Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Bee Gees

Growing up in the 1960s would have been incomplete without the disarming harmonies of three brothers, two of them fraternal twins, who became known as the Bee Gees.

Their hit songs from the latter half of the decade made as much of an impact on me as did those of the Beatles and Stones, possibly even more so. We heard the singles on the radio and bought the discs. Songs like New York Mining Disaster 1941, Massachusetts, Words, World and numerous others, made an indelible mark on the minds of music lovers at the time.

Of course the band went through numerous mutations in the 1970s and 1980s, with some of the directions they took not always finding favour among those who enjoyed their early music, but one thing always remained: their innate musicality. The vocal harmonies of the brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin and Maurice – ensured they became one of the most successful music groups of the era, on a par, for a while anyway, with the Stones and Beatles.

Many have questioned whether they were in fact Australians, and until the advent of the Internet, it would have required a journey to your library to try to discover the salient biographical details. Now, fortunately, relying on Wikipedia, it is possible to place on record that they were born of English parents on the island state of the Isle of Man, midway between England and Ireland.

Barry, the eldest, was born in 1946, with the twins, Robin and Maurice, born in 1949. In the early 1950s, the family returned to dad Hugh Gibb’s home town of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in greater Manchester. The boys got a taste of stardom when, at a local cinema, they were scheduled to lip sync to a record, as other children did regularly. Only Maurice dropped and broke the record on the way to the cinema. Nothing daunted, the three got on stage and sang the song themselves, to a very positive response. This planted a seed, which was to grow beyond their wildest dreams – but initially in Australia.

Because in 1958, with Barry now 12, the family – including infant Andy, who was born that year, emigrated to Brisbane on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Soon, the Rattlesnakes, and then Wee Johnny Hayes & the Bluecats were making their mark. A local racetrack promoter, Bill Goode, saw them perform at the Brisbane Speedway Circus and introduced them to radio DJ Bill Gates (no relation). While the name Gates gave them – the Bee Gees – has long been taken to refer to the Brothers Gibb, it is also, probably was initially, based on the initials of the two BGs, Bill Goode and Bill Gates.

As early as 1960, with Barry, the eldest, just 14, they were already featuring on local television shows, and over the next few years at Queensland coastal resorts. This culminated in a recording deal with Festival Records in 1963, under the name the Bee Gees. They cut several singles a year, while Barry wrote songs for other artists.

They even released an album in 1965, with the clumsy title, Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. But late the next year, 1966, the family decided to return to England. Barry was now 20. On the ship home, in January 1967, they learnt that their single, Spicks And Specks, which they recorded in 1966, had gone to No 1 in Australia. Just to interrupt the flow, I am fortunate to have this track on a “best of” compilation vinyl album, and have just given it a spin. What is immediately striking is that even then, the lads knew their voices were a very powerful weapon. Few groups can have started on the basis of such confidence in their vocal prowess. I mean for most of the bands I have covered so far, it has been more about being a guitarist and a song-writer, with the vocals almost an afterthought. Except, of course, the Beatles, who from the outset knew this was also their strong point. But in the case of the Bee Gees, Spicks And Specks is a fine example of how they crafted songs to make the maximum mileage of their vocal gifts. Sure the song lacks the later refinement, starting as it does with a fairly basic piano-driven melody, joined later by electric rhythm guitar. I’ll never be able to say for sure which of the guys is singing at any given time, but all I can say is that the key to their success, provided right from this first hit, is in how they sing alternate sections, each perfectly matching the timbre of the singer’s voice, and then combine on choruses to powerful effect. But what was this song all about?

A perusal of the lyrics shows that simplicity was the key to their success. They needed smooth-flowing lyrics to showcase their silk-smooth voices. “Where is the sun / That shone on my head / The sun in my life / It is dead / it is dead / Where is the light / That would play / In my streets / And where are the friends / I could meet / I could meet.” Even back then, they had a great sense for writing soft rock music, ratcheting up the tension as the song progresses. “Where are the girls / I left far behind / The spicks and the specks / Of the girls on my mind / Where is the sun / That shone on my head / The sun in my life / It is dead / it is dead.” This really was what we called bubblegum or teeny-bopper music, and who could blame three such young, good-looking lads from riding this lucrative wave. Of course their voices were infectious, and I suspect they really did offer a clean-cut alternative to the somewhat dodgy Beatles (especially that John, you know!) and the very dodgy Rolling Stones. “Where are the girls / I left far behind / The spicks and the specks / Of the girls on my mind.” Then, it’s down to that one chick. “Where is the girl I loved / all along / The girl that I loved / she’s gone / she’s gone.” It is an odd concept really, fashioning this phrase, spicks and specks, into a song about missing a girl. Anyway, it ends with: “All of my life / I call yesterday / The spicks and the specks / of my life ’ve gone away / All of my life / I call yesterday / The spicks and the specks / of my life ’ve gone away. / Spicks and Specks!”

So, with this song making waves down under (it was part of an eponymous album), the lads clearly hoped they could break into a UK pop music scene which by now was cut-throat in the extreme.

Despite being told that “groups are out”, they were signed by Robert Stigwood, who was to have a profound impact on their careers. He found them a guitarist and drummer and they cut New York Mining Disaster 1941 in 1967, which is probably when I would first have heard it, being all of 11 at the time. Incredibly, for such a young band, it made the Top 20 in both the US and UK – especially since it deals with a rather tragic matter: a group of miners trapped underground as they discuss their predicament (“don’t go talking too loud you’ll cause a landslide”).

It was a time when psychedelia was starting to dominate the pop scene, and their first UK album, Bee Gees’ 1st, was in this vein. We had it as kids, with its colourful cover of psychedelic flowers and an umbrella, and featuring such early classics as To Love Somebody (which has been covered by some 400 musicians down the year, most notably by Eric Burdon and the Animals) and the equally impressive I Can’t See Nobody (“my eyes can only look at you”). Another haunting hit from this album was Holiday, while Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show had one of the quirkier titles and is also remembered well. New York Mining Disaster 1941 was another hit from this album.

The singles came thick and fast in the late 1960s, with Massachusetts launching them into stardom. It is interesting, reading on Wikipedia, to discover that this was actually a rebel song; they were rebelling against the flower power movement, as people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, causing the lights to “all go out in Massachusetts”. But I hope to get back to the lyrics a little later.

In 1968, capitalising on their success, they released two albums, Horizontal (featuring Massachusetts and World) and Idea, which had a cover photograph of the guys inside a lightbulb. I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You and I Started A Joke were the hit singles from Idea. Ever wondered what that message was about? Wikipedia divulges that it concerns a man condemned to die on the electric chair, who begs a prison chaplain to pass a final message to his wife. It was inspired, apparently, by a row Robin had with his wife. The man’s crime: he murdered his wife’s lover.

I remember how taken I was with their next album, Odessa, in 1969, when I was in my last year of primary school, Standard 5 (Grade 7). It had a bright red cover and was something of a concept album.

Saved By The Bell

It also led to the first split among the brothers, over which song should be their next single (First Of May was decided on). Robin left the group and released a solo album, Robin’s Reign, which featured the hit single, Saved By The Bell. It reached No 2 on the UK charts – as did Don’t Forget To Remember, the hit single off an album by Cucumber Castle, the name given to the Barry and Maurice duo, which was also the soundtrack to a TV special.

