The Bee GeesTrafalgar
Released 1971 on Polydor
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 26/02/2011ce
1. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart 3:58
2. Israel 3:54
3. The Greatest Man In The World 4:18
4. It's Just The Way 2:34
5. Remembering 4:02
6. Somebody Stop The Music 3:31
1. Trafalgar 3:53
2. Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself 5:24
3. When Do I 3:58
4. Dearest 3:52
5. Lion In Winter 3:59
6. Walking Back To Waterloo 3:51
The Bee Gees are one of those groups whose career can be divided into a series of distinct chapters. Chapter One is obviously the teenage years in Australia, with Chapter Two being the psych pop phase which brought them instant success on returning to the UK in 1967. Even greater fame came with Chapter Four, when a last ditch attempt to revive their fortunes saw them being teamed up with r&b producer Arif Mardin, leading to 'Saturday Night Fever' and their unshakable association with the disco boom, which for better or for worse has come to define their image to the general public. Coming in between the two career peaks, it is easy to overlook Chapter Three, but the sequence of rather glum albums they produced in the early 1970s, while undeniably patchy, contain many great moments. The best of these is 'Trafalgar'. Coming after the rather tentative reunion album 'Two Years On', this feels more like a return to the vaguely conceptual tendencies of 1969's masterful 'Odessa'. Housed in a tasty gatefold sleeve which reproduces Pocock's painting 'The Battle Of Trafalgar' across the front and back, while inside the group re-enact the death of Nelson (with guitarist Geoff Bridgeford cheekily reading a copy of The Beezer), it is rife with the historical motifs which pepper much of the band's most interesting work.
The album kicks off with a biggie. 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?' was a number one hit in the US and went on to be covered by Al Green, although it was actually written with Andy Williams in mind. It manages to be extremely touching without straining for emotion, sung with a sigh instead of the usual warble. The album's other single 'Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself' is even better. Bearing the ultimate miserablist Bee Gees title (not to mention lyric: 'I went walking through a graveyard/Where the darkness is my friend') it has much to live up to and succeeds thanks to a dramatic chorus and an arrangement with nods backwards to 'Odessa' and forwards to Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day'.
Of the more middling tracks, several achieve distinction. A curious love-letter to a country, 'Israel' has a nice feel and a rousing chorus, but is let down by absurd lyrics ('Where there's sand/Where there's beautiful sand yeah/You know you got a kind of feeling/That's just grand/Take me into your arms/Let me be with you/Israel Israel Israel') and some very forced vocalising at the end. The same problem afflicts 'Lion In Winter', a sort of sequel to the previous album's 'A Man For All Seasons' and an interesting production which builds from a sparse intro of just vocals and drums into something much grander. But again the vocal histrionics at the end sound strained and unconvincing. Much more successful is Barry's solo composition 'The Greatest Man In The World' with the sort of bridge which sounds like it is building to a big chorus, but becomes instead something more understated and humble. Touching in the same way as 'Odessa's 'Sound Of Love' or Scott Walker's similarly titled 'The World's Strongest Man'. Maurice also gets to shine with two of his own songs. 'It's Just The Way' is an interesting amalgam of various ideas seemingly borrowed from other sources: guitar arpeggios from 'Abbey Road', chord changes from 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men', but given a pleasingly moody quality courtesy of Mo's all too rarely heard voice.
Barry handles the lead on Maurice's other contribution, 'Trafalgar' itself, the album's title track and wholly worthy of that honour. This is a marvellous song, typically downbeat and desolate in tone, but oddly uplifting nonetheless. For once the outsider has found his place in society ('The square peg fits the hole') but, this being a Bee Gees glum-fest, the protagonist is according to the song's author just 'a very lonely guy who lives in London and spends a lot of his time feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square', making the historical depiction on the LP's cover a bit of a red herring. Unfortunately, alongside Maurice's more palatable efforts, we also have to endure Robin's maudlin tendencies, and boy does he go for it. For those who find humour in the misery of others, 'Remembering' is comedy gold. Robin's tremulous voice intones risibly depressing lyrics which reach their nadir with the incredible line: 'Now I feel as good as if I were dead'. 'When Do I' also teeters over the edge, but there is something undeniably fascinating about the way Robin's voice descends to a broken croak on the words 'I wonder if I know where I fit in'. 'Dearest' should really be called 'Drearest': the LP would feel far stronger if it, along with 'Remembering', had been excised.
But now that the low-points have been dealt with, there are two more must-haves, which along with the title track are enough to make 'Trafalgar' a semi-classic. 'Somebody Stop the Music' may feature the type of overly tragic imagery which only the Brothers Gibb would attempt to get away with ('Somebody stop the music/Somebody stop the tune/Somebody crown the clown with the red balloon'), but it is wrapped in a strangely dislocated packaging, a song made up of odd segments put together in a deliberately uncertain fashion as if the fact that the whole thing doesn't quite gel is exactly the effect they were going for. The sudden shift to a jaunty sing-a-long collapses in the final minutes into a broken reprise of the verse, Barry struggling to string the words together as Bill Shephard's strings chime in with a long, haunting chord. Shephard's orchestral arrangement also sprinkles magic on closing song 'Walking Back To Waterloo', the highlight of the album and, in my opinion, one of the greatest of all Bee Gees songs. Briskly paced, with the opening acoustic guitar and high descending piano notes soon bolstered by a strong drum beat and acidic guitar lines, it seems to be about the desire to live at an earlier point in history (check out the nicely judged way that Barry delays singing the last line of the first verse: 'But I just wasn't born in time'). There is something enigmatic about the words of the stupendous chorus, maybe because they are partly obscured by the swirling strings which swell up magnificently and threaten to engulf everything in their path. 'Walking back to Waterloo again (Where do I begin?)/If you play indiscreet, you can get a good seat at the end.' Or is it 'If you play it discreet'? It certainly isn't 'In a brand new street' which seems to have become the standard interpretation on all the cloth-eared lyric sites across the internet. Verse two hints that this supposed better world isn't confined to the past, but is merely kept hidden from view ('There must be more behind the scenes'). Richly romantic strings play over the final chords, settling on one final chord that holds for longer than expected, as if not wanting to stop. You won't want it to stop either. The album is worth having for this song alone. It also seems to sum up many of the themes and motifs that recur throughout the preceeding songs which, along with the literal imagery on the sleeve, helps make 'Trafalgar' into a sort of concept album that isn't really.
Also worth seeking out (or more likely downloading) is 'A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants', the Bee Gees album from this era that wasn't at all, because Polydor declined to release it. About as good as 'Trafalgar' and certainly much better than some of the LPs that did make it out into the world, it is indicative of how out of step with the market the Brothers Gibb were during this period. What better reason for dipping in and finding out what they were up to?