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

To Love Somebody

No. 4 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Robin & Barry Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 1967
Single A-side 1967


“There’s a light, a certain kind of light”

Barry and Robin wrote this moving ballad with Otis Redding in mind in 1967.  Redding died in a plane crash later that year and never recorded the song.  Its inauspicious placing on the 1st album – side two, track three – suggests it was not regarded as one of the album’s prime cuts.  The almost casual ‘slotting in’ makes its quality all the more startling.

Although released as a single, To Love Somebody generally underperformed in the charts, making No. 17 in the United States and only No. 41 in the UK.  Yet over the years its stature has grown to near standard status.  The song has garnered an array of cover versions and featured in at least half a dozen films. Its air of locked-in, pained love set to a winning melody, coupled with the distinctive rhythmic ‘triplet’ motif of the chorus have ensured a long karaoke afterlife.

Pained love

To Love Somebody‘s stance could be said to be that of the pained adolescent in love – ‘You don’t know what it’s like’ – a familiar pop motif.

Yet key elements – a dignity held in abeyance until the declamatory choruses, the colours lent by Bill Shepherd’s orchestration, an overall sense of classic modernity – ensure To Love Somebody is as far from ‘Teenager in Love’ cornball territory as it is possible to get.

Orchestral colours

Many reviewers criticise the orchestration as taking away from the song whereas I wouldn’t be without it: the mellow string opening theme giving way to a romantic repeated harp arpeggio over bendy bass, flourishes of flute and horn during the verses, the sense of a To Love Somebodygathering climax in the lead-up to each burst of chorus and then that engaging percussive triplet pulse between each ‘To love somebody…. To love somebody… the way that I love you.’  Although, taken overall, these inevitably lend the recording a lushness (which is, I think, what its detractors dislike), each touch is applied with such precision and expertise that without them the song would simply be lacking not just in sonic richness but emotional impact.

For comparison, listen to Jimmy Somerville’s 1990 cover.  This replaces the thoughtfulness of Bill Shepherd’s orchestration with constant ticking drums and a dry-ice synthscape.  Hearing this again a quarter century later, I ‘get’ the originality of his reggae approach but the arrangement still sounds thin, samey, generic and now dated too.

Pop par excellence

To Love Somebody is a lesson in mainstream pop par excellence.  It exhibits none of the derogatory connotations of that phrase – blandness, bog-standardness, juvenilia, ephemerality – but all of the positive ones  – universal emotions expressed with clarity, an instant but lasting appeal, rhythmic and melodic assurance.

And I almost forgot to mention how well a young Barry Gibb sings. The final chorus is announced with an impassioned ‘No no no nooo’ which sounds like Robin but appears to be from Maurice in the promo.

More on To ‘Love Somebody’ in Life with the Bee Gees

No 3 And the Sun Will Shine
No 5 Swan Song

Gilbert Green

No. 6 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Robin & Barry Gibb
Lead Vocals: Barry, Robin
Recording: 1967
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 2006 Rhino re-issue


Embed from Getty Images

 

“His hearing wasn’t good but his eyes were clear”

Gilbert Green’s non-appearance on 1st is something of a mystery given the song’s unique qualities in the brothers’ canon.  Perhaps Robert Stigwood felt deathly themes had been sufficiently aired in New York Mining Disaster 1941, a song which marries the Gibbs’ originality with just enough folk-rock commerciality.

Or perhaps there is something too esoteric and obscure about ‘Gilbert Green’ which is precisely what makes it so fascinating.  Given its enigmatic theme, it is apt that the brothers’ rendition should remain buried in the vaults for almost forty years.

The song was given to Gerry Marsden, presumably in the hope that it might reignite his career as a kind of psychedelic hipster.  The former Pacemaker turns in a creditable enough performance and the well dressed 1967 strings are present and correct.  But the Bee Gees’ own version definitely has the superior edge.    

Psychedelic fairy-tale

Various elements combine to create a disconcerting mood.  Even the introduction and opening bars remind me of something from Julian Cope’s Fried.

Firstly, the intriguing verse melody is set to solo electric guitar, underscored only by Barry’s mournful backing vocal.  For the Bee Gees this is an unusually stark arrangement (their own) which ideally suits the song’s fairy-tale strangeness.

The melody is folk-based yet never adheres to a strict folk template with its twists and turns as the story Gilbert Greenunfolds.

Then at times it feels as if we are in a minor key even when we’re not hearing minor chords; rather than offering relief, unresolved major excursions serve only to emphasise a shadowy quality.

And the tempo has a flexibility which lends the song a particular air of uncertainty.

Attic alchemist 

The approach here is more imaginative and multilayered than the tragi-romantic ballads of 1969/70 onwards, which is why I have a special regard for the Bee Gees’ very earliest UK years.

Like some kind of alchemist, Gilbert labours away alone, trying to write the perfect song while the world carries on, oblivious.  The mood is of secrecy and mystery couched in a sadness which is ironic.  We are never quite meant to feel sorry for Gilbert Green, not even his eventual demise in a fire presumably of his own making, though we are perhaps meant to wonder whether he was mad, bad or brilliant.

