RIP Melanie – Momma Momma

29th January 2024 · 1960s, 1969, Music, Singer-songwriter

RIP Melanie Safka (1947-2024)

I remember Melanie – just “Melanie” – as a hippie chick with long hair, black eyeliner and a warbling vibrato. I first heard her singing a song called Ruby Tuesday. I was a child and she sounded like one too.

When I eventually heard The Rolling Stones sing it I probably thought they were copying her. She certainly made Keith Richards’s Ruby Tuesday her own. The way she rolled the words around in her mouth was extraordinary – “Rooobaaaaay Toooosdaaay” – contrasting with the elision when she breathlessly sang “StillIamgonnamissyou.”

The power she generated was remarkable.

Then there were a couple of other hits, Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma (slightly irritating, even as a kid) and the pop standard Will You Love Me Tomorrow the Goffin & King song originally a glorious 1961 hit for The Shirelles.

More memorable was the even more irritating Brand New Key, a song whose apparently childlike lyrics set to nursery-rhyme melodies (reinforced when Adge Cutler & The Wurzels adapted it to be about a Combine Harvester were, I now learn half a century later, interpreted in some quarters as a rude Freudian metaphor: so rude that the song was banned by some radio stations.

I think they just had dirty minds because Melanie, who never thought of herself as a hippie – she started out in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village in her native New York and identified as a beatnik – had an almost childlike persona (and voice).

Momma Momma, taken from her 1969 debut album Born To Be, tells a very a different story; there’s no metaphor to hide the angst or its excoriating message.

Melanie’s lyrics are chillingly honest, frighteningly accusatory, and her voice rises to a terrifying crescendo as she howls into the void:

“Momma Momma, I fear you reared me wrong,
‘Cause I lift up my head and I can’t tell where I belong.
Momma Momma Momma Momma, something’s terribly wrong.”