The Songwriters – The Bee Gees

The hat, Maurice, the hat! I know you’re going bald, but even so…

This is another of those catalogues of covers that is so long it could turn into a 600-word list, so what follows is a very selective look at what’s around.

As for who wrote what, the Bee Gees’ songs were often credited to all three brothers, and although we know it was mainly Barry and Robin, actually picking one apart from the other is almost impossible at times. In general it is probably safe to say no more than that if the vocal sounds  slightly reedy and Robiny, he probably came up with the germ of the idea, and if it’s smoother and Barryish, then it was his.

Starting a little ahead of the beginning  we have Al Green’s version of How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. It was slow the way the Bee Gees recorded it in 1970/71, but Green and his producer  Willie Mitchell slowed it down even further and relied on their masterly arrangement and sparse but settled instrumentation, on top of that unsurpassable voice, to create something too slow to dance to, too slow to make love to, but something to savour, like Kahlua drizzled over chocolate ice cream and served without a spoon.

That early Bee Gees stunner, New York Mining Disaster 1941, has been attempted by a few people, with a notable effort by folk legend Martin Carthy that should suit it but, to me, doesn’t. It has some of the hallmarks of a folk song, after all, but folk is all about stripping away pretence, and maybe there’s a touch of bitter-sweet artifice in the original’s harmonies that needs to be there for it to work.

Words is a more forgiving candidate, and the versions have flowed freely down the years, from Rita Coolidge to Boyzone.

First of May has been tackled by, among many, Sarah Brightman (whose most memorable contribution  was to pronounce the t in Christmas), as well as Matt Monro , Cilla Black, Lulu and Jose Feliciano.

Similarly, To Love Somebody is a nice tune with very singable lyrics, and has received treatments from Leonard Cohen (oddly cheerful), Michael Bolton (typically hysterical), Janis Joplin (what can I say, I don’t get her and never did). Michael Buble (what hasn’t he done a cover of?) and the live duo of Ray Lamontagne and Damien Rice (intense as you would expect).

Much later, after the first phase and then the disco chapter, the Bee Gees and in particular Barry Gibb began offering material to legends of the music business ,presumably because the brothers had had enough  of performing  and were prepared to let others do the hard work.

Thus came Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, whose well was rather dry by that time (1982).

Country colossi  Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were presented with a diamond-crusted, inscribed platinum song called Islands in the Stream, and Barbra Streisand got a whole album’s worth, of which Guilty and Promises are prominent.

But to finish this section I would like to go back to I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You. You might think there wouldn’t be too many takers for a song about a man on death row who has only one hour left to live, and in truth most people left it alone. But of the few that had a crack, a special commendation must go to veteran bluegrass merchant Bobby Osborne, who, with his crack team of instrumentalists (banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle), turn it into a thoroughly jolly occasion.

I urge you to have a listen to this, and if you think it’s just grossly inappropriate, I wouldn’t argue with you. On the other hand, there is something so infectiously good-time about this sort of thing – and you can’t not be impressed by the musicianship – that I find it impossible not to like it. They could make you feel good about your own execution.

As an interpretation of a song it’s as weird as they come, but as long as the Bee Gees didn’t take themselves too seriously I think they would have enjoyed this.

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The wisdom of pop songs – Songs about occupations

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

Writing a song that’s more than just a close-up of a relationship can require a bit of scene-setting, and just occasionally we get to find out what somebody does for a living.

One of my favourites in this category is Glen Campbell’s 1968 song Wichita Lineman, in which the narrator tells us straight off:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun for another overload

It was written by Jimmy Webb, who was also the man behind By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Macarthur Park, which tells you he put more detail and imagination into his lyrics than most writers.

A lineman is someone who maintains and repairs overhead power lines or telephone lines, and in a rural area that must be lonely work, stuck up a pole in the back of beyond. This is a love song, or rather a song of love and loneliness – it’s certainly not happy, but he’s not complaining about his job, just his personal life.

