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 (bar Cucumber Castle) 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 [1967]

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


Singles 1967 [related to Bee Gees 1st]

New York Mining Disaster 1941
I Can’t See Nobody

To Love Somebody
Close Another Door

Holiday
Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You


Unreleased 1967 

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


Other artists 1967 

Adam Faith – Cowman Milk Your Cow


-> Horizontal


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

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Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You

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


Embed from Getty Images

 

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

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

In My Own Time

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


“Sitting eating hot cross buns”

The most derivative track on 1st, In My Own Time inspires a lot of fondness for being a mere collection of blatant Revolver-era Beatles rip-offs.  Dressed in button down collars and Cuban heels, it’s a stab at ’66 sharpness amidst ’67’s frills.  A cheekiness lends an undeserved freshly-minted quality.

In My Own Time wants to be copycat cool.  But its rather better at the copycat than the cool.  Those nods to Revolver keep on coming:  Vince’s needling guitar, those clarion harmonies, the sweetly sour, mock cynical lyrics.

Pin sharp modernism 

Yet rather than Dr Robert or Taxman, In My Own Time is actually closer in spirit to Whistling Jack Smith’s 1967 novelty hit I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman being a half send-up, half celebration of Carnabetian, theatrical, neo-Victorian Englishness (‘sitting eating hot cross buns…’) swapping the latter’s forced merriment for the odd thrown in moment of arch sarcastic disregard (‘thousand suckers every one’.)

The couplet ‘Even when the lights go out, Still got things to think about’ serendipitously recalls With a Little Help from My Friends’ ‘What do you see when you turn out the light?’ though there could have been no debt.

Out of time

Robin, it must have been Robin, gets in his mention of the United Nations.  For all its pin sharp modernism musically, lyrically In My Own Time can be seen as an early hint at his out-of-timeness.

In My Own Time is a necessary pre-antidote to the over-rated, over-extended and, sorry, rather dull Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You which follows.  Its careful calculation is ultimately its very fresh-faced charm.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

Take Three Songs… on Blackpool

Keyboards extraordinare

I recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable though characteristically wet week in Blackpool so I thought I’d Take Three Songs about the northern seaside town.


She Sold Blackpool Rock 

Performed by Honeybus
Written & lead vocal by Ray Cane
Produced by Ivor Raymonde
Deram A-Side, May 1969


Pier Rock colour boost

Ivor Raymonde’s string quartet is too overly refined to evoke Blackpool but that scarcely matters, the precise seaside setting is incidental though Blackpool sounds and feels right in a way that Brighton or Bangor would not.

Ray Cane was a Londoner; whether he ever visited Blackpool I have no idea.  She Sold Blackpool Rock is less about the place, more about a bitter-sweet memory of a summer seaside girl who ‘sold Blackpool rock in a funny hat’.

I loved this song on first listening and love it still, so much so I’d hesitate if asked to name I Can’t Let Maggie Go or She Sold Blackpool Rock as my favourite Honeybus single which surprises me.  Maggie is imbued Blackpool Rock bylinewith Pete Dello’s finely spun, almost scholastic Englishness whereas Ray Cane’s Blackpool Rock, though baroque pop by any other name, sits squarely centre stage just crying out to be a huge hit.  And yet somehow it wasn’t.

Sweet memory

How that simple melody effortlessly finds its way into your head…   The string quartet (sweetness of the memory flooding back?) contrasts perfectly with Colin Hare’s jangly guitar, Pete Kircher’s tasty drums and some very late 60s tambourine.  Jim Kelly supplies occasional, understated countryish licks, the chorus breakout harmonies are, of course, loveliness incarnate and we get the hoped for ‘aah!’ leadoff.

Yet despite such impeccable late 60s pop credentials, it is Cane’s thoughtful, subtle touches as a songwriter which really make the song special.

Goes right through

The letters in the rock have different meanings as the story progresses. They are the secret between him and the girl which begins as a playful encounter (his opening chat-up line, perhaps) then becoming fleeting intimacy ‘(the games we played’) and, years later, a rediscovered memory (‘I remember her, How could I forget?’).

And he cleverly uses that tell tale lyric

Then she told me that she knew,
How they make the letters go right through

to form a conceit running through the entire song both musically and lyrically; the lines make up the vocal counterpoint underpinning the build to the second chorus, (‘Then she told me that she knew…’)IMG_2243 and then they return as the wistful afterthought drifting beneath the leadoff (‘…how they make the letters go right through.’)

Magic bus

Pete Dello left Honeybus in the wake of Maggie’s big chart success.  He may have been a huge loss to the band but no more than here, Ray Cane shows he could step up to the breach as chief songwriter.  His gently yearning voice on Blackpool Rock is just right too.

This glance back to a treasured sunny seaside day from the standpoint of winter gathers extra poignancy by being Honeybus’ last single of the 60s making the splendid last minute Beatlesque slow fade like a long, slow sunset across the Irish Sea.
 


Up the ‘Pool

Performed by Jethro Tull
Written and produced by Ian Anderson
Life Is a Long Song EP, Chrysalis, September 1971
Available on Living in the Past, double album, June 1972


Blackpool view from pier

Despite being Scottish born (and a resident of Scotland still), Ian Anderson spent his teenage years in Blackpool.  His abiding affection for the place is obvious in this postcard portrait shot through with an endearing down-to-earthness hinting at the bawdy.  Anderson never stints on the warts and all, unpretentious, working-class nature of the place with its bingo, tea swigging, ‘old vests, braces dangling down’.

