UPDATE JUNE 2012: Barry’s brother Robin lost his battle with cancer a couple of weeks ago. Click here to read my tribute, focusing on the fight for the Bee Gees’ legacy and the challenges these remarkable songwriters overcame.
Today is Barry Gibb’s 65th birthday so as I am wont to do, it’s time to wind the clock back a few decades….
In 1978 the Bee Gees were at the top of their game to such an extent that it’s arguable no songwriting team has ever dominated the American music charts so completely. There were the five songs in the US top 10 at the same time, week after week. There were the mammoth hits they wrote for other artists that year like Grease (Frankie Vallie), Shadow Dancing (Andy Gibb), Emotion (Samantha Sang), If I Can’t Have You (Yvonne Elliman), Warm Ride (Graham Bonnet). There were the four consecutive US #1 hits – a stat often mistaken as being four in a row for the group (by 1979 they would do six), when it fact it was Gibb song at number one, replaced by a Gibb song at number one, replaced by a Gibb song at number one, replaced by a Gibb song at number one. During one eight month period beginning in December 1977, a Bee Gees song was number one 25 out of 32 weeks. Staggering.
It was within that climate of unparralled success, where their records were selling so much their record company had to pay rivals to print more vinyl to keep up with demand, that the Bee Gees set about writing the followup LP for Saturday Night Fever. 32 years on, the work they came up with Spirits Having Flown has been estimated to have sold anywhere from 15 million copies to 30 million, making it not only one of the Bee Gees biggest ever albums, but one of the biggest albums of all time.
Barry once said that in hindsight there was too much falsetto on the album, though more recently has said that the falsetto-sound was so hot at the time they couldn’t not do a falsetto album. With Fever selling a million a week and in a creative bubble where everything the Gibbs wrote sounded like a hit because invariably it was, the use of falsetto hadn’t reached its tipping point from credibility to parody.
And when that tipping point hit, it was as if black bands who used falsetto like Earth Wind & Fire (Philip Bailey), the Temptations (Eddie Kendricks), the Delfonics, the Stylistics etc were excused, but for a white band to be so blatantly influenced by black music and R&B seemed to be upsetting for middle America.
The Spirits Having Flown album produced three number one hits in Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Love You Inside Out, but for me, it has always been the title track which has meant the most. If Spirits Having Flown the album is guilty of lacking vocal variety, Spirits Having Flown the song most certainly isn’t. Featuring natural voice on the verses, falsetto for the choruses and some of the most complex harmonies the group ever laid down, Spirits Having Flown stands for me as the greatest example of the genius of the Bee Gees’ production team.
While the album is officially produced by the Bee Gees, Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson (who’d worked with the group since the mid-70s), it must also not be underestimated the ground-work of Mr Natural and Main Course producer Arif Mardin in 1974-75, nor the influence of Dennis Byron on drums, Alan Kendall on guitar and in particular, Blue Weaver on keyboards. All played a vital role in fleshing out the true potential of the songs the Bee Gees were writing. Spirits Having Flown (song) remains the zenith of the Bee Gees sound with a crack band, beautiful lyrics, harmonies and production.
As to why the production is so good, listen for the drum fills, the tension that hits in the chorus with Weaver’s synthesizer keyboards, the carry-over of the vocals at the end of the chorus: “I’d like to take you where my spirit flies, through empty skies we go alone, never before having flown,” and best of all, the fade-out.
This song stands out for me ultimately for two main reasons: the marriage of the spiritual nature of the lyrics with the melancholy of the fade-out. I once heard a documentary on BBC Radio 2 where they dissected the song’s layers and pointed out that with every bar in the fade-out a new element is added to the song. The beauty of flutes, the shuffling of the drums, the keyboard bass, the counter-melody lines of the horn-section, the background falsettos…..This isn’t just a pretty song, but a song of immense detail, carefully crafted to the enth degree. Sometimes that perfectionism can suck the life out of songs, as it did on parts of the Eagles The Long Run album, but it never worked better than Spirits Having Flown.
Happy birthday Barry Gibb and as every die-hard Bee Gees fan also knows, happy wedding anniversary too Barry and Linda! (41 years).