Music

Forever No. 1: Melanie’s ‘Brand New Key’

Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor Melanie, who died on Jan. 23 at age 76, by looking at the pop star’s lone No. 1 hit as a recording artist: the charming (but risqué for its time) “Brand New Key.”

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Melanie’s sing-song pop smash “Brand New Key” seems pretty innocuous today, but when it was released in 1971, it was considered fairly risqué. “Skates” and “key” were pretty obvious sexual metaphors, and this stanza was rife with sexual innuendo: “Don’t go too fast, but I go pretty far/ For somebody who don’t drive/ I’ve been all around the world.”

You have to keep in mind that this was a full decade before Olivia Newton-John’s sexually provocative “Physical,” which the Grease star fretted was going too far practically until the moment it was released. In 1982, Madonna arrived, eventually bringing gender parity to the whole notion of songs about lust. “Brand New Key” might have been the first step down the road that took us to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and countless more.

Melanie (whose full name was Melanie Safka) acknowledged the possibility of fans hearing sexual innuendo in the lyrics, but has denied that was her intent. The oldies site Superseventies.com quotes Melanie as saying that she wrote the song in about 15 minutes one night: “I thought it was cute; a kind of old [1930s] tune. I guess a key and a lock have always been Freudian symbols, and pretty obvious ones at that. There was no deep serious expression behind the song, but people read things into it.”

In addition to helping to make top 40 radio safe for racier songs by female artists, “Brand New Key” changed Melanie’s image. Prior to “Brand New Key,” she had been seen as cool by contemporary pop and rock audiences. She was one of just three solo women on the bill at the Woodstock festival in 1969, along with Joan Baez and Janis Joplin (who was backed by the Kozmic Blues Band).

As it began to rain during her performance on the opening night of that epic, three-day festival, hundreds of candles suddenly appeared, which inspired Melanie’s breakthrough hit, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” In July 1970, that song became her first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 6. The Edwin Hawkins Singers, best known for their 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day,” were featured on the record, giving it a gospel quality that balanced her folkie sound.

In September 1970, Melanie made the top 40 on the Hot 100 with her follow-up, “Peace Will Come (According to Plan).” The following month, The New Seekers landed a top 15 hit on the Hot 100 with another Melanie song, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma.” (Melanie had recorded the song under the title “What Have They Done to My Song Ma” on her 1970 album Candles in the Rain.) The New Seekers followed that hit with their versions of two more Melanie songs, both of which also made the Hot 100 – the flower-power anthem “Beautiful People” (No. 67) and “Nickel Song” (No. 81), which Melanie would later have a No. 35 hit with.

Melanie performed at the Isle of Wight festival in August 1970 as well as the Glastonbury Festival (then dubbed Glastonbury Fayre) in June 1971. So, Melanie was a star even before the song that became her biggest hit.

People who just know Melanie from “Brand New Key” might be surprised to hear her other songs, which she sang in a husky voice and in an idiosyncratic style. “Brand New Key,” which Melanie wrote by herself, smoothed out the rough edges of her other records. It is more of a pure pop record, which is probably why it did so well.

The song, produced by Melanie’s husband Peter Schekeryk, was the first release on their own label, Neighborhood Records, following her departure from Buddah Records. The song (arranged by Roger Kellaway) opens with a simple piano intro, before Melanie lays out her predicament. She needs a key and she needs it bad. Her frustration is apparent as she sings, “It almost seems like you’re avoiding me/ I’m OK alone, but you’ve got something I need.” More than 40 years later, in “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen would capture that same sense of frustration, pining for a disinterested guy.

The chorus of “Brand New Key” is very sing-songy, which some found charming and others found grating. The wordless bridge lends some interest, “Oh, yeah, yeah/ Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah…” And in the final repetition of the chorus, Melanie omits the lines “I’ve been looking around awhile/You’ve got something for me” and replaces them with “La-la’s.”  

In the week ending Oct. 30, 1971, “Brand New Key” entered the Hot 100 at No. 87. Eight weeks later, it dethroned Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” to become the No. 1 song in the land. It held the top spot for three weeks, bridging 1971 and 1972. Incredibly, it held Don McLean’s instant-classic “American Pie” to the No. 2 spot for two weeks before “Pie” was able to dislodge “Key.” And then “Key” stayed at No. 2 for three weeks, giving it a total of seven weeks in one of the top two positions – longer than any other song by a female solo artist in the first three years of the ’70s.

“Brand New Key” is a very short single — it runs just 2:26, shorter than any other No. 1 hit of 1971 or 1972. It’s ironic that “Key” was followed in the No. 1 spot by “American Pie,” which ran 8:37, which made it the longest No. 1 hit in Hot 100 history until recently. “Brand New Key” also reached No. 1 in Canada and Australia and climbed as high as No. 4 on the Official U.K. Singles Chart.

“Brand New Key” is easily Melanie’s best-remembered hit, but it was hardly the sum total of her chart impact that year. In the week ending Feb. 26, 1972, Melanie had three songs in the top 40 on the Hot 100: “Brand New Key” dropped from No. 14 to No. 24, “Ring the Living Bell” (the proper follow-up to “Key”) jumped from No. 39 to No. 34 and “Nickel Song” (which Melanie’s former label Buddah Records released to capitalize on her newfound success) leaped from No. 43 to No. 36. Melanie was just the second solo female to have three songs in the top 40 at one time (following Mary Wells in 1964), and the only woman to achieve the feat in the ’70s.

