Two memories from my childhood came to mind when I heard that Robin Gibb had died in May.
First, my parents’ laughter as “Stayin’ Alive” or “How Deep Is Your Love” came on the car radio and a four or five year old Andrew proudly declared that this was the BeeGees with a very hard G. I was conscious of the Bee Gees even that young. Say what you like about them, there was a stretch of several years when Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb, and their solo brother Andy as well, were inescapable in every part of the globe, and that gave them a permanent, ubiquitous place in pop culture, veering on the scale from the mostly ridiculed to the mostly respected. That ubiquity makes it harder to believe that the Bee Gees are now truly no more, as only Barry remains with us from the Brothers Gibb.
The second memory is the hours I spent looking at my dad’s record collection, and one album which stood out from all the rest. Instead of the usual cardboard, the cover was made of red velvet fleck, still soft to the touch over twenty years later. The inside gatefold opened up to an elaborate green-tinted illustration of a shipwreck.
And while the inner sleeve listed song titles, credits, etc., the only words on the cover were embossed in gold in the center of the red field: “BEE GEES. ODESSA.”
My young imagination felt sure that there were two vinyl discs of disco within. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
What many people do not realize is that it was the second incarnation of the Bee Gees who racked up such massive success. After being formed in Australia in the early sixties and moving to London in 1967, the Bee Gees broke up in 1969, only to reunite permanently in 1971. But though their first period of international recording lasted only three years, it was also far more interesting. Over the course of four albums and a scattering of singles, the Bee Gees produced some of the most distinct and original pop music ever made. And it was pop music which John Travolta could never have danced to.
The men making the music were a quintet, not a trio: guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen were official members of the band. But everything then and later revolved around the natural harmonies and songwriting of the Brothers Gibb, and by1967 Barry, Maurice, and Robin had evolved over the course of low-budget recordings and constant touring in Australia from a generic beat group into something very different and very special. This little piece serves as partly an introduction to the original Bee Gees and partly as a review, not overlooking their flaws but mainly pointing out why their 1960s work should be celebrated as a remarkable three-year stretch of recordings.
Let me begin with this fact: in January 1967, the band arrived in England virtually unknown. By July, they had released their debut album, Bee Gees’ 1st, and racked up three top twenty singles in the USA and the UK alike. And this was before the Internet, YouTube, songs and videos going viral. How did this happen?
The great bands in pop-rock history have sounds, composition styles, and philosophies distinctly their own, and the Bee Gees had almost all of the pieces in place by the time they arrived in London.
Again, the harmonies were already in place and majestic, and each of the Gibbs could carry a tune on their own with their individually excellent voices. (Incidentally, Barry had not yet discovered his earth-shaking falsetto.) But those familiar with the disco Bee Gees would be surprised with this incarnation. The guitars are either acoustic or heavily bluesy, the pianos are grand and clanging, the drums provide steady beats but are there for artistry, not to get the feet moving, and instead of synthesizers, Bill Shepherd’s orchestral arrangements are integral to the mix. Indeed, the Bee Gees are one of the only rock groups to regularly utilize orchestras without ever feeling gimmicky—the production provided the perfect setting for the vocals.
As composers, the Bee Gees had early on developed the same habit as Lennon and McCartney of writing songs with other artists in mind. This being the middle as opposed to the early 1960s, the band matured amidst an explosion of genres, and by the time of 1st could seemingly dash off a tune in any style: straight-ahead rock, adult contemporary balladry, folk-and-country-tinged grooves, and other genres unexpectedly popping up here and there. The only thing they could not do was pure psychedelia. Unusual for 1967, true…
But the Bee Gees, in their philosophy and lyrics, were unusual songwriters. They could write love songs, sometimes terrific, sometimes as overwrought as any annoying number which becomes a giant hit and then thankfully fades away, but a high proportion of their songs displayed a fascination with topics having little to do with romance, politics, or introspection. A look at any of the 1960s albums’ back covers will reveal a bizarre set of titles, all of which perfectly reflect the lyrics and tone. And they mostly stayed away from late-60s topicality because they didn’t find it interesting.
