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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bee Gees: E.S.P.

BEE GEES: E.S.P. (1987)

1) E.S.P.; 2) You Win Again; 3) Live Or Die (Hold Me Like A Child); 4) Giving Up The Ghost; 5) The Longest Night; 6) This Is Your Life; 7) Angela; 8) Overnight; 9) Crazy For Your Love; 10) Backtafunk; 11) E.S.P. (vocal reprise).

It is a very good thing for the world of music (I think) that, after the commercial failure of Living Eyes, the Bee Gees went into a six-year seclusion, at least, as a brotherly team — although they did briefly resurface with half a soundtrack to Stayin' Alive, an expected unnecessary sequel to Saturday Night Fever that nobody needs to either see or hear (ʽThe Woman In Youʼ was the single, a bland synth-rocker with none of the sleazy glamor of the Saturday Night singles). For the most part, they spent the mid-Eighties writing for other people — remember Diana Ross' Eaten Alive? No? Good.

It is a very bad thing for the world of music, though, that the Bee Gees eventually decided to go back to the studio before the Eighties were out. Now that they were under contract with Warner Bros., which had swallowed up Atlantic Records, they found out they could re-unite with Arif Mardin, and, apparently, they expected the magic of Mr. Natural and Main Course to strike out and reignite their careers. Problem is, no matter how professional or experienced, Arif Mardin was a straightforward guy — in 1974-75, he steered them towards commercial success by focu­sing on what was considered «hot» back in the day, and why would one expect him to have acted different in 1987? Electrofunk rhythms, programmed drums, synthesized bass, and elevator key­boards all the way, just exactly what the good doctor has prescribed.

Whether E.S.P. is or is not the worst Bee Gees album ever is questionable (it certainly has some competition from some of the records that would follow) — what seems unquestionable is that this album marks the band's transition into the last and saddest phase of their career: twenty years of total musical irrelevance when, not content with the simple status of an «oldies act», singing everything from ʽNew York Mining Disasterʼ to ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ before appreciatively glamorous Vegas crowds, the Bee Gees stubbornly went on to churn out record after record in strict accordance with «mainstream expectations». In other words, what they have become in 1987 is not so much a «synth-pop» act (at least real «synth-pop» is able to generate some bodily excitement, which is not the case here) as a strictly «adult contemporary» one.

And in the process, they have forgotten how to write songs. I mean, completely and utterly for­gotten. This does not always happen with age: not a lot of artists could go from 14 near-perfectly written songs (as on 1st) to 10 pieces of totally meaningless triteness in twenty years (and I am not counting Rod Stewart, since he wrote very few of his own songs). But it happened with the Bee Gees — the band that used to produce vocal hooks, generate thrilling chords, and dress them up in luxurious arrangements, now seems to think that as long as their brotherly harmonies are still in place, everything else can be taken care of by session players and producers, or not be taken care of at all.

Occasionally, people praise ʽYou Win Againʼ, the album's lead single, as the only thing worthy of attention — some even call it a late period masterpiece. It does have an upbeat, memorable vocal melody, but the music is horrible, from the mock-industrial percussion intro to the flabby tinkling electronic keyboards. I could easily envision the vocal melody transplanted, safe and sound, into a healthier musical body (after all, Lindsey Buckingham did save the beauty of ʽBig Loveʼ, re­corded that same year in a thoroughly dated synth cocoon, by later reinventing it as one of his greatest showpieces for acoustic guitar), but fact is, it seems to have never happened in reality — even much later live performances stick to the original horror.

And even so, ʽYou Win Againʼ is the only vocal melody on this record that generates decent emo­tions. Everything else is either generic stiff balladry (ʽLive Or Dieʼ, ʽAngelaʼ), or, much worse, mid-tempo dance-pop that tries to pass the brothers off as cool funksters who still know how to shake that ass like they knew in 1979. Problem: they had very little knowledge of that in 1979, and they have absolutely no knowledge of it in 1987 — I mean, ʽBacktafunkʼ, really? And what is the point of remembering all their disco hit song titles in ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ if it is the same song that also features the line "more rap, less crap" (seriously!)?

