[3 December 2009]
The Bee Gees have enjoyed multiple careers over the years, from teenage TV stars to iconic ‘60s pop band to the Kings of Disco to soft rock elder statesmen. Currently celebrating their golden anniversary at great length, they are again being recognized for their complete body of work, and not just their output when wearing white three-piece suits. They key word in that sentence is… again.
The Ultimate Bee Gees is available in a two-CD set as well as a deluxe limited edition that includes a DVD. I’m not certain who the target audience is for the audio version. As “greatest hits” collections go, there’s certainly enough here to satisfy, including every number one hit (and there are quite a few). But consider that the first Best of the Bee Gees album was released in 1969, and during the 40 years since then the number of anthologies and collections dwarf the band’s original output. Since it’s all been done several times before—some of the less common tracks are even sourced from those collections—the result is that there is nothing unique to this record. If you own 2001’s Their Greatest Hits—The Record, for example, you have no reason to pick up this new collection, since the tracklists are virtually identical.
Another oddity is the order of the songs on the audio discs. Rather than progress from the beginning of their career and move forward, Rhino has frontloaded the set with the hits from the disco era as if to convince the listener that there is enough bang in the box to warrant a two-disc package. Oddly enough, disc one ends with “Spicks and Specks”, their first hit, which is as out of place in that set as “How Deep is Your Love” is opening disc two, where the rest of the older material resides.
So the only real value here is the collection of eighteen videos on the third disc. Unlike the audio CDs, the clips are in chronological order and feature early appearances on television variety shows as well as promotional clips from several of the later albums. So much attention is paid to the Saturday Night Fever era that their run of hits from the ‘60s—when they were an actual band—is overlooked and underappreciated.
Beginning with a black and white clip for “Spicks and Specks”, the first few videos are a godsend for those who favor the guitar-pop singles. “Massachusetts” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You” feature Robin’s quivering vocals as the focus, while Barry’s vocal turns were in his natural, pre-falsetto voice. Despite the novelty of the unimaginative staging and the trendy Carnaby Street threads, it’s immediately apparent that these teenagers were already accomplished songwriters and had mastered complex vocal arrangements better than many of their older peers on the charts.
“Run to Me” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”, two excellent pre-disco singles, mark the transition into the Barry-dominated dance pop period. The midsection of the DVD features several conceptual videos from the Saturday Night Fever period and might provide warm reminisces for disco fans. I found the two most appealing videos at opposite ends of their career. “Tomorrow Tomorrow”, was the first single released after Robin briefly left the band, and shows how solid Barry and Maurice were as a tandem. “Alone” was not only a comeback of sorts for the band, but the mix of current and vintage footage was a not-so-subtle hint that the brothers not only had a legacy in place already, but a lot left in the tank as well.
For those who have yet to grab a hits collection, The Ultimate Bee Gees is certainly a worthwhile option, but only if it’s the limited edition that includes the DVD. Thanks to the fair price, fans might even find that the DVD is reason enough to plunk their money down. But those who already have the hits and are seeking a deeper dive into the recorded catalogue are encouraged to wait for the larger set, Mythology. Arriving in March 2010, the four-disc set will feature one CD per brother—including Andy. While purists will shelve that fourth disc, there is a wealth of chestnuts on the other three to complement any of the collections that feature the popular hits. (Another set worth tracking down is Tales from the Brothers Gibb, an excellent 72-track overview spanning their entire career up until 1990, the time of its release. While the box set does omit a couple of key tracks, it more than makes up for it with rarities and b-sides.)