Sir Geoffrey Saved the World - The Early Bee Gees

by Zarir Sethna

If anyone remembers the Bee Gees these days, it’ll almost certainly be for one thing; ‘Saturday Night Fever’ saved their career but gave them the public image that Kenny Everett parodied at the time with his ‘Bee Gees Kit’ - teeth; tans; medallions; chest wigs; unfeasibly wide flares, all present and correct...

Bee Gees

The Bee Gees were around long before the groin-straining falsettos set in. What’s more, they had a wildly different sound. Their first hit, ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’ showed off a flair for melodramatic, tear-jerking balladry that constantly teeters on the sequinned boundary that separates emotion from high camp. Their albums show an almost casual facility for adopting every fashionable style of the day - Beatlesque pop, soul, touches of pyschedelia, and ever-present weeping strings. ‘Bee Gees First’, released in 1967, is a wonderful period piece, with its groovy Klaus Voorman cover and appropriately Beatles-flavoured pop. There’s even a genuine psychedelic classic in ‘Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You’. Extravagant song titles revealed a penchant for wacky lyrical concepts - ‘Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts’, ‘Red Chair Fadeaway’, ‘Cucumber Castle’... Though a lightweight band compared to the ’67-era Beatles, they were one of many bands of the time who filled a gap left by the move away from ‘Help!’ to ‘Sgt. Pepper’.

Listen to the words!!

The brothers’ next single, ‘To Love Somebody’, and its follow-up ‘Jumbo’, both failed to make the Top 10 (incidentally, to this day ‘Jumbo’ seems to be unavailable anywhere - does anyone know of a re-issue?). They pressed on; ‘Massachusetts’, with Robin Gibb’s quavery vocals and prominent teeth upfront, was a Number One hit early in 1968. Having shown the ability to save their career (not for the first time), they released a second album, ‘Horizontal’. Patchier than the first - MOR balladry is beginning to proliferate - it still has some wonderful songs. The opener, ‘World’ is fab, mellotron-soaked pop-psychedelia and became another hit. The likes of ‘Harry Braff’, ‘Lemons Never Forget’ and ‘The Earnest of Being George’ (love those titles!) are just as good. The title track and ‘With the Sun In My Eyes’ were superior, not too over-played ballads, while ‘The Change Is Made’ revisited the sound of ‘To Love Somebody’.

The brothers had clearly worked out that ballads - the more chest-clutchingly melodramatic the better - would sell. They came up with one so gloopy it could be covered by Boyzone 30 years on - ‘Words’ is too sickly for comfort, but fitted in nicely with the likes of Englebert Humperdinck who were then clogging up the charts. Like many ’60s bands not lucky enough to be the Beatles, they faced the problem of developing while the record company breathed down their necks, demanding instant hits. The Bee Gees followed the easy path, but not without trying at least a bit to be fashionably ‘progressive’.

Their third album, ‘Idea’, like its predecessor, tries to balance every style at once, switching through 57 flavours without quite settling. Despite that, almost all the songs are wonderful, even the weepie hits, ‘I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You’ and ‘I Started A Joke’. The ominous ‘Down To Earth’ and the dreamy ‘Kilburn Towers’ are even better. Other highlights included the aggressive title track, and the simplicity-itself pop tunefulness of ‘Indian Gin and Whisky Dry’.

Bee Gees

By now, the brothers were yer actual pop stars, indulging in such decadent practices as showbiz marriages - Maurice married Lulu in 1969, the poor fool - and dubious facial hair. They were starting to bicker too, with Robin demanding more of the spotlight from dominant elder brother Barry. Their next album, the double-length ‘Odessa’ in 1969, attempts to be a high-concept ‘Pepper’-style work, two years too late. Falling between its progressive ambitions and the band’s pop audience, it leapt into the charts at No.10, only to leap straight out again as bemused fans realised what they were listening too. Actually, it’s a lovely record, despite the seven-minute title track (wonderfully odd though it is) and a couple of tedious, mock-classical instrumentals. ‘Melody Fair’ is sweet-centred pop; ‘Marley Purt Drive’ is mid-paced country-flavoured rock, almost a parody of something by The Band; ‘You’ll Never See My Face Again’ is simply brilliant - one of the best songs they ever wrote; the likes of ‘Edison’ and ‘I Laugh In Your Face’ combine gorgeous tunes with dramatic orchestration and deliciously pretentious lyrics ("You said goodbye/I declared war on Spain...") There’s also a pointed anti-drug song, ‘Whisper Whisper’, snarled with just-about-convincing venom by Barry. The whole thing threatens to fall apart at times, but there are just enough great tunes to save it (just) - it’s one of my favourite albums, perhaps because it just fails to realise its ambitions.

I’m afraid I have to stop there are I haven’t got round to buying the next few albums yet. The story gets more preposterous - Robin leaves for a very short solo ‘career’ and the other two make a daft TV film, ‘Cucumber Castle’. The hits, as they say, ‘dry up’; the next two albums - the ‘Cucumber’ soundtrack and ‘Two Years On’ - are complete flops. Does the music suffer at all? I’ve yet to find out. Knowing the Brothers’ obvious songwriting craft, maybe not. The only problem is the air of naffness that all of their records have. Though they were great at times, hip they definitely weren’t. They were hacks who tried to clamber aboard any commercial bandwagon, however rickety. Despite that, they produced great records; go figure.


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