TEN ALBUMS THAT CONFIRM THE WORLD-BEATING GENIUS OF THE BEE GEES
For anyone who wasn’t around to witness the Bee Gees’ transition from soft-psych baroque popsmiths to world-beating dispensers of dancefloor manna, the prospect of reconciling these two utterly different groups is a perplexing one. But, of course, in order to weather the pop-cultural hangover heralded by the end of the 60s, the Bee Gees had to change. Like their bluesier contemporaries Fleetwood Mac, it took them half a decade to hit upon a new winning formula. After the nadir of 1973’s A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants — an album their label deemed too poor to release — it was 1975’s Main Course that reminded the Bee Gees what they did best of all. And here also lies the key to reconciling the Gibb brothers’ first fame to their 70s renaissance. They were never innovators. At their most successful, the Bee Gees were master assimilators, sniffing the prevailing pop wind, breaking down its constituent parts and replicating it with melodies and harmonies that often surpassed the best of what their peers had to offer. In 1967, that approach yielded Bee Gees’ 1st. In 1977, it resulted in the scorching FM funk of their Saturday Night Fever hits and, in the process, shifted 28 million copies of the accompanying soundtrack. Then, in 1987, it heralded the third act of their career: the machine-tooled introspection of the E.S.P. album, which featured the chart-topping You Win Again. Drill further into their canon — both on their records and the ones they’ve penned for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and brother Andy — and other recurring themes reveal themselves. As lyricists, the Bee Gees are rarely singled out for credit, but their peculiar, poetic genius for writing about love as though it were an existential affliction connects all three phases of their collective life. The subtext of so many of the Gibbs’ best songs — To Love Somebody; I Can’t See Nobody; How Deep Is Your Love; Woman In Love — seems to be that our time on earth is only slightly less unbearable with love than without.
1. BEE GEES: BEE GEES’ 1st (1967)
If you include the two they made before boarding the boat from Sydney, 1st was actually their third, but what the hey. Listening to the album upon its release, the Disc & Music Echo reviewer expressed concern that, four years hence, “John Lennon is going to leap up, flick flowers and beads at us, and cackle demonically: “Fooled you! It was us all the time!” Yes, a rainbow fug of Fabness hangs over Bee Gees’ 1st — most notably on the pugnacious Merseybeat of In My Own Time — but that’s by no means the only thing going on. Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You suggests several turntable miles accrued in the company of the Moody Blues, while Holiday echoes The Hollies’ attempts to push their mellifluous pop blueprint into more psychedelic waters. All of which comes as a roundabout way of saying that the Bee Gees were merely channelling what was all around them. With the exception of Sgt Pepper, it’s hard to think of an album released in 1967 that boasts such a proliferation of irresistible melodies. New York Mining Disaster 1941, To Love Somebody and I Can’t See Nobody have long since become standards, but for anyone wanting to delve deeper, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be won over by life-affirming period pieces like Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts and Cucumber Castle. On the lysergic Victoriana of Turn Of The Century, Barry and Robin take it in turns to sing about how amazing it would be to build a time machine. Drop the needle on Bee Gees’ 1st and you realise that’s exactly what they did here.
2. BEE GEES: SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN (1979)
As sessions began for the Bee Gees’ first post-Fever opus, four songs in the Billboard top five were Gibb compositions. When it came to songwriting, the brothers’ new-found invincibility created perfect preconditions for their next batch of songs. Working closely co-producer Albhy Galuten and engineer Karl Richardson, Barry Gibb fashioned a luxuriant sonic vessel for ten songs which obsess on the transience of perfect love. Love You Inside Out, Too Much Heaven (the latter featuring Chicago’s moonlighting horns) and the staggering title track typify the mood of anxiety. When stuck for a convincing thunderclap sound on Tragedy, Barry merely made one with his mouth. Truly, they could do anything at this point.
3. BEE GEES: HORIZONTAL (1968)
Having watched London explode into technicolour from the other side of the planet, Horizontal is the record Bee Gees made as they finally found themselves welcomed into the rarefied heights of that world. Barry’s bravura gospel turn on The Change Is Made and maiden chart-topper Massachusetts, ratified their status as songwriting heavyweights. Their tireless creativity at this point is evidenced by the mournful chamber-pop of Daytime Girl and the heart-stopping And The Sun Will Shine, both recorded on the same day (the latter written on the spot). Amazingly, the sessions also yielded Words and Sir Geoffrey Saved The World — but they’d have to wait until the 2007 reissue to be included here.
4. MAIN COURSE (1975)
An embrace of R&B on the Arif Mardin-produced Mr Natural led to an upswing in fortunes — enough for the Gibbs to heed Mardin and Eric Clapton, both of whom advised a move to Miami might further invigorate their fortunes. Main Course is the measure of their wise counsel. If Wind Of Change is the thrilling exposition of the Bee Gees Mk II’s new manifesto, Nights On Broadway and Jive Talkin’ are the vindication of it. After being delivered to radio in a plain white sleeve (to neutralise preconceptions), the latter topped the US charts. Aided by Blue Weaver’s muscular keyboards this was a rock-solid foundation for the group’s late 70s ascent.
5. ROBIN GIBB: SAVED BY THE BELL (2015)
To an extent, the group identity of the Bee Gees served to camouflage the eccentricities of Robin Gibb. However, in his 18 months as an ex-Bee Gee, those eccentricities defined him. In that time, Robin hymned his solitude all the way into the top ten with Saved By The Bell. Proto post-rock liturgies and quasi-ecclesiastical requiems inhabited 1970’s Robin’s Reign LP, while Robin’s fascination with military history — the Great War especially — coloured the mood of its successor Sing Slowly Sisters. Three years after Robin’s death, that mythical lost album emerged on this triple anthology, alongside the other manic labours of his estrangement — among them, his 1969 orchestral fanfare Moon Anthem.
