Wednesday 24 October 2012

The BEE GEES: Spirits Having Flown

(#206: 17 March 1979, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Tragedy/Too Much Heaven/Love You Inside Out/Reaching Out/Spirits (Having Flown)/Search, Find/Stop (Think Again)/Living Together/I’m Satisfied/Until

I remember that it was the Melody Maker letters page, sometime in 1979, and somebody had written in about opening a bottle of wine and settling down with his wife to enjoy the new Bee Gees album. It was only a short letter and I think he had some sort of humorous point to make, about the vocals or the lyrics; I can’t really recall the rest of it, other than in 1979 the new Bee Gees album was something you sat down, opened a bottle of wine and listened to, in good, familial (?) company.

The Bee Gees have always been my mother’s favourite group, and my father didn’t mind them too much either. I’m not sure why my mother should love them so much, except they were tuneful and somewhere in their voices and hearts, “meant it.” That having been said, I did not grow up in a household full of Bee Gees records (other than the ones I myself bought); in the communal record cabinet the only album of theirs that was present was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. That seemed to do; it was evidence that my parents were “modern” yet “tasteful,” as tasteful as that glass of the finest Chianti, straight out of the wine shop on Uddingston Main Street.

A new Bee Gees album, however, had suddenly become a major event; “everyone” was waiting for it – what have they got up their sleeves? What could possibly top SNF? – in the way I understand people in the past waited for the new Beatles record. In a 1978 which they completely dominated (and yet a year where they only managed a fortnight on top of the UK singles chart), there were some murmurs of disappointment when the trailer single “Too Much Heaven” was released; an attempt to redo “How Deep Is Your Love,” a mellow, tasteful ballad, not truly what anybody expected or wanted (and hence it “only” made #3 here; Grease suddenly seemed much more fun).

In early 1979, “Tragedy” was released as a single, however, and was much better received (giving them their fourth British number one), reigniting expectations; oh, this is much more up-to-date – will they even (mutters under snowy breath) make a New Wave album? I suppose it was always too much, and too unnatural a thing, to ask of them; but for a record which worldwide sold some 35 million copies and achieved Barry Gibb’s aim of getting the Bee Gees onto American black radio, the response still seemed rather muted, compared with Fever (only a fortnight at number one, you will note, set against SNF’s eighteen weeks); oh great, guys, an easy listening album. RSO were compelled to rush out a Greatest compilation before the end of the year to compensate (for “only” 35 million copies?); a lot of record shops complained about overstocks and returns.

The question now is how and where Spirits Having Flown stands in the chartered history of the Bee Gees, a history that can charitably be described as “strange”; one can admire the Gibbs’ steadfast stubbornness in not making a “disco album” and yet feel that, whatever else may have happened to them, this is the album the Bee Gees would have made and put out in 1979 anyway. Parallel Lines it is not, but is it an unexpected sequel to Odessa, ten years after?

I’m too young to remember at first hand how bizarre the initial impact of the Bee Gees, newly returned from Australia, must have come across, but the evidence is plentiful. In a lot of ways I think of them as an alternate universe Walker Brothers; a true familial group that wandered off from the Isle of Man and Manchester to Australia then sloped back “home” but had absorbed the Beatles and Otis Redding and goodness knows how many one-off English proto-psychedelic tinderboxes of whimsy rather than Spector, Jack Jones and Gershwin. Barry and Robin were not quite like Scott and John Walker; the division of labour and art was more equitable, and throughout their career both had plenty of opportunities to be both John and Scott (Maurice would have been the Gary Leeds figure, but he had rather more to offer; contributing directly to the songwriting process, he first played keyboards, then switched to bass, though returned to keyboards for live gigs in the group’s later stages). In addition, their view of the world and life could be as deliriously morbid as Scott’s, but although they had musical ambitions, they never broke out of their “pop” shell and seemed to have been pretty content to work within The System.

Still, what were they like in the later sixties, when there wasn’t really a “system”? Their calling card, the 1966 Australian number one “Spicks And Specks,” immediately gave notice that their teenage dream was not as others’; “Where is the sun?…It is dead,” they sing, deadpan, over an even more deadpan march rhythm (possibly influenced by the Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things”). When “New York Mining Disaster 1941” was launched (and it was actually their second British single; “Spicks And Specks” had been released, with little reaction), copies were sent to radio stations with a plain white label, blank except for the song title. Thinking this was an undercover new Beatles release, the record picked up airplay and made the Top 20, but the key elements of Bee Gees are already there; the doomed lover, prevented by force from reaching his true love, perhaps already fatalistic about dying alone.

