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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bee Gees: Main Course


BEE GEES: MAIN COURSE (1975)

1) Nights On Broadway; 2) Jive Talkin'; 3) Wind Of Change; 4) Songbird; 5) Fanny (Be Tender With My Love); 6) All This Making Love; 7) Country Lanes; 8) Come On Over; 9) Edge Of The Universe; 10) Baby As You Turn Away.

A naked lady on the front sleeve of the Bee Gees' new album? What have we missed? Where are the ruffled shirts? The mighty frigates? The pawnshop chainmails? The Victorian picture frames? Why are they offering us a spoonful of female flesh...?

Well, obviously, because times have changed: in the midst of the «Me Decade», performers are expected to undress rather than dress up. With Main Course, the Bee Gees have crossed the line — they are still not quite there yet, but the pact has been signed and there is no turning back now. At the instigation of Mardin, they are now recording one R&B dance number after another, bor­dering on stiff disco (not quite there yet, though), and, more alarmingly, Arif has unleashed Barry's falsetto on the world: according to legend, it was during the sessions for ʽNight On Bro­ad­wayʼ that he asked Barry whether he could «scream on key», and that was one of those in­famous «the night when the music died» moments in history.

As an LP, Main Course is actually quite intriguing. There is a strong difference here between the first side, which is mainly left to the well-calculated hot dance grooves of ʽNights On Broadwayʼ, ʽJive Talkin'ʼ, ʽWind Of Changeʼ, and ʽFannyʼ (the Elton John-ish ballad ʽSongbirdʼ being the only exception), and the flip side, which is far more traditional in structure — you got your old-time music hall stuff (ʽAll This Making Loveʼ), your piano-based folk-pop (ʽCountry Lanesʼ, ʽCome On Overʼ), and your guitar-based pop-rock (ʽEdge Of The Universeʼ), with the exception being ʽBaby As You Turn Awayʼ, a song that simply has to close the album in groove mode (slow groove mode, to be sure, but falsetto-laden).

In that respect, it is actually Main Course, rather than its predecessor, that has to be counted as a properly «transitional» album — the seeds of ʽHeavy Breathingʼ have sprouted and spread, but they have not yet suppressed all «old school» competition. And furthermore, at this point, it al­most looks like a perfectly viable symbiosis: there are hits and misses on both sides here. The Bee Gees are intentionally dumbing down their image, under the pretext that everyone else is doing the same thing, but in 1975, they were still able to present it under the guise of «playfulness» — as in, «so weren't you the one complaining about all that slow stuff on our records?... well, here's a few fast ones, then, just for a change».

After all, ʽJive Talkin'ʼ, the first and best one of their disco era singles, is a good song. Its bubbly synth bass line sounds somewhat gross and antiquated today, but the «jivin'» rhythm guitar is still lively and fun, and so is the poppy synth line in the bridge section, and, best of all, almost no fal­setto in sight other than a few occasional adlibs. If only they stayed on that level...

...but ʽNights On Broadwayʼ is already an ominous sign that things are going to get much worse, with mock-seri­ous lyrics, glutinous synthesizer atmospherics and falsettos a-plenty. ʽFanny (Be Tender With My Love)ʼ is an early precursor to the sleazy romanticism of ʽMore Than A Wo­manʼ; and ʽWind Of Changeʼ is the album's one straightforward disco number that openly an­nounces a new strategy: "Get on up, look around / Can't you feel the wind of change?" And there I was wondering where that odd smell of polyester came from...

The second side, much more in line with the «old» Bee Gees, is more palatable. The lyrics of ʽAll This Making Loveʼ are well in line with the decadent spirit of 1975, but the hoppy music-hall melody is more of a throwback to ʽPaper Mache, Cabbages & Kingsʼ. ʽCome On Overʼ is a per­fectly performed country ballad — subtly and lavishly misogynistic, just the way all of us male chauvinist pigs like it: "And if you think I need you / Come on over, lay your body down / You know I will be here / So bring your love around" — even if you somehow miss the offensiveness in the "if you think I need you" bit, you can hardly miss it in the negligent, nonchalant, and still seductive way that the chorus melody is resolved with "bring your love around".