By the early 1970s we lost interest in the Bee Gees, but for nostalgia’s sake I recently bought a DVD of a live concert of theirs from the early 2000s. Even songs I probably barely heard, like Lonely Days (No 3 in US), from their reunion album, 2 Years On, sounded familiar. They also had their first US No 1 hit with How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? Run To Me, from the album To Whom It May Concern, made it to No 16 in the US in 1972, while they again made progress in the UK charts.

But the band needed new direction, and R&B and soul seemed the way to go.

Among the new musicians they brought in was Blue Weaver, former keyboard player for Strawbs, one of my favourite bands at the time.

Many 1970s fans of the Bee Gees enjoyed their disco sounds, but for me they were a letdown, albeit a commercially successful one. The sound had its genesis in singles like Jive Talkin’ and Nights On Broadway, on which Barry first sang falsetto in backing vocals near the end. The album, Main Course, raced up the charts.

Indicative of how little interest I was now taking in the brothers, their next album, Children Of The World, which featured the single, You Should Be Dancing, failed to even register with me, though Wikipedia says it “pushed the Bee Gees to a level of stardom they had not previously achieved in the USA”.

But their biggest break came when they agreed to work on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, which catapulted disco into a global obsession. Incredibly, three Bee Gees singles – How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever – reached No 1 in the US, as well as in most other countries. Add to that If I Can’t Have You, which they wrote for Yvonne Elliman, and they had another No 1 hit. Indeed, during an eight-month period starting at Christmas of 1977, the brother had six songs they had written holding the No 1 spot on the US charts for 25 of 32 consecutive weeks – three under their own name, two for brother Andy, and the Elliman single.

The album itself became the highest selling album in recording history up till that time. It has since sold about 40 million copies, the most ever for a soundtrack album. Interestingly, the film’s title evidently arose after Stigwood came up with Saturday Night and Barry Gibb proposed Night Fever. They simply combined the two.

With Emotion by Barry and Robin giving Samantha Sang a Top 10 hit, the brothers then wrote the title song for the Broadway musical Grease. Performed by Frankie Valli, it went on to reach No 1. Indicative of their success, at one point they had five of their songs in the US Top 10, approaching the Beatles’ achievement in April 1964 when they had all of the top five US singles.

Of course in the late 1970s, while I was a lay-about art student at the East London Tech, disco was all the rave. The “in” place to go jolling was the Holiday Inn, where we would stand around drinking Castles and getting plastered, unable to make much conversation (due to the noise) and not really into doing that ridiculous dancing with girls whose teeth glowed brilliant white in the ultraviolet light, while strobes played havoc with the senses. Bras and panties could often be detected through thin clothing on hot summer nights. Phew! This was also the time when a friend of ours, Peter Thesen, laid the foundations for a highly lucrative career as the owner of Numbers disco. Many were the weekends we ended up at a venue in a hotel basement in Fleet Street, and later in a large disused cinema building next to the Beacon Bay Drive-In at discos run by Peter “Bentleys Don’t Pay” Thesen and his sidekick, Squibs (his nickname; I never knew his actual name). We’d also sometimes repair to his flat in Cambridge after a Sunday lunchtime drinking session, or debriefing as we called it, at the Hobnob pub in the Bonza Bay Hotel. The afternoon would be spent consuming more alcohol and listening to the likes of Meatloaf, Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen played at full tilt on his obviously immensely powerful record-playing equipment.

So disco was more about the chicks than about any musical quality. Indeed, the mere fact that we, who grew up on stuff like Cream, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan, were in the same room as this music was more a testament to the power of female allure than to the quality of the sounds. Too tight underpants was usually the quip made whenever Barry Gibb’s falsetto sent shivers down one’s back.

But the Bee Gees weren’t complaining. They were massive at this time, and their next album, Spirits Having Flown, yielded three more No 1 hits in Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Love You Inside Out.

Thankfully, the disco bubble finally burst in late 1979, while I was into the first quarter of my two-year sentence of military conscription. The Bee Gees kept at it over the next decade or two, but the magic formula seemed to elude them. Their next Top 10 single in the US, One, only came in 1989. But everyone was still very much aware of their soundtrack to Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, which featured the hit single, Woman In You. Then there was You Win Again, from 1987, which also performed well globally.

Andy Gibb

Tragedy struck in 1988, when younger brother Andy, who had also enjoyed a solid solo career, died of an inflamed heart muscle after a viral infection.

But such was the quality of their harmonies and song-writing that the brothers managed to keep producing quality albums through the ’90s, though no real blockbusters. But songs like For Whom The Bell tolls, from 1993, still gave them a UK Top 5 hit, which is something they would not have sneered at when starting out all those years ago.

I mean an album like Still Water, released in 1997, sold four million copies, and I never heard of it, or its hits single, Alone.

Late that year they embarked on a massive tour, which included playing to a crowd of 56000 at London’s Wembley Stadium on September 5, 1998. Not bad for a bunch of old codgers!

Their last album as a group was This Is Where I Came In, from 2001. On January 12, 2003, Maurice died from a strangled intestine. The Bee Gees name was abandoned, with the remaining two brothers pursuing independent careers since then.

The Bee Gees are typical, in a way, of how those groups which had their birth in the heady days of the 1960s went on to become stellar, global icons. They sold over 180 million records and singles, “easily making them part of the list of best-selling music artists”, according to Wikipedia. Their songs have been covered by some of the world’s top stars, including Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Elton John and Tom Jones.

The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, with the citation saying that “Only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and Paul McCartney have outsold the Bee Gees”. Garth who?

Wikipedia notes that after Maurice’s death in 2003, Barry and Robin “temporarily ended the group after 45 years of activity”. Then in September 2009, Robin “revealed that he and Barry had agreed that the Bee Gees would reform and perform again”.

Thanks to Wikipedia, that is a brief synopsis of their career. But what of that awesome music – especially from the early days? Sadly, all I have to rely on are couple of “hits” vinyl albums and a CD I acquired of Odessa, as well as that DVD. But let’s give it a bash, starting with that psychedelic debut album, which features five of their greatest hits, all of which are on my “best of” album.


However, before looking at this album, just a note that there is one song, Words, which does not seem to appear on any of the albums, but is also a great hit from the Sixties. It was also on that “hits” album, and is yet another superb vehicle for their vocal dexterity. Simple piano lays down the melody, backed by acoustic guitar. Again, I’m not sure whose voice launches into those famous lyrics, but as the song progresses, each brother brings his own bit of magic to bear. Another feature of their music, of course, is the orchestral backing. They seem to relish singing alongside soaring violins or pulsating cellos. “Smile an everlasting smile, a smile can bring you near to me. / Don’t ever let me find you gone, ’cause that would bring a tear to me. / This world has lost its glory, let’s start a brand new story now, my love. / Right now, there’ll be no other time and I can show you how, my love.” It was still a catchy soft rock sound, but then that’s where the Bee Gees were at. But, of course, with their penchant for melody and harmony, none of their songs would be ordinary. Each had a stamp of class. “Talk in everlasting words, and dedicate them all to me. / And I will give you all my life, I’m here if you
should call to me.” The verse picks up here, the vocals becoming more assertive. “You think that I don’t even mean a single word I say. / It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.” And we all know that when the word “away” is sung, it comes out “awa-a-ay”, dripping with their own unique brand of vocal magic.

But let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about those lyrics, which to me seem to allude to a boy-girl fall-out. Recorded at IBC Studios in London in 1967, produced by Stigwood and released in 1968 by Polydor, the song reached No 8 in the UK and 15 in the US. Wikipedia says the three wrote it “after getting in a few arguments and realising the power of words – how they can make you happy or sad”. For the tone-deaf, like me, we are told Barry sang lead vocals.

