- Album: Size Isn’t Everything
- Release date: September 13, 1993 (UK), November 2, 1993 (US)
- Recorded: August 1992 – June 1993, Middle Ear Studios, Miami, Mayfair Studios, London
- Producers: Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb with Femi Jiya
Late period Bee Gees albums don’t come much better than this. Forget that, 90s pop albums by heritage acts rarely get as good as 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything – an LP that produced three UK top 30 hits, including the UK top 5 ballad For Whom The Bell Tolls. Virtually unknown in much of the world, there’s also a chunk of Planet Earth where the soaring For Whom The Bell Tolls is viewed as one of the signature Bee Gees songs. Its equally fine parent album should be seen in much the same light.
Just ask any South American music lover alive in the 90s where For Whom The Bell Tolls became an even bigger smash than in the UK, on its way to being the brothers’ most significant Southern Hemisphere hit since the 70s. As such, Size Isn’t Everything hit number one in places as far flung as Argentina, while For Whom The Bell Tolls became almost as emblematic of the Bee Gees as You Win Again, Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Massachusetts and To Love Somebody.
Global album sales for Size Isn’t Everything were respectable-ish (estimated at 750,000 copies) and if not for the last stubborn embers of the Stateside backlash to anything or anyone considered “disco”, not to mention a couple of Barry Gibb-related health issues forcing the cancellation of a full supporting tour, perhaps Size could’ve been a proper international triumph. For that the brothers would have to wait four more years and the almost as good Still Waters (1997) album.
“Almost as good”, because even if the excellent Still Waters finally restored the Bee Gees to the kinds of mega sales they’d always deserved but too-often fallen short of since the late 70s, it’s important when determining the overall multi-decade narrative of the brothers Gibb to understand that Still Waters was no isolated late-career creative flourish.
Indeed, for a decade prior to the five-million-selling Still Waters and all its positive press, TV specials and lifetime achievement gongs, the Bee Gees had been releasing high quality albums at a rate of almost one every two years. And unlike much of what has been printed – or perhaps more to the point, not printed – every single one of those albums yielded major hits in the US or the UK (though never both at the same time) as well as in Europe, Asia, Australasia and South America.
And not for the first time, the Bee Gees confused small-minded critics who even in the 90s still didn’t know how to frame the band as anything other than a “disco” act. If the year was 1993 and the shadow of the cultural touchstone of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from 15-years prior remained the writer’s primary framework for assessing the Gibbs, Size was always going to be listened with prejudice.
Especially if the first thing those critics heard was the uptempo electronic beat of the opening track (and lead single) Paying The Price Of Love and little else. There was a patronising whiff of “those danged disco Bee Gees are now trying to do hip-hop!” to some of the album’s reviews, never-minding the fact there was little that was hip-hop about the song other than that it was R&B influenced, sample-ready and heaven forbid, current for 1993.
If, however, anyone assessing the album understood the Bee Gees were first and foremost a prolific pop act who wrote in every imaginable pop sub-genre, then the bombast of those drums and synths on Paying The Price Of Love weren’t the band “now trying to do hip-hop”, they were merely the Bee Gees doing what they always did. Which is to say, staying sonically with the times while still writing melodic, emotionally-driven pop songs that were sometimes slow, sometimes fast, that sometimes you could dance to and sometimes you couldn’t.
Indeed, a proper peek beyond Paying The Price Of Love doesn’t just reveal the peerless balladry and vocal arrangements of For Whom The Bell Tolls , but a whole lot else too. So let’s do the Gibbs, and their now 30-year-old album Size Isn’t Everything justice. Here’s the album track-by-track:
Paying The Price Of Love:
Now among the more forgotten Bee Gees’ hits, Paying The Price Of Love only just missed the UK top 20 (#23) and features a gentle melody on a defiantly non-gentle backing track. The heavy, programmed New Jack Swing sound continues the brothers’ late-period preference for album openers with dominant drums (You Win Again in 1987, Ordinary Lives in 1989, High Civilization in 1991), but it’s Paying The Price Of Love‘s dramatic turn at the 2:13 mark that lingers longer than any mixing decision.