Critic Paul Gambaccini led his Singles column in Rolling Stone (March 16, 1972) with a discussion of Melanie’s three simultaneous hits. Under the headline “Melanie laughs all the way to the bank,” Gambaccini wrote “It has long been fashionable for rock critics to knock the recorded efforts of Melanie, but the woman with the little girl’s voice now has the last laugh. While most artists consider themselves fortunate to have one hit single, she has three.”

In his weekly American Top 40 countdown for week in question, Casey Kasem made note of Melanie’s triple play and said words to the effect that “Last year was the year of Carole King. It looks like this year will be the year of Melanie.”

In one sense, Casey was right. On Billboard’s year-end charts for 1972, Melanie was No. 1 on the Top Singles Female Vocalists chart, ahead of three legends – Cher, Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, who held down the next three spots. But if Casey was suggesting that Melanie was moving up to superstardom, as it appeared at that moment, that didn’t come to pass. After those three early 1972 hits dropped off, Melanie logged just one more top 40 hit, “Bitter Bad,” which reached No. 35 in the spring of 1973.

Some of Melanie’s original fans had disdain for the novelty-shaded pop direction of “Brand New Key,” while her newfound pop fans proved fickle. Widely read industry pundit Bob Lefsetz wrote an assessment following Melanie’s death in which he opined that he “had some respect for her” prior to “Brand New Key,” but lost it with that one song. “Melanie had been a deep thinker, anything but light,” he wrote. “And now she’s released this adolescent, no, strike that, kiddie song about roller skating.”

Melanie made her final Hot 100 appearance in the first week of 1974 with a fine cover version of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” She made her final appearance on the Billboard 200 in her lifetime that June with Madrugada.

In 1990, “Brand New Key” appeared on Vol. 7 of Rhino Records’ 25-volume Have a Nice Day series, which collected pop songs from the 1970s. I wrote the liner notes for that entire series (as well as the Grammy-nominated 1998 box set Have a Nice Decade, on which “Brand New Key” also appeared.)

Here’s what I wrote in 1990 about “Brand New Key”: “Melanie, whose ‘Brand New Key’ hit #1 in December 1971, wasn’t a one-hit wonder. She is, however, Exhibit A in the case of artists whose careers were hurt more than they were helped by hit records that projected the wrong image. The whimsical, nostalgic nature of ‘Brand New Key’ gave Melanie a lightweight, novelty image which was at odds with the contemporary pop/rock persona she had cultivated with her 1970 hit, ‘Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).’ It didn’t help that the follow-ups ‘The Nickel Song’ and ‘Ring the Living Bell,’ were also very light. Still, one imagines that the coy innuendos of ‘Brand New Key’ resonated for, say, Madonna, in a way that Carole King or Roberta Flack never did. In fact, it’s a small step from the tongue-in-cheek sass of ‘Brand New Key’ to ‘Like a Virgin.’”

In one interview, also featured in that Superseventies.com piece, Melanie expressed some ambivalence about the song. “I used to love singing ‘Brand New Key,’ at first,” she said. “It had great shock value, dropped in the middle of one of my concerts. I’d be singing along about Suffering and the Trials of Man, and then suddenly, ‘I’ve got a brand-new pair of roller skates…’ It had a great effect. After it became a hit, though, the fun kind of wore off, at least for me. Some things, I think, are better left a surprise.”

While Melanie struggled commercially after “Brand New Key,” the song itself has had an afterlife. A parody version titled “Combine Harvester,” recorded by a comedy folk act dubbed The Wurzels, topped the Official U.K. Singles Chart for two weeks in June 1976. The song depicts two farmers with one saying to the other, “I’ve got a brand new Combine Harvester/ And I’ll give you the key.” (If “Brand New Key” is novelty-shaded, this loopy track goes all the way.)

Melanie’s original recording was heard in the acclaimed 1997 film Boogie Nights, which was set in the 1970s. The song was used as an informal theme for Heather Graham’s Rollergirl character. (Roller skating became a genuine pop-culture fad during the disco era, long after Melanie’s song had run its course.) Country singer Deana Carter covered the song on her 1998 album Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, which went gold. The song has also been featured in the TV shows Family Guy and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Melanie’s legacy extends beyond “Brand New Key,” however: “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma,” which she also wrote, was a much-admired and much-performed song of that era. The great Ray Charles recorded a marvelously funky and fresh version of the song that reached No. 65 on the Hot 100 in August 1972 and received a Grammy nod for best R&B vocal performance, male. In October 2012, Miley Cyrus released a video of an acoustic version of that song as part of her Backyard Sessions series. In 2015, Melanie joined her to duet on the song, in addition to “Peace Will Come.”

Melanie had other successes. too. In 1989, she won a Primetime Emmy (in tandem with Lee Holdridge) for outstanding achievement in music and lyrics for the “The First Time I Loved Forever.” They wrote the ballad for the CBS series Beauty and the Beast (not to be confused with the later film of the same name).

In 2010 and 2011, Melanie performed at 40th anniversary editions of famous festivals she had performed at originally – Isle of Wight and Glastonbury, respectively. She also endured as an avatar for Woodstock, playing a big part in the informal revival of Woodstock ’89. According to Variety, Melanie was in the studio earlier this month working on her 32nd album, Second Hand Smoke, a collection of cover songs. 

Melanie died on Jan. 23 at home in central Tennessee. She is survived by her three children, daughter Leilah (named after the Derek & The Dominos classic “Layla”), daughter Jeordie and son Beau Jarred. Schekeryk, her husband of 42 years, died in 2010.

“She was one of the most talented, strong and passionate women of the era and every word she wrote, every note she sang reflected that,” her kids posted on Facebook. “Our world is much dimmer, the colors of a dreary, rainy Tennessee pale with her absence today, but we know that she is still here, smiling down on all of us, on all of you, from the stars.”

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