Words apart, most of their early hits, which we grew up with in the Sixties, are to be found on that first UK album.

Bee Gees 1st

Recorded between March 7 and April 14, 1967, and released on the Polydor label on July 14 of that year, the group’s debut album, produced by Robert Stigwood, combined folk, pop and psychedelic rock. How I’d dig to hear it again. But let’s see what the Wikipedia oracle has to say.

Well, I’m afraid, not much, except noting which of the songs were subsequently covered by which other artists. Most notable was that folk legend Martin Carthy did a version of their debut hit single, New York Mining Disaster 1941.

The credits on the album, vocals aside, include Robin Gibb on violin, Barry on guitar, Maurice on guitar, bass and keyboard, Vince Melouney on guitar and Colin Petersen on drums. Wikipedia notes that whatever style song, the brothers sang “tight three-part harmonies that were instantly recognisable; as brothers their voices blended perfectly, not unlike the Beach Boys”. It adds that Barry sang lead on many songs, along with that R&B falsetto during the disco years, while Robin provided “the clear vibrato lead that was a hallmark of their pre-disco music. Maurice “sang high and low harmonies throughout their career”.

And all three brothers “co-wrote most of their hits, and they said they felt like they became ‘one person’ when they were writing”, says Wikipedia. But a brief look at the tracklist of this album reveals that Barry and Robin were the primary composers. Only three songs – Every Christian Lion Hearted, I Close My Eyes, and Close Another Door – were written by all three – which seems to contradict the above assertion.

Oh and it seems the album is out on CD, with Reprise Records reissuing it in 2006 along with a bonus disc of “unreleased songs and alternate takes”.

Bee Gees Ist reached No 7 on the US magazine Billboard’s pop albums chart, which means that from the outset the lads were never going to struggle.

Thanks to the Internet, I am finally able to lay hands on the lyrics of these songs. I shan’t, however, be looking at the songs I can’t recall, such as the opening track, Turn Of The Century. Next up, however, is that famous song, Holiday, which starts quietly, with cellos and various other string instruments. Then that incredible Gibb voice: “Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday / Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday.” I mean this was like an emblem of our own virtually non-stop holiday in the seaside village of Bonza Bay, where we grew up beside river and sea. “It’s something I think’s worthwhile / If the puppet makes you smile / If not then you’re throwing stones / Throwing stones, throwing stones.” The meaning? Who cares. “Ooh it’s a funny game / Don’t believe that it’s all the same / Can’t think what I’ve just said / Put the soft pillow on my head.” I like the fact that they are simply playing with pleasing rhymes and rhythms. The song starts to soar at this point. “Millions of eyes can see / Yet why am I so blind / When the someone else is me / It’s unkind, it’s unkind.” There is some lovely plucked violin and obviously superb harmonising on this song, with voices and cellos at one point tacking along in tandem. After a bit of “de de de de de” the churus is repeated.

The next three songs – Red Chair, Fade Away; One Minute Woman; and In My Own Time – I don’t recall, but then came a weird-sounding track which seems to have its origins in a monastery. Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show again starts with strings, before some monk-like vocals arise out of the darkness. Not having spent much time in a monastery, or having studied Latin, I can only guess this, judging by the title, is an early Christian hymn. “Oh solo Dominique” is repeated four times before: “Take this in hand / Said he who stands / Behind the chair / A broken table there.” The sound of drums, bass and a thrust of electric guitar is quite heavy and psychedelic at times. The most memorable line is the title. “Every Christian lion hearted man will show you / Every Christian lion hearted man will show you.” What he will show is not revealed. With “Oh solo Dominique” again repeated four times, the next verse offers more substance. “Don’t walk so tall / Before you crawl / For every child / Is thinking of something wild.” The song plays out with the title repeated and more donimiques. It is an interesting piece and seems to take a similar direction to the sounds the Beatles achieved on their Sgt Pepper’s album, which was released on June 1, 1967.

The next song, Craise Finto Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts, I don’t recall. But, as noted earlier, New York Mining Disaster 1941 was one of their earliest hits. Released first as a single on April 14, 1967, it charted at No 12 in the UK and 14 in the US. It was, says Wikipedia, their first song to be released in the UK and first to chart in both countries. Such was their quality, says Wikipedia, that at the time there were rumours circulating that the Bee Gees were “the Beatles recording under a pseudonym”, with the name supposedly code for Beatles Group. This was partly because the record “referenced NEMS Enterprises (Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s management agency, which had just been joined by Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood)”. While the song title is self-explanatory, Wikipedia says that a miner trapped after a cave-in is showing a mate (Mr Jones) a photograph of his wife as they “hopelessly wait to be rescued”. The song was, the Bee Gees later revealed, inspired by the Aberfan mining disaster in Wales. The song had a huge impact on me as a youngster, up there with the best of the Beatles, Stones and Simon and Garfunkel. It opens with a few electric guitar chords, before just the guys' voices are heard: “In the event of something happening to me, / there is something I would like you all to see. / It’s just a photograph of someone that I new.” So he’s showing the picture to several people. Then that powerful chorus. “Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones? / Do you know what it’s like on the outside? / Don’t go talking too loud, you’ll cause a landslide, Mr Jones.” There were sure to have been a few Joneses in that Welsh mine. It is those voices which carry this song along. “I keep straining my ears to hear a sound. / Maybe someone is digging underground, / or have they given up and all gone home to bed, / thinking those who once existed must be dead.” The chorus is repeated before they return to the opening verses. It was a classic by a group who could best be called, at this stage, global soft rock legends.

I’ve no recollection of the next song, Cucumber Castle, but of course know the following track, To Love Somebody, well, both from this version and of course the lengthy Eric Burden and the Animals take on Love Is. Again, simple electric rhythm guitar and strings lay down the melody, to be joined in turn by muted drums and bass in another Beatles-like song which strong orchestral manoeuvres. Not even Eric Burden, powerful blues singer that he was, could be said to outdo the Bee Gees themselves in the vocal department on this song. “There’s a light / A certain kind of light / That never shone on me / I want my life to be lived with you / Lived with you / There’s a way everybody say / To do each and every little thing / But what good does it bring / If I ain’t got you, ain’t got faith?” The song stalls briefly before building up to that famous chorus. “You don’t know what it’s like, baby / You don’t know what it’s like / To love somebody / To love somebody / The way I love you.” And so the next verse. “In my brain / I see your face again / I know my frame of mind / You ain’t got to be so blind / And I’m blind, so, so, so very blind / I’m a man, can’t you see / What I am / I live and I breathe for you / But what good does it do / If I ain’t got you, ain’t got faith?” With such strong vocals, and an arrangement few could hope to equal, this song will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of rock.

Next up was another song not recalled, I Close My Eyes, followed by the well-remembered I Can’t See Nobody, which again is set in train by strings playing out the melody. The voice – is it Robin? – is piercingly powerful. “I walk the lonely streets / I watch the people passing by / I used to smile and say hello / guess I was just a happy guy / Then you happened, girl / this feeling that possesses me / I just can’t move myself / I guess it all just had to be.” Smitten by love, poor lad, it’s left him blinded as the chorus kicks in, with all three voices bolstering the by now full rock sound. “I can’t see nobody / No I can’t see nobody / My eyes can only look at you, you.” Not blind, but obsessed. “I used to have a brain / I used to think of many things / I watched the falling rain and / listened to the sweet birds sing / Don’t ask me why, little girl / I love you and that’s all I can say / You’re every every breath I take / You are my nights, my night and day.” I wonder if one Sting latched onto that phrase, “every breath I take”? Just asking. After that chorus, he keeps going in a churned up voice. “Every single word you hear / is coming from this heart of mine / I never felt like this before / a love like yours so young and fine / And now as I try to forget you / it doesn’t work out any way / I loved you such a long time ago / but in my eyes you’ll always be.” He tries again. “Every single word you hear / is coming from this heart of mine / I loved you such a long time ago / don’t know why / And I don’t know why, baby.” And so another Bee Gees gem concludes with the chorus repeated twice.