“And I am torn apart! I’m torn apart inside!” screams Barry in a pitch only just audible to humans with a line I always misheard as, “And I am just about! I’m just about insane!” Maybe “insane!” was a step too far, but regardless, it’s a sit-up-and-take-notice falsetto in career not short of them. That it leads to a sample-me-now instrumental breakdown at the 2:45 mark makes it standout even more. Even if it is – to my knowledge – yet to be sampled.
Kiss Of Life:
A single in some parts of the world with grand three-part chorus harmonies, Kiss Of Life is so innocuously catchy that it’s easy to miss the songcraft that presents alternating Robin/Barry verse leads with entirely different melodies. Robin’s punchy turns are a highlight, especially on lines like: “You been comin’ to me late at night / It’s not the eye alone that gives you sight / I’ve never given anybody my soul / But I’m coming undone”.
How To Fall In Love Part 1:
A circuitous repeating melody line – “Experience is not enough / I’ll show you how to fall in love”, made How To Fall In Love Part 1 near impossible to replicate live, but even as a UK #30 hit, it was an unlikely choice of single. Which isn’t to say it isn’t extremely pretty. It is. More than that, it’s hypnotic to the point of being among the most gorgeous Gibb ballads.
But at six-minutes, How To Fall In love Part 1 was never going to be a natural radio staple. And while an edit was made that gave the brothers the rare feat of being an act who first found fame in the 60s now scoring three top 40 hits from the same album in the 90s, it was the repetition of that Barry hook line in the extended outro that really made the song. That an Ed Calle’s brilliant sax.
From 1981’s Living Eyes through to 2001’s swansong This Is Where I Came In, every Bee Gees studio album would feature at least one Maurice Gibb lead. Fans drawn to Maurice’s gregarious, underdog, everyman personality lapped this up, aided by the simple fact the tunes were always uniformly good too. Omega Man was no exception.
With references to the 1964 Tony Curtis film Sex And The Single Girl alongside lines like, “underneath the covers I will set you free”, Omega Man hints at the carnal, though the title and its allusions to the last letter of the Greek alphabet suggests this is more Maurice in humble, semi-autobiographical mode. What is clear is that Omega Man has one hefty, hooky chorus and sung in one of the lowest registers of any Gibb song too.
Moody, sorrowful and with that underplayed Gibb Ace card of Barry and Robin singing in unison – rather than harmony – to create a fourth Bee Gee voice (or sixth depending if you count Barry in powerful natural voice, whisper voice and falsetto as different vocals). Lyrically the song is reportedly about divorce with the notion of a newly empty home feeling haunted. But as with many Gibb songs, Haunted House is less about the exactitudes of the lyrics and how they make you feel. And this feels sad and eerie even if it is uptempo.
With notable percussion and a near six-minute runtime, Haunted House is superficially similar to some of the songs on 1991’s High Civilization, a tech-heavy LP dominated by lengthy intros and outros. The key difference being that taken as a whole, Size Isn’t Everything replaced its predecessor’s often industrial sound with something several degrees warmer. Haunted House – punctuated with Barry’s stunning stabs of “like a lamb to the slaughter” and the acoustic guitar of Steve Howe from Yes – was a long, winding amble of the most beautiful kind of Gibb melancholy.
Heart Like Mine:
Robin gets a chance to shine proper on a trembling ballad he would describe as being inspired by the type of sonic-scapes Enya was famous for. Barry was clearly an admirer when he chose it as the music for an online photo montage following Robin’s death in 2012.
Anything For You:
Perfectly pleasant, but the only song on Size you could accuse of being slight. Built upon at least 107 mentions of the word “anything”, Anything For You was a needless blip in quality, something only reinforced when fans discovered Size’s two quite remarkable non-album B-sides, My Destiny and 855-7019. But more on those soon.
Find me a person who doesn’t like this song. It’s no trouble finding a person who doesn’t know it – that’s almost the entire human race – but I’m yet to play Blue Island to anyone who remains anything resembling apathetic. Most are blown away.
