Just the other night (over chilled melon soup swimming with huge chunks of fresh Maine lobster), we were talking about music and I was extolling the virtues of a certain famous singer whose recent work evinces a newfound generosity of spirit. It does seem people get kinder as they grow older (though some, alas, succumb instead to the hideous disfigurements of bitterness and spite). Someone at the table agreed that generosity of spirit was rightly prized, being a rare commodity, but that even so, meanness was underrated. And of course, it’s true — done right, there’s nothing quite so thrilling as unabashed vitriol. As long as you’re not on the receiving end.
It made me try to think of the meanest songs I had ever heard or loved.
Anyhow, all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the song posted below, which is not mean by any stretch of the imagination. I just think sultry times call for sultry songs.
It’s So Different Here (Liam Sternberg)
Rachel Sweet’s first album, “Fool Around,” is one of the oddest minor materpieces of the 70s. Liam Sternberg (who would later make millions in L.A. with songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian”) had been writing these eccentric “pop” songs in his Akron basement and needed a singer to do the demos. Apparently his next-door neighbors had a teenage daughter who did a lot of musical theater and could sing some. That, of course, was Rachel Sweet. A demo went to Stiff Records in England, and Stiff took one look at Rachel and said, “Come on over and do an album!”
They must have recorded it all in a few days with whomever was hanging around (assorted members of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, etc.) and the result is a record that really doesn’t sound like anything else I can think of. It’s pretty dry, pretty spare, the arrangements are all a little clunky and not-quite-on, and the singing is way too knowing for a sixteen-year-old girl. But it’s catchy, it rocks, it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking. Underneath the pop-punk joke of an Akron Lolita lay somethng truly subversive.
Her American record company could not keep its hands off, of course, and they bungled the American release, badly. They blithely axed several songs, replacing them with more “radio friendly” tunes, then audaciously remixed (and ruined) the remaining original songs, even recording horrendously faceless new instrumental tracks in a few instances. (The album’s centerpiece, “Who Does Lisa Like?” falls victim to this diabolical process — a wonka-wonka Doobie Brothers guitar solo standing in for the mixed-out Les Paul/saxophone catfight in the break.) Not suprisingly, all this fucking-with-what-wasn’t-broke did nothing but hinder the record’s commercial prospects, and by the time she cracked the American charts, poor Rachel was dueting with the likes of Rex Smith.