Vince Melouney: Gotta Get A Message To You
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
Originally published in the Big Takeover Magazine, summer 2013 issue
For many Bee Gees fans, the question is not so much whether you’re a fan, but what period of the band do you prefer. Their late 1970s disco mega-stardom, or their moody orchestral pop of the early 1970s? Or their continued chart-toppers in the 1980s and 90s? Yet none of these eras in the band are why I’m writing this article.
For me, the Brothers did much of their best work in their first three internationally-released albums, all released between August of 1967, and August of 1968. These albums, 1st, Horizonal, and Idea, are remarkable albums of catchy and atmospheric rock, and orchestral pop that yielded song, after great song. “Massachusetts”, “Gotta Get A Message To You”, “New York Mining Disaster 1941”. The music and the arrangements are so assured, that you forget that all three Gibb brothers were just emerging from their teens when they were made. When Andrew Sandoval and Rhino Records re-issued their albums in 2010, I was reminded again of how good these songs were, and how much I like this era of the band.
Another part of this is the musicians that helped to strengthen the Bee Gee’s original five-piece lineup. Drummer Colin Petersen was adept at playing any of the band’s stylistic changes, and guitarist Vince Melouney helped to make the group the Rock and Roll band that the Gibb brothers had dreamed of being.
Melouney was with the band from when the Gibb Brothers first arrived in England, through the excitement of their worldwide rise to fame. When Melouney left the band in late 1968, it marked a sea change in the group’s history. The band’s fourth album, Odessa, feels very different without Melouney’s influence. Following Odessa’s release, the band tumbled towards their original implosion, and eventual re-birth in the 1970s.
These days, Melouney is active again, touring as a solo act in his native Australia. He is also working towards a new album, with songs that will be familiar to many. My thanks to Vince for answering my questions via email.
Daniel Coston: What made you want to play guitar, growing up in Australia?
Vince Melouney: I didn’t have any intention or desire to play the guitar until one day there was a knock at our front door. I was in the kitchen with my Mum, she was baking cakes, and it was a guy saying that he had a music school opening in my town, and would Mum have a son or daughter that may wish to learn the guitar, the Hawaiian guitar. Mum asked me was I interested, it sounded so romantic, I said yes and went there for weeks, but found it boring, so didn’t learn very much at all. I by this time was right into Elvis and the guitar that was given to all of the pupils at the end of the course, I changed from a Hawaiian guitar to one I could strap over my shoulder and think I was Elvis, things music changed after that, I would come home from school and practice till Mum and Dad had to drag me to dinner, I was back practising right after dinner till they told me it was time to go to bed.
Coston: Talk about Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, and what brought you to England.
Melouney: I met Billy Thorpe at a major venue in Sydney, called Surf City, where I had got my band, Johnny Noble & The Aztecs, some regular work, the owner of the venue John Harrigan introduced him to me. Billy sang a couple of songs with us at rehearsals and joined the group not long after that as Johnny Noble was leaving. We went on to have two number one hits and three top ten songs in the charts. I left Billy and The Aztecs in 1965, and eventually in 1966 was so inspired by the music coming out of The UK that I decided I had to go there.
Coston: How did you meet up with the Bee Gees? Had you all played together, and hung out together in Australia?
Melouney: I knew The Bee Gees in Australia, we had met at TV shows and gigs and I became friendly with them. I did some recording with them just before I left for The UK. They said they were going to The UK not long after me and maybe we would meet up again there. The rest is history.
Coston: Was the band already rehearsing and recording, when you joined?
Melouney: No, they hadn’t started recording. They auditioned for Robert Stigwood, who had already knew they were coming, as The Bee Gees Father, Hughie, had been in contact with Stigwood, sent him recordings etc from Australia. Colin Petersen had joined not long before me. I heard they were in The UK through my friends in The Easybeats, a group from Australia who had a hit in Britain with a song called “Friday on my Mind”.
Coston: What are your memories of recording that first album?
Melouney: It was exciting. To be in a studio in London, actually, just to be in London was exciting. It was IBC Studios, in the centre of London; all of us were together for the first time (that is the five of us, I hadn’t met Colin before, although he was a friend of The Bee Gees in Australia). I can’t remember the first song we put down, but that first night, we recorded “New York Mining Disaster 1941”. The album that followed was a really wonderful experience. Song after song was inspirational. We all got along, we all worked together, it was fun, though we were deadly serious about what we were doing.
Coston: Did you know early on that string sections and horns would be featured on their songs? How did you feel about that?
Melouney: Yes I did, Bill Shepherd was our arranger and if you listen to the first album, you will notice the string arrangements are quite sparse in most of the songs where they are playing, so it didn’t interfere with my guitar at all, I really enjoyed Bill’s arrangements. The next two albums featured a lot more guitar.
Coston: What were some of the Bee Gee's early live gigs like?
Melouney: Can’t really remember most of them, but we did some small venues around England, supported some acts, I think one was The Rod Stewart Group. We played the Saville Theatre in London, supporting Fats Domino, it was not a good move. All the Rockers had come to see Fats, not listen to young kids with high voices, sing about love, no no no.
Coston: How fast did stardom seem to hit?
Melouney: It came upon us too fast, before we knew it, we were flying first class, doing the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in New York, staying in VERY expensive, flash hotels. Coming from Australia only a few months earlier, which at that time, was at the end of the earth, we were like kids in a lolly shop.
Coston: At one point, it looked you and Colin were going to have to go back to Australia, and a couple of fans chained themselves to Buckingham Palace in protest. What was that like, and whatever became of those girls?
