Life with the Bee Gees

 

Morning of My Life

Fans of a particular band or artist can often vividly remember when they first heard a song by that artist and the electrifying impact this had. They might recall the precise date and time, where they were and what they were doing when Elvis’s ‘Hound Dog’ or the shrill harmonica introduction to ‘Love Me Do’ burst forth from a transistor radio. Hairs stood up on the back of necks and worlds were changed forever. Recollections are often accompanied by exclamations that “I had just never heard anything like it before.”

It wasn’t like that at all with me and the Bee Gees.  I was certainly well aware of them at their disco peak as it would have been hard not to have been. As a shy teenager who did not, would not or could not dance, I felt, rather simplistically, that this exuberant, extrovert, hi-gloss music wasn’t for me. I must have been aware that the Bee Gees weren’t in their first flush of youth at the time though I never really suspected that they had produced over a decade’s worth of music which was at complete variance with disco.

In My Own Time

As I became more familiar with rock’s back pages during my later teens and twenties, I heard 1967’s Massachusetts on Radio 2. I never actually liked it even as my musical tastes began to coalesce around the late ‘60s.  Massachusetts struck me as a bit of an MOR cash-in on flower-power, even having the audacity to reference San Fransisco the city, and thereby, by default, Scott Mackenzie’s hit.

So, if anything, Massachusetts put me off the Brothers Gibb.  There were plenty of other psychedelic fish in the sea, most of them more rare, precious and beautiful than the Bee Gees.  So for a while longer, I remained ignorant of this earlier body of work perhaps feeling that, if the Bee Gees had anything to offer they would always be there when other more exciting explorations had been made.

To Love Somebody

 

In 1987, living in a north London hostel, I smuggled a black and white portable TV into my room (against hostel rules) to watch the German TV Beat Club compilations being screened in the early hours of Sunday morning (as part of Night Network, LWT’s early foray into 24 hour television). The Bee Gees performed To Love Somebody and I was hooked by the song’s melody, arrangement and Barry’s expressive vocal. The group looked great at this time in their Carnaby Street finery. (I think the photo above might come from this particular session).  Barry’s committed, dramatic performance balances professional restraint with his obvious pleasure at playing the pop star as nature intended.

Even though, by this time, I was regularly scouring Camden second-hand record shops for buried ‘60s treasures, the obvious standout quality of To Love Somebody didn’t yet set me on a trail of discovering the Gibb back catalogue.

The Change is Made

Seven years later, on a cold wet, January afternoon in 1994, I was flicking through the slightly sticky, plastic covered LPs in a second-hand record shop on London’s Whitechapel High Street. I remember turning up Klaus Voormann’s brightly coloured psychedelic sleeve framing a photo of the brothers – the cover to Bee Gees’ 1st.

The track listing contained To Love Somebody and thirteen other songs with intriguing titles like Turn of the Century, Red Chair, Fade Away and Cucumber Castle. Everything about the band felt right to me for perhaps the first time. The album cover and track listing – coupled with what I knew of To Love Somebody‘s innate pop sensibility – made me want to hear more. So, for only a fiver, I left that record shop with a plastic bag containing Bee Gees 1st. Now I had developed the scent of discovery.

From here, I moved forward in time album by album with a bit of a pause before I could supplement Marley Purt Drive (one half of Odessa) with the red velvet glory of the gatefold double. The four ‘60s albums didn’t disappoint.  Each had its own particular take on the Bee Gees’ sound, whether the baroque psychedelic trimmings of 1st or the orchestral grandeur of Odessa.  The early ‘70s quartet up to and including To Whom It May Concern were less consistent. The trail went dry for me with the disappointing Life in a Tin Can and Mr Natural and then I was bumping into First Course and a whole other era.

Really and Sincerely

The sheer diversity of material on the ’67-‘72 albums (especially the ‘60s quartet) is striking: psychedelic pop, string-soaked country weepies, blue-eyed soul, folk, singer-songwriter, orchestral ballads, extended virtual-classical/proto-prog song cycles, straightforward love songs, the ‘60s ‘death’ song, baroque pop, Rubber Soul guitar pop, acid tinged rock-soul – all are represented.

