Perhaps It’s the Color Of The Sun Cut Flat

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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

Footnotes:

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.

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6 Replies to “Perhaps It’s the Color Of The Sun Cut Flat”

  1. it probably isn’t the meanest song i’ve ever heard, but the meanness in it cracked me up. “knock ’em out” by lily allen. there are lines i’m too much of a punk to ever say to anyone’s face, but the idea of saying one or two of them made me smile.

  2. Thank you, Leelee. We love Lily, and of course we’re dead curious at the moment to hear what songs people think are the meanest they ever heard.

    And Leah, I’m not sure what you’re asking…? But to clarify: I was extolling Morrissey’s newfound kindness. Someone else said, “Yes that generosity of spirit is great, but even so, I miss the old vitriol.”

    And then we all started talking about how meanness was underrated. And I wrote, above, that done correctly, there is nothing quite so thrilling. I would stress that we were talking about music and songs, and for the most part we were, but I also admit that line is blurry — we all know someone in real life who serves as a rampaging id, saying all kinds of mean things we would never usually say. And often that person is hysterically entertaining. (Like Leelee’s Lily example.) I also wonder right this second if we were maybe confusing anger and meanness a little…Hmmm….

  3. Interesting coincidence: I was just sifting through my iTunes general playlist the other day, and discovered that I’d downloaded some Rachel Sweet songs many months ago and forgot I had ’em. They immediately went on the all-important jogging playlist, so I’ve been enjoying ol’ Rachel this week. Her second album was really good–I believe that, as a teenager myself, I heard her version of “New Age” before I’d ever heard the original.

    Meannest song: “I Don’t Want to Be Nice” by John Cooper Clarke? “Little Bitch” by the Specials? Everything by Cannibal Corpse, or indeed in the entire death metal genre?

  4. I am not familiar with this “Cannibal Corpse” (!) of which you speak.

    But the nod to John Cooper Clarke seems right on. There’s a book about Nico written by the guy who played keyboards in her “band” during the final years — the nasty London junkie scene of the 80s, and JCC figures prominently. (Additional proof: the blood-chilling use of “Evidently Chickentown” over the ending of an especially mean and portentous Sopranos episode.)

    You also suggest another intriguing category — “classic” songs you first heard via cover versions. I know the first time I heard “Nobody But Me” was by the Mumps, and “Gloria” by Patti Smith, and “Red Rubber Ball” by the Diodes…not to mention “B-A-B-Y” by Rachel Sweet…the list is probably endless.

  5. I first heard my favorite Syd Barrett song, “Dark Globe,” done by REM, on a live bootleg. It was enough to make me go hunt down his stuff. I believe Stipey turned me onto “Moon River,” too.

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