Bee Gees – Trafalgar

Trafalgar looks to new horizons with an uncertainty which sums up the band’s situation at the time.

Despite huge singles success with Lonely Days and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the Bee Gees’ chart entries increasingly feel like isolated milestones measured further apart.  But here they turn the tenuousness of their position to their advantage.

Trafalgar is simply the Bee Gees’ best early 70s album, one which needs to be heard from the first to last groove and preferably in one sitting.  Allegedly it was to have been a twenty-track opus, thus overtaking Odessa, but even in two-sided format, Trafalgar’s monumentality is an altogether more measured affair and as a twelve track album of forty-seven minutes, it doesn’t feel at all foreshortened.

Emotional landscape

At last the Bee Gees have come up with a vision for the new decade and the songs to match it.  Those who only know the Bee Gees for their ‘disco’ hits are often stunned at hearing relatively unknown tracks like Trafalgar and Walking Back to WaterlooTrafalgar is underplayed and touching whilst Walking Back to Waterloo marks a breadth, maturity and sheer emotionality which is perhaps unrivalled in the brothers’ back catalogue.

Elsewhere, the extended songs which were tiresome on 2 Years On come alive, especially Don’t Want to Live Inside Myself where Barry really expands his vocals.  They almost savage Lion in Winter whilst When Do I sounds like a strange vocal exercise.

Sensuousness, alienation, frustration, a search for the heroic and the occasional influence of The Beatles (still) are felt in Trafalgar.  Maurice’s deep bass and chordal piano sound great and Bill Shepherd’s dignified arrangements provide orchestral weight.

It’s a different landscape – moody, expansive, atmospheric – and it works.


Trafalgar [1971]

Side 1
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

Israel
The Greatest Man in the World
It’s Just the Way
Remembering
Somebody Stop the Music

Side 2
Trafalgar
Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself
When Do I
Dearest
Lion In Winter
Walking Back to Waterloo


Singles 1971/72 [related to Trafalgar] 

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
Country Woman

Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself
Walking Back to Waterloo

Israel
Dearest


Other artists 1971

Lulu – Everybody Clap


-> To Whom It May Concern
<- 2 Years On


Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

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How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

By Barry & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocal: Robin & Barry
Album Trafalgar 1971


“I can think of younger days”

I draw a line between If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.  Both are unusually long song titles.  Both open their respective albums.  Both deal with the aftermath of heartbreak (nothing too unusual there admittedly).  Both are slow ballads deploying diminished 7ths (the latter far more liberally).  Both represent a move away from the Bee Gees’ 60s template towards a greater reliance on ballads written in a soul idiom.  I see Main Chance on the horizon at this point.  The psychedelic Bee Gees, if indeed they ever existed, are dead.

How Can You Mend… picks up the tendencies of its predecessor and walks with them a few steps into the future.  Where If I Only… is how-can-you-mend-bylinewistful and self-questioning, How Can You Mend… is despairing, imploring, gospel raw, certainly in Al Green’s hands.

Supple soulfulness

I like the emotional changes the song articulates, the wistful, stuttering phrasing/meter of the verses – ‘I can think of younger days…’ – followed by the sudden slow down reckoning and deliberation of the ‘I could never see tomorrow’ pre-chorus.  And then the pained delicacy of the chorus opening giving way to full-blooded passion and finally – ‘let me live again’ – a sigh of longing which again recalls If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else.

The song’s supple soulfulness clearly offered opportunities for a vocalist of expressive dexterity to make it his own and Al Green’s cover remains, perhaps, the definitive version.  A comparison with Andy Williams would have been fascinating had he not turned the song down.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

Walking Back to Waterloo

No. 14 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocals: Barry, Robin & Maurice
Album: Trafalgar 1971
S
ingle B-side 1971


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“My name could be Napoleon”

Walking Back to Waterloo bylineThe only song on Trafalgar credited to all three brothers, Walking Back to Waterloo is the discrete companion piece to Maurice’s Trafalgar.  Both songs are slow paced with choruses conveying a broad, romantic scope enhanced by orchestral strings.

Walking Back to Waterloo takes the alienation of Trafalgar one step further so that we are dealing with displacement in time as well as place.  A sense of inner vision and determination drives our lonely figure on in search of what is ‘beautiful but hard to find’.  The verse vocals, shared by Barry and Robin, convey sensitivity but also frustration and anguish particularly in the convention defying verse ‘What is life…’ sung by Barry.

Out of time

I don’t know how much input Robin had into the lyrics but I wonder if what we are hearing is his idiosyncratic conservatism and love of history manifesting as an affinity for a man who exists out of time and in an unheroic age.  He yearns for ‘another time when people sang and poems rhymed’ and declares ‘I still place my trust in the Queen’.  The song’s very title suggests a character with his back set against the world, searching for his place within the scheme of things.  It’s a sense of displacement felt by our man feeding pigeons in Trafalgar too.  His consolation here seems to be that if you play along you can ‘get a good seat at the end’ but that sounds like small change.  The song charts his quest for meaning – ‘There must be more we haven’t seen’ – but the sonority of the final, prolonged, inward-looking minor chord tells us no answer is forthcoming.

