a different planet. The organization’s belief was that if all members of the organization focus on reading the same text at the same time, they will send a telepathic message through space to other life forms. I can’t decide which parts of this I am more skeptic about but something useful came out of this nonsense, as parts of the text to be transmitted by mass telepathy inspired Klaatu’s (the band) song lyrics: “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft! Calling occupants of interplanetary craft that have been observing our planet earth. We are your friends, and would like you to make an appearance here on earth.”

While Klaatu was not exactly a prog band, that song definitely has many of the genre’s staple characteristics. Over eight minutes long, it has interesting shifts in song parts and moods, instrumental passages, extensive use of mellotron, and of course that sci-fi theme. The song was written by drummer Terry Draper and keyboard player John Woloschuk and both of them make great contributions to the song’s arrangement. The trumpets you hear in the song were created using a Moog Sonic V, which was designed by an ex-Moog employee for the muSonics brand and later morphed into Moog Sonic 6, a portable brief-case style synth. Terry Draper was heavily influenced by Ringo Starr and also by King Crimson’s first drummer Michael Giles. If you listen carefully to the fills that Draper plays towards the end of the song, they are very similar to those Giles plays on The Court Of The Crimson King.

When the Carpenters decided to cover the song a year after its release by Klaatu, they made a smart move and brought in Peter Knight, who wrote and conducted the fabulous orchestral arrangement for the album Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues in 1967, including the full movement at the end of Nights in White Satin, which sadly is the most cut-off piece of music in the history of rock radio. Unlike the Moody Blues record, where the orchestral segments are used as segues between the songs, for Calling Occupants Peter Knight scored an orchestral accompaniment that is an integral part of the song in both its bombastic and quiet moments. A couple of years later in 1979 Peter Knight created another lush orchestration to Philippe Sarde’s music for the soundtrack of Tess, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel.
Calling Occupants Carpenters Single
Richard Carpenter is at his peak as an arranger with this piece of music. Largely in the shadows of his younger sister who reluctantly took the front seat as a singer, to me he is the unsung hero of the duo, creating all of the band’s arrangements over the years in the best tradition of Brian Wilson, Jack Nitzsche, Burt Bacharach and George Martin. For the most part he stack by Klaatu’s song structure, but the way he brings up various instruments and the parts he wrote for them is a work of art. From the inner sleeve of the original LP: “Richard purposely avoided the kind of electronic devices with which Klaatu conveyed the illusion of outer space. ‘They employed a lot of sound effects – tape delay, things like that – and did all their sweetening with synthesizer. I wanted to use the real thing.’ So Tony Peluso plays his Appollonian guitar over swelling cosmic threnodies, swirling violins, pipe organ, choir, classical piano and a marching band – Charles Ives goes to March!”.
Indeed this was a colossal recording date with over 150 musicians between the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the choir. For contractual reasons the orchestra could not be credited, and instead the track credits mention the “Overbudget Philharmonic”. Another great contribution to the track is by legendary bass player Joe Osborn, who played on countless hits with the Wrecking Crew, among them another pop symphony, MacArthur Park from 1968. Klaatu’s Terry Draper said of the Carpenter’s version: “Not only did they do a great job, it was  such a stretch for them, they were really stepping out of their comfort zone and doing what could possibly be described as prog rock although I like to call it progressive pop”. Agreed.
The Carpenters version was released as a single in September 1977. Two months later the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg was released. The Carpenters could not hope for a better promotional vehicle. The song reached no. 32 in the Billboard Hot 100, no. 9 in the UK and no. 1 in the Irish chart. Not the best in the Carpenters career, but a phenomenal achievement for a 7-minute progressive pop song.
The original LP version starts with a one-minute corny-funny DJ skit. I’ll save you the bother and go strait to the song:

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this one about another epic 1970s song:

In your mind you have capacities you know
To telepath messages through the vast unknown
Please close your eyes and concentrate
With every thought you think
Upon the recitation we’re about to sing
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft
You’ve been observing our earth
And we’d like to make a contact with you
We are your friends
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary ultra emissaries
We’ve been observing your earth
And one night we’ll make a contact with you
We are your friends
Calling occupants of interplanetary quite extraordinary craft
And please come in pace we beseech you
(Only of love we will teach you)
Our earth may never survive (So don’t come we beg you)
Please interstellar policemen
Won’t you give us a sign give us a sign that we’ve reached you
With your mind you have ability to form
And transmit thought energy far beyond the norm
You close your eyes, you concentrate, together that’s the way
To send a message we declare World Contact Day
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
Calling occupants of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft
Calling occupants
Calling occupants
Calling occupants of interplanetary, anti-adversary craft
We are your friends

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11 replies »

  1. Great write-up of a song that is clearly overdue a contemporary remake. One detail I’d like to toss in: when I bought the Klaatu debut, it was under the rumor-driven belief that Klaatu were The Beatles working pseudonymously! Having been a pretty keen Beatle fan from the age of five or so (in ’64), I ran home with the record and gave it a spin and quickly came to the conclusion that while it was not, in fact, a Beatles record in disguise… there was a good chance that a Beatle or two had had a hand in it and that certain audio-similarities between the bands were deliberate. There are moments, for example, during which one might *swear* one was hearing a winking John or Paul having a laugh in a song with clues crammed in it.

    Re: The Carpenters: I did my best to dislodge them from the pop-trap in my brain the moment I survived puberty. Karen’s voice was both wonderfully supple and thoroughly whitebread, to my ears, in a way that, for example, Dusty Springfield never had to worry about. Whenever I hear that music I think of Republicans, in wide ties and polyester leisure suits, in a queue at the grocery store or the post office. Not Karen’t fault, of course… I blame the era’s Muzak! And if you’re a Republican: no offence intended… I can’t help the fact that I first started shaving during the Watergate hearings! laugh

  2. Thank you for your comments. The Klaatu/Beatles similarities are indeed there and well documented elsewhere, although I do not hear them much on this song. As for the Carpenters, regardless of the party affiliation they may conjure in one’s mind, they had their moments musically. I’m not a fan of their whole catalog, but they certainly knew how to craft a good pop song, and Craft is in my opinion their peak.

  3. I just wanted to thank you for your very well written article on “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. I am a big fan of progressive music, but did not know the greatness of the song until reading your piece. I ended up linking you in an interesting twitter thread about this song and “We’ve Only Just Begun”. I am @frogetteca if you are interested and can somehow find my thread beginning on 02.07.19.

  4. I always thought it was a weird song for the Carpenters to record, but there’s no denying Richard Carpenter’s amazing ability to arrange songs, as made clear in many of their songs.
    The Singles: 1969-1973 was one of my first albums I bought (8-track, actually), along with artists like The Captain and Tenille, Barry Manilow, and John Denver. After a diversion with Chuck Mangione and Herb Alpert, I discovered Genesis and progrock. But I never gave up my love for that early music that was so melodic and harmonic.

  5. I always liked this song – when it was released in Australia it was very much promoted alongside ‘Close Encounters’ so the two became intrinsically linked. Regarding Klaatu’s original rendition, aside from the lifted Mitchell drum groove, there is extensive Mellotron used throughout this version – very satisfying for a diehard Moodies/Crimson fan to hear. A little heavy on some of the brass synth for my tastes, though.

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