Monday, 4 June 2012

News, Views and Music Issue 147 (Top Five): Bee Gees Songs/AAA bands Catch 'Saturday Night Fever' and Go Disco!

There’s a two-part Top Five for you this week dear readers, both of them in honour of the much-missed Robin Gibb, who died last week at the age of 62. First up we’ll be looking at five classic Bee Gees songs every good AAA collector should own (even if there isn’t one great album to enjoy – hence their absence from our list proper – although ‘Bee Gees First’ is probably your best bet, despite actually being their 4th LP!) Robin is a key part of all of these songs (apart from one by his equally talented twin Maurice) and his writing contribution to the band should never be overlooked. After that we’ll be looking at AAA forays into the world of disco, the genre pioneered by The Bee Gees in the late 70s. Surprisingly Neil Young has never made a disco record despite covering, literally, every other genre under the sun. In fact all we could come up with was this list of seven examples, listed in chronological order, with The Hollies surprisingly early on the disco trail, releasing their single when Saturday Night Fever was still in production...Only one entry per band, by the way, and so we’ve tried to go with the most obviously disco where we can. Oh and an honorary mention for The Who’s ‘Sister Disco’; the version on ‘Who Are You?’ is way more rock than disco but the lyrics bid the genre a kind of fond farewell!

5) My Thing (Cucumber Castle, 1969)

Maurice Gibb was the ‘George Harrison’ the ‘Dave Davies’ or the ‘Dennis Wilson’ of the band. By that I mean the dark horse who quietly mastered everything anyone needs to know about composition in a very short time and without the fuss made by his noisier colleagues. ‘My Thing’ is pretty much the only song in the whole of The Bee Gees’ impressive 35-year-run to have just Maurice’s name in the credits and, as the name implies, it’s a very personal piece. A snapshot in time, it features his girlfriend of the day (Lulu, though never named in the song), the family dog and, well, not a lot else really. But that’s all we need for a wonderful instrumental fade that goes on and on, sounding like Brian Wilson at his peak orchestral period, serene and other-worldly and completely unique. No wonder Maurice called it ‘my Thing’ – few other writers have got away with such a ‘loose’ song as this one and yet every note is spot-on, from the staccato bass opening to the dowdy-doo-wowsy chorus. 

4) Run To Me (To Whom It May Concern, 1972)

‘Run To Me’ was the band’s last big hit single pre-Disco and yet it always gets forgotten these days. Like many of the band’s breathy ballads this is slow indeed but unlike some Bee Gees singles I could mention (How Do You Mend A Broken Heart?) the tempo perfectly encapsulates the mood of sadness. There’s also a killer chorus which features perhaps the ultimate example of the band’s classy three-part harmonies, turning one of the saddest songs in pop into one of the most uplifting in one fell swoop. Barry’s lead vocals are his best ever for the band (long before he started wearing tighter trousers and singing falsetto – hmm, there may be a link there) but its Robin’s gentlemanly tone on the chorus that makes this song a classic. A perfect lesson in contrasts.

3) Blue Island (Size Isn’t Everything, 1993)

This late-period song from the band’s penultimate LP is another classy ballad sung by the band in harmony throughout – unusual for their later days when fans can tell more and more which Gibb brother is behind which song (whatever the three-way writing credits say). This one is Robin’s song and it’s a gorgeously retro moment on perhaps the band’s biggest attempt to sound contemporary since the disco era and its a tremendously moving moment, with the three Gibb brothers singing pretty much alone (for pretty much the last time as it turned out, with Maurice dying shockingly young just eight years and one album later). Looking to find hope and courage in a tight spot, the lyrics are clearly inspired by the brothers’ charity work (the song is dedicated ‘to the children of Yugoslavia’) and would have made for a much more fitting song than the ‘Band Aid’ one. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ ends the song, making the observation of the opening verse flower into a much more personal response to death, destruction and disaster.

2) Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You (First, 1967)

I so wish the Bee Gees had spent longer in their psychedelic phase, because its the style that suited them best. There are many fine ‘summer of love’ type moments on their ‘First’ album but its this far-out track, with the brothers accompanied by disembodied choirs (made to sound like bass rumbles thanks to studio trickery) and a haunting moog synthesiser part that sticks in the memory most. There’s a great song in there even without all the Moody Blues-ish effects too, with a fascinating lyric similar to ‘Blue Island’ urging people to make the most of their lives whatever their situation (and , despite their title, whatever their faith). This song might not be the most obvious Bee Gees song, but it’s their peak as an experimental pioneering band making recordings that literally no one else would have made, back in the days when #every child was thinking up something wild’!

