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 – Sing a song of Britain

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

 

Songs about British towns

In spite of having an international reputation for arrogance, the British are a very self-effacing lot. We routinely make fun of our own limitations: the food is no good, the weather is awful, the football teams haven’t won a major tournament since England had Sir Walter Raleigh in goal.

Perhaps the only thing we will claim in our favour is that when it comes to pop music we wrote the book. From the Beatles to Ed Sheeran and Adele, we are the champions.

And yet even in that there is one perceived weakness: our place names don’t work in songs. While Americans love to sing about their home town, be it New York or Baton Rouge, the British can’t do it with the same aplomb.

But I beg to differ. And here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present documentary, recorded evidence.

Starting at the biggest, the capital has been celebrated in song many times. From ELO’s Last Train to London to Blur’s London Loves, from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset to Ian Dury’s Billericay Dickie and Plaistow Patricia, not forgetting Morrissey’s Dagenham Dave, our metropolitan placenames are scattered through our music like double decker buses in a blizzard.

It is tempting to think of Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning as being written during an early trip to civilization, but unfortunately there is an area of that name in New York, and she lived there at the time. Similarly, any reference to the Chelsea Hotel  means the famous one in New York, where, among other things, Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A space odyssey, Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and Leonard Cohen reputedly received oral favours from Janis Joplin. How do we know that? Because he wrote about it in a song called Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s not just London. South coast, anyone? The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko starts with “Standing on the docks at Southampton.”

The New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral might not be rock’s finest hour, but it was a typically witty celebration of Britishness.

Liverpool? Home of the Beatles, and they celebrated places within it, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

Then there’s Kimberley Rew’s brilliant contribution to The Bangles’  repertoire, Going Down to Liverpool.

Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool lads that they were, sang about the local river in Ferry Cross the Mersey.

Blackburn? John Lennon in A Day in the Life: four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

And Blackburn’s big neighbor, Manchester, home of the Hollies, Stone Roses and the Smiths: the latter acknowledged the dark side of the city  in Morrissey’s song about the Moors Murders, Dig a Shallow Grave. “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for…”

Up to Scotland, and in addition to such patriotic fervor as The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith, no less a force than Abba gave it a mention in Supertrouper, their song about the loneliness of touring.

I was sick and tired of everything
When I called you last night from Glasgow

Paul McCartney had happier memories of the city in Helen Wheels.

Glasgow town never brought me down
When I was heading out on the road

As for Newcastle, where the population is as regionally self-aware as any in the country, although the town itself doesn’t seem to lend itself to lyrical status, proud Geordie Jimmy Nail sang about the Tyne in Big River, while Lindisfarne had used the city and even its accent to their advantage in Fog On The Tyne.

Also in that part of the world, The Shadows had a song in the early 60s called Stars Fell on Stockton, which probably sounds more glamorous to those who have never been there than to a Teessider.

Paul McCartney ticks off another couple of towns in Old Siam Sir

She waited round in Walthamstow
Skated round in Scarborough

And talking of the Yorkshire coastal resort, Simon and Garfunkel did a tremendous job on the old folk song Scarborough Fair.

Yorkshire singer-songwriter Michael Chapman’s postcards of Scarborough wasn’t just a song but an album title.

The most famous northern resort of them all has been referred to several times, from Jethro Tull’s Going up the ‘Pool to Graham Nash’s mention of his birth and early childhood in Military Madness:

In an upstairs room in Blackpool
By the side of the Northern Sea
The army had my father
And my mother was having me

Back down south, Athlete sang fondly about Dungeness, a town more famous for its power station than anything else, while Blur’s Damon Albarn sang about throwing yourself off a national landmark in Clover Over Dover. And in Tracy Jacks he had the hero getting on “the first train to Walton”, which could be several places but is probably Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

And finally, my own beautiful little lump in the English Channel, Guernsey, might not be an obvious contender here, but check out Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids (first line after the intro):

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
In the room at the top of the stair

Probably a Stateside Guernsey, but still… Jersey is constantly being name checked when what people really mean is New Jersey, old stomping ground of, among others, Bruce Springsteen.

The list must go on and one, but you get my point, I’m sure. Engerland swings like a pendulum do, as an American once observed.