I Like the Bee Gees

May 20, 2012 Update: Very sorry to hear of Robin’s passing today. Off to listen to “I Started A Joke” now. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I like the Bee Gees. A lot. And because of my affection for the group’s music, I was saddened to hear of Robin Gibb’s failing medical condition this week, just as his Titanic Requiem was being unveiled. Robin’s chin-quivering vibrato, earnest delivery, over-the-top lyrical and songwriting style, and charming penchant of singing with a finger stuck in one ear made him a truly delightful and unique stage presence. Check out this sublime live version of “I Started A Joke” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. He was a singer’s singer in his heyday, and an electrifying performer, in his own eccentric way.

I will admit that I rarely listen to the Bee Gees’ disco-era blockbuster albums Spirits Having Flown, Children of the World or Saturday Night Fever, since those discs really are relics of their time, and have not aged well. I’ll dance to them if I’m out a club and enjoy their songs in that context, but that’s about it. And after the hysteria that accompanied those albums, it seemed that the ensuing flame-out that accompanied the Bee Gees’ ill-conceived Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film permanently knocked Robin, Maurice and Barry off their stride, and I don’t think they ever made a truly, consistently great record after their pop supernova imploded. Which is sad, since the bile and abuse heaped upon them when disco died was truly unfair and undeserved.

My favorite Bee Gees album.

All that being said, the 13 studio albums that the Brothers Gibb issued before their disco trilogy still make for very enjoyable, very rewarding, and very high-quality listening, for the most part, and they play often in our household, since all three of us enjoy them. The Bee Gees were once performing prodigies with great taste, covering the Beatles on television before Beatlemania had really reached their own antipodean corner of the planet. If you haven’t seen them singing “Please, Please Me” in 1963, then you need to. The 1976 Bee Gees Gold compilation album provides a good summary of most of their hits (in America, or elsewhere) between their precocious Australian era and the disco trilogy, but it doesn’t do justice to the depth of their distinctive catalog through those years. All their albums from that period deserve a hearing, even 1970’s Cucumber Castle, recorded without Robin when he briefly quit the group for a solo career.

The Bee Gees albums I listen to the most these days are To Whom It May Concern (1972) and Main Course (1975). The first is something of an obscurity in the U.S. at this point, since it only spawned one semi-hit (“Run to Me”), but it really is an important disc in their canon, as it marks the last record they made with Bill Shepherd, their producer since 1967, and has often been cited by the Brothers Gibb and critics alike as a farewell to the old Bee Gees sound. It offers an incredibly wide range of song styles and moods, and the material is exceptionally strong and well performed. Closing track “Sweet Song of Summer” is one of the weirdest things in their catalog, a nearly tribal/ambient chant with a fabulous Moog solo by Maurice. Highly recommended.

Main Course was the last album before the Bee Gees’ disco trilogy, and it features three hit songs (“Jive Talkin’.” “Fanny Be Tender With My Love” and “Nights on Broadway”) that casual after-the-fact listeners might assume came from the Saturday Night Fever era. But this disc managed to integrate the Bee Gees’ earlier vocal and songwriting styles into a sleek American R&B format without crossing the line into precious disco period cheese, and it remains a high-water mark in the group’s catalog. It’s a pity that this album often gets tarred with the same brush that so easily paints the records that followed it. Check out this live clip of “Nights on Broadway” to see what a great band these guys were at that point in their career, with Maurice on bass and Barry on guitar. It’s masterful, truly, and it’s interesting to see that the high-end vocal parts were being handled by Maurice, just before Barry’s falsetto became the quintessential hallmark of the disco-era Bee Gees sound. I also think that this song should be taught in music theory classes, as the prolonged “I will wait, even if it takes forever/a lifetime” bridge is such a dynamite tension-builder, a perfectly counter-intuitive example of exactly how to kick a song into a higher gear by slowing it down for a spell. Brilliant!

So I’m going to queue those two albums up on the iPod tonight, as wild plains weather roars outside here in Iowa, and think good and kind thoughts about Robin Gibb. I wish him a full recovery, but if that is not to be, then I also hope that when his time comes, he flies away peacefully and painlessly in the presence of his loved ones. He made a lot of people happy in his lifetime, me among them, and I’m not really sure that there’s any better legacy for a man to leave behind than that.

