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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bee Gees: Horizontal


1) World; 2) And The Sun Will Shine; 3) Lemons Never Forget; 4) Really And Sincerely; 5) Birdie Told Me; 6) With The Sun In My Eyes; 7) Massachusets; 8) Harry Braff; 9) Day Time Girl; 10) The Earnest Of Being George; 11) The Change Is Made; 12) Horizontal.

A somewhat strange title (Oval might have been more appropriate, with a reference to the sleeve photo), and a somewhat strange album — in a way, perhaps the band's stran­gest album ever. Re­corded in the wake of Sgt. Pepper's arrival, and we could expect it to be at least as diverse and multi-colored as its predecessor, considering just how heavy the peer pressure was on everybody once the Beatles put on their grotesque uniforms. But it isn't. The first impression is that the moods and textures are becoming more condensed, veering towards a unified «Bee Gees sound». This is not very good news for anti-sentimentalist crusaders. Then the second impression is that the band is not really going for a simple pop appeal — and that ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ must have moved them to more activity than ʽWhen I'm Sixty Fourʼ. That's a solid compensation.

Essentially, Horizontal places a solid block on several of the paths briefly explored in 1st — for instance, the mock-cheery Kinksy piano music hall of ʽCraise Finton Kirkʼ, or the Revolver-style guitar pop of ʽIn My Own Timeʼ, or the hallucinatory excesses of ʽEvery Christian...ʼ — in favor of further road-building in the other directions. There are still a few nods to psychedelia, and a few traces of a «rock» sound, courtesy of guitarist Vince Melouney, but the brothers now seem more fully aware of what it is they really like to do and what it is that they don't. Fortunately, for now, what they like to do, what the public likes to hear from them, and what we commonly ex­pect from good art-pop music, irrespective of the times, still seem to coincide.

The big hit and perennial fan favorite ʽMassachusetsʼ could, perhaps, have been written by Scott McKenzie or John Phillips, but it couldn't have been sung the way Robin does it — carefully and meticulously articulating each line, laying it out on the hay-covered melody waves like ultra-fragile glass. It is sort of namby-pamby (but this is the Bee Gees, what are you doing reading this if you hate namby-pamby?), but it is also tightly disciplined (the upbeat rhythm section helps out a lot), and the string melody is locked into such a genteel baroque dance with the vowel har­mo­nies that the song gets an authentic «aristocratic» feel. Even when you watch the lip-synced foo­tage from 1967 of the band singing the song, it seems as if Robin, and the rest of them, are doing it just for themselves — no pandering to the audience and its tastes whatsoever. Oh, it's a long long way from here to ʽMore Than A Womanʼ.

Above all else, ʽMassachusetsʼ is not a very happy song, and neither is anything else on here: overall, Horizontal is fairly glum, even if nobody quite understands why. In fact, listen closely to the lyrics of its bookmarks and you might think it's a suicidal album — ʽWorldʼ greets us with grand pianos, Mellotrons, and bombastic percussion only to ask the question "How far am I able to see, or am I needed here?", and the title track says farewell with grand pianos, Mellotrons, and no bombastic percussion in quite a literal way: "This is the start of the end, goodbye / Hours of facing my life have damned". Like I said — if it ain't the strong influence of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ, I have no idea what it is. But in any case, existentialist despair and suicide in the Bee Gees' im­personation circa 1967 sound seductive — the catchy choral harmonies, wobbly echos, and pompous arrange­ments don't exactly plunder the depths of the soul, but they still make this «exhibitionist world-weariness» look cool and noble.

The band also proves that it can brew sharp tragedy out of sheer nothing just like that — this is concerning one of my favorite Bee Gees songs, whose silly title (ʽLemons Never Forgetʼ) fully matches the equally silly lyrics ("an apple is a fool but lemons never do forget... the lemon sings my song, he's known it all along"), but this is really a vibe-based experiment: Barry and Vince generate so much soul-suffering with their panicky vocal / stormy electric guitar interplay that the lyrics take on a life of their own. Don't you just hate those villainous lemons? Now there's a fruit that can push a grown man to the utmost brink of despair.

The song does pay a small debt to the tradition of British absurdism, although only a small one: major debts are paid on one of the two «rockier» songs of Side B — ʽThe Earnest Of Being Georgeʼ (Oscar Wilde reference aside, could this one have any possible further influence on the «Just George» suite from Giles, Giles, & Fripp's Cheerful In­sanity?), which sounds swell on first listen but does not leave a particularly lasting impression due to lack of either meaning or humor. They work it out a bit better on the second «rocker», ʽHarry Braffʼ, a re-recorded left­over from the 1st sessions, probably also inspired by the Kinks but with a much fuller arrangement than the wimpy piano shuffle of ʽCraise Finton Kirkʼ.

