The History of Rock UK 1986






Lilting melodies
for the beautiful people

MELANIE WAS, IN MANY respects, the darling of the peace and love generation. Born Melanie Safka on 3 February 1947 in Astoria (Queens), New York, her musical inspiration came initially from her mother, a former jazz singer. Melanie has since recalled: 'I started writing my own little songs, mostly imitations of what I'd hear my mother singing around the house. It wasn't until I was 13 or 14 that I began to write about things I found in myself.' Her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and then to Red Bank, New Jersey. At Red Bank High School, Melanie's two main interests were music and drama. She taught herself to play guitar, performing at school concerts, and appeared in many school plays.


  After leaving school, Melanie went back to New York where she enrolled as a drama student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan and also took lessons in mime. She showed promise as an actress, appearing as the Cheshire Cat in 'Alice In Wonderland' and as Laura Wingate in Tennessee Williams' 'The Glass Menagerie'. At the same time, Melanie was developing her musical career, singing in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, her influences ranging from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan. An incident that determined the direction of Melanie's career occurred when she went to audition for a play. She was mistakenly shown into the wrong office - a music publisher's. As Melanie happened to have her guitar in tow, she was asked to perform and made sufficient impression to set the wheels in motion for a career in music.


  Early in 1967, Melanie secured her first recording contract with Columbia Records and released a debut single for them, 'Beautiful People", "God's Only Daughter', in the autumn of that year. Although the single flopped, as did the remaining material she recorded for that label throughout 1968, the A-side of the single proved one of her most enduring tunes, later surfacing on her second album and proving one of the popular mainstays of her live act. Melanie gradually built up a following with constant club appearances in the New York area and a move to Buddah Records in 1969 sealed her success. Later that year the single 'What Have They Done To My Song, Ma?' proved a major hit in the US and was subsequently covered by a number of other artists. A further boost was provided by her appearance at the Woodstock Festival (1969) where she followed Ravi Shankar on stage and received a rapturous ovation.


Festival favourite

During her performance, as the rain came down, the audience lit candles in a display of symbolic unity; this inspired Melanie to write 'Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)'. The song (recorded with the Edwin Hawkins Singers) was a Top Ten US hit as was the LP from which it was taken - Candles In The Rain (1970). A further hit single in 1970, 'Peace Will Come (According To Plan)', confirmed the singer's place at the head of the new generation of sweet-voiced troubadours. Melanie was promptly invited to perform at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, which finally brought her to the attention of a sizeable UK audience.


                Melanie had her first hit in the UK with her version of the Jagger-Richards composition 'Ruby Tuesday' which reached Number 9 in the charts late in 1970. This was followed by a minor hit with one of her best-known songs, 'What Have They Done To My Song, Ma' early in 1971. After producing three further albums for Buddah - the live Leftover Wine (1970), Good Book (1971) and a rather obscure soundtrack LP, All The Right Noises (1971) - Melanie and her husband producer Peter Schekeryk left Buddah to set up their own record label, Neighborhood Records, in 1971.


                The venture achieved instant success with Melanie's first single on the new label - 'Brand New Key' which reached Number 1 in the US and Number 4 in Britain early in 1972. The debut album on Neighborhood, Gather Me (1971) went gold. Buddah cashed in on Melanie's success by releasing compilations and material Melanie had recorded before leaving the label. These included Four Sides Of Melanie (1974) and Garden In The City (1975), the latter a collection of unsatisfactory demos packaged in a 'scratch and sniff' cover. A further bonus for Buddah was the healthy US sales of the single 'Nickel Song'; the track became a Number 35 hit in 1972.

                This period represented the pinnacle of Melanie's career. With her clear, ringing voice - reminiscent of Edith Piaf- and songs of uncomplicated honesty (if occasionally twee and naive), Melanie provided a sensitive and refreshing contrast to the rock super groups fashionable in the early Seventies.


Birthday album

Although the album Stoneground Words (1972) was moderately successful, Melanie began to slip back into cult hood. In 1973, the double album Melanie At Carnegie Hall (a recording of the singer's on-stage 26th birthday party) made the lower reaches of the charts. In 1975 Neighborhood ceased operations through lack of real commercial success. The label's output had included a string of albums by Melanie herself - Madrugada, As I See It Now and Sunset And Other Beginnings (all 1975) as well as albums by other artists signed to the label; the best known of these acts was ex-Incredible String Band leader Mike Heron's Reputation. Sales, however, were to prove disappointing.


                After Neighborhood folded, Melanie recorded a number of albums for various labels, including Photograph (1976), Phonogenic: Not Just A Pretty Face (1978), Ballroom Streets (1979) and Arabesque (1982). Also in 1982, Melanie made a big impact at the Vienna Folk Festival, thus securing an invitation to appear on the bill at the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's three-day festival on a farm near Glastonbury in June 1983 - an indication that her reputation as a voice of the peace movement had remained intact.


'Look what they've done to my song, Ma': Melanie (left and below) became a star almost by accident, and retained an engaging air of naivety. This innocence, together with her peace-loving, vegetarian lifestyle, endeared her to idealistic survivors of the Woodstock generation into the Eighties.




Recommended Listening


The Very Best Of Melanie (Buddah BDLP4001) (includes: Ruby Tuesday, What Have They Done To My Song, Ma, Candles In The Rain, Brand New Key, Good Book, Garden In The City).


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