Far from being bleak, Walking Back to Waterloo is ultimately about human struggle, endeavour and a kind of heroicism.  It’s the most life affirming song on Trafalgar and, as the final track, gives the album the gravitas it’s been striving for.

No 13 Lemons Never Forget
No 15 C’est la vie, au revoir

Trafalgar

No. 19 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By: Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocal: Maurice
Album: Trafalgar 1971


“Sitting crossed legged on my own and yet I’m not alone”

Maurice not only wrote but also played all the instruments on Trafalgar (orchestra apart, of course) so it is very much his affair.

For me the Trafalgar album is what the early 70s Bee Gees were really about, not Cucumber Castle‘s histrionics or the rather uninspired country of Two Years On.  Here they seem to mine a vein of quiet desolation.  Despite the residual grandeur, there is an understatement which is absent in the epic Odessa.

Trafalgar the album hints at an overarching concept; the cover bears Pocock’s ‘The Death of Nelson’ and the inner gatefold shows the brothers enacting the scene of Nelson’s death.  But just as Odessa falsely implied a concept album, the suggestion turns out to be even more tenuous here.  Walking Back to Waterloo may name-check Napoleon but that’s about it.  Even Trafalgar isn’t about the Battle of Trafalgar at all but ‘a very lonely guy who lives in London and spends a lot of his time feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.’  The song is a gentle cry to be known by others in the face of the city’s vast anonymity.

The music resonates with The Beatles, the verse vocal lines echoing, if not the melodies of Strawberry Fields Forever and A Day in the Life, at least their sense of disassociation;  Maurice’s warbling vocal at the end of ‘square peg fits the hole’ openly acknowledges the influence.  The chorus’ plaintive repetition of the title is simple and quietly moving.  Other songs on the album adopt similar themes, most notably Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself but sound more strained.

Maurice’s gifts in song were his restraint and unassuming down-to earthness.  Those qualities are clearly heard here.

No 18 World
No 20 Lord Bless All

It’s Just the Way

No. 35 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

Written by: Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocal: Maurice
Album: Trafalgar 1971


Embed from Getty Images

 

“You don’t love me anymore, then goodbye”

Just a fine, semi-acoustic ballad from Maurice, charting his feelings as his relationship with Lulu comes to an end.

Characteristically understated, he simply relates how he feels in an unadorned way, looking ahead to a future which seems bereft.  There is a wish that friendship might yet emerge from the rubble, but the closing line is the sober dawning that ‘I only know that friends can’t be lovers again’.  Bill Shepherd’s sustained closing strings (highly characteristic of Trafalgar) are a long stare towards new horizons.

On an album of extended orchestral expositions, It’s Just the Way has a refreshing simplicity and directness.

Everybody Clap Lulu’s 1971 single written by Maurice

No 34 The Change is Made
No 36 Turning Tide

Dearest

No. 39 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Barry & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocals: Barry & Robin
Album: Trafalgar 1971
Single B-side 1972


Embed from Getty Images

 

“My dearest, this picture, my own memory”

It has been said that many of Robin’s ballads seem to belong to an earlier era.  Two songs particularly spring to mind. One is Sincere Relation (which reaches its melodramatic twin peaks with the almost disturbingly declamatory ‘and then he died…’).  And the other is the bitter-sweet, cameo vignette, Dearest.

Dearest is the stronger of the two.  With a swooning melody steeped in loss, nostalgia and longing, it strongly evokes the semi-forgotten genre of the Victorian sentimental song.  Indeed, listening to ‘Dearest’ is the aural equivalent of opening the delicate clasp of a Victorian cameo and gazing lovingly upon the image captured within and that, I suppose, is what the song describes.  A string quartet or grand piano accompaniment might have better completed the picture of strained, treasured intimacy.

Velvet-jacketed Robin

I imagine a velvet-jacketed Robin performing before a candlelit assembly of quietlyDearest byline left 9pt enraptured ladies and monocled gentleman in an Edwardian country house drawing-room.  Robin perhaps holds that cameo outstretched in his hand, gazing upon it for heightened dramatic effect.

‘Dearest’’s heart is so bursting with seriousness that it paradoxically seems to teeter into precarious pastiche.  The emotional pitch is raised alarmingly with ‘and if you could see me today, I will remember you’.

I admit that upon first listening to Trafalgar, (the album) I would often press ‘skip’ when Robin’s opening vocals to Track 10 sounded, not wishing to encounter the somewhat cloying experience of the song.  Then, one day, I must have hesitated.  ‘Dearest’ made sense and touched me somehow.  I think this is quite characteristic of Robin’s songs. They can take time for one to appreciate fully from the inside.

Despite its pre-pop allusions, Dearest surely imparts too much feeling for it to have been written purely as a genre piece.  Curiously, at times, it reminds me melodically of ‘I Can Sing a Rainbow’, and certainly shares with that song an utter lack of cynicism and irony.  These absences make ‘Dearest’ strange to twenty-first century ears – and then really rather lovely.

No 38 Paper Maché, Cabbages and Kings
No 40 Lonely Days