Bee Gees 1st

The brothers were lucky when they came to England from Australia in early 1967.  Not only was London in full swing but pop was taking on a range of new and exotic influences from medieval minstrelsy to mellotrons, ragas to Victoriana.

Much of this found its way into the Bee Gees’ music.  That was nothing unusual, it was what a lot of bands were doing at the time – absorbing, adapting and adapting again.  But when these influences combined with the brothers’ distinctive harmonising talents – honed over a decade of performing live – and their solidly melodic songwriting, the results were amongst the most solid yet engaging of the psychedelic pop genre.

Bee Gees 1st marked the beginning of a sustained campaign which kept the brothers’ Gibb in the charts throughout the remainder of the 60s, consistently balancing discipline with flair, accessibility with a desire to grow and change.

Ear to the zeitgeist

Some would say 1st is the Bee Gees’ strongest album and it’s not hard to hear why.  Their ear-to-the-zeitgeist is evident everywhere: the Edwardian toytown pop of Turn of the Century, the fairytale swirl of Red Chair, Fade Away and the bendy monastic weirdness of Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You.  As the 60s progress, the psychedelic trimmings gradually fall by the wayside but here they’re in full flight and put across with a confidence and, as always, terrific melodic ease.

They play with structure too, not just for the sake of it, but in a way which shows genuine musical understanding: listen to Robin’s sudden operatic digression taking Close Another Door to a whole other level and psychedelia triumphing over pop to bring an inventive fade to I Close My Eyes.

Startling soulfulness

And then there’s their soulfulness.  It’s startling just how fully formed were the brothers’ soul credentials even at this early stage and indeed soul forms the often underappreciated alternative arm of Bee Gees 1st.  There is incredible emotion in Robin’s vocals for I Can’t See Nobody – and that’s before you even get to Nina Simone’s cover.  And how To Love Somebody was so undervalued at the time is a mystery: what an utterly consummate pop ballad.

Interestingly, the album’s programming accentuates the psychedelia soul division with all the baroque pop/psychedelic tracks (Cucumber Castle apart) placed on side one and side two showing a definite leaning towards soul as well as a greater group feel.

Folk, Beatlesque pop art, cute whimsy, medieval psychedelic drones, soul ballads – beneath the genre hopping and sometime Craise Finton cheekiness these brothers simply write great pop music.

Bee Gees 1st sets out their stall and proves that they are songwriters to watch and be reckoned with.


Bee Gees 1st

Side 1
Turn of the Century 
Holiday
Red Chair, Fade Away
One Minute Woman
In My Own Time
Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You
Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts

Side 2
New York Mining Disaster 1941

Cucumber Castle
To Love Somebody
I Close My Eyes
I Can’t See Nobody
Please Read Me
Close Another Door


1967 Singles 

New York Mining Disaster 1941
I Can’t See Nobody

To Love Somebody
Close Another Door

Holiday
Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You

Massachusetts
Barker of the UFO

World
Sir Geoffrey Saved the World


1967 unreleased 

Gilbert Green*
House of Lords* 
I’ve Got to Learn*
All Around My Clock*
Mr Waller’s Wailing Wall*

* released on Bee Gees 1st  Rhino reissue, 2006


1967 Other artists

Adam Faith – Cowman Milk Your Cow


Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page
 

Bee Gees: final Words

After more than three years, seventy plus posts and a countdown of my fifty favourite tracks, I feel I’ve said most, but not quite all, of what I want to say on the Bee Gees.

I may post some stats on which albums fare best in the Top 50 but before reaching that possible pinnacle of geekiness there remain album overviews.

So we begin next Friday with Bee Gees 1st

Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You

By Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 


 

And so to the most overrrated Bee Gees‘ track of 1966-72…

I know I will make myself unpopular with pop-psych fans by finding fault with a song upheld by many as the pinnacle of Bee Gees’ psychedelia (sure enough it’s top of the list in this month’s Shindig  ‘Bee Gees Deep Cuts’ feature).

Criticising Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You goes against the grain of my general preference for psychedelic over romantic ballad Bee Gees.  And there’s no doubting this is one of their most outré pieces.  But being self-consciously experimental and ‘psychedelic’ in themselves aren’t enough to make a song any good.

Far out

This dreary (as against dreamy, as it might like to think it is) dirge sounds as if it was written to simply get as far out as the Bee Gees were able to get in early 1967.  Its melody is by far the dullest on Bee Gees 1st.  I can almost hear the needle getting stuck in the groove in the yawning depth of Maurice’s pitch bend.

Indeed Maurice does a terrific job in controlling the notorious mellotron.  And yes the lyrics are strange but does that mean they are stimulating or that they emotionally connect with the listener in any way?

Red Chair Fade Away has an OK, fairly fluffy kind of weirdness but at least it’s about something and makes me feel a response, not ‘when is this sub-Beatles moan going to end?’  No wonder we need Craise Finton Kirk as an antidote.

Out to impress

Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You sets out to impress and I’m amazed by the ease with which it does so.  But for me, it screams ‘let’s collect some counter cultural brownie points’, never mind writing a decent song.