Bee Gees’ 1st begins, for instance, with “Turn of the Century,” an uptempo brass-filled number which, in Kinks-like fashion, celebrates bygone days and wishes we all had time machines. Later on comes “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You,” with medieval lyrics accompanying an arrangement based on Gregorian chant. And then there was their first hit single. My dad told me that when he was twelve and he and his brothers heard this song on the radio, they were convinced it was the Beatles under a pseudonym—so were many others. But the Beatles would have never turned out “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” It’s a song about, surprise, a mining disaster, set to the sparsest of guitar parts and sudden brass-and-drum bursts in the chorus and the Bee Gees singing a genuinely twitching and fearful harmony. There are no Beatles songs like this. (“In My Own Time,” on the other hand, is a total Revolver knock-off.)
However, once one gave songs like these and “Craise Finton Cook Royal Academy of Art” a chance (sometimes they could be excessively twee), the album also revealed songs which sounded like conventional pop material but got lifted to new levels by the Brothers Gibb. “Holiday” is a children’s lullaby which never sounds childish. “To Love Somebody” has been covered by so many artists, but no one, not even Nina Simone or Michael Bolton, matched the combination of sadness and resolution in Barry’s solo, and the arrangement, on which the strings sound like they’re paying horn charts, works perfectly. (The song had been written with Otis Redding in mind.) And “I Can’t See Nobody” became the first of many classic songs of insecurity and heartbreak to come from this band.
At the end of 1967, the Bee Gees released “Massachusetts,” a ballad with the simplest of melodies but featuring a gorgeous string arrangement, Robin’s echoing voice mixing with the full richness of his brothers, and lyrics which carried a double meaning. Ostensibly about a couple reuniting after a period of distance, the brothers were actually inspired by the idea that everybody who went to San Francisco looking for hippie thrills was returning to their true homes, and they called the song “Massachusetts” because they liked the sound of the word. “Massachusetts” became their first #1 single, sold five million copies, and led off side two of their sophomore album Horizontal.
The title appears to refer to one of two main activities you can get up to in a horizontal position: the album feels like a dream, pervaded by an air of things never being as they seem; the lyrics follow the lead of “Massachusetts” by demanding interpretation, and the music undergoes more startling tonal shifts than on 1st. Admittedly, the record begins weakly with one of their worst singles, “World,” which offers the fascinating insight that the brothers have now found that the world is round and of course it rains every day. (The brothers insist there were layers to that sentence, to which I respond: they still sound doofy.) But things immediately improve as the beauty of “And the Sun Will Shine” becomes the novelty goofiness of “Harry Braff” (a race car driver) becomes the crunching, guitar-driven, almost terrifying “Lemons Never Forget” and “The Earnest of Being George,” which despite their silly titles are possibly the angriest and most sinister songs in the Bee Gees catalogue. The music remains strong up to the closing twofer of the orchestrated rave-up “The Change is Made” and the title track, in which they gently intone “This is the start of the end, goodbye, flowers are facing my life and dying” with such seriousness that you can worry if more than just the dream is ending.
In between their second and third albums, the Bee Gees released what was arguably their finest single apart from “Massachusetts.” With a distinctive piano part and a slowly, grandly building crescendo, “Words” was a beautiful meditation on how each single word and gesture we make with those we love carries significance, written by all three brothers but sung by only Barry because, like “Yesterday,” the track doesn’t need anybody else. (And personally, the idea of all the words being repeated by three voices in a song about the importance of words would have been an aesthetic disaster in my book.) Few pop songs have mixed emotion and intelligence as well as “Words.”
Inexplicably, “Words” was left off Idea, an album which could have benefited from its inclusion. Idea is not a bad album, but on half of it the band is running not only out of steam but also of the machinery which the steam could power. Tracks like “Kitty Can” and “Down to Earth,” even when they include orchestration, have an unfinished feel to them, and the lighter numbers such as “I Have Decided to Join the Air Force” have lost their charm. Thankfully, the record has three terrific go-for-broke tracks in “Let There Be Love,” “When the Swallows Fly,” and “Swan Song,” the enjoyable riff-rocker “Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry,” and two top ten singles with the most unconventional subject matter for pop songs one could imagine. In 1968, the Bee Gees could scale radio’s heights with highly orchestrated songs about a death row convict fighting with a priest and begging for a last request (“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”) and a man dying the most inscrutable of deaths from a broken heart (“I Started a Joke,” and if any reader can tell me what in God’s name this song means, I would WELCOME that information).
