Bee Gees

TrackAlbum / Single
New York Mining Disaster 1941Polydor 56161 / Bee Gees 1st
Massachussetts (Lights Went Out In)Polydor 56192 / Horizontal
WordsPolydor 56229
Spicks And SpecksSpin EK-1474 / Spicks And Specks
To Love SomebodyPolydor 56178 / Bee Gees 1st
Jive Talkin'Main Course
Stayin' AliveSaturday Night Fever
You Should Be DancingChildren Of The World
You Win AgainE.S.P.
ImmortalityThe Record: Their Greatest Hits

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Contributor: David Lewis

The records – in this case, the numbers, not the recordings, though we’ll get to those – say it all. Only outsold by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and Paul McCartney, these three brothers. Barry Gibb is one of only three songwriters to have six consecutive No.1 hits. They have won 109 BMI Pop, Country and Latin Awards, and were named BMI icons. They are, like that other Australian – but actually not – act, AC/DC, full of anomaly and contradiction. Known for disco, they have released only three disco albums out of nearly two dozen albums. The biggest selling soundtrack of all time (Saturday Night Fever), was balanced by one of the greatest flops of all time (their soundtrack to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). As a recent biographer points out, their influences were also their contemporaries. They found a unique style early, and their talent, musicality and unusual approaches found them a very large audience. With the untimely deaths of twins Maurice and Robin, it was thought Barry was going to slowly fade away. He has, though, retained a small profile in a couple of live shows which were well received. Whether he will continue (he’s now 68) is another story, none of my business, and certainly up to him.

So, to the tracks. Although they were born in the UK (born on the Isle of Man, but then to Manchester), they moved to Australia, and got their first professional gigs there. Sick of the (then) parochial industry, they moved to England. A period of success, followed by a fallow period, which was then followed by almost unmatched success. Barry wrote for his other brother, Andy, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, and many others. Part of Barry’s unusual yet compelling style is that he can’t play guitar in a standard tuning – he tunes it to a chord. And those harmonies – one of the great vocal blends of all time. I know Toppermost prefers album tracks, but they are such a great singles band – I’m willing to bet that most readers know all, if not most of these.

So, where to start? I’m going to go roughly chronologically, but I’m not much for rules. But New York Mining Disaster 1941, their first single, shows the whole package – a great song, a great performance, and an effective production. This ‘prentice work shows what way the future would lie. To young men of the 1960s, America was the magical land, so the songs have a tendency to use American locations.

Speaking of which, Massachusetts, with its lingering melody and subtle harmonies is another great track, and an early classic. They were often accused of being Beatlesque, but in fact, they sound very little like the Beatles (who they loved). McCartney would have written a more ‘angular’ melody; Lennon wouldn’t have even tried an approach like this. It’s languid, but lovely.

Words, another ballad: a magnificent melody and one of the finest vocal performances given.

Spicks And Specks: the last single they released before leaving Australia. I’ve always loved the piano bit – it sounds like someone who couldn’t play, yet it is so correct … and Robin’s voice builds and builds and builds …

No Bee Gees list would be complete without the song Barry wrote with Otis Redding in mind – the greatest Otis song never sung by him. Otis died before he could even hear it, but most critics feel it was a song Otis would have done brilliantly – To Love Somebody. Barry has a real sense of drama in his songs, and that chorus “You don’t know what it’s like …” is one of the most perfect climaxes in song.

The disco era. The Bee Gees made it respectable. The Village People sold it to kids. The Bee Gees sold it to their own kind – white, middle class … Maurice said later, “It was terrible being in a disco band, unless you were the biggest disco band – then it was great.” Arif Mardin had to teach them how to groove. Apparently Jive Talkin’ was written about a dance, and Mardin had to explain that jive was in fact a word for ‘bullshit’ … this at least gave them a great story to weave the song around. And it’s a great groove.

The next song is the most vexatious; its ubiquity, almost to the point of cliché, should disqualify it, but … it comes from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and it perfectly encapsulates the genre. A guitar riff, another great groove, hooks the size of Mack Trucks … Stayin’ Alive seems like a triumphant song, but that last little tag: “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me, somebody help me yeah …” takes the edge of, and makes it a more dramatically fulfilling story. Also, one of the first uses of drum loops … Barry had discovered his signature falsetto earlier, but its harsh tone suits this song brilliantly.

You Should Be Dancing. If you aren’t by the end of this track, you just might be dead. (Or ok, you don’t like disco …).

