mr-natural

Rock Bottom: Bee Gees

Rock Bottom focuses on artists during an awkward transitional phase, usually between bouts of fame/respectability. During these phases, the music these artists were making was neither popular nor well-received. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth revisiting.

[NOTE: This post uses Rdio embeds; they’re Flash-based, so they won’t show up if you’re reading this on a mobile device.]

I listened to a whole lot of Bee Gees this summer, and it was all because of this:

I have no idea how I landed on that YouTube clip, but it was absolutely revelatory. For a rock-oriented child of the ’70s, the Bee Gees have always been the worst of all words: limp and lifeless pop stars who were both omnipresent and devoid of soulfulness. As I got older, I learned about their earlier work – Idea, etc. – that was far better than their disco hits, of course, but there’s a grit and a looseness on display in that TV performance that revealed a side of the band I had never been exposed to before.

So I dug in.

Bee-Gees-Main-Course

For weeks, it seemed that all I listened to was the band’s Arif Mardin-produced Main Course album (which they were promoting on that TV appearance), and even though the album has some massive hits on it – “Nights on Broadway,” “Jive Talkin’,” “Fanny” – the entire thing is imbued with a go-for-broke attitude that’s deeply appealing.

It turns out, of course, that on Main Course, the Bee Gees were indeed going for broke. Even though the album saw them basically invent pop-disco by melding club music with their always-incandescent harmonies, it was less a calculated move than one necessitated by the fact that, in 1975, nobody gave a shit about the Bee Gees, so with no audience expectations to live up to, the group was free to chart their own stylistic path.

But the album that provided the stylistic and compositional backbone of the seventh-best-selling album of all time (Saturday Night Fever) and containing more than a few of its own not-insubstantial hits does not “Rock Bottom” make. No, Main Course was very successful, both creatively and commercially. But that success was the unlikely result of four years of the band being completely in the wilderness. And that’s what this “Rock Bottom” is about.

cucumber-castle-2

After the adventurous and intricate Odessa was released in 1969, Robin Gibb left the band to pursue a solo career. So, of course, the remaining two Brothers Gibb made a terrible movie and a middling soundtrack to go with it. Cucumber Castle was a band running on fumes, attempting to replicate the modest success of Odessa by grafting a storyline and pretentiousness onto the group’s beatifically maudlin pop. It was an effort to resurrect their early success (“Cucumber Castle” was a song on their first album) while trying to grapple with the demands of the post-’60s comedown. It didn’t work. (The film was a wreck too … although it did inexplicably feature footage of Blind Faith performing in Hyde Park.)

Cucumber Castle has a couple of shining moments, most notably the rich and soulful (and a bit pretentious) “Bury Me Down By The River”:

However, the bulk of the album is grey and uninspired, with flat textures and a general sense of deflation. It’s a bummer that’s trying really hard to not be a bummer. Unsurprisingly, it did not do very well: It was the first Bee Gees album to not crack the Top 20 in the UK. And it was the last time the Bee Gees would be in the UK Top 100 until Saturday Night Fever came out.

However, Brother Robin’s solo career fared none too well either, and he was back in the fold for the band’s second album of 1970, 2 Years On. However, by this point, any momentum – creative, commercial, or otherwise – that the band had built up had begun to dissipate into a cloud of confusion; not only had the world moved on from the twee harmonies the Bee Gees were best known for, it appeared that the Bee Gees had as well.

Listen to that. Sure, “Lonely Days” was a hit, but man … what a drag, right? You can hear the band striving to capture the soaring elegance of their earlier hits, but it is just dripping with melancholy. It’s called “Lonely Days,” for heaven’s sake! And it’s not an isolated incident:

Yeah, “I’m Weeping.”

But still, 2 Years On had the band experimenting a bit with their fundamental identity; tossing in some prog-pop elements (a la the Moody Blues) and a little harder edge here and there made them somewhat more palatable to American ears, and the album actually did okay over here, peaking at #32 on the U.S. album chart.

