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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bee Gees: 1st


BEE GEES: 1ST (1967)

1) Turn Of The Century; 2) Holiday; 3) Red Chair Fade Away; 4) One Minute Woman; 5) In My Own Time; 6) Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You; 7) Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts; 8) New York Mining Disaster 1941; 9) Cucumber Castle; 10) To Love Somebody; 11) I Close My Eyes; 12) I Can't See Nobody; 13) Please Read Me; 14) Close Another Door.

Whether the Bee Gees' 1st (technically, «3rd», but I understand the desire to erase one's Austra­lian past... boy, those kangaroos can get annoying) is or is not their «best» album is up to each of us in particular and history in general to decide. To me, it has always been the best simply by being the most diverse — because not only were the Bee Gees perfectly capable of handling di­versity with gusto, but this also helped reduce the sheer percentage of sentimental ballads: no matter how perfect a master of that art you are, too much syrup is just so much syrup. On a cult favorite like Trafalgar, for instance, the band is a pigeonholed horde of balladeer-troubadours. But on Bee Gees 1st, the band is a freelance pack of wagon-jumpers — and that's some first rate wagon-jumping if we ever saw one.

The move to England did not immediately change much in the brothers' attitudes. They are still playing the same copycat game, indulging their love for various musical genres, trendy hairstyles, fab suits, posh chicks, and royalties — but now they have a set of advantages, including being geographically closer to their sources of inspiration and to state-of-the-art recording studios (with access to the latter provided by their new manager Robert Stigwood, the guy who also managed Cream and Clapton's post-Cream activity); and also, last but not least, simply being grown-up — their «training years» in Australia left behind and ready for prime time.

There is nothing in Bee Gees' 1st that suggests an «individual artistic vision» of any kind. (In fact, there wouldn't ever be — they would sort of try forging out that vision on Odessa, due to the po­pular demand of 1969 when it was thoroughly unhip not to be a «Visionary Artist», but it didn't really stick). But on the positive side, there is nothing on the album that would arrogantly scream «we're only in it for the money», either. The real situation, I believe, is more simple and even somewhat touching. So they heard ʽPenny Laneʼ and loved it so much, they decided to make ʽTurn Of The Centuryʼ. They threw on ʽDr. Robertʼ and dug the rhythm, so they decided to make ʽIn My Own Timeʼ. Somebody brought them a copy of Pet Sounds, they were so overwhelmed that they incorporated those vocal harmonies into ʽPlease Read Meʼ (but where are the Coke bottles?). Then they found a Mellotron in the studio, and, giggling like little kids, used it to re­cord the «Gothic Cathedral» bits of ʽEvery Christian...ʼ. In short, what we are dealing here is the plea­sure of discovery, and the double pleasure of assimilating the discovery.

If only they weren't talented — but they were, and it all works. Fourteen short songs — nobody told the fresh young lads that, even staying within UK borders, you are no longer obliged to re­cord 14 three-minute long pop songs per LP in mid-1967 — fourteen short vignettes, each of them representing a different style, and each single one making its point in either a catchy, or a moving, or a simply curious manner, sometimes all three at the same time. Nothing here has much intellectual «depth» to it, as can be seen from the lyrics, most of which are sheer nonsense (ʽHolidayʼ may be a major tear-jerker, but God only knows what it is we are supposed to be crying about: "It's something I thinks worthwhile / If the puppet makes you smile / If not you are throwing stones, throwing stones?" Bob would sing this with an evil grin). But on the level of raw emotion, it all works, from first to last note.