6. BEE GEES: ODESSA (1969)
By 1969, only a gold-embossed, flock-sleeved, four-sided concept album could contain Barry and Robin’s expanding egos — even if, in a 2009 interview, Barry couldn’t quite recall what the concept was. No matter. Glued together with arrangements by the increasingly indispensable Bill Shepherd, maritime epics (Odessa, Never Say Never Again), imaginary national anthems (With All Nations, Seven Seas Symphony), pretty paeans to sad girls (Melody Fair) and one surprisingly effective homage to The Band (Marley Purt Drive) helped bear the weight of Odessa’s ambitions. Crowning moment? That’s probably a tie between Robin’s Lamplight and Barry’s First Of May. When the former was demoted to a b-side in favour of the latter, Robin quit.
7. VARIOUS ARTISTS: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
Had Robert Stigwood not rerouted sessions for the Bee Gees’ 14th album into his film project, the resulting record (which presumably would have featured contemporaneous compositions such as Grease and Shadow Dancing) might have been their best album to date. But hell, even the unfinished Bee Gees album scattered across the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever contains enough genius to justify its place here. How incredible to think that More Than A Woman and How Deep Is Your Love predated the phone call from Stigwood. Then, of course, there’s the imperishable Stayin’ Alive: essentially Aaron Neville’s Hercules turbocharged for the streets of Manhattan, decades of familiarity have done nothing to diminish its brilliance.
8. BEE GEES: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (1972)
Alas, top ten success with Run To Me didn’t carry over to the fortunes of the Bee Gees tenth album. They may have strayed from the pop zeitgeist by this point, but hindsight reveals the group’s most cohesive record of the early 70s. Typical of the form are Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights and Never Been Alone — both quintessentially yearning Robin vocals — and Barry’s dew-dappled devotional address I Can Bring Love. You have to wait to the end though, for the indisputable highlight. The Sweet Song Of Summer is a scorching synergy of synths and quasi-pagan chanting utterly at odds with the image of the cabaret-attired brothers on the sleeve.
9. BEE GEES: LIVING EYES (1981)
The Bee Gees’ first album of the 80s, saw Barry trying to pre-empt the disco backlash by handling less lead vocals, letting loose his falsetto on just two songs, most notably Soldiers, which typifies the mood of an album propelled at greater velocity by the pensive undercurrents of Spirits Having Flown. The intimation of some unspecified denouement wasn’t unfounded. Living Eyes’ dismal US and UK sales heralded a six year wait until the next album, but if people weren’t prepared to embrace the exquisitely textured AOR of the title track and the achingly tender Wildflower, it’s hard to imagine any Bee Gees record that could have averted their commercial freefall at this point.
10. BEE GEES: E.S.P. (1987)
Having resurrected the Bee Gees’ fortunes on Main Course, Arif Mardin pulled off the same trick with their 1987 comeback. The emphatic embracing of programmed beats and crystalline synths might have seemed craven were it not for the fact that the group allowed Mardin to put them through their songwriting paces. Live Or Die (Hold Me Like A Child) and Giving Up The Ghost stood square alongside the finest contemporary R&B emerging from America at the time. The only major misstep here is the self-referencing hip-hop breakdown on This Is Your Life, but the infernally catchy title track and the genius of that rhythm track on You Win Again make ample amends.
ELSEWHERE: Other Bee Gees’ studio albums that warrant further investigation include 1968’s Idea, 1970’s Robin-less Cucumber Castle, 1974’s blue-eyed soul awakening Mr Natural and their 1990s zenith Size Isn’t Everything. There is also no shortage of Bee Gees compilations from which to choose. Released in 1990, The Very Best Of The Bee Gees almost obviated the need to keep 60s anthology Best Of The Bee Gees and 70s collection Greatest (except that the individual collections are prettier packages). Not least for the Gibbs’ first-hand recollections in the accompanying book, 1990s Tales From The Brothers’ Gibb box set is an excellent way to delve further into their vast catalogue. Part-compilation, part-soundtrack, a lesser-known curio in the Bee Gees canon is the album that accompanies Alan Parker’s film Melody (or S.W.A.L.K. as it was known in the UK). A huge success in Japan, it features a transcendently lovely re-recording of 1965’s In The Morning and a string and Richard Hewson’s beautiful orchestral codas to existing Bee Gees songs. Outside of the Bee Gees, Robin’s solo albums tend to hold up better. Further to the main inclusion here, the yearning Europop of 1983’s How Old Are You? warrants further investigation. Barry’s greatest extra-curricular achievements were saved for albums by Dionne Warwick and Barbra Streisand (less so his Kenny Rogers collaboration). It would be remiss also not to mention younger brother Andy, with whom Bee Gees worked on three albums. The cream of these is gathered together on 1991 anthology Andy Gibb. As you would expect from a band as successful as the Bee Gees, there’s also plenty of live footage to get stuck into. The Las Vegas show they played as part of their last major tour is available as a DVD (but can also be found online: https://vimeo.com/95483391). Also worth an hour of any fan’s time is the group’s 1971Melbourne concert — filmed shortly after Robin rejoined, a splendid snapshot of a band recapturing their incredible chemistry before your very eyes. If you don’t have time to plough through the 768 pages of Hector Cook, Andrew Mons and Melinda Bilyeu’s Tales From The Brothers Gibb, you might want to go online and secure a used copy of the authorised 1997 documentary, Keppel Rd — The Life and Music of the Bee Gees or to the only authorised biography The Legend, in which the friend and sometime RSO president David English tells the group’s story in the form of a comic strip wherein every character is drawn as the animal they most resemble: Barry the lion; Maurice the eager beaver and Robin the red setter.