By now, the Bee Gees were stars, if not quite as gigantic as they would be a decade later. Robin and Maurice were married, Barry was engaged, and all three had grown up enough to have their own ambitions. Rumors were flying of a break-up, especially when Vince Melouney quit the band during sessions for their fourth album. In truth, though there was some family tension, Melouney left in large part because prominent guitar no longer had a place as the brothers Gibb, using Shepherd’s orchestrations as never before, labored on the most ambitious project of their careers. The plan was an elaborate concept album to be titled either Masterpeace or The American Opera depending on which day you talked to the band and who you talked to. However, the Bee Gees kept writing songs which didn’t exactly fit the concept and ultimately didn’t really know what the concept was, so instead they released everything on a double album, Odessa.
Odessa did not need a concept. It is a work of genius, one of the only double albums which holds up from beginning to end, comparable to Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles, and Quadrophenia.
Everything the Bee Gees did well was never done better than on Odessa. Though Barry, Maurice, and Robin all got solo spots, and superb ones at that, the three-part harmonies feature on every vocal track, and they were at their peak, finding nuances and phrasings together in telepathic fashion. With a few exceptions, rock instruments are relegated to the second rank, with the Champions League of orchestras enveloping the album in glorious sound. Most of all, among seventeen tracks, only a short stretch of side two fails to make an impression. The music stays on the brain, and the lyrics showcase the brothers at their most impassioned AND their oddest.
Take the title track which begins the album. Clocking in at over seven minutes, “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)” is a pop masterpiece (or masterpeace if we want to play along with the brothers), beginning in a mysterious waves of harp and cello, giving way to a single guitar and piano backing Robin’s desperate vocal, and building into a massive onslaught of orchestra, just the right touch of flamenco guitar, and those three voices sounding like thirty. Lyrically, “Odessa” concerns a man who gets shipwrecked in 1899 and is desperate to get back to his beloved…only he’s also dwelling on how the neighbors got rid of their dog and that same beloved may have moved to Finland with a vicar. Somehow, it all makes sense by the last vocal lines and string flourish…and the listener will probably be entranced enough to miss a bright and welcoming song with proud, defiant lyrics, “You’ll Never See My Face Again.”
The highlights keep coming. They write songs about Thomas Edison and declaring war on Spain and those songs work. They write “Marley Purt Drive,” a terrific acoustic rocker with the most discreet strings on the album and lyrics which perfectly capture the feeling of driving through the Los Angeles freeways…with a brilliant last twist. On “Give Your Best” they play country square dance music and play it well, with their most joyful harmonies. Robin reaches his haunting and operatic best on the epic “Lamplight.” Barry offers stirring and thoughtful anthems in the “Words” tradition, and “Sound of Love,” “I Laugh in Your Face,” and “First of May,” the last a tear-inducing reflection on leaving childhood behind, all shine. They even write three mock-classical instrumentals and all of them are terrific, especially Maurice’s brainchild “Seven Seas Symphony,” featuring his piano accompanying the soaring melody.
The only downside of Odessa was that despite having seventeen separate songs and no concept, it sounded so unified that there was no obvious single. After considering the title track, the Bee Gees’ manager Robert Stigwood picked “First of May” over “Lamplight” on the B-side. It made sense: “First of May” was more in the vein of classic Bee Gees, and “Lamplight,” though just as good, was five minutes long with lyrics partly sung in French. Unfortunately, Robin was ticked off that Barry’s song got picked over his, and this precipitated a string of disagreements which led to the Bee Gees breaking up.
Of course, in 1971, they reunited, and by the decade’s end their discovery of funk and disco rhythms had guaranteed their immortality. But very few of their songs following the reunion, although there were several classics, matched the great 1960s singles or Odessa. And now that the Bee Gees are no more, it seems like a perfect time for those who only know “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and Jimmy Fallon talking it up on the Barry Gibb Talk Show to rediscover these magnificent records. They aren’t always perfect, but they are full of musical intelligence and beauty on every level.