I keep straining my ears to hear a sound: The best of the Bee Gees

If you were too young to own Saturday Night Fever and its attendant singles, then Mickey Mouse Disco compensated. My fifth birthday present was the first album I owned, and I can still hum “Macho Duck” and “Welcome to Rio” and remember their Fisher Price rhythm section doing that four on the floor beat. So I was aware of the Bee Gees and satellite singles written and produced by the trio, mostly Barry Gibb and the essential Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten as co-equal partners. Living in Miami meant disco never died in any meaningful sense except lexical: from 1980 we saw “dance,” hi-NRG, freestyle, and bass germinate in studios in North Miami, Aventura, and a renascent Miami Beach. The Bee Gees never died commercially either, as they used Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny + Dolly, and Diana Ross as surely as they did Yvonne Ellmann, Samantha Sang, and poor hopeless Andy Gibb. Hell, I have vague memories of the dead-on-arrival “You Win Again,” a massive hit everywhere in the world except America in the fall of 1987, getting airplay because Miami. On the other hand those stations treated “One,” their first American top ten in nearly a decade, as if Miami Sound Machine had won control of the Senate and House.

And the Bee Gees existed as flesh and blood too. For a couple years in the early 2000s Barry Gibb frequented Miami’s oldest bookstore’s Miami Beach location, often perusing history; the gangly giant was pointed out to me several times although I never helped him like I did Iggy Pop.

Reading Simon Spence’s Staying Alive: The Disco Inferno Of The Bee Gees compelled me to check out older stuff like Odessa last month — a wise decision, for this to me was where Barry, Robin, and Maurice’s adolescent studio perfectionism produced tracks that have as much to do with the real world as The Rape of the Lock but like that poem have an architectural grace that creates a wish in listeners: can we have emotions commensurate with this level of bravura? “Odessa (City On The Black Sea),” “Melody Fair,” and “I Laugh in Your Face” represent the furthest advances of Beatles and Hollies studiocraft possible until Big Star; listening to that album is like gorging on macaroons.

Finally, don’t spend too much parsing their post-1974 lyrics. Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker,” a sublimity that’s one of the pillars of Western civ, has lines that don’t connect at all; there’s no story; Warwick’s superbly poised vocal burnishing each line holds the song together. It’s just emotion taking her and them over.

The list below, necessarily limited, represents my attempt to nail their ever-changing moods. Notice I didn’t even list the bewildering number of songs/productions for hire.

1. You Should Be Dancing
2. Night Fever
3. I Started a Joke
4. Tragedy
5. New York Mining Disaster 1941
6. How Deep is Your Love
7. How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
8. I Can’t See Nobody
9. More Than a Woman
10. Stayin’ Alive
11. Too Much Heaven
12. One
13. Jive Talkin
14. To Love Somebody
15. Odessa (City On The Black Sea)
16. Lonely Days
17. Love So Right
18. Indian Gin and Whisky Dry
19. Melody Fair
20. Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)
21. Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You
22. I Laugh In Your Face
23. Spirits Having Flown
24. Lamplight
25. Don’t Forget to Remember

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