The album's highest point, though — the very last goodbye from the old Bee Gees — is ʽEdge Of The Universeʼ, which is just a good old catchy melodic pop song that cannot be spoiled even by the whining synth sirens, completely superfluous, inescapable, and still insignificant in the light of the song's overall charm. Most importantly, it has the trademark Bee Gees spirit all over it, so they sound like real, organic, friendly, and slightly idealistic human beings. Four years ago, they bid goodbye to their «grandiose» ambitions with ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ, and now ʽEdge Of The Universeʼ puts a final stop to their credibility as... well, let us call it «artists who have something — anything — to say that can be picked up emotionally».

It makes no sense to blame Arif Mardin for «the change». He came from an entirely different background, he was doing his job — returning an «obsolete» band back to stardom — and, as it happened, he actually showed as much respect for the Bee Gees' legacy as possible: Mr. Natural was almost completely «old-school», and Main Course was produced as a sensible compromise. This is not mentioning that even the «disco-est» songs on here still show a certain «band pre­sence» (play ʽWind Of Changeʼ with ʽSubwayʼ off their next album back-to-back to see how glossy and slick the latter is in comparison).

And yet — in for a penny, in for a pound. The huge commercial success of the singles promptly ensured which of the two sides of this album was going to cast more influence over the future, making Main Course the start of the band's meteoric commercial rise and eventual artistic and critical downfall. I do give it a thumbs up — the sickeningly sugar-sweet balladry of ʽFannyʼ and ʽBaby As You Turn Awayʼ is pretty much the only thing that really turns me off here, so I just pretend each side ends on the fourth track — but only when thinking of it without its histori­cal context. But do not blame it on the Bee Gees — blame it on every sucker who bought a copy of Main Course without buying a copy of Mr. Natural the previous year. Hopefully, once they all die and go to their little padded cells in heaven or hell, someone will place Tales From Topographic Oceans on endless replay for them.

Check "Main Course" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Main Course" (MP3) on Amazon

7 comments:

  1. "But do not blame it on the Bee Gees"
    Of course I blame the Bee Gees as well. It's not as if those disco suckers put a gun against their heads.
    Still this is not the album I hate the Bee Gees for. For one thing I do not hate falsetto's a priori. Nights on Broadway was a hit in The Netherlands. It has a recognizable theme (I associate riff with guitar), a rhythmical pattern that distuingishes itself. The synths are no way as offensive as say the processed violins on Bobby Bland's Ain't no Heart.
    Jive Talkin' did not sell well in The Netherlands, so I have always associated it with SNF. As hate is a precious emotion I am economical with it. So have a little more patience before I start bashing the Bee Gees.

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  2. The First AnonymousApril 18, 2013 at 12:42 AM

    I think Nights On Broadway is pure pop heaven, maybe not a classy track but very enjoyable. Similar to Mr. Natural in a lot of ways too.

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    1. Indeed, NOB is a great song. The falsetto is not turned into a wall of whine (yet), it plays off the melodies and harmonies which are actually well song in classic Gibb style. I like the transitions from that minor key verse to the major chorus. Jive Talkin' is fun enough that I can dig it in all it's ARP-driven glory. These two songs represent the furthest I can go into the BG disco pool without crouching beneath the waves in shame.

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    2. ohhh... pop heaven, that's exactly what it is :)
      -Ele.

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  3. For those of you keeping score, "Main Course" marks the first appearance of the world famous Bee Gees "Neon Knights Of Studio 54" logo. Rejoice!

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  4. I often agree with you, George, but not about Nights on Broadway. That is still an example of how the falsetto can enrich the song and harmonise.

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