Lines like ‘His hearing wasn’t good but his eyes were clear’ are vaguely unsettling but still quirky enough to raise a smile.  ‘Mending fifty carpets that are worn’ is another especially good line – a vivid image of Gilbert’s threadbare quest.

Then we have the tumble from the attic of the second verse to the surviving basement song of the last verse, implying a descent into madness and a man brought down by lofty (sorry!) ambitions – classic fairy-tale morality.

Threadbare quest

Robin sings the verses with understatement.  His questioning, dropping away at the end of phrases is especially effective.  Only the lyric ‘laughing men and yellow beans’, for me, works against the song’s careful tension between sobriety and sly humour, moving into comic nonsense.

The chorus, announced by a simple double drum beat, is a more conventional beast both melodically and lyrically but ends with the arresting: ‘We can tell the world that he was right!’

Hearing this, for the first time we are brought suddenly and directly into the mystery.  This feels unexpected and disconcerting.  Gilbert Green, a man barely known let alone understood, is nevertheless made known to us by the telling of this ‘song that wasn’t seen’.  The song we hear is Gilbert’s song, his sole legacy.  We have become a party to his secret story and a part of it.

The joke is on…

The song’s central event, the burning of the house ‘along with Gilbert Green’ – happens off stage.  Was the fire a result of simple carelessness or was Gilbert Green, in some sense, consumed by his own passions?  Perhaps the ‘laughing men and yellow beans’ hint at Gilbert’s madness yet somehow the joke seems to be on the world at large.  The song exits on an extended meandering ‘aah’ vocal coda, fading like a question mark in the air.

Gilbert Green sits squarely in that peculiarly ‘60s pop genre ‘portraits of eccentric outsiders’.  It shares elements with the genre’s pinnacle, Eleanor Rigby: a story of a lonely life followed by death and then mourning, a sense of surreal disassociation, the significance of a few carefully chosen details, a willingness to visit discomfort upon the listener and a would-be literary sensibility.

Gilbert Green also represents an early example of the brothers’ skill at absorbing musical styles around them and working them into a uniquely Gibb sensibility. It’s amazing to think that Gilbert Green was written when the Bee Gees were not yet out of their teens.

No 5 Swan Song
No 7 Really and Sincerely

Red Chair Fade Away

No. 9 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

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


Embed from Getty Images

 

“Rainbows all the time, we’re all going higher”

A swirling kaleidoscope of children’s storytime memories, this transport of delight probably marks the high watermark of the psychedelic Bee Gees, at least in the 1967 sense of psychedelic.  I know many crown Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You with that accolade but for me, it tries a little too hard to be weird.  Red Chair Fade Away is the more accomplished piece and also a more enjoyable one for actually being about something.

The emphasis is not so much on the cosiness of grandpa’s fireside storytelling as the strange and wonderful worlds he evokes.  The storyteller’s red chair vanishes and the old man takes his wide-eyed young audience on a miraculous journey.

Barry’s line ‘I can feel the speaking sky, I don’t want to know…’ possibly relates to the voice of God-like parents recalling the children from these rainbow worlds, back to reality and responsibility.  The repeated chorus refrain – ‘Red chair fade away!’  – can be heard as a child’s command to be whisked away into fantasy before this can happen.

Pitch bends, bleats and beats  

As with the strangest or most lyrically outlandish of the Bee Gees’ songs, a strong melody prevails.  Here it eventually disintegrates amidst repeated chants of ‘red chair fade away’ to flutes, ‘cellos and what sound like bleating goats (was grandpa’s Red Chair Fadeaway bylinestory The Three Billy Goats Gruff, perhaps?)  Assuming the bleats to have been added sound effects, upon reading Andrew Sandoval’s Bee Gees: The Day-By-Day Story, I was astonished to learn that these bizarre sounds are courtesy of Robin!*

Phil Dennys turns in a more adventurous arrangement than Bill Shepherd might have done, adding greatly to the mood of enchantment. It’s a shame his talents were not heard more often on Bee Gees’ recordings.

Maurice supplies some terrific mellotron pitch bends and Colin’s drums sound particularly incisive.

The ‘fragrant lemon trees’ are announced by a piccolo passage which hints at Indian or Middle Eastern exotica; this sounds rather naff put down in black-and-white but works well within the context of the song.

A key structural element is the shift from 3/4 to 4/4 time occuring not at the expected place – the start of the chorus – but four bars before that –  ‘I don’t want to know…’.  This slides an unexpected transition beneath the song, enhancing its mood of sly playfulness.  And at that precise point, the additional beat also creates a momentary feeling of time slowing down, a generosity absolutely at one with the languidly defiant lyric.

It’s worth pointing out that the basic track was laid down on 7th March 1967 and the song was very possibly written on the ship to England some two months earlier.  Red Chair Fadeaway might not be Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds but it does show how in touch with the zeitgeist the band were at this time.

With its childhood concerns and taste for the exotic, Red Chair, Fade Away marks a notable contribution to classic English psychedelia.

* Andrew Sandoval, Bee Gees: The Day-by-Day Story, 1945-1972, (2012), page 25

No 8 Odessa (City on the Black Sea)
No 10 Birdie