Despite that and subsequent single releases, however, the first few Bee Gees albums demonstrate that they weren’t just about semi-worldly melancholic ballads. Bee Gees 1st is, if anything, the Gibbs doing Nuggets, full of fast-paced amphetamine garage pop together with more measured oddities (“Turn Of The Century”), “proper” soul balladry (“To Love Somebody,” which Otis would have recorded had he not got on the ‘plane; as it turned out, Nina Simone’s tortuous reading was the big British hit version, in early 1969) and “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You,” a Mellotron-ed proto-space rock epic that should have shown the Moody Blues early doors. Clearly there was ambition here, but was it focused?

Horizontal, the first of two 1968 releases, again put strong ballads (“And The Sun Will Shine,” “With The Sun In My Eyes”) against a vision of England as amicably twisted as that of Scott’s (“Harry Braff,” “The Earnest Of Being George”). Idea could almost be the group’s Scott 3 (and I hope Walker watchers spotted the simple pun in that title) as, though not specifically set around a group of people living in the same conceptual place, still feels like a single soul viewed from a dozen different angles; the bedsit trauma of “Kilburn Towers” and simple poignancy of “When The Swallows Fly” balancing out the general WTF-ness of “Indian Gin And Whisky Dry” and “I’ve Decided To Join The Air Force.” The supremely fatalistic “I Started A Joke” – Robin as von Sydow’s knight in The Seventh Seal, accepting his fate for a greater good – pulls all the record’s grey strands together.

Then came Odessa, that iceberg of a double album from 1969 which temporarily finished the group off; so wide and varied are its canyons that for great parts of it the group disappears completely, returning with, variously, stoned country music, fragile deep soul laments, damn-you-England tantrums (“I Laugh In Your Face”), early electropop (aptly on the subject of Thomas Edison), orchestral surges and, as the Gibbs make their protracted exit, “First Of May” where they perhaps already know that one game is up.

There were arguments over Odessa, and single A and B sides, and Robin stormed off to go solo for awhile; 1969’s Robin’s Reign, done in part with Maurice’s help, sounds like Peter Noone crossing paths with Scott 4; a benighted, unfocused mind wondering what to make of anything (as the five-minute-plus closer “Most Of My Life” makes clear), was followed by 1970’s never-released Sing Slowly Sisters - I’m not sure whether the latter is Britain’s own Sister Lovers (Chilton used a band rather than Kenny Clayton’s probing orchestral arrangements) but it finds Robin falling further into himself and may well be the logistical go-no-further point of British “avant-MoR” (on the contemporaneous ’Til The Band Comes In, even Scott could go no further than “The War Is Over” before “coming home” to interpretations of the songs of others, but then I don’t think he really needs to; Barry Ryan, having shrieked his brains out on 1971’s “Red Man,” largely retreats to harmless German Europop for the rest of the seventies); songs like “Cold Be My Days” and “The Flag I Flew” were never going to be featured on Saturday night BBC1 light entertainment schedules (and the album still awaits a formal release; Robin’s Reign was available on CD in Germany for about five minutes in the early noughties. Whoever now holds the rights to these recordings in Robin’s estate would do well to look into giving his solo back catalogue the attention it deserves).

While Robin was away, Barry and Maurice starred in a strange television special (and equally strange soundtrack album) called Cucumber Castle, but after they persuaded Robin to rejoin the group, their best record from this period is probably 1971’s Trafalgar (compare Scott’s “The World’s Strongest Man” with Barry’s “The Greatest Man In The World”) with its US number one original of “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?,” with its tremulous whispers and tubular bells as tearful a goodbye to the sixties (“And let me live again”) as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (though their reading swiftly fell into the shadow of Al Green’s patient six-and-a-half-minute dissection of the song, a peerless performance vitalised by Al Jackson’s rhetorically deadpan drumming).

But the week that song went to number one on Billboard (having mysteriously not even been considered for single release in Britain), the group were midway through a residency at Batley Variety Club, and this was their trajectory for the next couple of years (like Scott’s); steadily declining chart positions, banishment to the pitiless working man’s club circuit, listless records in which maybe even the Bee Gees themselves didn’t believe (Life In A Tin Can; trust me, the title’s much more interesting than the record).