And yet, by this time it is clear that the «art ballad» is going to forever stay the band's major focus — «forever» meaning «until we move to Miami, where the sun is too hot for balladeering». In this respect, I would recommend focusing less on manneristic plaintive stuff from Robin, like ʽReally And Sincerelyʼ, and concentrate more on such tiny forgotten gems as the folksy ʽDay Time Girlʼ, well worthy of a Left Banke or even an early Joni Mitchell; or Barry's prayer-like ʽWith The Sun In My Eyesʼ, resting on a sparse bed of drawn-out organ chords and quiet cham­ber strings. All of these songs are at least well written and expertly delivered — no idea how «sincere» they are (here is a difficult philosophical question: can somebody who once sincerely wrote something like ʽWith The Sun In My Eyesʼ go on to write something like ʽNight Feverʼ? I actually think that the answer is a yes, but I'm prepared to accept defeat on this), but most of them sound beautiful to my ears regardless of the answer.

In the end, it's all a matter of environment. The Bee Gees simply thrived in that «dress me up as Lord Byron» atmosphere of London in 1967-68, which stimulated their creativity like no other period in musical or cultural history. And even if Horizontal, on a sheer song-by-song basis, narrowly loses to 1st in terms of diversity or plain old catchiness, it has a slightly more natural flow and cohesion, and explores the band's melancholic side so thoroughly that already on the very next album they would have to change direction — away from the moon and a little closer to the sun. Meanwhile, this stuff expectedly gets its thumbs up as simply one of the finest art-pop records of 1968 — beating the Moody Blues, I might add, if only because they don't waste their time searching for the lost chord, wisely preferring to make good use of already found ones.

Additionally, the 2-CD re-issue is just as essential for the fans as the re-issue of 1st, with a swarm of bonus tracks, including the single-only hit ʽWordsʼ and lots of juicy B-sides that usually accen­tuate the Britishness of it all (ʽSir Geoffrey Saved The Worldʼ, ʽBarker Of The U.F.O.ʼ), but also provide extra memories of the band's toying with psychedelia (ʽOut Of Lineʼ; the thoroughly odd ʽDeeply Deeply Meʼ, where Robin is actually doing ragas — modulating his voice like a sitar! — I wouldn't describe the effect as too pleasant, but it sure is odd).

Check "Horizontal" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Horizontal" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. "can somebody who once sincerely wrote something like ..."
    Yes, I say. Changing esthetic values doesn't imply abandon sincerity.
    What I wrote about To Love Somebody fully applies to Massachusets and Words as well: I can dislike the songs wholeheartedly, but can't deny their quality.

  2. Ugh, I don't like this album cover at all, the original LP issue (UK & US, which were different, but both okay) were much nicer. Thankfully they've gone back to the original for the latest CD re-issues.

    Great for Art-Pop 1968. Probably _the_ year actually, if we're talking about the term in its classic sense. Well, any year that saw the debuts of both Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne would have to be a great art-pop year.

    1. About the cover: I assume you're referring to the minimalist gold cover. There's a version similar to the above that I like, and I can't believe GS couldn't find a better-quality graphic.

      About ArtPop68: Don't forget this was the year Jimmy Webb invaded the charts, led by his brigadier generals Richard Harris (McArthur Park) and Glen Campbell (By The Time I Get to Phoenix).

  3. Many years ago I remember having an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about whether or not "World" is the greatest pop single of all time. Well, I actually still think it's up there (Honeybus' "Do If Figure In Your Life" has to be my number one)... As for the album itself, for me it has always been the case of three songs ("World", "Lemons", "Massachusetts" - obviously) overshadowing everything else. Thumbs up all the same, of course. Apart from "Birdie Told Me" (which, I'm sorry to say, isn't much better than The Monkees' "I Wanna Be Free"), it's all good, confident songwriting.

    1. World has always left me with mixed feelings. It always seemed less than the sum of its parts. I want to like it, because they try so hard to make it epic, but it's just a lot of shiny pieces that don't fit together for me. That crazy guitar lick that Vince plays doesn't fit, it's too dissonant and disconnected. I've also never liked that morbid keyboard (organ? mellotron?) part on the chorus. Of course, the whole song is morbid, but it just doesn't work for me.

  4. Interesting that you didn't mention "And the Sun Will Shine", which was one of the more conventional songs on the album. Not coincedentally, wasn't it the third single?