That’s really that’s all there is to say apart from the oft-quoted ‘the brothers sound like Gregorian monks.’  But how much better do they put their chanting abilities on a well-crafted, properly atmospheric and genuinely ambitious composition such as Odessa?

So I’m afraid this is well outside my Top 50 and easily the most skipable track on 1st.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

By Barry & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocal: Robin & Barry
Album Trafalgar 1971


“I can think of younger days”

I draw a line between If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?  Both are unusually long song titles.  Both open their respective albums.  Both deal with the aftermath of heartbreak (nothing too unusual there admittedly).  Both are slow ballads deploying diminished 7ths (the latter far more liberally).  Both represent a move away from the Bee Gees’ 60s template towards a greater reliance on ballads written in a soul idiom.  I see Main Chance on the horizon at this point.  The psychedelic Bee Gees, if indeed they ever existed, are dead.

How Can You Mend… picks up the tendencies of its predecessor and walks with them a few steps into the future.  Where If I Only… is how-can-you-mend-bylinewistful and self-questioning, How Can You Mend… is despairing, imploring, gospel raw, certainly in Al Green’s hands.

Supple soulfulness

I like the emotional changes the song articulates, the wistful, stuttering phrasing/meter of the verses – ‘I can think of younger days…’ – followed by the sudden slow down reckoning and deliberation of the ‘I could never see tomorrow’ pre-chorus.  And then the pained delicacy of the chorus opening giving way to full-blooded passion and finally – ‘let me live again’ – a sigh of longing which again recalls If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else.

The song’s supple soulfulness clearly offered opportunities for a vocalist of expressive dexterity to make it his own and Al Green’s cover remains, perhaps, the definitive version.  A comparison with Andy Williams would have been fascinating had he not turned the song down.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

One Minute Woman

By Robin & Barry Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry & Robin
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 1967


“Would it hurt to say hello or don’t you know?”

An appeal to a mysterious female, One Minute Woman is a pleasing, melodic ballad set to Barry’s slightly faltering vocal phrasing.

Robin’s earlier far smoother vocal irons out much of the song’s soulfulness.  Billy Fury’s version resembles Robin’s in this respect and perhaps it was Robin’s version which was given to Fury as a template for his cover.

Shifting moods

Melody and lyrics caress one another, touching on a variety of shifting moods – chivalrous at each titular verse opening, then imploring (‘I go down on my knees’), humbly sincere (‘to say to you with a word so true’), later even accusatory (‘Would it hurt to say hello?’) and crestfallen, bewildered (‘Or don’t you know?’).  We end on the simple ‘I love you’ – declamatory yes, but through landing on the sub-tonic against a flattened seventh chord, characteristically open-ended too.

Like several songs on Bee Gees 1st, One Minute Woman conceals a soulful quality beneath an immaculate pop-ballad exterior.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

Bee Gees bubbling under

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post on several Bee Gees’ songs which I like a lot but which didn’t quite make it into my Top 50.

Taking them in no particular order, I’ll be starting tomorrow with In My Own Time.

First of May

By Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry 
Album Odessa 1969
Single A-side 1969


 

“And you and I, our love will never die”

If a rock fan wanted to convince you that the Bee Gees are MOR sentimentalists they might well point to First of May.

Just as Boyzone’s Words emphasises the elements of that song I find hardest to get along with, so First of May exposes a tendency present in Odessa but held in abeyance until this point – a tendency towards unalloyed sentimentality.

Genuine sentimentality

Melody Fair and Lamplight are sentimental for sure but both are cast in fundamentally different moulds and have strongly redeeming qualities.  The twinkly First of May moves sentimentality centre stage, egged on by a show-no-mercy arrangement with its lashings of strings like sugar custard poured over apple pie.

The fact that First of May was chosen by Robert Stigwood as a single A-side (with Robin’s superior Lamplight relegated to the flip) doesn’t endear me to it either.  The decision signals the musical direction the Bee Gees were to take as well as being the ostensible cause of Robin’s walk out.

First of May looks forward to Cucumber Castle’s big production numbers but lacks their slightly knowing tipping of the hat towards genre clichés.  It shares a little in that album’s country feel too and maybe that’s the source of the sentimentality.

When Barry harks back to his old family home, I definitely picture an American homestead.  Knowing the brothers’ background in the Isle of Man and then Manchester, this makes the song feel even less genuine for me.

Buds of May

Hearing the quieter, piano-only (and very incomplete) demo on the deluxe Odessa makes me feel more tenderly towards First of May.  The key is a tone lower (C instead of D major) and Barry sings with a soft tenderness on the upper registers (‘And you and I…’) which he unfortunately substitutes for full-blown effect on the album version.

Thematically, First of May belongs squarely on Odessa.  I just wish it didn’t.  I know it’s about the brothers’ break-up but I can’t love it for that reason alone.

Massachusetts, Words, First of May: the ones that got away
Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72

Bee Gees’ Home Page