A spiritual, acoustic ballad where Heaven is presented as a kind of “blue island”, Barry and Robin in unison for the verses give way to classic three-part Bee Gees harmonies with Maurice on the choruses. And almost as good as those familial vocals is the rare (for a Gibb composition) harmonica solo that hits at the end of the chorus.
A stunning, drum-less gem that was an opportunity missed when it came to picking Size’s singles.
Above And Beyond:
A second Maurice lead, Above And Beyond sits alongside Chain Reaction (Diana Ross), Secret Love and Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms (Lulu) as Gibb songs from this era that hark back to the classic Holland/Dozier/Holland Motown rhythms of the mid-60s.
Upbeat in every sense, Above And Beyond reads as a newly sober, recommitted Maurice singing a sweet dedication to his wife since 1975, Yvonne. And whether intentional or not, the nod to fellow 70s survivors Earth, Wind & Fire on the recurring “Love is the Earth and the wind and the fire and soul” lyric is a standout.
For Whom The Bell Tolls:
Simply put, For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of the finest songs Barry, Robin and Maurice ever wrote. Barry’s iconic falsetto for the verses, Barry in natural voice for the pre-chorus, Robin tearing it up in his upper-register natural voice for the choruses, capped off with harmonies from Maurice – the vocal arrangement alone on For Whom The Bell Tolls is Grammy-worthy. If only America had listened.
No matter, the UK did, Ireland did, some of Europe did and pretty much all of South America did too. A UK top 5 smash and a South American number one, For Whom The Bell Tolls recalls the best vocal interplay between Barry and Robin of tracks like Run To Me, My World, I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You and Nights On Broadway.
And they don’t just trade leads, they crossover into each other on several occasions with stunning effect, like when Barry becomes Robin on the lines “I’ll follow you anywhere / I promise I’ll be there” just before Robin’s chorus at the 3:20 mark. Likewise, Robin becomes Barry at the end of the chorus as “for the whom the bell…” crosses over into an extended Barry falsetto on the word “tolls”.
This is kitchen sink stuff. You could also argue that as huge as that magnificent chorus is – and you believe Robin when he pleads there’s a “hole in my soul” – Barry’s “now I know but-a-little-too-late” tumbling bridge is nearly as ear-wormy. It’s clear the brothers spent a lot of time on For Whom The Bell Tolls.
That extends to the lyrics, which lift a title from Hemingway and depict the end of a romance, apparently with someone famous: “Seen you in a magazine / a picture at a party where you shouldn’t have been / hanging on the arm of someone else”.
Elsewhere, it’s a warning of realising too late you’ve taken the only person who really knew you for granted: “Are you leaving me a helpless child / when it took so long to save me?”
The chorus makes it clear the lady in question has moved on and evidently, is pretty OK with the end of the relationship: “For you it’s goodbye / And for me it’s to cry / For whom the bell tolls”.
And given the Barry/Robin character has promised to “follow you anywhere” and always be there – just in case of reconciliation – the impact is devastating.
It’s also a big ol’ booming 90s power ballad that even with an inferior single edit that shortened things by over a minute, found its audience. For time it looked like it might even be the UK’s Christmas number one that winter. It wasn’t to be, but For Whom The Bell Tolls gave the Bee Gees their third straight album with either a US or UK top 10 single, a run they’d further stretch when Alone (from Still Waters, 1997) also hit the UK top 5. That they were doing this 30-years into their career put them in the most rarified air.
Inspired by the Pet Shop Boys, Fallen Angel is Robin in Eurodance mode, but with minor chords and another terrific vocal. It’s a lyrically intriguing concept too with at least some of the lines referencing parental confusion and anguish over a child: “Fool is the father who clings to the child he is losing / Mother too weary to question the wisdom of youth”.
Both in terms of Robin’s performance, as well as its production, Fallen Angel manages to sound on-trend without chasing it. Robin’s later attempts at Eurodance (like 2001’s Embrace and Promise The Earth from This Is Where I Came In, as well as some of his final solo works) could jar as a pop elder-statesman trying to sound like a 20-something. But in 1993, there were no such issues for the then 43-year old.
