John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

A Great Song By The Bee Gees?

Yep. “How can You Mend A Broken Heart?”

By - Jun 2nd, 2017 01:06 pm
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The Bee Gees. Photo from Facebook.

The Bee Gees. Photo from Facebook.

The Bee Gees, a group so immensely popular and maybe just a tad annoying, seem to exist outside the critical spectrum. Of course they’ve been written about endlessly, but like John Denver and The Carpenters, their middle-of-the-road appeal doesn’t help their reputation among those who demand less show biz and more authenticity. It’s a conundrum that’s probably easy to overlook while running to the bank with truckloads of cash. Of course, this experience is truly foreign to me, so maybe I’m wrong and it has bothered them. Sadly, there’s only one left to ask, the original B.G., Barry Gibb, and he’s not returning my calls.

Barry is a tragic figure, having buried three brothers. Sympathy for a man who has sung bare chested duets with Barbra Streisand is usually in short supply around here, but he gets mine. There are YouTube clips of the young Bee Gees trio performing on Australian TV that make any argument about their native talent and preternatural brother blend impossible. This was a case of talent — lots of it and at a very early age. When they relocated to England and started having huge worldwide hits, the Beatles shadow was over them like the British weather. It didn’t hide their talent but they were drawn into the second-best Beatles sweepstakes. A tough contest, but you have to admit they did pretty well. Somewhere down the road, they and their high powered management decided to hop on the Disco train, a move that allowed them to be something different. That phase of their career was more popular with fans than critics, but it was something they did well and many of those songs hold up well today.

But after they changed from the twee three to the swaggering polyester juggernaut of the 70’s, their earlier work was cast into a state of instant nostalgia. It’s hard to overstate the sweetness in their early songs, or the tenderness and vulnerability in their delivery. There’s evidence galore in the song Dean Schlabowske of The Waco Brothers suggested I write about, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.” Here it is, live, perfectly in tune and really kind of lovely. I didn’t know the first lead was sung by Robin Gibb, but he does a fine job. When your harmony singers are this good, you can be as relaxed and confident they are. Poor Maurice, the odd twin out on this one, is reduced to directing, as Barry takes over on the chorus. Beneath the shiny surface you find a sturdy song — oddly, it has only one verse, with chorus that repeats and still works after millions of spins. I thought only Roy Orbison, wrote songs that don’t circle around to the beginning, I guess I’ll have to add Barry Gibb to that short list.

Rather than using vibrato, a trilling variation in pitch that can be subtle or a lounge lizardly, The Bee Gees used tremolo. For that, you vary the volume to get a breathy effect rarely heard. Chryssie Hynde of The Pretenders has a gorgeous trem. So does Donovan. The Bee Gees employed it from the beginning and when this keening lyric wafted from speakers hearts were set aflutter.

I can think of younger days
When living for my life
Was everything a man could want to do
I could never see tomorrow

But I was never told about the sorrow
How can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?

What makes the world go round?
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart

And let me live again
I can still feel the breeze
That rustles through the trees
And misty memories of days gone by

We could never see tomorrow
But no one said a word about the sorrow
How can you mend a broken heart?

How can you stop the rain from falling down

How can you stop the sun from shining
What makes the world go round

And how can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart
And let me live again

La la la la la la, la la la la
La la la la la la, la la la la

Please help me mend my broken heart
And let me live again

Da da da da
Da da da da, da da da da da, da

© Robin Gibb

An old cliche says a question mark is a hook and it’s never been truer. The poor guy in this song is nothing but a collection of hooks and dots, in search of an answer. I added this song to a long list of questioning tunes recently for writers in my song clinic. The assignment was to add a question mark to the title and the song. It’s an old and reliable trick — It’s hard to ignore a song that’s a persistent beggar tugging at your sleeve. The Bee Gees received enough response to their question to knock them up a tax bracket or two.