The final two come from after disco. After conquering the world, they took on the Beatles in the ill-fated Sgt. Pepper’s movie – an odd beast, the songs are pretty good, but the movie is … on YouTube somewhere, I suspect! This led them into a period where they mostly wrote for others. However, they came back in the 1980s with You Win Again (not the Hank Williams song). The verses are rather forgettable by Gibb standards, but the chorus is one of their best bits of work.

And finally, Immortality, written for Celine Dion, who does (let’s be fair) a very good version, but the Gibbs trump her. Immortality is perhaps a statement, or maybe a plea, or even a foreshadowing of their own inevitable (yet sadly premature for the twins) deaths. It’s a great song, and a great way to end this toppermost.

The Bee Gees deserve all the records they set and broke. I often advise young songwriters to analyse the work of Barry Gibb. Dismissed as ‘daggy’ and ‘uncool’, the quality and endurance of their work stands today as a testament to their talent.

Bee Gees official website

Robin Gibb official website

The International Brothers Gibb Website

Bee Gees biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. He also writes on music here.

If ever 10 tracks didn’t seem quite enough … here you have it with David’s excellent Bee Gees toppermost. So, rather than commenting on what the topper-ten really should be, why not hit on just one or two different songs that you couldn’t be without. I’ll kick it off with a song I used to hear a lot on pirate radio in 1967. Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts is off Bee Gees 1st but it was the Johnny Young single that was being played – see this fascinating article at the fabulous “Big L” website… Ed.

TopperPost #365

11 Comments

  1. Rob Morgan
    Oct 15, 2014

    Great article and great choices. I have two personal favourite Bee Gees songs – one quite popular and one obscurity. The popular choice is “Spirits (having flown)” from the late 70s – I love how laid back the verses are compared to the choruses, and the chord changes throughout the song are extraordinarily unpredictable, yet perfectly fit the melody. It also sounds like the kind of thing a late 70s Crosby Stills and Nash could only dream about. The obscure choice is “Sweet song of summer” from the “To whom it may concern” album from the early 70s. This is just an incredibly spooked melancholy beauty, full of swooping Moogs and a dark atmosphere. It doesn’t sound sweet at all.

  2. Paul Dolan
    Oct 15, 2014

    Two favourites of mine are ‘Run To Me’ which was one of a bunch of singles given to me by a cousin when I was a kid, an absolutely beautiful ballad. The other is ‘Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)’, a brilliant slice of pre Night Fever blue eyed soul.

  3. Peter Viney
    Oct 15, 2014

    Two from Odessa for me, the rock snob’s favourite Bee Gees album, Marley Purt Drive and The First of May – see also the related Lulu Toppermost. The Bee Gees are critically underrated – and Night Fever itself is another in my ten.

  4. Keith Shackleton
    Oct 16, 2014

    Always liked Marley Purt Drive from Odessa, where the boys get their Band on. Tip of the cap too to Lulu’s cover of it, from New Routes, which is tops.

  5. David Lewis
    Oct 16, 2014

    It’s not an easy task. I decided to stick to 10 because if I’d done 12 I’d want 25. And then 20. Night fever was a near miss, as was Spirits. Another day they might have gone in.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Oct 16, 2014

    David, thanks for this great list. Will throw two cover versions into the mix here. The first is Martin Carthy’s great version of ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’ which shows what a fine folk song it is. The second is Al Green’s sublime rendition of ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ – which can be heard here.

  7. Glenn Smith
    Oct 18, 2014

    It is rare I disagree with a Lewis posting, but I feel there are a few notable omissions here from a truly great singles band, including the tunes where the balance between Robin and Barry was just right. How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the version found on Trafalgar with Robin singing lead on the first verse) is probably their greatest moment, born of their late 60’s split. Run To Me/Mr Natural(strangely a huge hit only in Australia, any Aussie guy in his fifties can sing it for you)/Nights on Braodway are all superb examples of Bee Gee songwriting that beautifully incorporate both Robin and Barry on lead vocals. And just to be really picky we need Gotta Get a Message in there too. Having said that…great and worthy article on a truly great band.

  8. Peter Viney
    Oct 18, 2014

    While pondering Bee Gees selections “Tragedy” came on the radio. You do need 20.

  9. David Lewis
    Oct 19, 2014

    Another list: How do you mend a broken heart, Tragedy, Spirits, Nights on Broadway, This is where I come in, Emotion, More than a woman, How deep is your love, Night fever, and the Glenn smith robin vocal: I started a joke. These were all near misses: as I said, if I’d done 15, I’d have done 20….

  10. Keith Shackleton
    Oct 28, 2014
  11. David Lewis
    Oct 29, 2014

    Keith: Fantastic! Thanks for posting that!

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