By contrast, Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coal Mine, written by Allen Toussaint and originally a hit in 1966, is all about how he’s stuck in this dirty, dangerous job and is too tired to have fun.

One of Paul Simon’s most intriguing lyrics is from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is about a famous architect, or rather it uses his name. It’s written as to an old friend recently deceased and is daringly close to being a love song. One theory is that Art Garfunkel, who had studied architecture, challenged his master-songwriter partner to write about this man, whom Simon had never heard of. Whatever the truth may be, it’s a beautiful, haunting, wistful piece of music that transcends it subject matter.

Also from the Sixties, as are all the songs so far, is Tim Hardin’s If I Were  A Carpenter, which examines a relationship and speculates if it would have worked if things had been different. It must be uncomfortable listening for any gold-digging woman who has hooked up with a rich man purely for his money. With the roles reversed, he a humble craftsman and she a posh woman, would the attraction have been there?

If gambling can be said to be a career – and professionals do exist – it has certainly been dealt with in song. Most famously, there is Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. Written by country tunesmith Don Schlitz in the mid 70s, it didn’t reach the global public until Rogers’ version in 1978. It’s about meeting a gambler on a train, and he can’t have been on a good streak because he has to bum a cigarette and a swig of whiskey before he imparts some wisdom about knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em and so on, and then quietly dies.

Less successful but equally catchy was I’m a Gambler, by Lace, which got a lot of airplay in the UK in 1969 but didn’t make the charts. This was written by one of the unsung heroes of the golden era of British pop, Pete Dello, who among other things was the leader of Honeybus and wrote their smash I Can’t Let Maggie Go as well as Do I Still Figure In Your Life. I’m a Gambler was reissued four years later, under a new artist name, Red Herring, but still failed to set the world alight.

Incidentally, Madonna’s song of the same title is nothing like Dello’s little gem. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with actual gambling either; it’s just Her Royal Highness showing she can talk tough just like a man.

Doctors feature quite heavily as far as being mentioned in song titles is concerned, but closer inspection reveals precious little in the way of detail about surgery, stethoscopes and so on. The Beatles’ Doctor Robert, for instance, is about a drug dealer, while Jackson Browne’s Doctor My Eyes is an imaginary conversation with a medic about the patient’s love life.

The Beatles’ Paul McCartney picked an unlikely object of love and lust in Lovely Rita, where he sings the praises of a traffic warden, even if he does say that her uniform and the bag across her shoulder “made her look a little like a military man”.

Steely Dan’s Doctor Wu is just a playful piece of imagery associated with a… well, it’s very obscure and probably about nothing.

Waitresses get a fair bit of coverage, but again, without detail about the intricacies of carrying plates and clearing tables. Bruce Springsteen mentions one in Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park), but only as part a confession to his girlfriend, with the assertion that he’s not seeing this waitress anymore because she’s gone off him.

The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me bitches about how the singer rescued the girl from her menial life and now she’s dumped him.

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

Well guess what, tough guy? You can’t help people and expect them to spend the rest of their life devoted to you because of it.

Being a pop star, of course, is itself a job, and unsurprisingly the world is full of songs about this, from The Byrds’s So You Wanna Be A Rock’n’Roll Star to Abba’s Thank You For The Music. Along the way there is Superstar, written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett and recorded by, among others, Rita Coolidge and The Carpenters, each time with the big-voiced girl mooning about the guitarist she wants but can’t have.

Barry Manilow’s monster hit I Write The Songs was actually penned by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. It was featured on an album by The Captain and Tennille and as a single by David Cassidy.

Teachers – now there’s a goldmine for us. A lot of the songs are a bit un-PC in this day and age, from Lulu’s To Sir With Love to The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me, but the student’s crush on the the man standing at the front is a recurring fact of life. Lulu’s question, “What can I give you in return?” is unmitigated, inflammatory flirting requiring a cold bath and a dose of bromide in the teacher’s tea.

