Downey, about 13 miles south of Los Angeles, officially became a city in 1956. By then a growing aerospace industry had established it as a free-standing suburban enclave. Downey scored big in the pop-culture sweepstakes: It has the oldest surviving McDonalds and is the birthplace of Taco Bell. It was a hot-rod hotbed and home to musicians Dave and Phil Alvin, Metallica’s James Hetfield and Weird Al Yankovic.
But it wasn’t any music from Downey that affected the Carpenters sound; it was the orderliness and control of the place itself. After restrictive covenants were ruled unenforceable, real estate agents found ways to keep homeowners from selling to nonwhites. Then, in the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965, whites fled many communities bordering Downey, but the city itself remained unchanged and unruffled, in large part because it had its own police and fire departments and school district, and was thus able to fend off integration for some years to come.
Agnes and Harold Carpenter, Karen and Richard’s parents, moved the family from New Haven, Conn. to Downey in 1963, in large part to continue Richard’s musical education. Once there, their kids created a sound out of various playfully high-toned California musics, including Burt Bacharach’s commuter romanticism, the go-kart go of the Beach Boys and the whiz-bang vocalizing of the Hi-Los and the Anita Kerr Singers. The sound and lyrics carried a nostalgic longing for the way things used to be almost from the moment the Carpenters started. Karen and Richard were in their 20s and wishing for it to be yesterday once more.