1) To Love Somebody (First, 1967)

The best Bee Gees song by miles – whatever the results of channel 4’s poll last year decided – is this haunting ballad covered by AAA star Janis Joplin. She got a lot of stick for doing this song at the time, what with her traditional image as a hellraiser and their traditional image as pop musicians. But Janis clearly heard something real and honest in this song, which may just feature one of the most heartbreaking sets of lyrics about, well, heartbreak ever written. ‘You don’t know what its like’ cuts the chorus, but its sadness not bitterness that lives through this song and the narrator whose so in love that he just cannot let the person of his dreams go however obvious it is that it’s over. The opening, with its metaphor of a light that won’t shine on the narrator no matter how hard he tries, looking for intervention from above, is classic songwriting. For me the Bee Gees version is Robin Gibb’s finest moment with his band (that’s his quavering voice in the second half and most of his lyrics), but their version is spoiled by an unnecessary coda that makes the whole thing sound upbeat by the end. This is a song that should remain fiercely sad right to the bitter end, without any help from any direction and the singer trapped all alone in his misery.

Now, you may have noticed that there aren’t actually any ‘disco’ era songs from the Bee Gees here, by far their best known period. The truth is I just don’t like them that much and, till I started looking for tracks for this week’s top seven, I always though I didn’t like disco that much. I mean, most disco songs are there to dance to and as we’ve been saying often on this site if you’re listening to a song that makes you want to dance, as opposed to wanting to think or cry or hug somebody then frankly that’s a waste of crotchets and quavers. Music to me always had to be heartfelt – and yet against all odds the seven AAA examples in the disco genre are. Of course most of them were criticised when they came out for jumping on bandwagons and being too far removed from a traditional sound but that’s OK with me as long as the results are good. So let’s hear it for seven AAA disco songs that somehow all managed to beat anything released by any supposed disco stars...

1) The Hollies “Draggin’ My Heels” (Russian Roulette, 1976)

The most ‘disco’ song on what is generally considered to be The Hollies’ ‘disco’ album is probably the highlight of the set. So popular was it in dace-halls that the band later stuck out a 12” remix of the track – forget that, though, and stick with this five minute version which is an excellent example of how a detailed production and a funky beat can enhance a quite sensitive set of lyrics. ‘First at the gatepost, but the last one through’ runs a lyric that, like many of the band’s finest 70s songs, depicts the narrator as a loveable loser down on his luck. The disco style doesn’t sound as odd as you might think – The Hollies often mixed their usual influences with bossa nova and this song is a logical extension of songs like ‘We’re Through’, where the accents are on the 1 and 3 beats (instead of 2 and 4 as is most Western music not written by Brian Wilson where no rules apply!) The best section is the magnificent middle eight where the rhythm section takes over and Allan Clarke and Terry Sylvester in harmony reel off some quick-snapping rhymes that must have tired out all the dancers at the disco trying to keep up. Other Hollies disco songs to recommend: anything else from ‘Russian Roulette’ except their one attempt at a disco hit ‘Wiggle That Wotsit’, a song now regarded as a bad idea (from the title down!)

2) The Rolling Stones “Miss You” (Some Girls, 1978)

The one bona fide hit on this list was this top 3 single for The Stones – their comeback in many ways after a series of songs that only went top 20 or top 30. This is the period when tensions between Jagger and Richards were beginning to reach their peak and they took to writing alone; this one is entirely Mick’s song and while it’s one of only two times the Stones did disco (‘the weaker ‘Emotional Recue’ being the other) Jagger clearly had affinity with the genre as there’s lots on his first two solo albums. Jagger’s persona has always been about swagger (ooh that rhymes!) and he sounds very at home on this simple track about ‘being abandoned’. What’s a bigger surprise is how at home the others are – Keith Richards’ very Chuck Berry guitar still fits well, Bill Wyman gets the whole disco groove thing in one go and Charlie Watts sounds like he’s had a whole new lease of life (indeed, ‘Some Girls’ is his best record by some margin). Only a nonsensical ‘ooh oooh oooh oooh oooh’ chorus and the Americanised drawl of ‘whatsamatterwivyouboy?’ gives away that it’s still the same Stones who are better known for their unique brand of ‘swampy rock’. This song also had a 12” disco remix – and like all the many dozens of Stones remixes out there by other people, it’s dreadful, with more time spent on the sound effects than the song.