Go north

Presumably written during the period of Tull’s early successs, Up the ‘Pool describes a return trip for Anderson as he travels ‘from down the smoke below.’  By 1971, Jethro Tull had toured with Hendrix and Blackpool Up the Pool bylinehad Top of the Pops appearances under their belts but Anderson still longs to ‘taste me mum’s jam sarnies and to see our Aunty Flo’.  I’m guessing he travelled up on British Rail as Preston platform is name-checked on the cynical Cheap Day Return also from 1971.

Up the ‘Pool’s, swipe at politicians ‘who’ve come to take the air’ is more good humoured but I grimace every time I hear that awful ‘blame the mess on Edward Bear’ rhyme (does he mean Edward Heath?).

An early take (available on Aqualung 40th Anniversary box set) has piano and is crucially far less developed rhythmically and consequently less dramatic than the finished version.  Thank goodness this smoothness was roughed up by some lively, jolly, syncopated rhythms.  The guitar work, with occasional string inflections, is just right.

Singalong

An inherent singalong quality at last finds voice on the final verse with the band piping up.  I can’t quite make out some of the ragged ribaldry but who cares?

I like the way the obvious touch of an organ is introduced only briefly as background colour over the closing cries of ‘Oh Blackpool!’ A lesser band would surely have plastered it over the whole song.

If you’ve windows wound down driving up the M6 or are hanging around on eternally drafty Preston Station and need a singalong to get you in the mood for going up the ‘pool, this is it.
 


Blackpool

Written and performed by Roy Harper
Produced by Peter Richards
Available on Sophisticated Beggar, Strike, 1967


Blackpool mystique

My third song should rightfully be George Formby’s immortal, innuendo laden With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock, a seaside postcard set to ukulele: ‘With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll.  It may be sticky but I never complain, it’s nice to have a nibble at it now and again.’  This, the ultimate Blackpool song bar none, was recorded as long ago as 1937 and is frightfully well known.

So I’ve opted for something poles apart from that and indeed from songs one and two.

As a child, Roy Harper lived in Blackpool’s respectable neighbour, St Anne’s on Sea, a place he described as ‘like a cemetery with bus stops’.  Blackpool would have been but a short bus ride away.

The remarkable thing about this piece is that it is about Blackpool at all.  Only the title tells us so.  For a name which carries so much baggage (see Up the’ Pool for the lowdown) there is none of that here.

No baggage

Blackpool may be synonymous with communal human pleasure yet Harper finds solace in the midst of quiet beauty.  In fact, I feel he’s a little outside the town alone (literally and metaphorically), watching.  The crowds have departed or perhaps it’s winter.  Laughter comes from the sea itself, coldly indifferent to humanity yet to Harper’s eyes, beautiful.

The five minute piece is all but an acoustic guitar instrumental until 4.14.  The briefest of lyrics (probably a poem set to music) simply say:

The rain falls like diamonds
Pinpricks the still waters
And spreadeagles its laughter
Across the green sheet of the sleeping sea.

Fingerflurrying

Harper’s fingers flurry across the strings lending the piece a loose, impressionistic feel like wind whipping across water.  It’s virtuoso without being showy.

I find it lovely to hear the purity and fragility of his early voice, qualities not associated with Roy Harper.  This comes from his debut album recorded in 1966.

Pier hut

To Blackpool from London with love
 


 
More Take Three Songs

Take Three Songs… by David Bowie
Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black
Take Three Songs… or early 60s instrumentals
Take Three Songs… Lynsey de Paul – No Honestly!
Take Three Songs… on Suburbia

Massachusetts

By Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocals: Robin, Barry & Maurice
Album Horizontal 1968
Single A-side, 1967


“And the lights all went down…”

In Life With the Bee Gees I explained how my earliest acquaintance with the band was inextricably linked to Massachusetts and my feelings towards the song at the time.  Some residue of that still holds true.

Fifty years after Massachusetts‘ release, I’m less concerned with whether the song is an ‘honest’ or original evocation of flower-power as what it tries to impart emotionally.

That certain something

The obliqueness of most Bee Gees’ songs works in their favour but Massachusetts hints at something without ever declaring what that could be.  And that’s not intriguing.  It’s just frustrating.

What was the experience of being in Massachusetts?  What left its mark upon the singer?  Was it the place itself or someone the singer met there? Massachusetts doesn’t provide any clues, giving the song a kind of vacant core.

Pedant’s protest?

Adding to its sense of slight pointlessness is the fact that Massachusetts isn’t a place anyway but a region.  This wouldn’t matter much if the song managed to convey a proper sense of mystery (the brothers chose the name because they liked its sound).

Untouched

So Massachusetts’ spuriousness isn’t so much that it taps into a kind of flower-power drifter sensibility far too calculatively, (‘gotta hitch a ride to San Fransisco, gotta do the things I wanna do’) as its curious ability to leave me untouched.

I’ve heard the song – by far the blandest, least interesting track on Horizontal – numerous times but still Massachusetts is one place I have never been to.

Words

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

Bee Gees’ Home Page

Massachusetts, Words and First of May: the ones that got away

Embed from Getty Images

 

By leaving out these giants from my Top 50, I’ve not purposefully adopted a connoisseur’s perspective, despising common artefacts in favour of polishing some obscurities.  I’ve tried to consider each song truly on its merits.  My No 1, I Started a Joke, was a major hit and one of the Bee Gees’ best known songs from their early period.

Still, a Bee Gees Top 50 which doesn’t include Massachusetts, Words and First of May is a bit like a Beatles Top 50 which doesn’t include She Loves You, A Day In the Life and I am the Walrus.  It requires an explanation.

So over three posts, I’ll comment on these songs and try to justify their omission, starting with Massachusetts.