[11 January 2007]
For better or for worse, the Bee Gees are primarily remembered for images of the Brothers Gibb clad in white polyester suits on the cover the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack—not to mention the ubiquitous sounds connected to them. But even as they churned out the intolerable skim-milk funk of “You Should Be Dancing” and “Stayin’ Alive”, even as the noxious disco beat found its way into their recordings and earned them the scorn of self-respecting music fans (and the adoration of millions more), they were still great songwriters. Putting aside what they represented in the late ‘70s, the melodies on songs like “Night Fever” and “How Deep Is Your Love” are undeniably catchy—and it wasn’t the first time the Bee Gees managed that feat. Ten years earlier, as a fledging combo on the rise, they made three album’s worth of masterful pop rock and psych—which are the subject of this expanded box set.
Bee Gees’ 1st actually isn’t their first—but it was their first album released worldwide (they’d already made two in Australia) following their 1967 move back to their native Britain in search of international stardom. They didn’t have to search long, as one of the centerpieces of 1st, “New York Mining Disaster 1941”, became a worldwide smash within three months of their arrival, followed in quick succession by “To Love Somebody” (actually not a UK hit, but huge in the States) and “Holiday”. The singles and rapid rise to fame reflected the quality of the album, a consistently rewarding collection of entirely originals (very unusual for a pop act in those days) with strengths beyond its hits. Generally, most of the album is pop spotlighting the brothers’ vocal harmonies and Bill Shepherd’s orchestrations in the vein of “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “To Love Somebody”, but the other (seemingly forgotten) hit, “Holiday”, shows an adventurous side that would increasingly manifest on subsequent efforts.
The use of Maurice Gibb’s subtle background organ to highlight the melody on “Holiday” is also evident in more playful fashion on “Red Chair, Fade Away”, as well as “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You”, where low-volume Gregorian chants on the bridges trade off with more familiar Bee Gees harmonies on the verses and choruses. Otherwise, and in spite of other highlights like “Cucumber Castle” and “Please Read Me”, Bee Gees’ 1st doesn’t deviate much from the pop formula—which may be its only weakness.
The Bee Gees would address that on the following effort, Horizontal (1968). While the result was a slightly lesser album in terms of material, the ambition made up for it, and there were still a number of great moments. “Massachusetts”, a flowing pop groove with Barry Gibb’s heartfelt lead vocal and still more fine orchestration by Shepherd, scored the band another much-deserved hit, as did “World”, a piano-driven number that rocks a little more than anything on the previous effort. An ode to a fictional race car driver named “Harry Braff” takes the same tack, as do “Lemons Never Forget” (the band’s tribute to Apple Corps.) and “The Earnest of Being George”, which uncharacteristically features a nice solo by guitarist Vince Melouney and a bluesy rhythm by Maurice (bass) and Colin Petersen (drums).
They were still the Bee Gees, however, and Horizontal also had endearing pop in melancholy ballads like “With the Sun in My Eyes” (much in the vein of “Holiday”) and the title track, not to mention the album’s strongest cut, “Birdie Told Me”. Barry’s ode to getting over lost love, “Birdie” features a gorgeous melody bolstered by orchestration, bongos, and a more prominent rhythm section.
On 1st they rolled with the pop hooks, on Horizontal they showed some eclecticism, and on 1968’s Idea, they put it all together for their finest effort yet. With more experience under their belt, the band’s pop and rock sides—mostly segregated on Horizontal—are now blended seamlessly into one on tracks like “Kitty Can”, “Such a Shame” (sung by Melouney and featuring nice harmonica), the Stones-inspired title track, and another smash hit, the urgent pop of “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”. And as far as ballads, Robin Gibb’s “I Started a Joke” (recently covered by the Dirtbombs), “Swan Song”, “When the Swallows Fly” (dig those piano flourishes), and Barry’s breezy “Kilburn Towers” (most underrated Bee Gees song ever?) were as strong as any in the Bee Gees’ catalog.
Each album on this six-CD set is packaged as a double-CD expanded edition, with the first disc containing the mono and stereo versions of each album and the second featuring outtakes, alternates, and non-LP singles. As far as mono vs. stereo goes, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference, as the Bee Gees came of age in the era when the difference in mixes was increasingly irrelevant, though one can hear some differences in (for examples) the mono album version of “Birdie Told Me” (different levels on some instruments) and the mono single version of “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (more prominent bass).
As far as the bonus discs go, the highlights are generally the singles, including “Words”, a hit that inexplicably never made it onto a regular LP, plus B-side oddities like “Barker and the UFO” and “Sir Geoffrey Saved the World”. The alternates really aren’t that much different than the released versions, although fans will savor them, as well as previously unreleased songs like “Gilbert Green” (dating from the time of 1st and very much in that vein), “Deeply Deeply Me” (the Bee Gees at their most psychedelic), three somewhat interesting Yuletide tunes, and two psych-pop themes for movies that never were, “Chocolate Symphony” and the instrumental “Gena’s Theme”, which actually did find its way onto an obscure German compilation.
Copious information on tracks like those can be found in Andrew Sandoval’s liner notes, which generally do a good job of tracing the Bee Gees’ formative years as superstars. If I were to give him one piece of editorial advice, however, it would be simply: paraphrase more. Like many musicians, the Bee Gees are occasionally rambling and inarticulate, making it a chore to wade through some of the lengthier quotes, particularly in consecutive paragraphs. Quips like this one from Barry Gibb on “Kilburn Towers”, for example, add nothing: “I think it was just something that I sort of came up with and that was it.”
Similarly, the box itself is quite a bit to wade through, particularly with all of the repetition in mixes and alternates on the albums (which will soon be released separately). But in the grand scheme of things, such issues are immaterial. The Bee Gees’ first three international albums were long overdue for remastering, and The Studio Albums 1967-1968 got it right in every respect.