Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Believers

This is Part Three of a three-part Bee Gees trilogy. Part One is here; Part Two is here.

A year before Maurice Gibb (above, far right) died in 2003 and forever ended the Bee Gees, the brothers Gibb did an hour-long sit-down interview with Larry King on CNN. In it, they made clear that even though conventional wisdom maintains that the Gees went fallow in the early 70s and reemerged in 1975 as a newly-minted disco act with Main Course ("Nights on Broadway," "Jive Talkin'"), THEY never believed they went fallow. Nor did they ever consider themselves disco. As Maurice's fraternal twin Robin tells King: "We had never even heard of the word disco until the media...[when] people started using the word disco, it was kind of alien to us. But what we were doing at the time, we were describing this progressive R&B blue-eyed soul."

Later, this exchange:

KING: What kept you going during the down period?

M. GIBB: I think our passionate writing. I think the songs have always kept
us up there.

KING: Is it called going dry? Do you feel like, "We're awful. They're not --
they're not into us?"

M. GIBB: No, we didn't go dry. I think the record company went dry.

B. GIBB: Yes.

M. GIBB: And a lot of people around us went dry on us. Not us.

R. GIBB: Oh, yeah. You go out of vogue.

M. GIBB: You go out of vogue, you see. If it's a new decade, you're out.

In other words, the idea that the Bee Gees made some "awful" albums was simply a mass delusion of taste. Alas, history is written by the victors. In 1974, the year before the BG's went "disco," the era-defining hits were "The Way We Were" by Barbra Streisand and "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John. By the Bee Gee's estimation, of course, historical popularity is a charade -- or sha-rawd, as they sing it in "Charade," from the Bee Gee's 1974 effort (and so-called "transition" album) Mr. Natural. Consider these tunes possible evidence for a Driftwood Singers-meet-Howard Zinn historical revisionism of popular music, with the Bee Gees themselves as the (temporarily) oppressed underclass.

Charade - Bee Gees

Mr. Natural - Bee Gees

Of course, it's hard to avoid the undertow of history while it's happening. As Barry Gibb tells King, "it was the culture changing, not us or the music. The culture had been through the peace movement, and it was time to do something -- time to have some fun." But even when you win, you can't win. Despite its massive hits, Village Voice statesman Robert Christgau gave Main Course only a B+ because, as he wrote back then, "an unpleasant tension between feigned soulfulness and transparent insincerity still mars most of side two." But Robert! You were wrong! If he'd been listening with long enough antennae, he'd hear that side two happens to contain two of the best songs: 1) a stunning example of the Bee Gees immense adaptability, the piano-driven proto-alt-country number "Come On Over" (with Robin's ever-gorgeous limy vibrato on lead vocal) and 2), the weird, visionary pop wonder "Edge of the Universe," the melody of which was baldly re-purposed by XTC some 12 years later in "Grass" on the exquisite Skylarking (Christgau rating: A-). Visionary? Well, here are the lyrics, you be the judge:

Well, I'm ten feet tall,
but I'm only three feet wide.
And I live inside an ocean that flows
on the other side.

If I came back down tomorrow,
would it all be far too soon?
And it looks like it's gonna be a lovely afternoon.

Come On Over - Bee Gees

Edge of the Universe - Bee Gees

Grass - XTC

Extra!: Not to be missed is the Italian tribute band, the Tree Gees. You can hear their amazing likeness on MySpace.

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