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THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: Lay Down (Candles In The Wind)

An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!


An earlier version of this chapter from my forthcoming book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) appeared as an entry in my weekly 10 Songs feature on 1/5/2021
This slightly expanded version was previewed in my weekly GREM! video blog (GREM! # 18), and makes its first complete printed appearance today.

MELANIE WITH THE EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: Lay Down (Candle In The Rain)Written by Melanie SafkaProduced by Peter SchekerykSingle, Buddah Records, 1970
My Mom hated Melanie. I mean, it wasn’t anything personal; if Melanie Safka had shown up at our house or something, I’m sure Mom would have offered her a bite to eat and a chance to sit and relax for a bit, all the while politely begging Ms. Safka not to sing. The distaste was based purely on artistic grounds; when Mom was working at a factory, Melanie’s 1971 hit “Brand New Key” came on the radio. It came on the radio repeatedly, as hit records are inclined to do. Over the clang ‘n’ clatter of hardware and machinery, the waifish voice trilling I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key reached Mom’s ears like Trotsky’s icepick. Mom thought it was the worst approximation of music she’d ever heard. Experiencing the song again at a later time–outside the factory, away from the industrial thrum and bang of assembly work–did not improve Mom’s initial impression, nor did any subsequent spin improve Mom’s view of the song. Noise. This is pop music?

I was eleven years old at the time. And while I may have enjoyed teasing Mom about this song she disliked so much, I didn’t have any particular love of it, either.

But. 

Although “Brand New Key”‘s hit reign in ’71 was the first time I recall hearing Melanie’s name in connection with a song, it was not the first Melanie song I knew. In September of 1970, when I was entering sixth grade, one of my favorite radio records was “Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma,” which was written by Melanie and a hit for The New Seekers. Listening now to both The New Seekers’ single and Melanie’s own recording of that song, I’d swear it was actually Melanie that I heard on the radio as middle school beckoned. That doesn’t likely; it was almost certainly The New Seekers getting airplay on AM Top 40 in Syracuse, my stubborn contrary memory notwithstanding.

But I betcha I also heard Melanie’s first Top 10 hit, “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” earlier that same year, when I was still safely ensconced in elementary school. What a terrific, uplifting song, with the sanctified might of The Edwin Hawkins Singers lifting Melanie up to soar as high as the angels above. I’d had no real use for the straight black Gospel sound of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ huge 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day” when I was nine, but “Lay Down” effortlessly mingled their celestial sound with Melanie’s folk-singer vibe, and it all wound up as pop music. Irresistible pop music. Forget the damned roller skates. “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)” is the key, right here.

“We were so close/There was no room/We bled inside each other’s wounds.” Well, the lyrics pin this one to the Viet Nam War era. “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)” was inspired by Melanie’s performance at Woodstock, a song written to express how it felt for her to see this massive crowd–perhaps not really a half a million strong, but giving the impression of a large, large number–as she sang and played her own songs of peace. The rain came down. You can hear her on the Woodstock Two album, performing “My Beautiful People” and “Birthday Of The Sun,” dedicating her music with a giggle to the beautiful, wet people. You can hear her smile. You can hear her belief. 

After Woodstock, Melanie took all of what she’d seen, all of what she felt, and turned it into “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain).” Raise the candles high. If you don’t we could stay black against the night. The Edwin Hawkins Singers provide amazing grace, immortal soul, an oh-happy-day’s journey into night. Raise them higher again. We could stay dry against the rain.

In the ’70s, I listened to my sister’s copy of Woodstock Two, transferring Melanie’s “My Beautiful People” (along with tracks by Jefferson Airplane and Joan Baez) to cassette mix tapes I made by placing my little deck right next to one of the stereo speakers. You can laugh at my lo-fi approach, but I’m still pretty sure that’s how K-Tel did it. In high school, I bought a cutout copy of the two-LP compilation Dick Clark 20 Years Of Rock N’ Roll, a collection which included Melanie’s “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain).” It was the first and only Melanie track I ever owned. The set also included “Oh Happy Day” among its varied treats by DionOtis ReddingThe Shangri-LasFats Domino, and Tommy James and the Shondells. It did not credit The Edwin Hawkins Singers on the Melanie track, and I doubt I even realized it was them singing those heavenly Lay down, Lay down!s behind our Melanie. I didn’t appreciate Hawkins and ensemble at the time. I do now.  

I did appreciate Melanie, and I confess that it wasn’t just on account of her singing. I was a boy. When “Brand New Key” was still a recent radio memory, I saw some photographs of Melanie for the first time, and the notion of lying down with her seemed very appealing to this eleven-year-old. 

I don’t think Mom would have approved.

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Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1)will contain 165 essays about 165 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1). My weekly Greatest Record Ever Made! video rants can be seen in my GREM! YouTube playlist. And I’m on Twitter @CafarelliCarl.

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