The album ends with two other tracks I’d love to hear again, but can’t recall: Please Read Me and Close Another Door.

It was an album which, with five “hits”, set the Bee Gees firmly on the road to stardom.


To be honest, until I started this project I don’t think I had heard of the Bee Gees’ second studio album, Horizontal. (From now on, like Wikipedia, we’ll ignore those two Australian releases in so far as the numbering of their albums is concerned.) Recorded at IBC Studios in London in 1967, the album was released on the Polydor album in January 1968. And, while the album probably passed us by, obviously its two stand-out tracks, both of which became international hit singles, did not. Wikipedia says aside from Massachusetts and World, the love ballad And The Sun Will Shine stood out. A love ballad by Robin, it contains “psychedelic references to trains walking by and pastoral orchestral backing”. Robin Gibb also contributed two other tracks “worth noting” – Harry Braff, “a rocking story about a racing driver that is reminiscent of the Beatles or the Kinks”. Also significant was “the poignant Really And Sincerely, which documented Robin’s emotions following his survival of the Hither Green train wreck while the album was being made”. There is also much psychedelia to be found, says Wikipedia, on Lemons Never Forget. The album was released on CD by Reprise Records in 2006 with bonus tracks.

Staccato piano and drums launch the opening track, World, which give way to calming violins and another vocal tour de force. “Now, I found, that the world is round / and of course it rains everyday.” Who could have been alive in the late 1960s and not been familiar with that opening gambit? The urgency increases: “Living tomorrow, where in the world will I be tomorrow? / How far am I able to see? / Or am I needed here?” As noted earlier, the songs are simple and effective – ideal vehicles for their vocals. With the chorus repeated, comes the next three-liner verse. “If I remember all of the things I have done, / I’d remember all of the times I’ve gone wrong. / Why do they keep me here?” Notable here is the bit of psychedelia preceding each verse, especially some sharp, incisive electric guitar work. The vocals and guitar in tandem towards the end, alongside what sounds like a harp, adds to the impact. The song concludes with the chorus repeated several times.

This is followed by songs I’d love to hear: And The Sun Will Shine; Lemons Never Forget; Really And Sincerely; Birdie Told Me; and With The Sun In My Eyes.

Then follows Massachusetts, another of those sublime Bee Gees success stories. Written by all three brothers, it was released as a single in 1967 and reached No 1 in the UK and 11 in the US. It was, says Wikipedia, their first UK No 1 hit. As noted earlier, it was the Bee Gees’ response to “the flower power movement of which they were growing weary”, says Wikipedia. Instead of entreating hippies to head for San Francisco, as Scott McKenzie had, this song is about a man who had tired of the Haight-Ashbury high-jinks and is homesick for his home state of Massachusetts, where – following the exodus to Frisco – the lights had “all gone out”. Wikipedia relates a poignant tale about how Beatles manager Brian Epstein had told Maurice Gibb that the song was beautiful and would be the hit of the summer. Epstein died a few days later.

Drums, bass and soaring strings set the melody afoot, before the lads lay into the vocals. Which of them has that vulnerable sounding voice, which is a hallmark of the song? Again, the opening lines are like iconic architecture in the history of rock/pop music. “Feel I’m goin’ back to Massachusetts, / Something’s telling me I must go home. / And the lights all went down in Massachusetts / The day I left her standing on her own.” How great to have a song which is also interesting social commentary. “Tried to hitch a ride to San Francisco, / Gotta do the things I wanna do. / And the lights all went down in Massachusetts / They brought me back to see my way with you.” The nostalgia kicks in. “Talk about the life in Massachusetts, / Speak about the people I have seen, / And the lights all went down in Massachusetts / And Massachusetts is one place I have seen.” The song concludes with the line, “I will remember Massachusetts...” A feature here is the pulsating bass, which really keeps those verses rolling along.

The album concludes with the songs, Harry Braff, Daytime Girl, The Earnest Of Being George, The Change Is Made and Horizontal. Love to hear them sometimes.


I remember the cover of Idea and its two stand-out tracks – I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You and I Started A Joke – a but again the album was not really part of our upbringing.

The Bee Gees’ third album, it was released by Polydor in August 1968 (their second of the year) and, says Wikipedia, sold over a million copies worldwide. It also notes that the song, Such A Shame, was the only one by the Bee Gees where the lead vocals are not be a Gibb brother, or where the lyrics weren’t written by a Gibb. In fact, this honour fell to Vince Melouney, because, as noted earlier, this was still a five-person outfit, with Melouney on lead guitar and Colin Petersen on drums. The album was reissued by Reprise on CD in 2006 along with bonus tracks.

Unfamiliar to me are the first six tracks, Let There Be Love, Kitty Can, In The Summer Of His Years, Indian Gin And Whisky Dry, Down To Earth and Such A Shame. Then comes the classic, I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You, which I found on that “best of” album and which was such a big part of my youth. It starts as a slow rock number, with all the requisite instruments. The vocals, as usual, are instantly compelling. “The preacher talked with me and he smiled / Said ‘come and walk with me / come and walk one more mile’ / Now for once in your life you’re alone / But you ain’t got a dime / There’s no time for the phone.” I’m not sure why he feels threatened by this preacher, but he suddenly needs to make a call, as the chorus explains: “I’ve just gotta get a message to you / Hold on, hold on / One more hour and my life will be through / Hold on, hold on.” Is this priest counselling him, perhaps? “I told him ‘I’m in no hurry / But if I broke her heart / then won’t you tell her I’m sorry?’ / And for once in my life I’m alone / And I’ve gotta let her know / just in time before I go.” Again, the bass is superb, reminiscent in a way of Paul McCartney at his best. After the chorus, with those storming harmonies and orchestral backing, the final verse. “Well I laughed but that didn’t work / And it’s only her love / that keeps me wearing this dirt / Now I’m crying but deep down inside / Well I did it to him / Now it’s my turn to die.” The chorus is repeated a few times, but I’m at a loss to explain what’s just happened here. Who did what to whom and why?

Fortunately, Wikipedia goes into the song in some depth, noting first that as a single it became their second to reach No 1 in the UK, while peaking at No 8 in the States. Indeed, in the UK it was their biggest selling single of the Sixties. But what was it about? Well I wouldn’t have guessed from those somewhat obscure lyrics, but Wikipedia says it deals with a man “condemned to die on the electric chair who begs the prison chaplain to pass a final message on to his wife”. Written by Robin, it seems the man had murdered his wife’s lover. Apparently, as noted way earlier in fact, Robin wrote the song “following a row with his wife”, and originally had soul singer Percy Sledge in mind. Incredibly, as happened with some early Stones albums, this hit song did not appear on the original UK version of Idea, only the US edition, with Such A Shame appearing instead in the UK. Both, however, were on the CD edition first released in 1991. Hit though the song was, it only stayed at No 1 in the UK for a week. The opposition was rather stiff, with the Beatles’ Hey Jude supplanting it.

