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The Bee Gees – Bee Gees 1st – Classic Music Review

Okay, this isn’t the review I had planned for this week, but it’s fucking hot here.

Compared to other parts of Europe, I guess you could say it’s not too bad in Nice. We’re only brushing up against the 90’s (32C) while a good chunk of the continent is on broil in the 110 range (43C). But I grew up in San Francisco, where summers were marked by cold fogs and frozen nipples that got so hard they’d pierce an exercise bra. Anything above 75 degrees makes leather stick to my skin, interfering with my enjoyment of erotic experiences. When I have to temper my libido, I get very, very grumpy. Adding to my irritation, the place is crawling with tourists who don’t shower every day and air conditioning remains relatively rare in La Belle France.

The last thing I need right now is anything that will raise my temperature or excite my libido. PJ Harvey, the Africans and the French chanteuses will have to wait until next week when I start my vacation in the cooler climes of the Southern Hemisphere. I’m doing this review because I scanned my to-do list for the most sexless album and Bee Gees First won in a landslide.

Years before they became disco darlings, The Bee Gees were Beatles imitators who recorded songs in a genre known as “baroque pop” or “baroque rock” that mingled classical instrumentation and Bach-like formality into rock music. The prevailing belief is that the genre began when George Martin came up with the idea to play the piano break to “In My Life” at half-speed, then play it back at regular speed to mimic the sound of a harpsichord (why The Beatles couldn’t afford a real harpsichord is beyond me). The sound sent everyone from The Kinks to Spanky and Our Gang to the local harpsichord shop to cash in on the latest trend. Musicologists were inspired to trace the origins of the new genre, and Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and the Rolling Stones (“Play with Fire” predated “In My Life” by several months and The Stones used a real harpsichord) all made the potential progenitor list.

While John Lennon and George Martin may not have been the originators of baroque pop, the truth is that during this period in history, if The Beatles did it, everyone had to do it. The Left Banke, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Mamas & The Papas—everywhere you turned, someone was throwing strings, harpsichords and oboes into traditional rock structures. The Bee Gees were a bit late to the game, releasing Bee Gees 1st six weeks after Sgt. Pepper. The genre reached its peak less than a year later when The Zombies released the crown jewel of baroque rock in Odessey and Oracle. Soon after, the classical-rock merger concept was swallowed whole by progressive rock, and baroque pop’s life span was officially restricted to the mid to late 1960s.

The reason The Bee Gees were late is that they’d been trying to make it in Australia with little success and decided to head back home to England. On the way they learned that their single “Spicks and Specks” had won a best-single-of-the-year award in an Australian music mag, but wisely decided not to turn the boat around because at that time the ANZAC countries were a musical backwater, and would remain so until the mid-to-late ’70s. The Gibb brothers and the two blokes they brought along to fill out the band wanted to try their hand at the international pop music market, and in the 60’s, the hub of that market was Jolly Olde England.

As has happened with The Monkees, Baby Boomer critics have elevated early Bee Gees work to heights far beyond its quality and significance as they continue to dismiss music that did not originate in their fondly remembered teenage mating period. The experience of Bee Gees 1st is generally pleasant, but you will find little meaning or depth under the nice melodies and the occasionally over-the-top production. The echoes of Rubber Soul-Revolver Beatles are too obvious, denying the band any claim to originality. There isn’t a single song on Bee Gees 1st that makes you say, “Only The Bee Gees could have done that.” The Beatles could have done any of them (though they would have probably donated most of the songs to lesser artists as they did with so many early Lennon-McCartney works), as could The Hollies, The Idle Race, The Zombies, etc . . . The Bee Gees were a derivative, second-tier band who released a largely inoffensive album but did little to establish themselves as “new and different.” Robert Stigwood, who had just taken over the day-to-day operations at Brian Epstein’s NEMS, signed The Bee Gees to a five-year deal and firmly attached the band to The Beatles’ coattails, going so far as to have Klaus Voorman of Revolver fame design the album cover.

Don’t get me wrong: The Bee Gees did have talent, particularly vocal talent, and Barry and Robin Gibb showed definite promise as pop songwriters when they put their minds to it. The album is full of catchy melodies and well-executed harmonies. There are indeed some real gems on Bee Gees 1st, and as a debut album, it’s better than most—but it’s a long way from the five-star album that some would like you to believe it is.