12 thoughts on “I Like the Bee Gees

  1. Something I’ve deeply regretted has been never been able to seeing the Bee Gees in concert. I’ve consistently appreciated their music as a little kid growing up. I wish him and his family well through this ordeal.

  2. I was a college freshman during the heyday of disco. We may have claimed “disco sucks” compared to what we considered to be cooler music, but we danced to it plenty. My roommate was a Bee Gees enthusiast — every night she set up her turntable to play whatever album (or in some cases, single song) to play over and over again as she fell asleep.

    • I lived on Long Island during the Bee Gees’ commercial disco heyday, and saw both “Saturday Night Fever” and “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at the base theater right across the street from my house. (Kirsten, who used to write for Indie Albany, likely saw those movies at the same time and place that I did. We might even have sat together.) Those songs were definitely the most played cuts at various events at the base Teen Center during those years . . . and I know I enjoyed them more than I did the obligatory Billy Joel cuts of the era, which the natives demanded, since he was the King of Long Island at the time . . .

  3. I confess, although not a Long Islander, I loved Billy Joel then (and still do now). But by “cooler” I meant Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who et al

  4. I tend to agree . . . I really liked and still like their early stuff. Much of it’s just amazing. Is there a better song than “To Love Somebody”? (There’s an insanely over-the-top Eric Burdon version that I’m a fan of, too.) In the days when I was working in a grocery store, 1977-78, subjected to the worst lite-music station ever for hours at a time, my only defense was to play, in my head, BeeGees Gold, every song, note for note. As long as I had that in my head, I could keep Anne Murray and Olivia Newton-John from making me insane.

    What was their album with the red velvet cover, “Odessa”? But even though I heard it a million times and probably owned it, I would NEVER have remembered “Fanny” if you hadn’t mentioned it. That’s a real blast from the past.

    • Yeah, “Odessa” had an incredible velvet sleeve . . . and is a weird masterpiece. It was their last album with original guitarist Vince Melouney, and arguments about the lead single directly led to Robin leaving the group. If memory serves, it’s one of the only pre-1975 albums that doesn’t have any songs represented on “Bee Gees Gold” . . . (unless “Melody Fair” is there, but I think it only appears on one of the earlier “Best of the Bee Gees” comps). “Fanny” from the later Main Course disc is an absolutely incredible song . . . another masterpiece of songwriting, arrangement, and performance . . . so glad to have stirred that blast from the past!!!

  5. Yes, nothing from “Odessa” was on “Gold”. “Gold” was actually a brilliant greatest hits done the way they should always be — it presented the early works of a band that was suddenly very prominent. Came out in 1976, but only covered releases through 1972, so all their mid-70s hits before SNF weren’t even on it. It was an entirely different sound, more like the Hollies to me than anything else, with this interesting dark tinge. No question that after the disco backlash, telling people you loved the BeeGees was akin to telling them you had infectious leprosy. There was a time (we call it college) when I rejected pretty much all the music that I had listened to in high school, and still kept my BeeGees records. (John Denver and Billy Joel, not so much.)

    • When you mention a darker tinged version of the Hollies, “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You” pops immediately to mind . . . Gregorian chant, mellotrons, and the Brothers Gibb. Huttah!

  6. The Walking Dead episode “Forget” aired on March 8th, and I was reminded of this post and the responses. “Spicks and Specks” (’66) played at the end of the episode, and I don’t remember hearing any Bee Gees tune from the 60s playing on television or in movies, ever. Their hits from the 70s won’t go away (and “You Should Be Dancing” should never be forgotten), but I was pleasantly surprised to hear one of their earliest recordings used on a very popular program.

    • I listen to their old stuff on a steady, regular basis these days . . . pretty much up through the “Main Course” album (1975), which was (for me) the point where they actually managed to balance their love for American R&B with the great songwriting and harmonizing of their early years. I’m glad, too, to learn that a new generation might get to appreciate them through TV soundtracks, since I suspect there’s a whole generation or two who assume that they were essentially one hit (album) wonders with “Saturday Night Fever”! I was recently thinking about “Greatest Greatest Hit” albums over on Twitter, and I think “Bee Gees Gold” (which, interestingly, has never been released on CD) is one of the classics . . . not a miss in the bunch.

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