Melouney: I just recently heard from one of those girls. She sent me some pics of her chained to Buckingham Palace, don’t know where they are now, must find them. It was a difficult time, just when we had made the grade, they, the home office wanted to kick us out. But with perseverance by Robert Stigwood and our fans, they reluctantly gave us a stay of execution and let us stay in the country.
Coston: How did you and the band work up songs?
Melouney: Like most groups I think, Barry, Robin and Maurice would sing the song and we would try different ideas till we were all happy with it. We did do quite a few versions of some of the songs, which can be found on the 6 CD collection, which came out about 5 years ago.
Coston: Talk about coming up with your guitar parts. I know that on “World,” and other songs, you came up with your guitar parts.
Melouney: I came up with most of my parts, but did listen to what everyone had to say and made changes where I felt necessary and that made sense.
Coston: What are your recollections of recording Horizontal? It sounds like a remarkably assured band, despite everyone's age, and busy schedule.
Melouney: I think we had settled in by then, felt confident of what we were doing, had a few hits under our belt and yes fitting in recording when we were so busy, flying here there and everywhere, to do gigs, TV shows, personnel appearances, interviews. I get tired now just thinking about it.
Coston: What did the band sound like in a live setting? Was it a challenge to perform some of the songs that had been so strings-oriented on the recordings?
Melouney: Except for right at the beginning, we never performed without an orchestra.
Coston: Has any live recordings of you and the Bee Gees turned up? I keep hoping for a great lost live set.
Melouney: Not that I know of. There are some recordings to be found on Youtube, I think from a tour of Germany.
Coston: What are your recollections now of recording Idea?
Melouney: Again, it was such a long time ago, I just cannot remember. We were always in the studio, recording something. Sorry, can’t help you there.
Coston: You wrote “Such A Shame”, a great song. Talk about the song. I know
that you've expressed regret that you didn't let Barry sing the part that you took.
Melouney: Yes, Barry really liked the song and wanted to sing it, and I do wish I had of said yes. Obviously the band was starting to implode on itself at that time, as the lyrics to that song imply. Robert Stigwood was starting to get more involved in the musical side of the band, of which he really knew nothing about except that he had a great ear for picking a hit.
Coston: What guitars did you play, back then and now? On the Idea TV special, you’re playing an Epiphone.
Melouney: Back in the BG days, I had many different guitars, although I did mostly play a Gibson Les Paul. I think the Epiphone in the pic was Barry's guitar. I can't remember all the different amps we used. Vox was one of them. I now play a Gibson Les Paul through a JCM 900 combo, love the sound. They just go together.
Coston: Listening to these records, I'm also amazed at young everyone was.
Was youth also a factor in the band splitting up?
Melouney: Probably. Coming from Australia, which at that time could have been on another planet, it was a very young, naive place to be coming from. London was where it was all happening and we were like the straight couple in ‘The Rocky Horror Show’.
Coston: What finally caused you to leave?
Melouney: There was conflict within the band, due to outside influences. Robert Stigwood wanted more and more strings, I really no longer had much to do. We had a winning combination and could have gone on to make many great albums. But no, the end was nigh, so time to go.
Coston: I've read that you played on some of the tracks for Odessa. Is that true, and what tracks were those?
Melouney: Yes, I was on three tracks, “Marley Purt Drive”, “Whisper Whisper” and one more that I can’t remember.
Coston: You got involved with a couple of bands after the Bee Gees. Talk about those.
Coston: The first group was Ashton Gardner and Dyke, a very professional group of great players, and with Tony Ashton’s voice and song writing they were a burst of reality after the Bee Gees. The next group was Fanny Adams, of which we were all Australians. The singer, Doug Parkinson, who had and still has the most fantastic voice and his drummer ‘Johnny Dick’, a great drummer who played with Billy Thorpe in Australia after I left the group. We recorded one album, the group came back to Australia to tour, but everything went wrong and the group disbanded.
Coston: Did you stay in touch with the band over the years? How did the 1999 reunion come about?
Melouney: I saw Barry and Maurice quite a bit after I left the group. But when I returned to Australia, of course I only saw them when they came here. I kept in contact with Dick Ashby, my old friend from when I was in the group. Dick was the roadie way back in the beginning and he stayed on with the Gibbs as personal manager. A lovely man, and he was the one that told me they were coming to Australia and that they would like to ask me to join them on stage at Stadium Australia for three songs. I of course was really chuffed to be asked, and the concert was AWESOME.
Coston: Talk a little bit about everyone in the band, in particular, Robin and Maurice.
Melouney: Maurice was a good mate of mine, and we used to get along very well. Maurice, being the musician out of the three brothers and a guitar player, we had a lot in common. I didn’t see a lot of Robin outside the studio or on the road, he was a very private person and I respected his privacy.
Coston: What are you working on these days? I've read that you also released a solo album in the last several years.
Melouney: I am very close to finishing an album of Bee Gee songs that I do in my show. They all have my own arrangement, I have done them all in my own way. I play my show all over the country and am heading off to LA in March to catch up with an old friend, Saul Davis, who is a record producer together with his wife, Carla Olsen, and do some recording there. Then I am off to The UK to play my show there. I am contacting agents there at the moment. I want to play Europe again. How long I will be there, I do not know.
Coston: Anything that you'd like to say to our readers, or anything that I missed.
Melouney: Thanks for reading my ramblings and if you see me advertised playing in your area, please come along. Also, keep an eye out for my new album, soon to be released on iTunes.