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 are somewhat relics of their time (which was, musically speaking, a time largely defined by the Bee Gees), and have not aged particularly 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 again after their pop supernova imploded. Which is sad, since the bile and often-cruel abuse heaped upon them when disco died was truly unfair and undeserved.
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 huge 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 period pop cheese, and it remains a high-water mark (if not the high-water mark) in the group’s catalog.
It’s a pity that Main Course often gets casually 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, Barry on guitar, and Alan Kendall (guitar), Dennis Bryon (drums) and Blue Weaver (keyboards) serving as one of the truly greatest backing bands of all time. It’s masterful, and it’s also interesting to see that the high-end vocal parts were being handled by Maurice at that juncture, 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.