The other hit on the album, I Started A Joke, is bracketed by the songs Idea, When The Swallows Fly and I’ve Decided To Join The Air Force before it, and Kilburn Towers and Swan Song after it. Love to hear them.

But what of I Started A Joke, another of those Bee Gee songs that will survive in people’s memories long after we are gone, simply because it was, what so many of the great songs covered in this project were, completely original. It is great to hear acoustic guitar to the fore on this song, which starts slowly with gentle bass and light drumming. That voice, when it comes, is like the town crier. “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying, / but I didn’t see that the joke was on me, oh no.” As with the Beatles, Stones, the Who and so on, the strength of these lyrics lies in the simple use of idiomatic English. “I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing, / oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.” With great harmonising, the acoustic guitar is now strummed with growing urgency. “I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes, / and I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said.” Then, some more enigmatic verse. “Till I finally died, which started the whole world living, / oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.” The chorus and final verse are repeated, with attendant great strumming and strong strings. Here you really get the feeling that the brothers Gibb are having great fun throwing their weighty voices around. But what was the song about?

Well first, Wikipedia tells us it was released in September, 1968, and reached No 6 on the US singles chart. All three brothers had a hand in writing it, though Robin is credited with being the main contributor and also the lead vocalist. Wikipedia says the song is “supposedly about someone who has done or said something horribly wrong, which results in social alienation”. It says another interpretation is that it is sung “from the point of view of the Devil”. In fact, I thought at one point it could have referenced Jesus who died so the whole world might live. Robin is quoted as saying the melody, with its almost trancelike quality, was inspired by the droning of a four-engine propeller driven BA Vickers Viscount that they flew in.


Their next album, a double, was Odessa, which was what we called a concept album. It least it seemed to have something of a storyline, but nothing on a par with the Who’s Tommy. We had this album and, happily, I picked up a CD version recently, which brought the whole thing streaming back. But before giving it a fresh spin, let’s see what Wikipedia’s take on it is.

Their fourth album, Wikipedia says it was released by Polydor in January, 1969, having been produced by the Bee Gees and Robert Stigwood. It runs to 63:47 minutes – and led, would you believe, to a disagreement among brothers who, one would have imagined, almost thought as one, like they sang. But no, Wikipedia says they disagreed over which song should be released as a single. First Of May was chosen and this “led to Robin Gibb leaving the group in 1969”, which seems petty on the face of it. Wikipedia adds that guitarist Vince Melouney also quit, leaving just Barry, Maurice and Colin Petersen to record the Cucumber Castle album.

Sadly, Wikipedia offers no further info on the album itself, apart from the tracklist. Oh, and it notes that early CD editions omitted the 13th track, With All Nations (International Anthem). Sadly, I notice my version is also lacking this instrumental track.

The album cover was unmistakable, the slab of red with yellow lettering. But I do think the back cover also featured the evocative black-and-white drawing of a young boy being thrown by sailors from a stricken ship to the catching hands of adults in a lifeboat. This is featured inside the CD cover insert.

Oh, I’ve just found another snippet regarding that fall-out over the choice of a single from the album. Wikipedia says First Of May was a Barry Gibb song, while the single’s B side was Lamplight, by Robin Gibb. So that’s why Robin quit in a huff. But Wikipedia adds that, ironically, in 2005 Robin sang First Of May with the pop group G4. There were no other singles from the album. But there was always another Gibb sibling around. Wikipedia says their sister Leslie “made an appearance with Barry and Maurice after Robin went solo”.

I was wrong about this being a concept album. It is really just the long opening, title track, Odessa (City of the Black Sea), which gives that impression. It runs for 7:33 minutes and boasts typical late-1960s experimentation. It also again underlines just what wonderful voices the lads had and how their harmonising was often beyond compare. It opens with atmospheric sea sounds, with interesting bass and acoustic guitar. Then a somewhat distorted voice intones: “Fourteenth of February , eighteen ninety nine. / The British ship Veronica was lost without a sign. / Baa baa black sheep, you havent any wool. / Captain Richardson left himself a lonely wife in Hull.” With some wonderful cello and piano joining the fray, a catchy melody showcases the following: “Cherub, I lost a ship in the Baltic sea. / I’m on an iceberg running free. / Sitting, filing this berg to the shape of a ship; / Sailing my way back to your lips. / One passing ship gave word that you have moved out of your old flat. / You love the Vicar more then words can say. / Tell him to pray that I won’t melt away. / And I’ll see your face again.” Matters stall, before a full set of strings herald the lines: “Odessa, How strong am I? / Odessa, How time goes by.” Which of the lads had that voice which kind of warmly embraces you and almost smothers you in its richness? Anyway, it is that voice that dominates here. “Treasure, you know the neighbours that live next door. / They haven’t got their dog anymore. / Freezing, sailing around in the North Atlantic. / Can’t seem to leave the sea anymore. / I just can’t understand why you just moved to Finland. / You love that Vicar more then words can say. / Ask him to pray that I won’t melt away. / And I’ll see your face again.” I seem to be getting this. Is this the voice of the dead man’s spirit, telling his widow some home truths? After that big “Odessa, How strong am I? / Odessa, How time goes by”, things quieten for an interesting instrumental section, including flute and harp. The song ends with those haunting first two lines: “Fourteenth of February, eighteen ninety nine. / The British ship Veronica was lost without a sign.” It was one of the defining songs of the decade, with the Bee Gees using their obvious talents to explore arenas beyond the confines of the catchy hit-parade melody.

But that addictively enticing voice – is it Robin? – is back in full swing on the next track, You’ll Never See My Face Again, which is another I grew up with and will never forget. Acoustic guitar and bass again lay the groundwork, alongside impeccable strings. “Ev’ry single word has been spoken. / It’s much too late to change your ways. / Far too many vows have been broken. / You can’t expect a soul to stay.” So this is the eternal issue of a love grown cool. Keyboards join in around here, while for some reason I couldn’t help thinking how much this sounded like the Beatles in their tight-harmonising days. The mood becomes more assertive. “You think that you can stand and lie. / It makes me laugh. You’ve got no friends. / It took a thousand years to find out why. / You’ll never see my face again.” Ouch! So even the Bee Gees can get hard-arsed. I remember those lines – “It makes me laugh. You’ve got not friends” – were bandied about at the time, not always in a pleasant way. The next verse, was it as memorable? “You know that you’ve been left before this night. / It’s come my turn to make it over. / I wish that ev’ry thing was coloured white. / I wish that I could be a rover.” No it wasn’t memorable, but of course the chorus, “You think that you …”, more than compensates. Commercial? Sure. But then the Bee Gees battled to make anything that wasn’t likeable. And this was simply a key track on an iconic album.

The title of the next track, Black Diamond, would normally not ring any bells. But give it a listen and it all comes flooding back. This is something of a psychedelic album, and the use of cello on this song has strong echoes of Jack Bruce’s many fine compositions for Cream. This starts with strummed acoustic guitar: “Where are you? I love you. / Where are you? I love you. / Where are you to keep me warm?” That cello – or is it a double bass? – is joined by electric bass and drums as the haunting Gibb voices soar. “I had a dream of a place far away. / I followed a river where the dead man would play. / And I’m leaving in the morning. / And I’m leaving in the morning. / And I won’t die, so don’t cry. / I’ll be home. / Those big black diamonds that lie there for me. / By the tall white mountains which lie by the sea.” Certain word sequences are ingrained – including “I’m leaving in the morning” and “those big black diamonds”. There is a nice change of mood now, with the Cream-like cello prominent alongside great acoustic guitar. “And you a man who’s as tall as the sky / Followed a river where thousands have died. / He was leaving in the morning. / He was leaving in the morning. / If I come home and my woman has flown. / Those big black diamonds that lie there for me / By the tall white mountains which lie by the sea / Oh oh oh oh oh / Say goodbye to auld lang syne.” This refrain is repeated as the song fades.