Bee Gees 1st certainly does not sound like a «happy» album. If it may be pigeonholed at all (although that's one hell of a complex pigeon breed), it would most likely qualify as «art pop», and «art pop» in 1967 was not supposed to be about happiness — loneliness, romantic tragedy, isolation/ism/, «me against the faceless crowds», «me misunderstood and underappreciated», etc., unless you wanted to add social critique, but that latter usually came with distorted electric gui­tars rather than woodwinds and harpsichords. The seeds of those moods the brothers had already implanted in themselves when they took up with the folk stuff years earlier, but now the seeds have turned into saplings, and if there is something unifyingly conceptual about the record, it is  «melancholic nostalgia». ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ was still years away. (Actually, come to think of it, ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ is a pretty sad song, too — I have always felt pity for the poor guy who just keeps lying on his back throughout. But never mind).

ʽTurn Of The Centuryʼ, as I said, is somewhat of an answer to ʽPenny Laneʼ — more lushly arranged, with a complex baroque backing track, but more or less the same in terms of nostalgic sentimentality, mixed with a little brass-provided parade spirit and the now-funny complaint of "Everything's happening / At the turn of the century / I'm gonna buy myself a time machine / Go to the turn of the century" (so totally ironic today, when so many people would do anything to buy themselves a time machine and go to 1967, which is exactly when everything was happening — and who gives a damn about any round numbers anyway?). The vocal melody is not as well-rounded as a Beatlish standard would require — in particular, the chorus resolution seems weak and a bit anti-climactic after the build-up — but they make up for this fairly well with the brass arrangement, which is every bit as «optimistically pessimistic» as the finest art-pop constructions coming from that era.

The best known songs are probably the three singles from the album, which remained mainstays for the band's live show until the very end. ʽNew York Mining Disaster 1941ʼ, despite flagging a title fit for some pre-war Woody Guthrie workers' rights' ballad, was mysteriously promoted as a «Beatles Anonymous» track (presaging the mystification of Klaatu a decade later), even though neither the group vocals are really reminiscent of the Beatles, nor is the composition's signature all that reminiscent of a «Lennon/McCartney» approach — at any rate, the real Beatles hadn't really gone for that kind of folksy sound since Rubber Soul. All of which is puzzling, but has nothing to do with the song's quality: it is a charmingly catchy folk-pop nugget, though probably not as effective emotionally as it should be (the «tragic» undercurrents of the story of the poor imaginary miners are hardly re­flected in the music at all).

I used to feel uncomfy around ʽTo Love Somebodyʼ, a song originally written for Otis Redding and one that might, perhaps, have sounded less stiff and artificial in his rendition. But it is tech­nically unimpeachable — if you kill ʽTo Love Somebodyʼ, you might as well kill off the entire «soul-pop» genre, and it is simply the realization that, for some reason, this stuff is being sung by a bunch of young white whippersnappers from Australia instead of a blind old black guy at the piano that could serve as a turn-off (a racist turn-off, I should add). It's just a good old chivalrous serenade, really, overblown, but coming from the heart and written with responsibility. (I still prefer Eric Burdon's cover version, though — a little rasp-and-roll clears away the affected man­nerisms of Barry's delivery).

Then there's ʽHolidayʼ, one of the least comprehensible, but saddest tracks in the band's catalog — which is just the way it's supposed to be: I feel sad and I don't know why, so I'll just sing some gibberish to divert myself. Robin is playing a little medieval minstrel here, humming to himself rather than the unappreciative crowd, and the result is an unwittingly unique mix of their old Everly Brothers style with the new baroque and music hall tendencies, an odd cocktail that only happens when a talented somebody hops on two wagons at the same time (and the time being 1967 only adds to the charm).

These three songs are certainly unforgettable, but so is almost everything else. ʽEvery Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show Youʼ, for the uninitiated, works like a spooky creepshow, and for those who know better — like a light-hearted parody on the psychedelic movement. In fact, al­most, like a «pre-parody»: the deep church-organish Mellotron chords and Gregorian chanting (where they, apparently, sing «oh solo Dominique» instead of ecce ancilla Domini or something else with Domini it — take that, old Catholic Church!) predates the Electric Prunes' Mass In F Minor by about a year. ʽCraise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Artsʼ certifiedly adds The Kinks to the list of the Gibbs' influences — at least, they can do an oh-so-British bouncy piano vaude­ville number with as much gusto as Ray Davies, even if they lack Ray's lyrical insight, and it is clear that the everyday problems of the British commoner do not worry the Gibbs nearly as much as they do the author of ʽMr. Pleasantʼ.

