The Bee Gees: Number Ones

The Bee Gees
Number Ones

Unfairly dismissed at first as second-rate Beatles rip-offs in the ’60s and then reviled in the ’70s as the falsetto-voiced disco hit machines who killed rock and roll, the Bee Gees have never really earned the widespread respect they deserve for making flawless pop records with massive transgenerational appeal. As sublimely uncool as ABBA or the Osmonds, the Bee Gees eschew image in favor of indelible, timeless hooks made simply to be enjoyed. You can’t listen to the Bee Gees to impress anyone else or build a tougher or sexier image for yourself. While the current pop music routinely segments the audience, breaking it into genre niches and setting up artificial crossover gimmicks to captivate a jaded audience, the Bee Gees hearken to a time when the entertainment industry still had faith in music’s potentially universal appeal. The belief always radiating from the Bee Gees — that people have more in common than they have invested in making themselves feel important — makes one feel almost hopeful in a hopelessly divided world.

The three Gibb brothers’ effortless melodies and flawless harmonies unify their two distinct periods of fame: first, they were melancholy balladeers, charting with wallowing, funereal classics like “I Started a Joke” and “Holiday”; then, like a leisure-suited phoenix they arose from the ashes for one of the most flabbergasting reinventions in pop history, proving themselves standard bearers for the mainstream-friendly lite funk that dominated the radio in the late ’70s and defined the disco era. At that point, the Bee Gees were ubiquitous, and everything they wrote seemed to turn gold, making unlikely stars of semi-talents like Yvonne Elliman (“If I Can’t Have You”), Samantha Sang (“Emotion”), and ill-fated younger brother Andy (“I Just Want to Be Your Everything”). The sheer vastness of their fame made it inevitable that public opinion would turn against them, but their brilliance also assured they wouldn’t be permanently forgotten. Like Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees’ earnest, relentless eagerness to please — often manifesting itself in schmaltz — cost them much of the aesthetic credibility they’ve surely earned, while ensuring their music will continue to be heard in dentists’ offices and grocery stores and oldies stations for as long as such edifices endure.

Maurice Gibb’s recent death likely marks the unfortunate end of the Bee Gees’ long, productive recording career, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop releasing records. This compilation is the usual holiday-season exploitation bid, recycling the same hits gathered on previous greatest-hits collections and presenting them in a newfangled package to offer gift-givers a fresh option. The premise here, borrowed from the recent Beatles hits package, One, is to present, as the liner notes explain, “the best-loved number one singles, plus classic songs taken from number one albums.” (Also, Maurice’s “Man in the the Middle” is appended as a tribute.) Never mind that fans don’t care what songs went number one and which ones didn’t. The misleading rubric leads to a largely arbitrary song selection (for instance, why the turgid “Don’t Forget to Remember”?), weighting the overfamiliar second half of their career slightly. And it produces a track list that in no way distinguishes it from previous collections. Their Greatest Hits — The Record remains a more thorough and worthy set, including songs crucial to their legacy (“To Love Somebody”, “New York Mining Disaster 1941”, “Nights on Broadway”) and the minor hits from their ’90s post-disco phase.

Typically with exploitative collections like these there’s bonus material that forces completists to pony up. In this case, it’s a DVD that comes with the special editions, an excerpt from one of the band’s recent concerts, performing five of the songs on the CD: “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Jive Talkin'”, “Massachusetts”, and “I Started a Joke”. Old and largely static, the group makes for dull watching (unless you thrill to see Barry Gibb make one of his silly feral expressions or you want to marvel at Robin’s hairpiece), but their voices still sound fine. And seeing Maurice at what must have been one of his last performances is undeniably poignant, a fitting tribute that takes the edge off the cynicism of this otherwise unnecessary collection considerably.