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" (MP3) on Amazon