Eventually they packed up and moved to Miami, and Arif Mardin. Wishing to steer them gently into something resembling the present tense, his first production for them, 1974’s Mr Natural had no hits, and still demonstrated a struggle between what they once were and what they could still be (there are a couple of straight-out hard rock tracks on there, one of which is called, Lord help me, “Heavy Breathing”) but enough decent would-be R&B stuff (“Lost In Your Love,” the title track) to justify taking the experiment further.

1975’s Main Course saw them getting it right, with its three hit singles and a general sense of rebirth. The following year’s Children Of The World seemed a little rushed and forced (compared with, say, Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees - now there’s a record that should have been called Mr Natural) but still had “You Should Be Dancing,” “Love So Right” and other worthy songs.

Then came the weekend of songs that ended up on Saturday Night Fever (those four songs of Scott’s on Nite Flights!) and suddenly the Bee Gees were Kings of Pop, with all the potential for fatality that such a title might imply, and Inventors of Disco (erm…). They were told they could do anything and then unfortunately went ahead and did anything, specifically the movie of Sgt. Pepper which has been carefully pencilled out of history and after which Peter Frampton was lucky still to have a career. They were also busy writing and producing hits for their Tigerbeat kid brother Andy, as well as for other, less obvious names; their big buck superstar productions lay ahead in the eighties, but for now people like Yvonne Elliman, Samantha Sang and Teri de Sario would do.

All of this work, added to touring and so forth, makes it a miracle that they had time even to consider making an album of their own. The cover of Spirits Having Flown, however, looks as though they want to incinerate their past; there they are, blowing or being blown by an unseen wind towards the left, while underneath them is a big red blob of…what? Fire, consuming all that they used to be? On the back we see three shades of ghosts standing on rocks, their backs to the Atlantic, and did people once inhabit these shadows?

I came across a CD copy of the album in a charity shop and wondered at the record shop packaging; on the front is a yellow, red and black Virgin Megastore price sticker, and beneath it is one of those generic PolyGram “SPECIAL PRICE” stickers used to promote albums well past their commercial peak. The Virgin sticker had a date on it – 01/01/99, the first day of the last year of the millennium, and a day that I was lucky to live to see – along with a “SPECIAL PRICE” of £10.49. Given the CD’s minimal repackaging – I am not saying that somebody photocopied a copy of the LP original, but they might as well have done, complete with credits that you would have to hire a telescope from Jodrell Bank to read properly – I was not surprised that in the intervening years it had worked its way down to the £2.99 that I was actually charged. It did strike me, however, as a fitting metaphor for how this album seems to have become forgotten.

“Tragedy” opens the record and is a red herring, clearly an attempt to do Abba (with its numerous indirect references to “Knowing Me, Knowing You”), with Barry at his most desperate and forlorn. It is also the coda to which the rest of the album is something of an afterthought, dealing as the record does with lost love, or accidentally mislaid love – a very Scott-ish obsession with the transient moment and the impossible attempts to retrieve or replicate it. “Too Much Heaven” is, after “Be My Baby,” Brian Wilson’s favourite record, and you can see what would appeal to him; the touchless harmonies (like Rachamaninov’s Vespers at points: “Our precious love…”), the Wilson-esque homilies (“Loving’s such a beautiful thing”) – although I note the song’s rather closer relationship with “I’m Stone In Love With You,” complete with lush would-be Thom Bell orchestrations, and high Barry’s similarity to Russell Thompkins Jnr. (although he is a bit shriller and more strident than Thompkins).