So, plenty to choose from but nothing about dentists, chiropractors or roadsweepers. But hang on, gentlemen of the streets: there’s King of the Road, Roger Miller’s early 60s classic about being a poor drifter doing what he can to survive.

Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room

Nothing about estate agents, chefs or bloggers, but maybe there’s hope for all of us.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Tearjerkers vol. 1

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Honey
Cheer up, mate. She wasn’t happy, was she? Probably better off out of it

The history of pop music is strewn with the dead flowers of broken romances, because that is what makes songwriters want to share their feelings with us.

But there is a subgenre that takes us further down the road of unhappiness into the land of abuse, illness and death. Some artistes thrive on this, and country music is particularly full of it, so where better to begin than with Kenny Rogers?

The wider world’s first experience of this master of the unpleasant was Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town, written in the late 1960s by another country singer, Mel Tillis. Rogers’ version has a deceptively cheery, chugalong rhythm and quite a warm atmosphere as long as you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, which deal with a paralysed Vietnam veteran watching his wife get ready to go out and, he is convinced, get from some able-bodied man the sort of sexual seeing-to that he is now unable to give her.

It’s a story that has probably been played out for real countless times, but Rogers revels in it, putting a deep, fake rasp in his voice to underline the man’s pain, and it was just the first of a string of hits in which he told us stories of things we would perhaps rather not think about. Rape, for instance.

billy
This rare 19th century colour photograph shows Billy (centre, rear) starting to go.

Coward of the County brings us the tale of redemption of a ‘cowardly’ man, who is in fact only acting on the dying wishes of his father, who urged him to “walk away from trouble if you can”. Everyone thinks he is “yeller” except the narrator, who knows the truth.

Old Yeller’s chance to set the record straight comes at the expense of his wife, who is sexually assaulted by the three Gatlin boys, local no-goods. When our hero finds out, he goes to the saloon, where the Gatlins are drinking, and shoots them all.

And so his life changes, but you can’t help thinking he might have preferred to still have his old problem rather than the horrible new situation.

Rogers didn’t write that one, either, but he picked it and sang it and made it his own.

He did the same with Lucille, a relatively cheerful number in that nobody dies or gets violated. It’s just that a man’s wife walks out and leaves him “with four hungry children and a crop in the fields”. Mercifully, the writers left it at that rather than giving the man herpes and cancer, but maybe they had trouble fitting those in.

seasons
See? He can see the funny side

The late 60s was the heyday (or perhaps the nadir) of the tearjerker, with Bobby Goldsboro talking about his Honey, who seems to be crying every time he comes home. But maybe she knows something, because she dies in the end, and the singer assures her “I’m being good”. Was he asking for it? Had he been bad? We will never know.

Then there was Terry Jacks with Seasons in the Sun, which is not a country song at all. It portrays a man dying and bidding farewell to his friends and family in a mawkish, sickly way, although the original lyrics, by the respected Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, was much more subtle and laced with sarcasm and backhanded compliments.

In 1974 we endured Billy Don’t Be A Hero, a song about a man going to fight in the American Civil War, although it was written by the successful if never-serious British team of Mitch Murray and Peter Callender. Here, the girlfriend of the titular Billy urges him “keep your pretty head low”, but of course he doesn’t – he volunteers for a dangerous assignment and gets his pretty head blown off.

leader
Is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing? Yeah, bitch. He’s mine forever – or until the sound effects come in, anyway

The catalyst for all this melodrama was probably Leader of the Pack, the Shangri-Las’ 1964 smash about a young man who dies in a motorcycle crash, which was sadly quite common in those pre-compulsory helmet days. The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Be My Baby) and Shadow Morton, who apparently just couldn’t help themselves.

 

Hmm, there’s a lot of this stuff. So that’s all for now. More next week.