The Bee Gees could probably have been every bit as successful by sticking to their most mainstream material, filling whole albums with the romantic likes of Words, First of May and Don’t Forget to Remember, simply pumping out the hits.  But they sought to explore as many musical avenues and styles as possible, interpreting them in their own way but – crucially – always within a framework of solid songwriting.  This very ‘60s combination of diversity within craftsmanship is what makes their early albums so satisfying to hear nearly fifty years on.

Melody Fair

Two other factors are often mentioned in relation to the Bee Gees. One is their undoubted ear for a good melody.  This gift almost never deserted them though it does retreat to safer shores on the country ballads of 1970’s Two Years On.

The other is the strength of their vocal harmonies. Admiration is expressed for the unique blend of the brothers’ voices but there is less recognition for the harmonic richness of the songs themselves. Robin has said that there are harmonies in music of this period that are simply not heard in contemporary pop music:

“a lot of artists today just use one voice and a backing, but they never play around either with the harmonies or the background vocals, which I kinda miss…. that’s why a lot of older records actually appeal to young people, because there’s an emotion in them which they don’t hear on newer records.”

Horizontal: Rhino CD re-issue, (2006), accompanying booklet pages 9-11.

Robin cites the ‘haunting melody ideas’ behind the main melody of Horizontal as an example.

The Bee Gees’ instinct for strong melody was fuelled by the ambition and exoticism of the psychedelic era.  So when you combine strength of songwriting with a desire to explore as many musical avenues as possible, you have a winning combination which has given their music of this time genuine staying power.  Other bands explored the outer reaches of psychedelia more extensively and more experimentally (I don’t mean just the acid rockers but the likes of Blossom Toes and July) but few did so with the songwriting backbone of the Bee Gees.

Words

As for the lyrics, well they weren’t deep but they were often delightfully surreal if not downright odd (the much quoted ‘You said goodbye, I declared war on Spain’ from Never Say Never Again). They could also be elegiac (Odessa), wistful (Turning Tide), comic (In My Own Time) melancholic (Trafalgar) and sometimes (I Started a Joke, Really and Sincerely) even a little thought provoking, as I hope to show.

The Bee Gees were unafraid to wear their hearts on their brotherly sleeves. Their lyrics were frequently romantic, sometimes even floridly so. But they were seldom overtly personal and never confessional. As the age of the soul-bearing singer-songwriter approached, this probably worked against them.

Obliqueness is one of their most attractive qualities. They are experts at conjuring a mood, creating an air of playful intrigue or of loss touched upon but rarely fully revealed. What we have is a kind of patchwork tapestry of images so as to create an overall impression and, above all, evoke an emotion.

Most of My Life

 

Over the last twenty years, my appreciation of the Bee Gees has quietly grown.

Acquiring Rare, Precious and Beautiful Volumes 1,2 and 3 satisfied my curiosity about their Australian days. There is a roughness and sense of performance here which, whilst not the rawness of The Beatles’ Hamburg, nevertheless demonstrates the boys’ grounding in hard work, determination to succeed and their growth as songwriters.

Hearing Robin’s Reign gave me the hunch that the splinter years of 1969-70 were the richest and most intriguing period in the band’s history. The recent ‘discovery’ of Sing Slowly Sisters – Robin’s collection of solo material from 1970 – exposes his capacity for unfettered soul-baring, sometimes almost painful in its chamber-miniaturist intensity. It showcases the emotionality which had always been a part of what the Bee Gees’ (and Robin in particular) were about. Here it is, freed from brotherly compromise and commercial imperative.

