Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #33

Bee Gees – Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)

On the landing page for this site is a photo of three all-time favourites – Prince, Elvis Costello and Billy Joel – but it could just as easily have been a photo of the three brothers Gibb. For while those artists have fallen in and out of favour – Prince released some barely listenable records, Costello’s “North” will have you looking for synonyms for “dull”, and Joel could deliver a dozen songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and still not clear the unforgivable stench of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – I have never not loved the Bee Gees, or at least the version that I grew up to. Even when much of the world abandoned them in the alleged disco backlash of 1979, I kept playing all my “Saturday Night Fever” 45s, and even the less pleasing tracks on “Spirits Having Flown” went unskipped.

Picking a favourite Bee Gees song was a no-brainer, which is sort of amazing since I could probably start singing without any hesitation about two dozen of them, and that’s without including Bee Gees-adjacent tunes from little brother Andy and folks like Samantha Sang and Frankie Valli. Bob Stanley raved about their songwriting chops in his magnificent book “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé”, and their insane versatility in that area is what made them stars again after every dip in their fortunes as a band. Add the unmistakable harmonies, and you have something undeniable.

Now, my wife may disagree with this choice. For all our years together, she’s been entertained by my response to “Nights on Broadway” whenever it pops up in a playlist. I have an almost physical reaction: my cares lighten, a smile etches itself onto my heart, my vocal cords soften, and then I am howling away like the poppiest pop diva. It is by far my favourite of their songs to sing along to. 

And yet, it is “Fanny” that moves me most, in part because it is probably the ballsiest song they ever recorded. I am a sucker for big epic statements in music, for rock songs that are operatic in scope and in the emotions they convey. For songs that start out gentle and build to an insane intensity that almost makes your heart explode out of your chest. For songs that are so complex in their structure that to perform them as recorded is nearly impossible in a live setting. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)”, which meets all of these criteria yet is somehow even more than that.

“Fanny” is a song about love, but, as the title makes clear, there’s a lot of trepidation on the narrator’s part about what this love might do to him. It opens with a relaxed tempo, with tinkling keyboards, slightly throbbing guitar and delicate piano bar drums. The intensity rises with the layered voices of the first chorus, then again with the roar of frustration in the second verse of “Do you think I’m gonna stand here / All night in the rain?” It’s a nice song, but it’s from 1:55 to 2:15, in the section ending “You made a promise / You’ll always love me forever”, that you first sense (1) how truly fucked this guy is and (2) you might just be listening to something great.

After another chorus, more intense than the last, voices overlapping in a barely controlled cacophony, the song reaches at 2:55 what could be its natural endpoint. There’s nothing more to say about Fanny, and you could fade out with a few more lines of the chorus and be proud of the work you put in. But there’s more than a minute left, and what a minute it is. From 2:55 to 3:10, the drums pick up and the brothers “ooh” and “aah” and almost howl before Barry comes out for one more chorus on absolute fire, displaying all the vulnerability and terror that lies at the heart of giving yourself to another person so completely, the existential “oh, fuck, what have I gotten myself into?” that every last one of us, if we’ve been lucky, has experienced at least once. Having released that pain, his energy finally depleted, the song fades out, into history.

So, maybe too much weight for a pop song? Hell, no. Music at its best triggers an emotional response, and I can listen to “Fanny” again and again and never not feel that same thrill over the last minute or so. It’s a work of studio wizardry – the brothers never played it live because it was impossible to recreate what they had done – but it isn’t clinical like so much manufactured music because the technology is warm, not cold: the genius isn’t the manipulation of a Pro Tools-wielding producer demigod, but of professional musicians committed to making something timeless and using the tech to enhance their talent, not as a substitute for it. It’s another song that I want played at my funeral (that’s going to be a kickass playlist – too bad I’ll have to miss it), and I hope people start singing along. It’s sort of impossible to resist.

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