Graded on a Curve:
Bee Gees,
Bee Gees 1st

Celebrating Barry Gibb on his 75th birthday.Ed.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most twee of them all? Belle and Sebastian? The Shop Assistants? The Pastels? Well sure, if you adhere to a literalist definition of twee as a post-indie phenomenon. But I take the sniper’s long-range view of music history, and like to think there’s nothing new—including twee—under the sun. For these reasons I would argue that the sixties’ Bee Gees—those pre-Three Disco Kings with their chipmunk voices, vice-grip-tight three-part harmonies, and whimsical takes on Summer of Love psychedelia, baroque pop, and blue-eyed soul—were the tweest bunch to ever tiptoe through the pop tulips.

I was too young for the late-sixties iteration of the Bee Gees; the first I heard of The Bros. Gibb were their mid- to late-seventies megahits as Overlords of the Hustle and the Electric Slide. I didn’t much care for the Disco Bee Gees—although I’ve warmed to them since—and hence had no desire to check out the music they made prior to becoming the Typhoid Marys of Saturday Night Fever. Then I heard Alice Donut’s transcendent cover of “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You” and I was enthralled. This was one of the gr-gr-grooviest slices of psychedelia I’d ever heard, and it was by… the Bee Gees? I ran, didn’t walk, to Spotify. I had to skip the light fandango with the Brothers Gibb—and post haste!

Now what I’m about to say will shock you—perhaps even see me drummed in disgrace out of the critical corps, my quill snapped over the knee of TVD’s own General Patton, Jon Meyers. But I’ll say it anyway: having listened to it some 300 times, I can honestly say I enjoy Bee Gees 1st more than any Beatles album except that white one of theirs. And I exclude that one solely for sentimental reasons having to do with its inspirational effect on the Manson Family.

The Brothers Gibb were born on the Isle of Man, and then moved first to England and again as youngsters to Australia in the late 1950s. There they commenced their singing career, only to return to the Land of Spotted Dick in 1966, frustrated by their lack of musical success amongst the marsupials. Under the deft tutelage of impresario Robert Stigwood, who dubbed them “The Most Significant New Talent of 1967,” both The Bee Gees and their first “international” LP (hence its title, Bee Gees 1st, although chronologically it wasn’t) were hits. Comparisons were made to the Fab Four, and Stigwood, always the clever boy, issued “New York City Mining Disaster 1941” to record stations in a blank sleeve, causing DJs to assume it was by the Beatles and to play it to within an inch of its death.

On Bee Gees 1st—a psychedelic album, as one glance at Klaus Voormann’s cover will inform you—Barry Gibb sang lead, harmony, and backing vocals, and played guitar; Robin Gibb sang lead, harmony, and backing vocals, and played organ; and Maurice Gibb sang harmony and backing vocals, and played bass, piano, organ, harpsichord, mellotron, and guitar. The brothers filled out their line-up with fellow Australians Vince Melouney on guitar and Colin Petersen on drums.

The trio’s fussy and precise vocals and delicate arrangements made them a kind of twee Beatles, as impossibly melodic songs like “Turn of the Century” and the whimsical “Cucumber Castle” illustrate. The big orchestral arrangement and Maurice Gibbs’ harpsichord provide the perfect setting for the nostalgia of Barry and Robin Gibbs’ lead vocals on the former song. “There’s are lots of things to do/On a bicycle built for two/At the turn of the century,” they sing, somehow omitting to mention Jack the Ripper, the horse shit in the streets, and the ever-present pall of coal pollution. The supertwee “Cucumber Castle” boasts strings and a great gentle chorus, with Barry G. singing, “Cucumber castle be ever so humble/It’s home/He saw the light in the cellar/Reflect in his eyes” as strings get bowed and some brass sounds and it’s oh so mellow and deliciously melodious you’ll want to listen to it in the dark with the headphones on
forever.

The LP’s sole blue-eyed soul track, “To Love Somebody,” is marvelous, with Barry Gibb again handling lead vocals while some big horns blare and the strings turn the song into a sepia watercolor of sound. The tune was supposedly originally written for Otis Redding, but BG’s vocals are triumphant, thrilling even, with a hint of vibrato here and a clipped-off word there, and he’s joined by Robin at the big crescendo of an ending, and I formally apologize for every nasty thing I said about him during the Dark Ages of Disco. As for “One Minute Woman,” like “To Love Somebody” it’s about as psychedelic as my foot, and while Barry’s lead vocals are as crisp and assured as usual, the song simply does nada for me. Robin and Barry Gibb sing lead on “I Close My Eyes,” with its cool Beatlesesque chorus, natty organ riffs, and simple but effective drumming by Petersen. The brothers’ vocal harmonies are especially great at the end, and conspire with the organ to produce a fantastic climax.

