Thursday, February 24, 2011

Men In the Middle--the flowers that grow out of the ego dung

This post celebrates the amazing songs that sneak out of the quieter, less ego-driven members of bands. I know I'll miss some, but my point will be that often times, these are the songs that are the breath of fresh air in the course of an album.

Recently I was checking out the recently released Bee Gees 4-Disc set Mythology. Each Bee Gee, Andy Gibb included, although he was never a real Bee Gee, gets a CD dedicated to their material, hand picked by Barry, Robin and the widows of Maurice and Andy.

More or less, I was going to just grab the tried and true favorites, and enjoy hearing them newly remastered etc. "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart", "To Love Somebody", "Jive Talkin'", etc etc. Barry songs, Robin songs.
I was initially disappointed that a few songs that I consider to be absolute classics were not included: "Idea", "Kilburne Towers", "Red Chair Fade Away", "Kitty Can".
I also wondered whether there would be anything of note on Maurice's CD, since I always considered him more of a supporting member, providing bass, keyboards and lower harmonies. I'd read that he was the even-keeled one, acting as the "man in the middle" (also the name of a song he wrote for 2001's This is Where I Came In), when Barry and Robin's ever-battling egos reached new heights. I mean, Maurice (pronounced "Morris") knew that his "everyman" appearance and singing voice wasn't going to put his likeness on too many teenybopper's walls. Thus, he was the rock. The alcoholic rock, but the rock nevertheless. Also, he was the one with the greatest sense of humor. There are many tales of Barry walking out on anyone who regarded him as anything less than a genius. Maurice always seemed ready with a joke where Barry seemed incapable at laughing at, well, anything.

So...the Maurice CD on Mythology. Wow. Granted, on all the CDs, one must deal with the 80's and 90's stuff. But I had no idea that Maurice had written some very cool, very un-Bee Gees-sounding songs that were usually stuck in the 7th or 8th slot on the albums.
Odessa, from 1969, was supposed to be The Bee Gees magnum opus. A concept album about some sort of ancient war. But Barry ("Potty") and Maurice ("Pilly") couldn't quite get their druggy minds to focus enough to make it sound anything but "an ambitious attempt...".
One song that I really, really love from that album, that I rediscovered on the box set is Maurice's unassuming, understated, catchy as hell "Suddenly". Dig it. It kind of reminds me of my friend Lord Russ.

Other highlights from Maurice include "On Time" (which sounds like a Beck tune 20 years pre-Beck), and the gorgeous "It's Just the Way".

Lastly, one of Maurice's masterpieces is 1971's title track from "Trafalgar". A glorious chorus, with all the Gibbs chiming in.

Dennis Wilson also fits this profile. The Beach Boys were such a freak show. Brian, the genius who could never live up to his early promise; Carl, the peacemaker and "good guy"; Mike, the...the...words escape how to aptly describe Mike Love. Doofus? Annoying and embarrassing as all hell? Possibly the most unstable of all the guys? Lucky to have landed the gig? Nobody's favorite Beach Boy? The bane of Brian's existence?
Ah, but Dennis. Dennis wanted to party, to surf, to consume a lot of booze, drugs and female bits. He loved brother Brian. He could barely stand Mike Love. Dennis never played drums on record, but had a simple punk rock energy behind the kit in concert--when he wasn't too wasted or injured to play.
And guess what? Around 1969, as Brian's output was dwindling to a couple songs per album, and no one really wanted to hear Mike, Bruce or Al's attempts at writing, Dennis stepped to the plate and knocked about half a dozen tunes right out of the park. No pretense. Just honest, from the heart, soulful tunes sung in his nasal rasp--a very human voice. Go Dennis!

(well, Carl sings much of this, but Dennis wrote it and wails at the end)

Who else? could say Phil Lesh? Although the Dead always seemed to be a bit "beyond" ego battles. I'm sure they were there, but they operated quite well as a group, and if Jerry wanted to have a separate solo career, and save some great songs for his solo albums, then, hey man, whatever.
However, Phil did come up with two sublime Dead tunes that don't sound like anything else in their catalog:

and Dead fans had to wait another 4 years for another Phil song--the mellow fusion of "Unbroken Chain", which sounds like Brian Eno meets Spyro Gyra. You know what? I actually haven't a clue what Spyro Gyra sound like. I just assume they're jazz rock.

Dave Davies is a classic example. Ray Davies is famous for keeping Dave under his thumb. Belittling his little brother's contributions, giving back handed compliments, etc. And yet, Dave has come up with three of the best tunes, in my opinion, in the Kinks catalog.

and one of my all time faves, even if it was relegated to a B-side (I always wanted to cover this tune in personally sadder times. I hope to not want to cover it again.)
Dig the honesty.

Hmm..who else? Peter Tork?
He quickly saw that inter-band harmony was a lost cause, and stopped even offering up his songs for albums. He did have a big ego, but decided he'd fry big, big fish once he was out of the Monkees. Sadly, that didn't happen, as his party buddies Crosby, Stills, Jackson Browne etc were already onto their own stardom.
But in 1968, Tork shone in the sinking Monkees ship:

and this tune, which appeared in an episode, but the recorded version didn't appear until it was on one of the Rhino reissues in the 90's. But wow--they really shoulda released this in '68.

There are others, of course. And there are exceptions.
John Entwistle? No. Why? I can't think of a song I can't do without.
Mick Jones? Well, he scored a huge hit or two, didn't he?
Colin Moulding? Ditto.
David Crosby? Hmm...nah.
Chris Hillman. We might have something there. But The Byrds really didn't have a "lion's share" songwriter.

Oh my...I seem to have forgotten one very important guy. Possibly the one who had to deal with THE MOTHER of ego battles. No introduction necessary:

Thanks for reading. And thanks for the breaths of ego-free air, Dennis, Maurice, George and co.

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