I know that I’m not supposed to like Bread, but before I started buying CDs I used to listen to classic pop radio a lot, and when I stopped I found myself missing Bread ballads like ‘It Don’t Matter To Me’ and ‘Everything I Own’. Just before Christmas one year, when I’d been working long hours in my part-time supermarket job, I gave into temptation and bought this anthology on sale.
It’s obvious why Bread are loathed by critics and serious music fans alike; they’re stuck in mid-1960s British Invasion pop mode in the late sixties, moving onto singer-songwriter material a few years behind the eight ball, they’re moralising enough to be a Christian band, and their best songs are soppy and plastered in strings. Leader David Gates is the antithesis of a rock star; moustachioed, married to his childhood sweetheart for 40 years and writing lyrics lamenting sexual permissiveness (“in this day and age………people changing partners like they change their underwear”) and advising his daughter to be sensible in courtship (“don’t fall in love with the first man that you see”).
The lengthy liner notes attempt to revise Bread’s place in history, emphasising the contributions of the other band members, but it’s hard to buy this due to the talent imbalance between Gates and the Robb Royer-James Griffin writing team; Gates’ plaintive ballads are the group’s most memorable songs, and even his occasional rock songs overshadow Griffin’s and Royer’s contributions. You have to love the exhaustive booklet; Gates remarks that drummer Mike Botts made “a significant contribution on the percussion side” and confesses that not only that he never actually found a diary underneath a tree, but if he had he would have turned it in to the authorities without reading it.
For Bread fans this double set’s terrific; covering about 50% or 60% of the group’s studio output and throwing in a whole bunch of Gates’ solo work. For me it’s too exhaustive; I could make a really enjoyable single album out of it, but I’m not too interested in hearing the Gates’ sappy solo ballads or mediocre Robb-Griffin blues rock. But I think that a lot of their best songs do stand up to scrutiny; Gates is a wet blanket, but he’s a wet blanket with great melodies, and Bread’s best material does have a strong emotional undercurrent. It’s mostly love songs but with Gates as a rare example of a celebrity with a successful first marriage, maybe he’s a guru to whom we should all be listening to for advice.
The liner notes draw a contrast between Bread’s self-titled debut and The Band’s early work. Bread are too straitlaced and poppy for the comparison to be valid, but their debut material is more eclectic and less overtly commercial than their later work. Gates is already demonstrating strong melodies and pop sense with ‘Dismal Day’ and ‘London Bridge’. On the other hand, the material from their breakthrough second album Manna is weaker; apart from the hit ‘Make It With You’ and Gates’ epic ‘Been Too Long On The Road’ there’s nothing particularly impressive. Single ‘It Don’t Matter To Me’, a reworking from their debut, is another highlight, with a terrific middle eight from Gates.
On The Waters features another mellow Gates ballad, ‘If’, as well as the fun tossed off rock song ‘She Was My Lady’ where Gates lets his hair down a little. 1972’s Baby, I’m A Want You stands out as their strongest effort with a string of classic Gates ballads (the title track, ‘Everything I Own’, ‘Diary’), a pair of really pretty Royer/Griffin songs (‘Games of Magic’, ‘Just Like Yesterday’), Gates’ dopey McCartney-like ‘Daughter’, and ‘Mother Freedom’, a surprisingly aggressive political rock from Gates. The band’s also strengthened by the arrival of sixties sessionman Larry Knechtel, famous for his piano in ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’, who helps bring a more solid band feel to the record. Final record Guitar Man seems disappointing in comparison; only the title track with Knechtel’s weird guitars leads and the moody ballad ‘Aubrey’ really stand out.
The compilation tails off about ten tracks into the second disc; despite a couple of highlights, most of Gates’ solo songs make Bread’s work look hard edged and cynical in comparison. The low-light is ‘Took The Last Train’, Gates’ attempt at a crossover disco hit in the late 1970s, but slow paced and genteel. There are highlights among the solo tracks; ‘Clouds’ is a pretty piano ballad with some terrific analog synth widdling in the background, and ‘Never Let Her Go’ is a nice strum-along that Gates wrote back in 1964. There’s also material from Bread’s 1976 comeback album Lost Without Your Love; the title track is one of their best moments, a pretty piano ballad that suddenly goes into a funky guitar break, but the rest of the material is pretty underwhelming.
I have mixed feelings about Retrospective; I feel embarrassed having it lying round in my CD collection, and I often toy with the idea of condensing it down to a single disc, but just occasionally I’m in the mood for slick and soppy hits.