The last that most audiences would hear from the Bee Gees until Saturday Night Fever was the follow-up to 2 Years On, 1971’s Trafalgar, which could be seen as something of a spiritual cousin to Odessa. However, where Odessa was all ambition and pop-girded storyline, Trafalgar was a dismal and dreary affair. And it is a marvelous album. Again, check out the hit that came from the album:

That’s a sad song! And beautiful too! And again: THIS WAS THE HIT. But that’s not the best – or most defining – moment here. Check this out:

If there’s such a thing as an ethereal pop dirge, “Greatest Man” is it. The thick, diaphanous harmonies are just amazing, especially when contrasted with the restrained musical arrangements backing them up. Add to that a sincere sense of cynical desperation and wow … you’ve got an out-of-its-time masterpiece.

Trafalgar made something of an impact (at least in the U.S.), but was quickly forgotten. And so were the Bee Gees. After “Broken Heart,” they’d only have one more Top 20 single in the U.S. or U.K. until “Jive Talkin'”:

“My World” was a single-only track, recorded during the same sessions that yielded To Whom It May Concern. And it’s on To Whom It May Concern that the Bee Gees really started hitting Rock Bottom. There’s an amusing bit in 2010’s documentary film In Our Time where Maurice talks about how To Whom It May Concern was called that because the band really had no idea who their fanbase was anymore; it’s funny, but mainly in a “I can only laugh about this because we made a shit-ton of money later” kind of way. To Whom It May Concern is less all over the place than its title may imply – it generally stays well within the confines of melancholy pop that the band had been working in over the past few years – but it does show them trying to figure out where to go next. The opening track is the best:

and their attempt at quiet post-psychedelia is nice too:

But for the most part, the album wanders in a slow and undetermined way. And, wow, is it is good record for listening to when you’re feeling sorry for yourself: “Haunted House,” “Please Don’t Turn Out the Lights,” “Bad Bad Dreams” … it’s not really a fun record. But it’s definitely an album with its charms, and set alongside 2 Years On and Trafalgar, it stands to define this transitional phase as one of melancholy and self-awareness, rather than the jaunty Britpop or crisp disco the band is best known for.

Unfortunately, its follow-up did little other than to further reinforce the fact that the Bee Gees were at Rock Bottom. Life in a Tin Can is an entirely unimpressive album that fits the mold set by its predecessors, but nonetheless has very little to offer. Even the best song’s not very good:

And as unremarkable as Life In A Tin Can is, the album that was supposed to be its companion – A Kick in the Head Is Worth Eight in the Pants – wasn’t even released. Recorded at the same time (and with apparently the same lack of inspiration) as Life In A Tin Can, A Kick in the Head … was put out of its misery before it could even hit the shelves.

Bee-Gees-Mr-Natural---Seal-517371

But then, Rock Bottom began to turn into something truly worth paying attention to. The Bee Gees teamed up with Arif Mardin to record Mr. Natural; Mardin’s deep and unimpeachable bona fides as Atlantic’s go-to producer during the label’s ’60s soul heyday meant that he knew how to bring out the best in artists. And he did just that with the Bee Gees. Mr. Natural is an immensely rewarding album, but one whose pleasures are subtle and exploratory. Although Mardin wouldn’t accidentally discover Barry Gibb’s falsetto until the Main Course sessions, it’s clear that he was pushing the band in new directions during the Mr. Natural sessions. There’s no funk here yet, but by getting the band to focus on the soulful plaintiveness that had defined their last few albums, he was able to let the brothers exercise some of their formative R&B influences in an interestingly tangential way. There’s soul, there’s gospel, there’s moody balladry, and there’s even a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s still a Bee Gees album that’s somewhat of a piece with the few that came before it.

It’s just a great album, and it’s one that should stand as a bridge between stylistic eras, but winds up sounding completely individual. It’s also plenty odd, as there’s no obvious hit, there’s no binding stylistic mold, and there’s absolutely no clue that these guys will invent pop-disco in just a few months.

In other words, it may have been Rock Bottom (it peaked at #178 on the U.S. album chart), but it was probably the most important album the Bee Gees ever made.

And, as this journey began with a YouTube dive, so should it end. Check out this concert the band did in 1974 in Melbourne to promote Mr. Natural:

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4 thoughts on “Rock Bottom: Bee Gees

  1. Pingback: “Bare Trees” is the classic Fleetwood Mac album that all those “Rumours” reissues keeps you from hearing about [The Parallel Canon] | Notable Noise

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