Thursday, January 25, 2024

Lay Down, Melanie

As I've said before, if I posted an obituary for every notable musician, artist and writer whose death, timely or untimely, appeared in my cultural news feeds, I'd have a full-time job of it and there'd be no time to write about anything else. I'd say I have to pick my tributes, except it doesn't quite work that way. It's more like they pick me. Somehow, I just know immediately on hearing of someone's demise that it's a moment I need to note.

The strange thing about it is, it can be someone I haven't thought about in years. It's somehow as if their passing tears a small rip in reality that's going to take a while to close. Well, my reality, anyway.

I own just one album by Melanie, on vinyl. I can't even remember what it's called. I bought it some time in the 1990s, when I was trawling thrift shops and yard sales for anything that looked interesting. I think I might have played it a couple of times. Melanie Safka is not someone I've listened to a lot, now, then or before.

And yet her music has been a perpetual presence in the background of my life. When I was a young adolescent it was impossible to avoid her best-known tune, Brand New Key, an infuriating earworm that tinned out of transistor radios everywhere, once heard, impossible to shake. It annoyed the hell out of me and I liked it a lot all at once, a reaction that's become a signature note of many songs I've admired over the years. 

From around then, I also remember her cover of Ruby Tuesday, a bleak reading from the far reaches of the other end of the emotional spectrum, which eclipses even the Rolling Stones' original. She clearly had some range.

When I was at school, as I've mentioned before, we had a relatively young, very enthusiastic music teacher, one of whose big ideas was to arrange school trips to see live performances. He's the reason I can put a tick against AC/DC on my "Seen Them" list. 

It's hard to exaggerate just how odd that must have been at the time - a bunch of boys from private school being taken on an official school trip to see a touring heavy metal band - but another gig he arranged a trip to was more believable. Melanie was, among other things, a folk-singer and even fifty years ago, folk music enjoyed a respectability neither punk nor heavy metal will ever achieve. Probably.

At this point I ought to be reminiscing about what a great gig it was and what a marvelous performance Melanie gave. Only I can't, because I didn't go. By then I was a paid-up punk, in so far as you could be when you were still going to a fee-paying school. I only went on the AC/DC trip as an ironic joke. (Joke was on me - they were stunningly good.) An hour in a bus to go see the dippy woman who sang Brand New Key? Hell, no!

My best friend at school also declined to attend but our other pal, the uncool one, went. The next day we heard a lot from him about how great Melanie was, especially how, after the official part of the gig ended, she came back on stage, sat down and played a whole bunch more songs, just her and her acoustic guitar, for the people who hadn't already gone home after the encore. 

It's strange how I still remember that. I also remember how I wished I'd gone, after all. It sounded like exactly the kind of experience punk was teaching me to expect from live performance - lack of front, rapport with the audience, we're all in this thing together. Which just about pegs punk itself as a kind of folk music, I guess...

Before I was a punk I was, briefly, something of a fan of progressive rock. I really liked glam rock, too, although I was a bit shy of admtting it. How the order changes. Just as with punk a little later, there were a few bands who jumped tracks or tried to, slipping out of their afghan coats into spangled jumpsuits and stack heels. One of the most successful to make the switch from sweaty denim to sparkles and silk scarves was Mott the Hoople.

I loved Mott. Still do, although as with the Smiths, it's increasingly difficult to calibrate that affection with certain aspects of the singer's persona, in this case a close read of some of the lyrics, which don't necessarily come over the same way now they did back then. In both cases, however, any of that applies more to the solo work and for my purposes today I'm looking back far beyond Ian Hunter's solo career, back farther even than the band's brief, Bowie-inspired glam heyday.

As would have been my normal practice then, once the band had come to my attention I did my best to dig back through their back catalog, which in Mott's case was extensive. They'd been around a long time before anyone outside the club circuit began paying attention. 

They'd made, I think, four albums before All The Young Dudes, none of which sounds all that much like any of the others. They were clearly looking for a direction and not fnding one they could all agree on. 

The album I liked by far the best and which I played over and over again was Wildlife. It's apparently the album of theirs over which guitarist Mick Ralphs had the most influence, which seems odd since it's close to being a folk-rock album and he went on to form Bad Company, a numbingly straight-ahead, hard rock act with almost no soft edges at all.

Wildlife, though, is a drifty, dreamy album among whose several highlights is a great cover of one of Melanie's best and best-known songs - Lay Down. Also known as "Lay Down (Candles in the Wind)", the lyric attempts to encapsulate and communicate Melanie's transcendent experience, playing Woodstock as one of only three female performers to appear solo at the legendary festival. The other two were Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, which gives some perspective.

I listened to Lay Down last night, after I heard of her death. I watched the epic performance on Dutch TV with the Staples Singers in front of an audience, most of whom look actively traumatised by the experience. Then I listened to Mott's version, which still sounds as good as it did all those years ago. I've included them both here, so you can hear them too. If either is new to you, you're in for a treat. If you know them already, you won't need any prompting to listen to them one more time. 

And then, since it came up on the recommends, I also listened to the ineffably warm and wonderful duet between Melanie and Miley Cyrus on another of Melanie's classic tunes, Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma. I'd forgotten she wrote that one. Now I wonder just how many more great songs she wrote that I've never heard.

I guess I'd better take some time and find out. Melanie may not be with us any more but her music is and always will be.


  1. Thanks, Bhagpuss. I needed this.

  2. Seconding Redbeard. Thank you for writing this.

    News of her death hit me hard and I'm not really sure why, either. Can't remember the last time I went looking to listen to her. Just an icon of the day, I guess? At least to me.

    1. It's strange which famous deaths trigger this reaction and which don't. I imagine it has something to do with how they connect with certain personal memories or experiences but it's far from obvious how it happens. I can always recognise it when it does, though.


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