Marley Purt Drive. Another title that at face value leaves one cold. Bet I know it though. Of course I do. One glance at the lyrics confirms it is as familiar as any Beatles song, especially that somewhat frenetic opening line, launched with drums, acoustic guitar, bass and piano. An electric guitar makes a rare appearance alongside what, a mandolin? Or banjo? Hard to say. “Sunday morning, woke up yawning, filled the pool for a swim, / pulled down the head and looked in the glass just to see if I was in, / went up the stairs and kissed my woman to make her come alive / ’cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / Fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” Of course, this is that country-rock type track that sounds so incongruous. With strings and slide guitar, the sound is awfully American. But what is it about? “That’s how they are, so I grabbed out the car, convertible fifty-nine, / headed to the freeway, tried to find the Pasadena sign. / Ten miles and three quarters, I wasn't feeling any more alive, / ’cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / Fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” There is good acoustic guitar lead on here and some fine backing vocals. “I used to be a minstrel free with a whole lot of bread in my bag. / I used to feel that my life was real, but the good Lord threw me a snag. / Now I’m gonna be the same as me, no matter how I try. / ’Cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / Fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” The lyrics sound like a bit of drivel, really. “Turned ’round the car and headed for home; I guess I realised my fate. / Ten miles and three quarters more, I pulled up outside the gate. / Twenty more kids were stood inside and that made thirty-five. / ’Cause with an orphanage full of thirty-five kids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / An orphanage full of thirty-five kids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” So does he go for his drive with or without them? Do we care? The opening verse is repeated, with the last lines altered to accommodate that orphanage and its 35 kids, and an “ooh”.

The Beatles did a song about Maxwell Edison majoring in medicine. The next song here, Edison, is clearly about Thomas, the American inventor (1847 to 1931) who, among other things, brought us the electric light bulb. Again, there is a Beatles-like quality as this song starts with lead guitar and lots of voices going “la-laa …” Then, the song stops to herald a peep-peep alongside bass and organ, all the better to showcase that incredible Bee Gees vocal fusillade. “He made electric lights to read. He gave us light today. / He gave us cylinders to please. / When Edison came to stay. Edison came to stay.” Cylinders? Apparently the first recording devices. So this is a tribute to a scientist – rare, no doubt, in rock history. “Edison set the world on fire. He really made the day. / Station to station; many wires. / Edison came to stay. Edison came to stay.” Then that chorus. “Oh, how, look at us now. We’ve still got a lot to learn. / But it’s someone else’s turn. / Edison’s here to stay. Edison’s here to stay.” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Of course he’s here to stay – his inventions changed the world. Indeed, that’s what the next verse implies. “All of the world can taste his glory. All of the people say. / You be the man to write his story. Edison’s here to stay. / Edison’s here to stay.” Much of this is repeated, with the one variation – “all the world can hear his story”. It is another lovely whimsical piece of magic, enhanced again by lovely strings and what sounded like a xylophone near the end.

There can be few songs, apart from Beatles classics like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, that sound as intrinsically English as the next track, Melody Fair. It is one of those songs which has the Sixties written all over it. And of course 1969 was the Sixties at its height, before the strange shenanigans of the Seventies. Beautiful cello rolls alongside picked acoustic guitar notes, with strings, double bass, horns and a harp setting the scene for another Beatles-like Bee Gees tour de force. The opening verse is as iconic as any I have covered thus far. “Who is the girl with the crying face looking at millions of signs? / She knows that life is a running race, / Her face shouldn’t show any line.” It’s well known, but many people, I suspect, like me, have not really considered what was being said there. It’s a picture of a sad girl facing a troubled future. The chorus is reassuring. “Melody Fair won’t you comb your hair? You can be beautiful too. / Melody Fair, remember you’re only a woman. / Melody Fair, remember you’re only a girl. Ah ...” I wonder if that isn’t a trifle patronising. “Only” a woman/girl? But so what? It made for a lovely, lyrical few lines, all against a richly textured, almost orchestral background. The next verse is again harshly honest. “Who is the girl at the window pane, watching the rain falling down? / Melody, life isn’t like the rain; its just like a merry go round.” Not sure if that is a positive or negative thing. A roller-coaster may be a better simile. Anyway, this beautiful piece plays itself out with the chorus and opening verse repeated.

But of course there is much, much more to come. Because the melody on Suddenly is just as infectious – thanks to those vocals, of course – than anything that has preceded it. The acoustic guitar is strummed, with drums and horns backing the bluesy melody. Then those fine voices. “How can you tell by looking at me? How can you tell you like what you see? / Suddenly there’s a boy in the rain alone. / Suddenly there’s a girl in the rain alone.” Bass and piano join in as the second verse gets going, giving it a bluesy rock feel, with the harmonies again having a strong Beatles flavour. “How can you tell humans are real? How can you tell you like what you feel? / Suddenly there’s a girl in your heart oh boy. / Suddenly there’s a boy in your heart oh boy. / Ah ...” Simplicity was the key. It didn’t take a truckload of words to make a good song, just well-chosen ones. The song ends with that opening verse repeated.

So surely the next song is less well known? Whisper Whisper starts with acoustic guitar alongside strings and bells. The orchestral quality rises to meet the challenge of strident opening vocals. “Whisper, whisper. What have you got? / I got something that you need a lot. / Stop me and buy one. / You can see better but you better not.” Of course it’s a familiar blues rock – and again it has uncanny echoes of the Beatles, with the lead vocals sounding disturbingly Lennon-like. “Listen mister can you help me? / It’s my sister. Show her how to fly. / Stop me and try one. / You can see ev’rything blowing by.” Perhaps, though, the strings are a bit too schmaltzy, a trap into which Beatles producer George Martin never fell. But there is good electric piano and guitar here. “Whisper whisper. Keep it quiet. / If you like it you can try it too. / Stop me and buy one. / I am illegal that mean so are you.” Now, of course, the penny drops. The clean-cut, high and mighty Bee Gees are selling something illegal that might just help you to fly. “Whisper whisper what have you got? / I got something that you need a lot. / Stop me and buy one. / You can see better but you better not. / Whisper, whisper, whisper, whisper.” Indeed, though just 3:25 minutes, this song, like a good Beatles “experience”, has two distinct parts. After drums and horns prance along, the tempo rises, to be met with: “I am man and you are women. / Who needs marriage? We are humans all. / If I could please you, arouse and ease you, / then it would please you if I should call. / Doesn’t matter what your name is. / I can do a million things to you. / No explanations; sexual patience. / Most of the nation’s doing it too. / No no no no no.” Yes yes yes yes, many might respond. Because the naughty Bee Gees here seem also to be endorsing a bit of free love, man. This is a fine song, which slows towards the end as a drum solo and trombone bring it to a jazzy conclusion.

