Review by Andrew Hamlin.
The Bee Gees—1974-1979 (Reprise)
At this year’s Pop Conference, held at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, a leading rock and roll journalist devoted his presentation
to “The Seductive, Disturbing, Sexy, Androgynous Allure of the High Male Voice.” And the Bee Gees got exactly one mention, amidst one “they-also-ran” paragraph of blah-blah-blah. One mention. No sound samples.
The very next presenter gave voice to “Her Greatest ‘Hits’: The Top Songs of Dominatrixes While They Work.” Guess what? One lady proudly namechecked Saturday Night Fever.
Perfect. Because the Bee Gees still can’t catch a break from critics, and they can’t stop catching flowers from us mundanes—and who more mundane, these days, than a dominatrix? Imagine yourself (or someone like you) bound for one grunty pounding to Barry Gibb’s “screaming in tune” as Barry sums up his mid-‘70s master ploy. Imagination no longer needed. The trio reaches out another pseudopod, one more amoebic assimilation.
You know the Brothers Gibb conquered. What you might miss is how weird they got in the process. They got everyone on their feet so
they could sling just about anything they wanted into lyrics, absorbed transdermally into your consciousness, born on the DMSO of those hooks.
Barry’s screaming isn’t much heard on Mr. Natural, the first of four albums (plus crucial non-album tracks) assembled and re-polished for the new box set, 1974-1979. Maurice, usually resigned to the sidelines at this point, summed up the group’s aesthetic as “trashing
about,” but the willingness to try anything leaves the album ever-surprising–even without weed! Leading off with a slow number
about a lovin’ all “Charade” (and which trails off in synthetic wind chimes) the album finds escape valves in appeals to the children of
the world (not yet a title), in “Throw A Penny” (groove interruptus for a Leslie-speakered paean to a “wise man” who “breathes”), and
“Give A Hand, Take A Hand,” simultaneously forseeing and outwriting Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World,” then throws in a vision of the hereafter to scare you goodhearted. Robin waxes greeting-card morbid with “Voices.” Robin cries to keep from laughing on the title track.
Main Course is of course them figuring out what they wanted. The band can’t even get respect from the critic writing their biography, David N. Meyer, who rose to calling “Jive Talkin’” a “game-changer” but also thinks it achieved “racelessness” (hmmmm…), and summarizes this, “likely their best album overall” as “two great cuts, two decent cuts, and the rest are…high-grade filler.” Brand me one filler fool but I’ll take “Nights On Broadway” for drama (the stage kind and the kind you save for your mama), “Fanny” for dueling falsettos (Robin also screamed!) and desperation (a “one-off dirty joke,” Meyer sniffs), and “Edge Of The Universe” for the best argument that psychedelia never died–and never was born.
I could write a whole essay on “Universe”: The bold grammar gaffe of “My dog and I,” the melting edges of reality where thank-the-animus “it’s going to be a lovely afternoon,” the naming of the narrator “Shenandora,” a word I’m pretty sure they made up and which I’m pretty sure graces beautiful women born worldwide the year their mothers heard this; the sickness of Shenandora’s dog, and Blue Weaver’s synthesizer palpating impossible aether.
Children Of The World (finally) had me thinking at first, long on groove, short on song structure. Even if true, though, Barry knew how
to follow and evince trends (Robin tended to the tending of his hysterical testimonials), and it’s the occasion of my Third-Favorite
Bee Gees Misheard Lyric, “What’cha doin’ ibble ibble ibble/ahhh—You should be dancing!” I never wondered about “ibble” as a child and it never mattered. Divine foolishness, no doubt. Listen and evince holiness.
Spirits Having Flown—anyone finding them formulaic or even normal, should skip directly to its end, “Until,” voice and some burbling
pinging ambient stuff with strings overlaid for texture. I’ll remind you how many gears “Tragedy” switches, how many voices (27!) went into “Too Much Heaven,” but they’re willing to tail off with one man’s pain in the aspic of dropped-synth ambiance. Brave. Noble. Waiting for posterity but not caring if Godot actually shows.
Finally, The Miami Years, a catch-all saving them the trouble of actually reissuing Saturday Night Fever. Meyer dismisses “If I Can’t
Have You” with “no climax, or peak”—clearly he’s whiffing the bifurcated verse structure and the extra beats before each chorus. My
Second Favorite Bee Gees Misheard Lyric: “’Cause we’re living in a world of foods/Breaking us down/Will the ocean let us be”—which after all, isn’t any less off-the-wall cosmologic than anything actually in “Edge Of The Universe.” And my First Favorite Bee Gees Misheard Lyric: “We can’t try/To understand/The ‘New York Times’ or paper, man.” Take that, literacy!
Then the world changed.