Had there been no question, the music would have seduced you anyway. It’s quiet and polite at the start of the verse, where we get to ponder the resignation of a young man from whom you would expect optimism. Was he really old enough to be singing about his “younger days?” But by the time you’ve considered that little mystery, you’ve already walked too far into that room to leave. That’s when a chorus that is, I have to admit, kind of majestic, begins. It starts on the one, the home chord for the key they’re in. But this time it’s a major seventh chord, often reason to worry in pop music. It can make for cloying soft rock in the wrong hands (Bread) or a sense of breezy sophistication for those with less schlock in their systems. But it’s just right for this song. The chords begin a steady march upward to what’s called the dominant chord. I like to think they called it dominant because it feels so final. The song poses a musical question with only one solution, then goes home to the chord where it all began. It’s the last big thunderclap before the storm passes. To write a song with a sweeping arc like this, one that begins so meekly and and then goes boldly, takes takes some schooling, a lot of natural talent, or both. You also need an inherent sense of drama, Like ‘em or not, the Gibb had theirs in place before they ever left home.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the truly tender cover by Al Green. This is a man who doesn’t borrow songs — he steals them. He almost got this one, but it remains one of those rare cases with two best versions of the same song. It gets a total makeover by this contender for King of Soul and still winds up in the same broken-hearted neighborhood as the original. Al Green singing your song is validation no amount of fame and fortune can compete with. It’s a little wink from God, saying “You did okay there, Barry Gibb.”

I’m not the world’s biggest Bee Gees fan. I’m not sure what holds me back, maybe the hostile takeover attempt of the film version of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Careers have ups and downs and the 70’s weren’t kind to everyone. When I stop thinking so hard and tune out all the cultural feedback, I see some very savvy pros doing something you wouldn’t think would be so rare: harmonizing like angels on some pretty solid songs.

7 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: A Great Song By The Bee Gees?”

  1. Pat Thomas says:

    Great article about a great song. But keep in mind the Bee Gees had lots of great songs and crazy songwriting diversity. When you consider To Love Somebody, Stayin’ Alive and Islands in the Stream were all written by the same guys, you can’t deny their talent. Not to mention the 16 number one songs written and/or performed by them between ’71 and ’83, and hundreds of covers by everyone from Joplin, Elvis and Ozzy to Manilow, Osmond and Destiny’s Child. The Bee Gees… and Barry himself… rock.

  2. David Nelson says:

    I agree with Pat that The Bee Gees have many good songs, although they moved toward MOR a bit too much during the eighties. I also would say that Islands in the Stream is only a marginally good song, not one I’d hold up as a an example of their value. Still, many, many songs of theirs from the sixties through early eighties range from excellent to good.

  3. Daddy3Girls says:

    The idea that the Bee Gees seemingly “surprisingly” having a good song is pretty damn insulting to them. Are you kidding? Those guys were monsters! Sit yourself down and listen to “Odessa” or “Idea” all the way through. Maurice Gibb in particular is way underrated. Hell of a bass player.

  4. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I used to know a comedian in town, Jimmy Miller (who later died of cancer) who did Bee Gee songs onstage, often ending with How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? (his songs were also character impressions/imitations, but he took singing them very seriously). Everyone always responded well, and certainly figures sad enough to commit suicide knew about the sorrows they depicted. And the harmonies – well of course I agree with you, angelic and lovely!

  5. John Sieger says:

    Let it be known that, despite the headline (not mine) which implies The Bee Gees only have one great song, I actually think they have a pile. I only write about one song at a time, and this one was suggested by a wise friend. I think it’s representative of their best work, of which there is plenty. My goal is appreciation, not criticism, and I try to stay the course while occasionally hinting it’s not a flat universe full of wonderful songs. The thing that makes songs great is the sea of average or below they float on. Some actually float above that level and I’m looking for them.

  6. Rob says:

    “I Started a Joke” is also excellent. I especially recommend the version by Low. Lots of great covers of Bee Gees tunes exist. My favorite” “To Love Somebody” — the version Nina Simone recorded is absolutely incredible.

  7. john norquist says:

    John,

    In July 1972 I was waiting for a bus in Lake Charles, Louisiana on my way to reporting for Army Basic Training at Fort Polk, 68 miles north. After flying to Houston (btw, there was nothing cool about Houston in 1972 especially in July) and then catching a slow bus to Lake Charles I was tired and homesick. I headed for the dive across the street from the bus station. The place turned out to be a Cajun Bar; not a Cajun themed bar, but one with real Cajuns speaking their incomprehensible dialect which defeated my 2 years of UW French. All the 45 rpm records in the juke box were Cajun except one; “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees. My heart needed mending so I played it. And then I played it again. I tried the flip side, but whatever it was it wasn’t as appropriate to my mood as “Mend”. I played it several more times before the very Cajun bartender interrupted my delicious sorrow saying, “you don’t play that no more”. I finished my beer and headed out the door, a little embarrassed, but better fortified for the ordeal ahead. I still enjoy the Bee Gees, disco included. I even like “Your Everything” by the 4th Gibb brother- Andy.

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