Still, it’s a good Stylistics record, and the rest of side one plays in much the same fashion; a very decent MoR soul album with lots of only slightly dated slow jams. “Love You Inside Out” is, despite its Bee Gee World lyrical schemata, a song good and purposeful enough for Feist to cover and make sense of. In terms of soul balladry, Barry (this really is a Barry album above all else) does best on “Reaching Out”; his “forever…oh…” at the end of the first chorus, his “I’ll be reaching out…ahh!,” the careful harp accompaniment. The title track – only very belatedly released as a single in Britain, and then only to promote the Greatest compilation – is eighties yacht rock in waiting, very Florida Keys, a patient lapping of percussion and horns (including, on flute, Herbie Mann) which could undulate forever like the waves of the Atlantic. Set against this, though, are the forces of nature – “hurricane,” “fire,” “air,” “dawn,” “empty skies” – which lend the song’s central yearning a reality glimpsed beneath the fa├žade of airless efficiency (best encapsulated on the other side of America in 1980, on Steely Dan’s “Glamour Profession,” wherein drug oblivion is pursued under music so perfectly set it could be played by machines; it is as deep a requiem for recent times as Joy Division’s “Decades” and its whiter-than-white (snow, sniff) air is precisely delineated by a wandering solo guitar, probably played by Steve Khan). Christopher Cross and the rest of the eighties await.

Side two doesn’t live up to these standards, however. That’s not to say that the five songs here are indolent or presumptuous, merely that the group sticks a lot of irons in the fire (to retrieve another Sing Slowly Sisters track title) and none of them really burns. “Search, Find” finally makes a tentative effort to go to the disco, but it’s a 1974 Philly disco (Teddy Pendergrass, perhaps, though the collective falsettos put one more in mind of the Three Degrees) with the horns mixed down so far and compressed so tightly that they sound like an accordion. “Stop (Think Again)” – hey, what’s with all these song titles as instructions; are the Bee Gees inventing the internet? – is a Chi-Lite-y six-minute-plus R&B ballad which is about twice as long as it needs to be, Barry emoting all over his shop to little effect; the song’s structure and sentiment would have required the Marvin Gaye of Here, My Dear to give it authority, though the anonymous tenor saxophonist does his best to liven proceedings up, and Dennis Bryon’s drumming is especially attentive (hear his “Enough!” snare hammer on the fadeout of “Love You Inside Out”).

“Living Together” might be a metaphor for the group, for all I know – the chorus goes “Why ain’t we livin’ together, livin’ together, instead of bein’ so far apart?” – and once the song gets past its elaborate trumpets and strings prelude, it’s nice to hear Robin finally getting a lead vocal (with Barry in his “normal” register answering him in the chorus) even if the super-falsetto effect falls just short of grotesque. Unfortunately, when the strings come in, I am reminded not of Chic but of ELO’s “Evil Woman.” “I’m Satisfied,” the only song on the record where Barry is actually with someone (there’s “Too Much Heaven” but that warns that love could just be “a dream to fade away”), simply tries to be too many things to too many people; Hall and Oates guitar strut, TK/“Rock Your Baby” organ and rhythms, Ethel Merman’s disco album levels of over-intensity, and the now irritating mass falsettos which sound like she-ee-ee-ee-eep.

And then, right at the end of an album which understandably disappointed many of the people who bought it, we get…Barry, and an electric piano (or possibly a synthesiser, IT DOESN’T MATTER)…and the sequel to “First Of May.” “You were a lovely child,” he starts, and the “oh dear” detector starts to rise, but no, it’s not about that; “I knew we were in love/We were alone to dream a dream.” Although the melody is broadly Stevie Wonder (“I Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” would be a good comparison), Barry sings in his normal register, sounding remarkably like Bill Withers (with a touch of Aaron Neville vibrato). “We held our love and that held our hearts…” (a very Scott line there, don’t you think?)…and then there’s a pause. “Until…until…” Until what, Barry? There is no answer, except that his voice suddenly goes high and wordless; he is letting out the greatest of frustrated cries (Marvin, again, would have understood completely and immediately)…and the bird has flown.

Go back to the last voice you hear on Odessa, which is the same voice, after all the music has been systematically stripped from it:

“Don’t ask me why/But time has passed us by/Someone else moved in from far away…”

Because shit happened, because life changed, because “we” “grew up,” and sure we ain’t Chic or Funkadelic or even the Doobie Brothers – damn, that Michael McDonald, he can go up three registers in one breath of one syllable! – or for that matter Michael Jackson, but look, this is what we had to say, we were never gonna get shotgunned into doing it for the discos, and yes, the world turned against us again, and eventually will buy our songs as long as somebody else (from far away?) is singing them, but can’t you see this isn’t the indulgence of three rich men with nothing else to do? This is the album we would have made even if we had to support the Dooleys in Gateshead. Others do songs like “The Electrician” but we had our own ways. We - I - had no way of knowing…that eventually…

“I’m the only one left alive”