Okay, so the Beatles had used French in a couple of their songs, so why not the Bee Gees? Lamplight starts with fast-strummed acoustic guitar, piano and base – and a haunting choir of voices singing in French. “Alons, viens encore, cherie. / J’attendrai patiemment sous la lampe dans la vieille avenue.” Thanks to Google’s inbuilt translation facility, I now know that this means “Alons, come back, darling. / I will wait patiently under the lamp in the old Avenue.” Now that Bee Gees voice – is it Barry? – I’ll never work it out, but the solo vocals are launched pulsatingly. “Then I may end. / She had things to buy. / I close my eyes. / Yet I don’t know why. / I gave her money; said she knew someone. / And she said she won’t be long.” Then that, again, iconic chorus. “Lamplight keep on burning while this heart of mine is yearning. / Lamplight keep on burning till this love of yours is mine.” The vocal strength – is it Robin, since he wrote it? – is intense as the song continues, backed by chorus, strings and that churning guitar. “I sat alone with my thoughts and laughed. / Then saw your face in an old photograph. / I didn’t think that I could live without you but what am I to do?” The chorus is repeated before the following, complete with choral backing: “Come home again dear. I have waited year after year / under the lamp in our old avenue. / If all in the world that’s laughing, why should it make us cry?” With strings soaring, the voice squad play us out with a series of melodic, hymn-like “Ahs”.

Gentle and slow, the piano provides backing for the opening of Give Your Best. It is a vocal powerplay. “See the children play the ball. See them play along the hall. / It makes me cry to see them smile. / I see the moon; I see the sky. / I see reflections in my eyes. And there’s no one to share my life. / I need a life to go my way. / So ev’ry night I pray. / Just give me someone for my life. / I feel a clown. People try to play me down. / And there’s one thing I never found. / The sound of love.” It is a vulnerable Bee Gee exposing his inner demons, before big chords herald more heartfelt sentiments: “See the old man walk the lane. See him walk along in pain. / It makes me cry to see them smile. / I watch the moon; I watch the sky. / I see reflections in my eyes. / And there’s no one to share my life.” The tempo rises. “I need a life to go my way. So ev’ry night I pray. / Just give me someone for my life. / I feel a clown. People try to play me down. / And there’s one thing I never found. / The sound of love.” Great string accompaniment alongside that thundering piano drives that along. Then a reflective ending: “The sound of love. / Ev’rybody loves the sound of love. / Ev’rybody loves the sound of love. / Ev’rybody loves the sound of love …” A trombone helps see out the fading song, another classic.

Why is it that every Bee Gees song, almost without exception, is such that you feel it in your soul? It is as if it has always been part of you. I can’t pretend to know how the next song, Give Your Best, goes, but I know I know it. And a glance at the lyrics confirms it, because two voices speaks the opening lines: “It’s a square dance Mr Marshall. It’s a square dance on the floor. / It’s a square dance Mr Perkins. It’s a square dance to be sure, to be sure. / Ev’rybody, grab partners ...” Oh so awfully British, don’t you think? But square-dancing in England! Well, bizarrely, as fiddle and banjo kick in, this ends up a fine little bluegrass track. “I’m just a clown that used to run around. / I used to have a million friends. / I used to start where ev’rybody ends. / But I just give my best to my friends.” And isn’t that a familiar refrain: “I just give my best to my friends”? The Beatles parallels are unmistakable. “I’ve done my shows. Ev’rybody knows. / I nearly sold all my clothes. / One man can give; another has to lend. / So I just give my best to my friends.” Then, spoken, “and so you should”. “And when you think that your life isn’t right. / You know the day isn’t always like night. / You’ve had your peace now it’s time for you to fight. / Just give your best to your friends.” Banjo and fiddle flourish as the song lilts along, backed by laughing, chatting voices in Beatles/Stones mode, but perhaps even better than they achieved. “I’m just a clown that used to run around. / I used to have a million friends. / I used to start where ev’rybody ends. / So I just give my best to my friends.” It is just a great song, beautifully sung. “And when you think that your life isn’t right. / You know the day isn’t always like night. / You’ve had your peace now it’s time for you to fight. / Just give your best to your friends.” And then an unexpected but welcome fiddle solo of the sort we would get to love increasingly during the 1970s, before the song ends, with a bit more raucous laughter behind, and that chorus repeated.

One feels a bit cheated by a Bee Gees song sans singing, but there is no denying that Seven Seas Symphony (4:10 minutes) is a beautiful piece, built around a lovely piano melody. There are sympathetic strings and, of course, some male choral backing.

Strangely, the CD version of this album omits the next instrumental, With All Nations, and instead moves to I Laugh In Your Face, which starts with gentle piano and strings, before one of the three launches into more lovely lyrics. “The circus is coming to see you. / The elephant smiles. / Ev’rybody can hear you say that’s out of style. / My brother is friendly for reasons, if I am the same. / Just for four hundred seasons we all live in rain.” Some of the more psychedelic imagery from the lads. The tempo rises to meet the chorus, with drums and bass joining the fray. “So I laugh in your face. Your only one race. / Yes I laugh in your face and I’m right. / You lie just like the rest. But there’s nobody best. / So I laugh in your face and I’m right.” Things mellow for the next surreal stanza. “I’ll pull out your plug so you’re small. / You’ll slide down the drain. / On the steps of St Peter’s you all look the same.” And then that crazy chorus. With orchestra and backing vocals in support, the opening verse and chorus are repeated to see the song to an end. A lovely orchestral movement with cellos and violins provides a melodic denouement.

I’ve said it before about other great groups. It is the simple use of idiomatic English which is the key to their best song-writing efforts. Take the next track, Never Say Never Again. This has become a standard retort to politicians, like Ian Smith in the then Rhodesia, who do say never. He said black rule would never happen, not in my lifetime not in a thousand years. Or suchlike. It came a few years later. But this, I suspect, is not a political song. So what was it about? Bold acoustic guitar, violins and drums launch another Lennon-like vocal onslaught. “Your lips could never show a smile. / You never tried you just put me in a file. / I never lived inside your hole, child. / I thought you needed me I never had no style.” The chorus flows from this: “Never say never say never again. / Never say never say never again. / You said goodbye; I declared war on Spain. / Never say never say never again.” So not all the lyrics are brilliant: “Your eyes could never show a grin. / You never tried you just put me in a tin. / I never lived inside your hole child. / You know I needed you. And look at the shape I’m in.” I’m not sure what living inside her hole was about, but maybe we shouldn’t go there. The song, not perhaps their greatest, ends with the chorus repeated, and the word “never” repeated till it fades.

Few songs encapsulate the spirit of the late Sixties – purely from a musical/mood point of view – better than the penultimate track, First Of May. Piano and cello set the scene for those famous opening lines. “When I was small, and Christmas trees were tall, / we used to love while others used to play. / Don’t ask me why, but time has passed us by, / some one else moved in from far away.” A hallmark of this song, apart from the sublime vocals, is the use of a skillfully plucked violin, soon after the chorus kicks in. “Now we are tall, and Christmas trees are small, / and you don’t ask the time of day. / But you and I, our love will never die, / but guess we’ll cry come first of May.” The sound gets fuller now, with bass and drums adding thrust. “The apple tree that grew for you and me, / I watched the apples falling one by one. / And I recall the moment of them all, / the day I kissed your cheek and you were mine.” The chorus, amid great orchestral backing, is repeated, before the opening verse is repeated. “When I was small, and Christmas trees were tall, / do do do do do do do do do... / Don’t ask me why, but time has passed us by, / some one else moved in from far away.” The songs fades, having staked its claim as one of the great pop melodies of our time.