An unusual case of a band successfully updating one of their most famous songs, Decadance was a remake of the Bee Gees’ 1976 US #1 (and UK #5) You Should Be Dancing. Mostly faithful to the original except with 90’s techno production, the chorus at the start and an even higher falsetto for the final verse’s “My baby moves at midnight”, Decadance was omitted from the US version of Size.
The B-sides – My Destiny, 855-7019:
OK, here’s a mystery as big as any 90s mysteries involving the Gibbs: four of the brothers’ best, most arresting songs of the decade were relegated to B-sides on two consecutive albums. Sure, it’s part of what makes being a Gibb diehard so rewarding in that there are always these hidden gems to discover. But in the case of the Size and Still Waters off-cuts, they were so good as to be perplexing. And the fact none are on streaming platforms like Spotify is criminal.
I’ve written in the past about the brilliant Still Waters (1997) B-sides Rings Around The Moon and Love Never Dies and I encourage you to click here to discover why people like me rate them so highly. I feel the same about the Size era’s My Destiny and 855-7019.
Starting with the pop-rock of My Destiny, it’s something of a musical cousin to the Bee Gees’ barely heard, flat-out spectacular 1988 Seoul Olympics soundtrack contribution Shape Of Things To Come. But where Shape is more urgent, My Destiny is more comfortably chugging. And it’s a helluva chug.
It’s also among the most vocally complex Gibb songs out of the at least 1000 the brothers composed. Sound like hyperbole? Listen closely and realise almost the entire track is performed in harmony. Sometimes it’s Barry in lead, sometimes Robin, sometimes natural voice and sometimes falsetto. But for virtually the entire 3:40 runtime, it’s Barry, Robin and Maurice trading off each other in a way so dextrous only the likes of the Beach Boys at their peak would even attempt.
As for 855-7019, its silky R&B groove and a hook based on the phone number of the title tell a tale of infidelity. Remember, this is the early 90s where everyone was anxious to declare how modern they were. Fax machines! Computers! Answer phones! Electronic drums and sound effects! And in 855-7019’s case, both answer phones and electronic drums and sound effects.
So yes, it’s a song that both musically and lyrically is announcing that most 90s of proclamations of LOOK HOW MODERN WE ARE. But crucially, it stands up. The groove is immense, as are – of course – the harmonies. And that sublime hook is addictive as sugar.
No-one knew it at the time, but 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything ultimately existed to lay the groundwork for the Bee Gees’ 1997’s global blockbuster Still Waters and the group sealing their legacy as one of the most important groups and songwriting teams of the 20th Century. If Size hadn’t been such a fully realised group effort, it’s possible the similarly collaborative Still Waters would’ve never happened.
And if Size’s singles hadn’t found such a solid base in the UK, Europe and South America, it’s questionable as to whether non-US radio would’ve been as welcoming of Still Waters’ debut smash single Alone as they were for a group now into their late 40s and early 50s. But they were. And even Americans fell for Alone to such an extent it became just the fourth US top 40 hit the Bee Gees achieved (as performers) since their imperial 1970s run.
Size got mostly forgotten when Still Waters became the biggest Bee Gees studio album since 1979’s Spirits Having Flown. The subsequent tsunami of goodwill that came the brothers way meant they were forced to spend most of their spare time in the late 90s collecting one lifetime achievement award after another. That is, if they weren’t filming TV specials, making docos or selling out football stadiums everywhere from London to Buenos Aires. Sometimes in showbiz – if you’re good enough – you come back into fashion and that happened globally in a major way for the Bee Gees at the end of the 90s.
So much so that they were able to follow Still Waters with a live album, One Night Only (1998), that sold six million units on its way to being among the highest selling live recordings in history.
The Bee Gees were always driven by commercial success, but they were also driven by their commercial failures. When Size failed to reach a million copies worldwide – and only peaked at US #153 – it spurred Barry, Robin and Maurice to do what they do best. Return to the studio and try even harder.
It’s no exaggeration to say that if no Size Isn’t Everything, then no Still Waters. Its artistic success proved there was gas in the collective Bee Gees tank, while its Stateside miss spurred the boys on.
The tile is prescient. For every copy of Size sold, Still Waters would sell approximately seven. But size – so they say – isn’t everything.