Wrapping this up, we shouldn't forget that, even despite sticking to the three-minute format, the Gibbs pay attention to song structure — ʽI Close My Eyesʼ, for instance, changes its signature several times before settling on a psychedelic rather than simply-pop coda; ʽRed Chair Fade Awayʼ, likewise, gradually mutates from a nursery rhyme into a psycho fantasy (just as its lyrics would suggest); and ʽClose Another Doorʼ seems like an attempt to come up with their own ʽGood Vibrationsʼ — there are at least four distinct parts here, each with its own intricate com­bination of vocal and instrumental arrange­ments.

Overall, it is tempting to call Bee Gees 1st «just another well-meaning offspring of Sgt. Pepper» — the trick is that most of this stuff was recorded at the same time as Sgt. Pepper material, even if the final album came out approximately one month later. And it does seem evident that the main Beatles' influences here stem either from Revolver (ʽIn My Own Timeʼ truly sounds like a Revolver outtake, much more Beatlish than ʽNew York Mining Disasterʼ) or, at best, from the ʽStrawberry Fields Forever / Penny Laneʼ single. So there is no denying the batch of influences, or the lack of individualistic input, but there is no denying the sheer melodic genius — or simply the amazement at the fact that «It All Works» in the first place.

By all means, these songs, re­corded by some very specific people in some very specific conditions, should not be touching soul chords, but somehow, they are — I'd call this «borderline genius craftsmanship», and that, really, is the way that the Bee Gees would be operating from now on for most of their career. And in the generally healthy musical climate of the late Sixties, that «borderline genius craftsman­ship» frequently gives the illusion of actually crossing that border — hence, a «thinly overwhelmed» thumbs up.

PS. This and all the rest of the Bee Gees' 1960s catalog has recently received the de-luxe remas­tering treatment — 2-CD editions (3-CD for Odessa) with both mono and stereo versions, and the second CD comes with a bunch of bonus tracks: the bonus disc for 1st is particularly recom­mendable, with more Kinksy stuff (ʽGilbert Greenʼ), more chamber pop (ʽHouse Of Lordsʼ), more rock'n'roll (ʽI've Got To Learnʼ is actually a blues-riff-based song!), and more alternate versions and demos which are all obligatory for a real fan of the Bee Gees as a band or Sixties' art-pop as a great musical direction. And you get to hear Barry singing lead vocals on ʽOne Mi­nute Womanʼ instead of Robin! Ain't that a bait?

Check "Bee Gees 1st" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Bee Gees 1st" (MP3) on Amazon

15 comments:

  1. I do quite love this album, although I've always had a bit of trouble with "I Close My Eyes". I love most of the song, but that super-nasal "A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aah" is really annoying. Oh well; the rest of the album easily makes up for it.

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    1. I actually like that part, it's one of many little hooks on this gem. It's probably my 2nd fave on side 2. Not sure what closing one's eyes has to do with anything, but that flute and organ flourish at the end is cool. Close My Eyes and Close Another Door share a word in their titles, and I always liked the idea of linking Eyes, Can't See Nobody, Please Read Me, and Door into a suite or medley, because they share a lot of the same feel, and there's even a narrative flow: He closes his eyes, so now he can't see nobody, then he hears the call of someone (Life? Love?) to please read me, then, at the end of his days, he closes the door on his adventure and takes off to the unknown. Gotta admit, it's not any wackier than anything else on the album.

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  2. Please read me indeed has some very, very fine vocal harmonies; the arrangement is clever too. If you want to know how strong To love Somebody is listen to this unintended mockery:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQAcnsETYiY

    If these guys from Indonesia (and Didi Kempot is big there) aren't capable of ruining the song it's indestructible. I can dislike its cheesy nature, but I can't deny its quality.