“Holiday” is sadder than you’d expect given its title; Robin (good looking) and Barry (doe eyes and British teeth) swap verses and are backed by a melancholy trumpet, electric piano, and strings. It perks up some when the three brothers sing some nonsense syllables, but overall this one’s the biggest bummer of a holiday you’ll ever enjoy. Meanwhile, “Red Chair, Fade Away” reminds me of a Guided by Voices song. Barry handles lead, and is most groovily backed cool piping organ, heaps of “Day in The Life” horns and strings, and great chorus (“Red chair, fade away, etc.”) that gets all echoic and LSD-like at the end—I think I even hear a lamb bleating! “In My Own Time” is so redolent of the Beatles—I hear echoes of both “Taxman” and “Dr. Robert”—that you’ll want to file plagiarism charges, but if it’s a Beatles rip it’s a great Beatles rip, right down to its invitation to the United Nations, “one thousand suckers every one,” and very George Harrison guitar solo. And hey, the harmonies are better—crisper and more urgent. The way the brothers snap off “In my own time” at the end? Positively supernatural!

“Craise Finton Cook Royal Academy of Arts” is a great song title and a fabulous song—a lark with a distorted lead vocal by Robin accompanied solely by piano, it’s one jaunty tune, and I love the chorus and the way it ends with a very chipper, “Very very nice/Very very nice.” And it provides the perfect lead-in to the heartbreaking “New York City Mining Disaster 1941,” which Robin sings in the persona of a man trapped underground in a mining accident. He’s accompanied at first by guitars and then drums, and if you’re like me you’ll get a bit misty at the lines, “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?/Do you know what it’s like on the outside?/Don’t go talking too loud/You’ll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones.” Or perhaps you’re some hard-hearted bastard who could care less about the fictional troubles of other human beings. In either case, the chorus is so uplifting, while the song is so, so sad; you know the singer is never
getting out, and his desire to show off the photo of his wife, his last forlorn connection to a world and a sun he’ll never see again, is truly pathos-inducing.

“I Close My Eyes” is a mid-tempo, Beatles-like number with Robin handling lead and Barry joining in on a strange, baaing chorus I don’t much care for. But I do like the way the drumming’s right up front, and the way the brothers repeat, “I close my eyes” going higher in register each time, and the swelling orchestral flourishes and organ riff that close the song. As for “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You,” what can I say other than it’s a stroke of psychedelic genius that owes nothing to the Beatles or anybody else for that matter. It opens with some dark Gregorian chanting of “Oh solo Dominique,” then Barry and Robin sing in their most LSD-laced vocals about a “broken table there” before going into the majestic and uplifting chorus, which soars into the empyrean realms of pure mystical musical joy. Then the whole thing repeats itself, and Barry and Robin’s vocals are thrilling, magnificent, and almost too far-freaking-out beautiful for these humble ears o’ mine. And while I wish it went out on the high notes of the chorus rather with that dreary Gregorian chant, that’s a small caveat about a brilliant song, and my new favorite psychedelic song.

“I Can’t See Nobody” combines a lugubrious but great Robin Gibb vocal, accompanied by strings, with a luscious three-part harmony of a chorus. Robin hits some nice warbling notes while the strings soar, and this is one melancholy tune with benefits, especially in the form of the vocal pyrotechnics that occur towards the end. “Please Read Me” is very acidic indeed (thanks chiefly to Melouney’s echoing guitar riff and the tambourine) and boasts some lockstep three-part harmonies that have the Fabulous Foursome written all over them. As for closer “Close Another Door,” it puts melancholy verses up against a perky chorus, and features both Robin and Barry on lead vocals. It’s not particularly LSD-tinged, but it’ll move you, from its echoing opening vocals to its delicious harmonies (which I’ll trade for the Beach Boys’ any day) to the soaring vocals and strings that shut the song down.

There are so many English “psychedelic” bands of the late sixties I don’t like: The Moody Blues, Procol Harum (except for “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” natch), Pink Floyd, Cream, the list goes on and on. To at long last discover one I do love—in the form of the jive talkin’ Bee Gees no less—comes as a complete and utter shock. It’s going to take me a while to digest the fact. If, like yours truly, the only Bee Gees you’ve ever heard are the Swingin’ Disco Sultans of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “You Should Be Dancing,” you owe it to yourself to check out the earlier albums of the Brothers Gibb. And turn on, tune in, and twee out to the mellowest psychedelia ever!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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