The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 14, 2008

A Little False

Sometime in the 1970s, Barry Gibb decided to give a falsetto a bit of a go. For that wonderful song Nights on Broadway, the producer Arif Mardin wondered if they should get a backup vocalist to scream out the high-pitched chorus. Barry had tried the style years earlier, in Melody Fair, but hadn't been successful. This time, it was a triumph, and it became the defining sound for the disco era of the Bee Gees.

Falsetto, the Italian for a little false, is the name given for singing in the register just higher than the modal register. In other words, if you sing at about an octave higher than your usual vocal range, you are singing falsetto. And, while everyone, women and men can achieve a falsetto voice, it is in rock music that it achieved its highest manifestation1.

The outstanding vocalisations of Barry Gibb achieved their fullest expression in the album Spirits Having Flown. Listen to the song Search, Find, and you'll see what I mean. There's a bit towards the end when the chorus is in full blast, and Barry goes way up in the stratosphere with Seaarch, and then a waggling, falling, dazzling drop reminiscent of Carnatic music, Fa-aha-aha-aha-ahind... In Reaching Out, another song in the same album, all three of the Bee Gees hit falsetto highs in the chorus.

When I pointed out this bit of high-pitched warbling to Guru, he countered immediately with Jimmy Somerville, the front-man to Bronski Beat and the Communards. Jimmy's songs are almost all sung in falsetto, in contrast to the Bee Gees (who got out of falsetto with the end of the disco era). In the song Never Can Say Goodbye (originally performed by the Jackson 5), his voice goes higher once or twice than the Gibbs', and that's saying something. The only voice I've heard higher than his is Mariah Carey, and she has often hit pitches audible only to bats.

In rock, Robert Plant's incredible dynamic range stretched from low bass all the way to screaming countertenor. Check out the shrieks in Black Dog. More recently, Coldplay's Chris Martin warbles in a whiny, nasal falsetto - but it is not a patch on the truly great ones.

Yup, Barry Gibb's the man.


1. I distinguish falsetto from the male countertenor in classical vocal music because the latter entails a rather different physiological configuration in the vocal cords, although fundamentally there's not much difference between them. And a classically trained countertenor voice is, in Manoj's words, mindblowing


Anonymous said...

Chris Martin sings in a faux-falsetto, methinks, if such a thing were feasible.

Recently, I heard James Blunt speak on Top Gear. Oh Holy Mother of Cupcakes! As if being subjected to his whine on Wogan was not sufficient...

He and David Beckham are exactly the kind of men who should keep quiet and let women believe (wrongly) that they are the quiet, smouldering-type than speak and reveal themselves to be the chinless wonders they really are..

Fëanor said...

I take it you are not a particular fan of Mike Tyson, that brawny thug with the voice of Mickey Mouse? :-)

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