Of course, plenty of people were deluded around the same time — it would be cruel to dismiss E.S.P. simply for its adherence to drum machines and synth loops. But even Phil Collins made better albums with the same ingredients. With all the previous styles that they had explored, the Bee Gees were able to sense at least the form, if not always the substance, and even if one finds the «message» of ʽNight Feverʼ disgusting, they found the perfect envelope to package it in. On E.S.P., behind the thick cardboard walls of its Excruciatingly Sonorant Production, there are no hints at all that the brothers were even mildly interested in exploring the potential of this new sound on their own — they just took whatever they were given, and ended up with a bunch of Exceptionally Stupid Pablum. For the record, no less than twenty people collaborated on the final mixes of the songs — just another good example of how much energy we waste in the modern world for obscure and dubious purposes. Thumbs down: now that the Eighties are viewed in the overall context of several decades before and after them, the most prudent solution is to regard this monstrosity as a particular aberration in Bee Gees history, and not look back at it any more.


Check "E.S.P." (CD) on Amazon
Check "E.S.P." (MP3) on Amazon

11 comments:

  1. "by focusing on what was considered «hot»"
    "it was really unclear where to go next" (from the previous review)
    As I'm a silly guy I have wondering about this a bit. And I think the answer is obvious. In 1987 not only electronic dance music was . So was popmetal, especially Bon Jovi. Not that I like that band, but remember the attempts of the BeeGees in the early 70's? Like Bad Bad Dreams? So they had something to work with.
    Hire a third rate guitarist - rather than some big name as in 1987 they all could shred and the last thing the BeeGees needed was a big ego. Construct a dozen or more decent riffs (You give Love a bad Name dóés have one). Hire also a producer like Fairbairn (Bon Jovi) or Mike Stone (Queen, Asia, Whitesnake's 1987) and with the brothers' undeniable skills regarding melodies and harmonies the result could have been very interesting. Perhaps they even might have forced me to admit their genius.
    Because popmetal is the one and only subgenre of pop the BeeGees never explored. The thought probably never crossed their minds.

    A correction: exactly because "they found the perfect envelope to package it in" I find "the «message» of Night Fever disgusting." That's why Boney M doesn't bother me for instance. Are you going to review their six or seven albums by any chance? Even the thought makes me Rotfl. I'll promise to extensively comment on at least the first four. Yes, that Mitchell girl could sing and yes their melodies were catchy. Bobby Farrell was more or less Dutch. They are also part of my teenage years.

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    1. Yeah, but who would buy a Bee Gees pop metal album in 1987? Their old audience would be, well, too old and the kids would have younger and more "authentically" metal bands to turn to.

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    2. Barry Gibb is only five years older than David Coverdale and 1987 was a smash hit.

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    3. Their age and looks would have gone against them. Barry would have to shave the beard, and Maurice would have needed hair implants. David Coverdale, by contrast, had aged well at that point, and the rest of the group was 10-15 years younger than him.

      There's also the fact that Whitesnake's pop record wasn't a HUGE departure from Coverdale's earlier sound, whereas the Bee Gees already had a track record of prostituting themselves to every new fad that appeared.

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    4. A Bee Gees pop metal record could have been a beautiful Spinal Tap moment though. Either that or it would have sounded like Survivor.

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    5. "it would have sounded like Survivor"
      Well, I can't deny that risk a priori. Still the idea of competing against Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna is even more idiotic.

      "a track record of prostituting ..."
      Then prostituting a bit more can't do much harm.

      "David Coverdale, by contrast, had aged well at that point,"
      Not really a problem yet. This picture is from 1987:
      http://flashbackisback.blogspot.com/

      What's more - Is this Love isn't any less cheesy than the average Bee Gees ballad at their pinnacle. I'm not thinking of In the Still of the Night of course.

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  2. The First AnonymousMay 30, 2013 at 12:40 AM

    I've only heard You Win Again and I think it is as good as any Bee Gees single, more or less. And also judging by their songwriting contributions in their missing years they certainly had lost it, in fact the songs they wrote for others convince me evn further of their songwriting talent or at least Barry's:

    Islands In The Stream, Chain Reaction, Heartbreaker...

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  3. Come to think of it, even the cover art is a total ripoff of U2's "Joshua Tree". Only, instead of posing out in the California desert, the Bee Gees go to some English landscape, as if they suddenly remembered they were British, after all. Really, the sheer nerve of these washed up hacks!

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  4. The First AnonymousMay 31, 2013 at 12:28 AM

    Judging by the cover it must be aroudn this period that they start to look weird as opposed to merely ugly.

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  5. These guys cut way too many albums.

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  6. Well, George, you really should come to the aid of completists and review "Staying Alive". It is part of their history, after all.

    And how about the most infamous moment in their career -- the "Sgt. Pepper" soundtrack?

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