I remember ordering and then unwrapping the lavish 2006 box set of 1st, Horizontal and Idea full of the anticipation of hearing all those ‘new’ songs. It was fascinating to encounter still other sides of the band – Completely Unoriginal shows a drily comic edge and Deeply, Deeply Me experiments with Indian drones and chants. There’s even a wonderfully melodic-melancholic piece recorded to promote Coca Cola that made me almost want to go out and buy some! Then came the deluxe three disc re-issue of Odessa. With scholarly exactitude, the ‘Sketches’ disc sheds fascinating light on the album’s creation. All credit to Andrew Sandoval for bringing this to the light of day. With Odessa, sadly the Rhino re-launches – with their wealth of previously unissued material – seem to have stalled. Much more recently, thanks to the internet, I’ve discovered previously unheard, unreleased and (in the case of A Kick in the Head is Worth Two in the Pants), rejected material. The brothers were anything if not prolific.

Let There Be Love

Why have the Bee Gees never quite garnered the respect they so richly deserve?

At each stage of their career, they were wrongly positioned to achieve critical recognition. In the early years, although dabbling in psychedelia, they were increasingly seen as being on the uncool side of the pop-rock credibility divide. They were hardly rebellious in an era which valued anti-authoritarianism. Their subsequent move into ballads territory further sealed their fate as somehow ‘lightweight’. Like Scott Walker, their material was deemed too overtly ‘emotional’ when the trend was towards men wielding electric guitars; they were never a hard rocking band (The Change is Made and Bad, Bad Dreams perhaps come closest). They were not seen as ‘artistic’ singer-songwriters (though what have they been doing so prolifically for more than five decades?). The disco period brought massive success but they suffered from the backlash and the parodies stuck. Once they had entered the superstar bracket of writing soft ballads for the likes of Vegas favourite Celine Dion, any hope of cred had all but evaporated. In a sense, they’ve emerged as just themselves, The Bee Gees, an enduring phenomenon in their own right.

Despite the passage of time and the passing away of two of the Gibb brothers, it remains less than fashionable to praise the Bee Gees of any era. The pre-disco period remains particularly neglected. My heart sinks when I see another TV documentary which resorts to the ‘white suits and medallions’ clichés, perhaps mentioning the early years as a kind of half-remembered curio. David N. Meyer’s biography dispenses with early life and pre-disco success by around page 120 of 318 so as to concentrate on 1974-80, though he does make a convincing case for the genuine innovation of that era. Several songs from ’67-‘72 do seem to have stepped outside of their time capsule and made it to classic status though they’re generally not my favourites.

Turning Tide

Still there are signs that media interest, if not quite the critical tide, may have started to turn. Odessa has picked up plaudits as something of a lost classic, appearing in several ‘best albums of 1969’ selections; at one point, there were even rumours of a complete album performance at London’s Albert Hall. The unearthing of Sing Slowly Sisters has shed light on the mysterious eighteen months hiatus of the Bee Gees in 1969/70. And Andrew Sandoval’s Bee Gees: The Day-By-Day Story: 1945-1972 provides a valuable early years’ chronicle.

The Sound of Love

 

So, for me, the period 1967-72 is where the Bee Gees most interesting and rewarding material of all is to be found, the album tracks in particular. There are many hidden album gems sure to delight any lover of imaginative, well crafted psychedelic pop or, indeed, of pop music itself. I’d like to take you back to those early years and pick out my favourites from their best period.

Sources:
Melinda Bilyeu, Hector Cook & Andrew Môn Hughes, The Bee Gees: Tales of The Brothers Gibb, 2nd ed., (2012)
Joseph Brennan, Gibb Songs
David N. Meyer, The Bee Gees: the Biography, (2013)

Andrew Sandoval, Bee Gees: The Day-by-Day Story, 1945-1972, (2012)
Andrew Sandoval, Rhino CD Reissue notes for 1st, Horizontal, Idea, Odessa (2006-9)

 


Bee Gees Top 50

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2 thoughts on “Life with the Bee Gees

  1. Now The Remastered version of SING SLOWLY SISTERS is out, a splendid collection of brilliant barochue pop gems. From the melancholic and majestetic C’Est La Vie Au Revoir to the epic The Flag I Flew this is reallly Robin’s masterpiece.

    • Absolutely Jostein and hearing ‘Sing Slowly Sisters’ is giving me a new appreciation of Robin’s Reign too. One of those tracks you mention is soon to feature in my Top 50.

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