The superficiality of the lyrics is one noticeable weakness, as amply demonstrated in the opening track, “Turn of the Century.” The Bee Gees unequivocally announce their commitment to baroque pop with an opening passage featuring oboe, harpsichord, strings and timpani. Once the gazebo-like horns enter, the sound is perfectly quaint, an idealized aural picture of life in the British Empire just before Victoria croaked off. “Everything’s happening at the turn of the century,” claims Barry in the opening line. Wow! Sounds exciting! Let’s check that out! Here’s the official Gibb guide to action in the late-Victorian action:

  • The town crier makes his cry
  • Women wear wide hats
  • Men wear spats
  • Horseless carriages exist

Hmm. Seems to fall a little bit short of “everything.” Allegedly, “there are lots of things to do on a bicycle built for two” but Barry and Robin refuse to give any details. I always thought the Victorians were crushing bores but I didn’t know it was that bad. I suppose delving into the long-term environmental impact of horseless carriages or making the obvious connection between Vietnam and the Second Boer War would have been too controversial and far outside the boundaries of the marketing plan. As it is, we’re left with a blurred, sketchy image of life in turn-of-the-century England, a faded kinescope of overdressed white people living in a protective bubble afforded by colonization. “Turn of the Century” is pleasant, inoffensive, devoid of vivid imagery and highly unlikely to inspire anyone to buy themselves a time machine and make the trip.

The words to “Holiday” don’t make much more sense but the notion that spending time with your honey is a welcome, soul-recharging break from the world’s absurdities is quite perceptive. There are times that work gets so insanely busy and the strain of dealing with empty suits and organizational politics gets so toxic that the drive to seek refuge in my lover’s arms overwhelms every other consideration, and the moment we make contact is both cleansing and re-energizing. The gentle music in “Holiday” reflects that sweet moment of reconnection, and though the mellotron can sound horribly fake at times, the tone Maurice Gibb achieves here is gorgeous. The mingling of mellotron and pizzicato strings creates a magical soundscape, and Robin and Barry do a fine job of staying with the slow cadence of the melody, in keeping with the tender and reflective mood of the song.

“Red Chair, Fade Away” is loaded with mid-period Beatle-isms—the mellotron tone from “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the horn splashes from “Penny Lane,” the fade full of vocal and instrumental fragments. Supporting the song’s theme of searching for pleasant memories in one’s youth, the verses are performed in waltz time, shifting to 4/4 in the lines that express some kind of irritating interruption to the flow of memories (“I don’t want to know/It’s filling up the air).” Since the recitation of the childhood past comes with no background information and only a few concrete images (Grandpa’s red chair and a lemon tree), we have no idea what the narrator is hoping to find in yesteryear, making it impossible to empathize with him. The line “We’re all going higher” feels like a throw-in designed to make the Bee Gees more palatable to that part of the listening audience who sought higher consciousness through Eastern religion or mind-expanding drugs. The lyrical distractions are quite annoying here, as I rather like the movement of the melody.

“One Minute Woman” is guilty of deceptive advertising due to the unforgivable omission of the comma. A “one-minute woman” seems to connote a woman who poops out sometime during foreplay or a broad who could be ready for a roll in the hay in sixty seconds. It’s hard to imagine a man with Barry Gibb’s looks going down on his knees for a party pooper, but it’s even more absurd to see him on his knees begging a groupie to hurry up and get to the poontang. The confusion vanishes when you hear Barry’s phrasing, clearly indicating an effort to engage the woman in conversation, as in “One minute, woman.” The comma clears up that aspect of the song, but then you have to ask, “If Barry’s so enamored with this chick, why doesn’t he use her name?” Only self-centered assholes would depersonalize someone of the superior gender, as in “That’s enough, woman!” or “Gimme a beer, woman!” I can’t think of a single instance when a pop songwriter used the dehumanizing label “woman” to express love and affection . . . hey, wait a minute! Yes, there was! Bernard Webb! Bernard Webb a.k.a. Paul McCartney! “Woman,” by Peter & Gordon! Now the song makes perfect sense . . . and it still sucks. No matter, Barry will get another chance to express the anguish of lost love and fully redeem himself for poor punctuation and his rather maudlin performance here.