3) Paul McCartney and Wings “Goodnight Tonight” (A side, 1979)

Another hit, this song charted at #10, although its reputation has grown more in the years since it’s release – at the time many critics hated the idea of a Beatle doing disco. The last ‘proper’ single (they’re credited for ‘Wonderful Xmas Time’ but don’t play on it) it’s a fine way to say goodbye, with Laurence Juber, Denny Laine and Macca criss-crossing guitar solos (a trick last used 10 years earlier on ‘Abbey Road’), some classic drumming from Steve Holly (who sounds more at home with disco than he ever did with the rock or new wave stuff on ‘Back To The Egg’) and one of Macca’s best ever bass lines, working in complete contrast to the rest of the song. Wings might have said goodnight after this song, but its a great way to go, mixing a very 50s melody line (with shades of Buddy Holly) with all the best bits of the late 70s music scene. As exciting as music gets, this time it actually is worth looking out for the 12” remix, although unlike the above examples this one only runs about 45 seconds or so longer rather than minutes.

4) The Beach Boys “Here Comes The Night” (L.A. Light Album, 1979)

Unusually this time it’s the single disco remix that’s shorter (some four minutes) and the album version that’s longer –a whopping 11 minutes! Most fans hate this noisy disco re-tread of a rather unassuming song from ‘Wild Honey’ (1968), but I think it’s a whole lot of fun, making the most of both the song’s great riff (barely used in the original) and the Beach Boys’ stunning harmonies (well, Carl Al Mike and Bruce anyway – Dennis is missing and probably Brian is too). The use of a funky bass part and a clattering string part should be annoying but instead they just help make song one of the great examples in how to build and release tension in a song, adding one little bit at a time. Masterminded by Bruce Johnston, then officially just the producer helping out his ‘old’ band on a song, its a dazzling display of high-wire harmonies and, whatever the band thought of it later, they each give their all here. I remember writing my A level General Studies mock exam about The Beach Boys and getting good marks for arguing how pioneering the band stayed right up to this ‘disco’ era, outshining their competitors by going longer, better and brainier. Alas on the proper exam I had a daft question where I had to argue how wonderful a prime minister Margaret Thatcher had been for the country – needless to say I got very low marks for that, possibly the shortest essay I have ever written.

5) The Kinks “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” (Low Budget, 1979)

Possibly my favourite moment on this entire list, this is Ray Davies at his story-telling best. Most disco songs are about ego, the brilliance of the dancer on the dancefloor and how things are going his or her way, etc. Ray Davies instead uses disco beats as the incessant demands of a world where the narrator is so convinced of his pointlessness that he dreams of becoming a super hero and putting the world at rights, even though he tires himself out doing press-ups. Mick Avory’s drumming has never been better, Jim Rodford’s bass is superb, Dave Davies gets more chance to play than on any Kinks record in ages, Ray Davies really lives through his character and best of all the swash-wave sound effects so common on disco records of the time sound great here, rather than cheesy. One of the best Kinks efforts of the late 70s, this disco song deserved to do much better (one of the few times Ray Davies ever sounds truly happy in his ‘unauthorised autobiography’ X-Ray is previewing this at a disco and watching it blow everyone else away). Proof that disco and dance music don’t just have to be ‘empty’. This time its the 12” disco remix (kindly added to the ‘Low Budget’ album as a bonus track) that’s the best, playing a full 150 seconds longer than the rockier original.

6) Pink Floyd “Run Like Hell” (1979)

Finally, we reach this intriguing song from perhaps the band least likely to go disco, Pink Floyd. Then again a disco song arguably makes sense in the context of the ‘Wall’ story at this point in the album’s fourth side when Pink’s ego is getting to him and he feels he can do no wrong. This really is a sarcastic song rather than a true disco song, with the incessant beat of the dance-floor turned into a typical Floyd song about paranoia and terror (and thus not too far removed from early songs like ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’ and ‘One Of These Days I’m Going To Cut You Into Little Pieces’) In concert this was dedicated ‘to all the weak people in the audience’, both a sarcastic diatribe against fear in the audience and those in the audience there for the spectacle’ and to be there for a best-selling group, having sold out to disco only the week before. Like many of the Floyd’s best songs, its based around a terrific guitar riff from David Gilmour that sounds like hell to play and there’s a great tune going on in there underneath Waters’ typically bitter and forthright set of lyrics. Waters sings the song’s criss-crossing vocals all himself on album but its on stage (with Gilmour trading lines) that this song really takes off, being heard at its best on the ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ concert version of ‘The Wall’.

And that’s that. Join us next week for another edition of everyone’s favourite online newsletter involving AAA groups, News Views and Music. 

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