Thursday, May 24, 2012

I Love This Freakin' Band - The Bee Gees (first three albums)

I have been meaning to write this article for some time, but with the recent passing of Robin Gibb, I am reminded again that one's plans are too often like life. Nothing is permanent, only one's momentary perception of it. That being said, while many news outlets have wanted to hold up the band's Saturday Night Fever era is the definitive Bee Gees period, I again feel the need to speak up for the band, and my favorite era of the Brothers Gibb.

If you had written it as a movie script, no one would believe it was plausible. A group of three brothers, born in England but raised in Australia, become singing stars at an early age. Starting off with singing standards from their father's era, they soon become enamored with the sound of the Beatles, and the new rock sounds coming from England, and America. At the dawn of 1967, the brothers, now in their late teens, suddenly move to London as the city is really starting to swing. Within a matter of months, they get signed to a manager with Beatles connections, and write and record their first album, which promptly makes the brothers stars on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet that's exactly what happened.

Despite writing and recording many singles in Australia, the music on 1st (released in that glorious summer of 1967) was entirely written and recorded once the Bee Gees arrived in England. And those songs- "New York Mining Disaster 1941," "In My Own Time," "To Love Somebody," among others- all now considered modern classics. Not bad for three kids (Barry Gibb, age 19, and Robin and Maurice Gibb, age 17) on their first try in the big leagues.

The influences on 1st, as well as their following two albums (Horizontal, released in early 1968, and Idea, released in 1969) seem to be coming from all over the place. Beatlesque pop-rock, baroque and chamber music, orchestral string arrangements, all done with brotherly three-part harmonies. One wants to imagine a beautiful mansion (photographed in hazy technicolor) with the Bee Gees, Zombies, Left Banke, Association, Cryan Shames and Curt Boettcher all walk around in fantastically frilly outfits, drink wine, and ponder the state of the world. And girls. All while singing in multi-part harmony.

The point I should also make is that the Bee Gees were a five-piece band. Guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen, two fellow Australian ex-pats, helped to make the group the live band that makes these records what they are. Listen to the tight groove of "The Ernest Of Being George," on Horizontal, or Idea's title track, and you hear how musically tight this group was. Special mention should also go to Maurice Gibb, who not only was the balancing force between his brothers, but whose work on piano and organ, as well as bass guitar, just leaps off these albums. The compressed piano sound on "Words," when played at full volume, can still just make you stop to listen.

While 1st has some of the band's best-known songs, I'm partial to Horizontal. Something about the combination of those songs, and the sound of a band really finding their place in the studio, gives Horizontal a remarkable cohesion. Idea comes in as a close third, but when its tracklist includes "Gotta Get A Message To You," "I Started A Joke," "Idea" and "Swan Song," it was still head and shoulders over what else was coming out in 1969.

I know a number of people that feel that the band's fourth album, Odessa (released in late 1969) is their favorite Bee Gees album. And yes, it is a good record, as are their following albums (Two Years On, and Trafalgar). But for me, a sea change had taken place. Gone were the pocket symphonies, in were the grandiose concepts, with moody orchestral-pop sprawling all over the place. For a variety of reasons, the band had moved on, and moved away from the almost innocent beauty of their early albums. Not everyone shares that opinion, but that's just mine.

Sooner or later, all of the present tense of the world passes, and you're left with the work that someone has created. All differently-shaped mirrors of the time in which that work was forged. For me, I still listen to those early Bee Gees albums, and marvel in the possibilities of that moment, and the powerful combination of talent, and belief. I still believe in that, today.

-Daniel Coston
May 24, 2012

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