Okay, now it’s time to guess which Beatle song “In My Own Time” most resembles. Bruce Eder of AllMusic picks “Taxman” and “Dr. Robert.” Bill Sherman of Blogcritics goes with “Taxman” and urges listeners to “check out that Taxman-driven guitar.” OH FOR FUCKS SAKE! Check out that shittily-played tonal horror of a guitar solo? How DARE you compare that limp, pathetic performance to Paul McCartney’s greatest moment as a lead guitar session musician! The guitar solo described by musicologist Alan Pollock as “fast triplets, exotic modal touches, and a melodic shape which traverses several octaves and ends with a breathtaking upward flourish?” Are you fucking kidding me? And Bruce, fix your ears: the rhythm bears no resemblance to the sophisticated rhythms employed in “Dr. Robert,” and Lennon sings most of that song solo. No, “In My Own Time” is a faster version of “Tell Me What You See” without the upstroke strum, enhanced with McCartney-style bass runs, three-part harmonies and a harmonic rise at the end lifted straight from “I Want to Tell You.” It feels more like a Beatles song that was manufactured in China, with perfectly meaningless lyrics to boot.

We could play the same game with “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You,” but we’ll just point out that the drum pattern is mid-period Ringo, the vocal pace is John Lennon on “I’m Only Sleeping” and the Gregorian chants aren’t Gregorian chants at all but the meaningless phrase “o solo dominique.” There is no narrative and no clue as to exactly what the lion-hearted Christian men are supposed to show you. The song falls easy on the ears, so it has some virtue, but at this point, I’m getting irritated by the boys playing pretend Beatles. I want something new and different!

That something comes in the form of “Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts,” where Barry and Robin take the time to paint a full character sketch of a rather odd bloke with the stuffy but charming moniker of Craise Finton Kirk. The lyrics for this song that appear on the Internet are a mess, a fact confirmed by listening to a cover by a fellow named Johnny Young who had a talent for clear enunciation. The Internet versions open with the couplet, “He smiled and rubbed the stubble on his chin/He sure shall find the weariness and dreariness of life that’s growing thin.” That doesn’t make sense at all, which in itself isn’t unusual for an early Bee Gees song, but I was damned sure I heard the word “shoes” in that second line. Johnny Young confirmed my instincts, resulting in a much stronger opening couplet:

He smiled and rubbed the stubble on his chin
His shoes showed signs of weariness and dreariness of life that’s growing thin

Concrete imagery, my friends, makes all the difference in the world. We now know that Mr. Kirk isn’t big on regular grooming, that he probably doesn’t have much in the piggy bank and spends a lot of time traveling on foot. But where? The last three lines in the verse describe the destination, where Johnny and I correct another significant error in the online lyrics:

Yet he didn’t have so very far to go
With a pencil in his hand he will travel on as planned
Where the mist up in the mountain threw a light

The online lyrics show that last line as, “With a mere step in the mountain to a light,” a phrase that defies syntactic gravity. This is a man who lives in his head (the mountain), and when he walks the streets or through the rooms at the Royal Academy, he remains detached, introverted, oblivious to everything and everyone except a sense that something is missing, something captured by the image of a light wrapped in mist. Craise Finton Kirk is modern man, lost and endlessly searching for meaning, the faceless invisible man who faces overwhelming evidence of his irrelevance every single day:

Even in the morning when he slept
Something good was missing
There’s nothing very much to talk about
And nothing very much to see

The concluding verse synthesizes the major themes, contradictions and false appearances that mark this man’s life:

Talks about the place he’d like to go
And you never see the worrying and hurrying and that makes a person slow
Yet you wouldn’t think he’d be so hard to find
Yet he looks so very busy but there’s nothing on his mind
And his wavy hair continues not to grow

Craise Finton Kirk, see him go, on his way
Oh they don’t know where he is
Very very nice, very very nice

The music is piano étude, something you might hear at the kind of recital a man like Kirk might attend. The vocals are patched to make the Gibb brothers sound even more nasal than usual, but the patch has the effect of placing the narrator at a comfortable distance from his subject, strengthening the notion that the song is a “study” of human behavior. Given all the other piecemeal lyrics on Bee Gees 1st, it’s rather stunning that this fine poem comes out of nowhere, but I’ll take it with heartfelt appreciation. “Craise Finton Kirk” is a damned fine piece of work.