Fittingly, since this does at the outset purport to be something of a rock opera, the album ends with The British Opera, an operatic orchestral track evocative of sailing ships. So the last taste you get of the Bee Gees vocals on this album is in a massed choir. Be that as it may, this was a serious contender for one of the albums of the Sixties. Not only does it showcase the Gibb brothers’ superb voices, but also their incredible inventiveness as composers.

Cucumber Castle

Okay, so I had never heard of this album until I started this article. Released in April 1970, the Bee Gees’ fifth album was produced by Barry, Maurice and Robert Stigwood, Robin, as noted earlier, having temporarily fled the coop. All I can glean from Wikipedia is that the album “consists of songs from their television special of the same name”. Not having even had television in SA at the time – it arrived only in 1976 when the apartheid rulers realised its propaganda potential – the TV special also passed us by.

A perusal of the track titles shows very little that is familiar, although the last track, Don’t Forget To Remember Me is obviously well known.

2 Years On

Next up was 2 Years On, another I did not come across. Their sixth studio album, this was released in December 1970, with Robin Gibb having returned to the fold. It too was produced by Stigwood and the brothers. It reached No 32 in the US, says Wikipedia, which doesn’t say how it did in the UK, though it sold 300 000 copies worldwide.

Again, most of the songs are unfamiliar, apart from Lonely Days which I only encountered decades later on a DVD of one of their live concerts in the 1990s or so. That is how we lost track of the Bee Gees – until disco came along and we could not ignore them.

Saturday Night Fever

I have to be honest. Their sound may have been catchy and commercial – perhaps it was precisely because of these reasons – but I never really got into the Bee Gees songs on this album. Indeed, if anything, they got into me. As noted earlier, the pursuit of a bit of skirt took us to places we should normally have avoided – like noisy, smoke-filled, beer-swilling discos, with strobe lights, no conversation and many a nubile young thing just crying out to be laid. I wished! Be that as it may, the mid- to late-1970s saw the disco phenomenon sweep the world. In my high school years we went to “sessions”. These were parties, often attended by hundreds of teenagers, held at church halls and the like, with a live band playing. I remember we often never even went in. At a church in Vincent, East London, crowds of kids would just hang around outside. It was the jol. There was a band, Purple Haze, named after the Hendrix song, which – shock, horror for apartheid SA – featured a young Chinese guy on electric guitar.

I was in my third year at art school in November, 1977, when the original movie soundtrack was released. Wikipedia says it was recorded between 1975 and 1977, with Bill Oakes as music supervisor/producer.

I guess everyone saw the movie starring John Travolta. And the album, says Wikipedia, “was certified 15x Platinum for shipments of over 15 million copies”. It adds that the album “revived the phenomenon of disco in the US and was a national obsession”. As it did around the globe.

So how on earth did the Bee Gees get involved? Well, Wikipedia, noting that it became “the best-selling soundtrack album of all time”, says the Bee Gees “originally wrote and recorded the five original songs for the album” as “part of a regular album”. These were Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever and How Deep Is Your Love (all performed by them) and More Than A Woman (performed in two versions, one by the Bee Gees, the other by Tavares) and If I Can’t Have You (performed by Yvone Elliman). It says initially they had “no idea” they would be making a soundtrack”. Two other previously released Bee Gee Songs, Jive Talking and You Should Be Dancing, along with other “previously released songs from the disco era”, provide the rest of the music for the movie.

Composer David Shire also contributed incidental music on the soundtrack, which won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. And, while I may scoff at it, Wikipedia reminds that it was ranked, in 2003, at No 131 on that Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It topped the US pop and soul album charts, while a 2005 survey of the 100 greatest albums of all time by Britain’s Channel 4 television network placed it at No 80.

It seems the song Jive Talking on the original issue of the album is the original studio version, but that later pressings used one “culled from Here At Last … Bee Gees … Live”, says Wikipedia. Later CD releases revert back to the original – though the song did not occur in the film, with the scene having been deleted.

Sadly, I have managed to find a vinyl copy of the double album at my local second-hand record shop and am forced, as part of this research project, to subject myself to it.

Ah! That’s an exclamation of joy – not at the music, but at the reprieve I’ve been granted. On opening the album cover and checking its contents I found only the album with sides C and D – on which only Jive Talking features among the Bee Gees tracks. So I was spared all those other disco things. Okay, I’m being harsh, but I guess everyone in the world, virtually, has those tunes ingrained in their psyches. Such was their impact that I suspect my teenage sons have heard them even without knowing it.

But I did subject myself to Jive Talking and was relieved when it was over. Initially it sounded like Michael Jackson. And of course this was that sort of era, wasn’t it? This was when things started to unravel in the world of popular music. Irreparably. Repetitious rhythm for the sake of it. Just to get people bobbing up and down on the dance floor. No structure to the songs, except for some high-pitched, tinny synthesizer stuff to add to the frenetic noise. The world was gearing up for the worst of the bland and (c)rap in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the beauty about the Seventies is that there were incredible alternatives out there for discerning music lovers. Why Bob Dylan was still producing good stuff, as were the Who. But it was the New Wave bands I really got into in a big way. Many of these I still have to look at, along with such global rock legends as Bruce Springsteen and Don McLean. Not to mention Bob Marley and the reggae revolution. Even old Elton John who, for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was up there with the greatest. Sadly he too sold out to commercialism and became something of a cult hero, wallowing in his own success. So I have plenty work still to do, but let’s just close off with a couple of the Bee Gees last albums. Of course it must be realised that this album put them right at the top of the global pop world, as noted way earlier. They were made for life.

Staying Alive

Not content with the roaring success of Fever, the Bee Gees coined it again with their contribution to this soundtrack album, released in June 1983. Now, according to Wikipedia, it is no longer disco, but pop/rock. With most of the songs by the Bee Gees, the album reached No 14 in the UK, No 6 in the US and did comparably well elsewhere, selling a total of 4.5 million copies worldwide.

This was the real tight-underpants sound, as I recall it, with Barry responsible for those falsetto atrocities. The hits from this album included the title track, Stayin’ Alive and The Woman In You.

But enough’s enough. The Bee Gees were a wonderful group in the 1960s, and even in the later era when commercialism ruled there was no gainsaying their ability to pen beautiful melodies, and to sing them just as wonderfully.

For me, though, it is those early singles from the late mid-1960s which have a special place in my heart. Truly, here was a family blessed with musical genes. And they certainly put them to very good use.


Russell said...
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Chris D. Lowry said...

Hey, you forgot the '80s :-)

We, too, still had vinyl records; CD's (and for that matter DVD's and the entire Internet with it) was still SciFi, we too had no cellphones, iPods, PS3, XBOX's and Wii's. We recorded our favourite songs on audio tapes from the radio, hoping they would let them play until the last tunes.

The songs from the 70s and 70s sound familiar to us, because we heard our parents put on _their_ vinyl records of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Bee Gees.

We had our own Big Five - and more than five. But nowadays who else but us remembers Duran Duran, Prince, Pet Shop Boys, Spandau Ballet, Bruce Springsteen - or the Bee Gees for that matter - and all those countless 1980s one-track-wonders who shaped the music sound of the 80s?

To us, children of the 1980s, the 80s was the golden age of "real" pop music, originating in the 70s and the 60s. To us, the 1990s and the 00's made us feel old, longing back to those good ole 80s and wondering where all the good music has gone.

Those were the times.

Kin Bentley said...
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