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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bee Gees: Idea


1) Let There Be Love; 2) Kitty Can; 3) In The Summer Of His Years; 4) Indian Gin And Whisky Dry; 5) Down To Earth; 6) Such A Shame; 7) I've Gotta Get A Message To You; 8) Idea; 9) When The Swallows Fly; 10) I Have De­cided To Join The Airforce; 11) I Started A Joke; 12) Kilburn Towers; 13) Swan Song.

In the beginning, Idea sounds like a huge letdown. As the psychedelic haze slowly started dissi­pating by mid-1968, and the musical world started splintering into the «roots rock camp» (which the Bee Gees took a serious liking to), the «art rock camp» (which the Bee Gees preferred to ad­mire from afar), and the «hard rock camp» (which the Bee Gees abhorred), the band found this a good pretext to allow themselves to «let go» of even more of that extra ballast they'd picked up in 1967 — and released their «wimpiest» record to-date (not counting the early Oz stuff). Lush bal­lads, sissy folkie tunes, and inoffensive country-pop — this is what Idea is all about, and no one but the Bee Gees themselves are responsible.

Ironically, this also happened to be the album with guitarist Vince Melouney's only songwriting credit: the soft pop-rocker ʽSuch A Shameʼ, which must have been written under the heavy influ­ence of Dave Davies' ʽDeath Of A Clownʼ — not a song of any importance, but at least it's got some bluesy harmonica runs from some anonymous harmonica blower, which adds an extra touch to the mostly keyboards-and-strings-dominated album. Vince was the one who pushed the band into a bluesier direction — but what can one little-known Australian guitarist have against a whole three Gibb brothers? Particularly once they finally decide that, God be witness, they don't need fuzzy electric guitar on their albums. Because it distracts them from their spirituality.

But as time goes by, Idea gains back some of the appeal that it never had. Most of these lush bal­lads, manneristic as they are and occasionally suffering from the ever-increasing prominence of Robin's lead vocals, are perfectly written and laid out, and, most importantly, they usually offer just the right «antidotes» to the potentially annoying sentimentality. ʽLet There Be Loveʼ starts out swimming in cotton candy — then, once it gets to the bridge ("I am a man, so take me for what I am..."), group harmonies come in and add a little drama and intensity. Same thing happens with ʽWhen The Swallows Flyʼ, where the dynamic chorus pulls the song out of mediocrity after a rather lackluster piano verse kinda goes nowhere (but still manages to influence a young Elton John, as I seriously suspect).

Meanwhile, Robin's two «tour-de-force» highlights that I used to shun — ʽIn The Summer Of His Yearsʼ and ʽI Started A Jokeʼ — are, in fact, pretty hard to criticize either from a melodic point of view (the vocal parts are designed and carried out as harmonic triumphs) or even from a «mood / style» point: they are subtle psychological portraits or prayers, rather than cheap sentimental clichés. The for­mer was supposedly written in memory of Brian Epstein, but could well apply to any young man, struck out by misfortune at a comparable age — Robin's take on the subject combines just the right amount of solemn pomp, humanity, and pity.

As for ʽI Started A Jokeʼ, when you look at the lyrics, it is actually rather gruesome — suicidal, in fact — and this gets me to thinking that the whole album, in fact, has more brushes with death than any other Bee Gees product: apart from these two songs, you also have ʽI've Gotta Get A Message To Youʼ (written from the point of view of someone condemned to the chair) and ʽSwan Songʼ which is not explicitly about death, but still provides a sort of «last-wish» conclusion to the album, much like the conclusive title track to Horizontal. In other words, Idea may take another solid step away from the diversity and the «grittiness» of its predecessors, but that does not mean it has to steer towards the «namby-pamby»: the overall atmosphere is still fairly dark, and the ro­mance is still understood more in Byron / Chopin terms than in Hollywood ones.

The upbeat, toe-tappable folk and country stuff is mostly limited in ambition, and thus, not too durable in terms of live show favorites or best-of compilation eligibility — but ʽKitty Canʼ is funny and catchy; ʽIndian Gin And Whisky Dryʼ is one of the most elegantly gallant tunes written about the perils of alcoholism; the title track features the best (if not the only) electric guitar lick on the album, delivered in a psychedelic tone (nice sonic match for the light bulb on the album sleeve); and ʽI Have Decided To Join The Airforceʼ is an amusing parody on British martial sty­listics (unless the song was actually commissioned by the UK Air Force, which I know nothing about, but it's possible — after all, if they invested their talents into writing jingles for Coke, why not this? And best thing of all, in the wake of The Who Sell Out, it would be impossible to tell the proper limit between pop-sell out and pop-art anyway).

In the end, I think that the only relative failure is ʽDown To Earthʼ — still an important song in any case, as it briefly explores the «cosmic loneliness» theme one year before Bowie's ʽSpace Od­dityʼ made it a commodity (and four years before ʽRocket Manʼ brought it into the average household), but it sounds a bit too lethargic and, eventually, unresolved — and applying for epic status on rather thin grounds. Maybe they should have extended it to seven minutes or something, but in mid-1968, they weren't quite ready for the big game yet.

In retrospect, I sort of think that Idea was the first album where the Bee Gees really realized themselves as the band they wanted to be — throwing most of the peer pressure off their shoul­ders and going for the heart. This does not mean that it is a better album than 1st or Horizontal: those whose musical tastes and conceptions are close to mine will inevitably prefer the Bee Gees with peer pressure rather than without them, if only because there is only so much «lushness» and quasi-operatic vocalizing and strings and romantic loneliness that one can take (although even from that angle, Idea is like a little kid compared to Trafalgar).

But if we judge artistic quality according to how well the artist managed to «find himself», then Idea should be placed in the top range of the Gibb brothers' immense catalog. The brothers themselves agree with this inter­pretation, by the way — "That was when I got an idea / Came like a gun and shot in my ear / Don't you think it's time you got up and stood alone?" And, well, in a certain way, they do, so a big thumbs up for stand-aloners and their wimpiness.

The bonus disc on the CD reissue is not as strong as the previous two, but it does have ʽJumboʼ (probably the strangest, most «daring» single the brothers put out in the 1960s — naturally, it did not climb up too high in the charts) as well as a funny tongue-in-cheek send-up called ʽCom­pletely Unoriginalʼ (probably a comedy recording to serve as the answer to some of the band's critics — and a good choice for a banner song for everybody who denies the importance of «ori­ginality» in song, dance, and culinary arts). On the other hand, there is also some soundtrack muzak (ʽGena's Themeʼ), a few of those cheesy Coke jingles, and lots of alternate mixes that do not sound too different from the original ones, so, possibly, upgrading your CD collection in this particular instance should not be a top priority.

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

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