Side 2 opens with “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” another brilliant piece of work by the brothers Gibb. I covered the song in the Dad’s 45’s series, so let’s see if my comments still hold up:

Composed by Barry and Robin Gibb, this dramatic monologue of a miner trapped in a cave-in is beautifully sung and brilliantly arranged. Contradicting the classic rules of song structure that demand you build to a peak, “New York Mining Disaster 1941” works in reverse: the lyrics become more spare and are sung more slowly as the song proceeds and the miner’s oxygen supply becomes depleted. The string support is equally spare, adding to the drama, and the carefully-placed harmonies supplied by Robin and Barry enhance the feeling of despair.

I’ll stick with that. “New York Mining Disaster 1941” is another superb effort, and as was true in “Craise Finton Kirk,” when Barry and Robin resisted laziness, they could create exceptionally memorable music.

Sadly, they didn’t always put in the effort, and “Cucumber Castle” is a good example of what happens when they didn’t. The song creates a perfectly unintelligible legend that involves a Pinkerton spy; the faux-heroic music falls flat; and the arrangement is busy and disconnected at the same time. Incredibly, they dredged up the Cucumber Castle concept (if you could call it a concept) for a made-for-television comedy and their seventh studio album, which did little to arrest the steady decline in popularity that marked their career until the Great Disco Shift.

However, there is no denying the effort they put into “To Love Somebody,” a soulful and sincere expression of the pain resulting from unrequited love. Written at the urging of Robert Stigwood (Barry later remarked that he wrote it for Stigwood, a curious comment indeed), the song was offered to Otis Redding a few months before his tragic death. I would have LOVED to hear Otis do this song, as there was no man alive who understood the power of submission and devotion better than Otis Redding. Still, I have to give Barry a lot of credit for the natural conversational phrasing that makes it feel like he’s singing to his lost love right there, right now. Though I wish they would have dampened the over-enthusiastic horn section and the busy strings, The Bee Gees’ version remains my favorite, largely due to Barry’s vocal. Even the great Nina Simone couldn’t match the emotional authenticity in Barry’s performance—“To Love Somebody” is a song that came straight from his soul.

It would have been a REALLY good idea to end the album with “To Love Somebody,” but 14 songs were the British standard, and we’ve got to do things properly, you know? “I Close My Eyes” could have been decent if they’d kept things simple; structurally it’s a song that’s more Beatles for Sale than Revolver, but I guess Stigwood couldn’t resist the temptation to show how hip he was, so this nice little song is drowned in superfluities and capped with another drawn-out fade because that’s what was avant-garde at the time. “I Can’t See Nobody” is quite simply a boring song with a weak lead vocal from Robin, and all the harpsichords and strings in Great Britain couldn’t hide the fact that the song is a nothingburger. “Please Read Me” is The Bee Gees trying to do Everly Brothers over the rhythms and sounds of “Rain,” and I’ll leave it to your imagination to determine how well that worked out. The blessed ending comes in the form of “Close Another Door,” featuring a weird juxtaposition of a dreary cappella opening where Barry sounds like he’s on barbiturates and the sudden emergence of the band playing a jolly air at full tilt.

Definitely a mixed bag (as are most debut albums), The Bee Gees showed enough promise and chart appeal to make Robert Stigwood happy about his five-year investment. The last four years weren’t so rewarding, as The Bee Gees struggled with brotherly conflict and a shifting musical climate that favored hard rock over the sweet stuff. One of the group’s greatest weaknesses was that they were always more of a vocal group than a real band, and never really embraced the “rock” in “baroque rock.” Eventually, vocal groups came back into favor with the advent of disco, and The Bee Gees found themselves all the rage. There is nothing on Bee Gees 1st that anticipates a shift to dance music, but the vocal talents that helped them establish credibility would serve them well in the years ahead

Not the greatest début album by a long shot, and not even close to Odessey and Oracle in terms of quality and depth, Bee Gees 1st could serve to add a little diversity to your hard rock record collection, but don’t expect a whole lot more.

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