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    1. It also withstood the assault of Michael Bolton. There's an interesting if shaky version by the Flying Burrito Brothers, and if I'm not mistaken, Joe Cocker had a pretty good one as well.

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  3. I've commented many times on FB about this album and how seminal it is to my own artistic tastes and sensibilities. On a song-by-song level, the diversity is amazing. "I Can't See Nobody" is a flawed masterpiece, and my favorite song. I have always thought that, like TLS, it was written with Redding or some other soul singer in mind. Robin tries to sing in that warbly "soul throat" voice which I've never thought worked. Trying to "cry like a man" only makes him sound more silly, and he almost croaks into Donald Duck territory.

    That said, as MNb noted, the song is damn near indestructible; that melody is just so powerfully morose, and not in a saccharine, cloying way, but in a romantic, melodramatic way--and there is indeed an important difference between the two.

    That even withstands the warbling on the song's climax, the end of the last verse, heading into the last chorus (Ain't happen such a long time...) The boys show their (lack of) age with all squeaky high register stuff, but just as George noted several times in the review, IT WORKS.

    I would've loved to hear Otis tear into this one, with the full Muscle Shoals treatment, or maybe with Booker T & MGs backing a young Al Green, maybe? One of the great What-if's in music history, I believe...

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  4. Ye, you really should have mentioned "ICSN", which, although just a B-side, was pretty popular.

    And does Barry really sing "Whatcha doin' on your back?". I always thought it was "Whatcha doin' on your butt?". Makes more sense!

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  5. Guess who butchered TLS to kingdom come....Michael Bolton. I heard this in public and nearly had to leave. I never cared too much for the original, but Bolton's version....ugh I'd rather hear Phil Collins warble Groovy Kind of Love.

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    1. I disagree .... MB does what he can, but fails to butcher it as well.

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  6. A brilliantly heavy and swampy version of To Love Somebody was done by Gallon Drunk in the early 1990s. Dark, wasted and gothy, and very good.

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  7. As a "rock and roll group", they were weak as water, even compared to the Hollies (Alan Clarke and the lads would have kicked their asses in a pub room punch up). As a disco group, they sure weren't Earth, Wind, & Fire. I just can't see the appeal here.

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    1. That is a strange comment: the Bee Gees never sold themselves as a "rock and roll group", and all of their disco appeal was based on vocal hooks, not on instrumental prowess. You're sort of punching thin air here.

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    2. Selling themselves as a purely vocal group a la the Four Seasons? In 1967? Really? There's a reason they hired those two faceless sidemen to appear on the album covers with them.

      I see your point about the 70's era. After all, plenty of former Stax/Motown vocal groups (Trammps, Four Tops, etc.) reconfigured their sound for the disco era. So I'll give you that.

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    3. Well, there is a big distance between "purely vocal group" and a "rock and roll group", actually. Neither the Beach Boys nor the Moody Blues, in between the two of whom "1st" actually lies, were "rock and roll groups", unless you mean "rock and roll" in such a general sense that any references to kicking asses in pub rooms lose sense altogether.

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  8. I love this album! I don't care if the songs are merely goofy rip-offs of those written by their more talented contemporaries or not. The vocal harmonies pretty much make me wet. The little quirky ideas (like that insane baby or lamb voice on "Red chair fade away") work perfectly and never overshadow great melodies which are great:) Overblown? So what? Better overblown than bland or non-existent like some of their later ones (before the disco fixation that is).

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    1. While I wouldn't say it makes me wet, the harmonic approach on this record, more than on later stuff, is a musical free-for-all. They lift from barber shop to vaudeville, choral to doo-wop, country and Beatlesque rock. They almost never use the same intervals or style twice, and often throw two or more styles on each song (ECLHMWSY, Please Read Me are two examples). Their vocals really were their virtuosity.

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