by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Arguably the true kings of the comeback, the trio of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb have a run of thirty Top 40 hits to their name that spans four different decades. They began their existence as a baroque-pop band with distinct hints of the Moody Blues and Beatles in their sound, but the band would split up – quite bitterly – just three years after their first American hit. Upon reuniting in 1970, they’d wisely reinvent themselves as a largely adult-contemporary-radio oriented act with such lush ballads as “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Once their sound fell out of vogue and the band’s run of hits dried up once more, the band shocked listeners everywhere by reinventing itself as, of all things, a disco band and, in a clever ploy to get deejays to play the comeback single from the then ice-cold Bee Gees, issued “Jive Talkin’” to radio stations as a white-label promo without any sort of artist identification on the label. The move worked, the song topped the American charts, and the Bee Gees were back, reaching a new career zenith in 1978 with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, which gave the brothers three #1 hits that sat at the top of the charts for a total of fifteen weeks, Barry pulling off a historical feat and breaking a record formerly set by John Lennon and Paul McCartney after four songs he had co-written [“Stayin’ Alive,” brother Andy’s “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” “Night Fever,” and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You”] all reached the top of the charts, one after the other, without any interruption, a record that has never been broken. [Unbelievably enough, Barry would co-write two more chart-toppers that year, brother Andy’s “Shadow Dancing” and Frankie Valli’s theme song to the movie Grease.] Of course, disco would suffer a massive backlash by the dawn of the Eighties, and as the genre died out, so did the Bee Gees. But the ever-resilient brothers didn’t walk away from music – instead, they spent most of the early Eighties behind the scenes penning and producing massive hits for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, and Kenny Rogers. Yearning to perform again, the brothers once more remolded themselves as an adult-contemporary act and resurfaced in the late ‘80s, scoring a massive comeback hit in 1989 with “One.” Just as the ‘90s and the dawn of grunge arrived, wiping out nearly every act from the ‘80s along with it, the Bee Gees stubbornly continued to release albums and, against all odds, scored yet another comeback hit in 1997 (the same year they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) with “Alone.” Robin and Maurice have since both passed away and the band name retired, but the Bee Gees’ music remains timeless and their accomplishments absolutely stunning. The band has sold well over two hundred million albums worldwide to date, while Barry is in a very elite club of songwriters who can claim to have written or co-written at least fifty Top 40 hits.
Bee Gees 1st (1967, Atco)
If you want to get technical, this isn’t really the band’s first album per se. It’s, in fact, their third, but it was the first to be released outside of Australia, and since all of the tracks from those first two albums were later conveniently made much more easily accessible in the U.S. and U.K. via odds-and-ends compilations issued by Atco and Polydor, we’re going to begin our look at the group’s catalog here. As the band’s American debut, this is a surprisingly very solid album, containing three Top Twenty hits, including the soulful instant classic “To Love Somebody” (which peaked at only #17 in the U.S. but has gone on to be covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Janis Joplin), the Beatles-influenced baroque pop of the career-launching “New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones?),” and “Holiday.” But the band hasn’t simply surrounded the singles with filler, and there are a lot of charming, if not catchy, album cuts elsewhere on the disc, and “Turn of the Century,” “Close the Door,” the lite-garage-rock of “In My Own Time,” and “I Can’t See Nobody” are quite solid, while the vaguely-Moody Blues-esque “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You” is one of the most incessantly catchy album cuts from the band’s early years.
Horizontal (1968, Atco)
The band’s second international release is noticeably heavier than its more pop-oriented predecessor, and guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen play a bigger role here, but the songwriting is unfortunately weaker, and there are fewer tunes here you’re likely to remember afterwards, though there are some keepers, namely the psychedelic rockers “Lemons Never Forget” and "The Earnest of Being George," the ballads “And the Sun Will Shine” and “World,” and, best of all, the sweeping “(The Lights Went Out in) Massachusetts,” which just missed the Top Ten by one spot. Unfortunately, “Massachusetts” is the only actual Top 40 hit here, so it’s the only song most American listeners are likely to recognize here upon first listen. The double-disc 2006 reissue is the one to get, since it adds the fabulous non-LP single “Words” (Barry’s personal favorite Bee Gees song, in fact, and one which truly should have been included on the original album) in addition to a generous helping of rarities, including the fine B-sides “Barker of the U.F.O.," "Sir Geoffrey Saved the World" and "Sinking Ships” (the flips of "Massachusetts," "World," and "Words," respectively) and the great previously-unreleased studio outtakes “Out of Line" and "Ring My Bell." These six extra songs are so memorable, in fact, that the band might have had a real masterpiece on its hands had they actually included these on the original album in place of the weaker tunes that did make the cut.
Idea (1968, Atco)
A nice bounce-back from the spotty Horizontal, this is the best batch of songs the three brothers have come up with since their debut, and they deservedly were rewarded with their first U.S. Top Ten hits as a result, the heavily dramatic ballad “I Started a Joke” (one of Robin Gibb’s most powerful vocal performances) and the soulful “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (actually written for Percy Sledge, who’d fittingly cover it a few years later, and very likely the only Top Ten hit ever written from the perspective of a prisoner awaiting execution, though it’s a much more musically upbeat song than you’d expect from its subject matter). Not only are the singles better than those on Horizontal, but the surrounding album cuts are as well, and cuts like “Kilburn Towers,” “Kitty Can,” “Let There Be Love,” and “When the Swallows Fly” are quite enjoyable. The band has also wisely dialed back on the string arrangements this time out as well, so the orchestrations don’t seem quite as suffocating here as they did on Horizontal. The album is only ever so slightly inferior to the debut, if only because the debut feels a bit more unified of an album piece, but the two discs probably have an equal number of memorable songs. The 2006 double-disc reissue – which uses the original British album cover, featuring a close-up shot of a lightbulb – adds, among other rarities, both sides of the fine non-LP single “Jumbo” b/w “The Singer Sang His Song.”
Rare, Precious, & Beautiful (1968, Atco)
Not technically a new album but an international re-issue – though a wildly re-sequenced one – of the band’s Australian-only second album Spicks and Specks, you likely won’t recognize any of the songs here, but it’s an interesting album all the same. Though the best songs here only hint at the band’s later greatness, they’re not bad, either, and “Spicks and Specks,” “Second Hand People,” the Maurice-sung “Where Are You,” and “Monday’s Rain” are worth a listen. Fun trivia: the material on this album was produced by Nat Kipner, whose son, Steven Kipner, who pops up here on background vocals, would go on to join the short-lived band Tin Tin (“Toast and Marmalade for Tea”) before embarking on a wildly successful career as a songwriter and producer, having penned such hits as Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” and The Script’s “Breakeven.”
Rare, Precious & Beautiful, Volume 2 (1968, Polydor, U.K.; finally released in the U.S. in 1970, Atco)
The second installation in this odds-and-ends series is largely comprised of tracks from the band’s Australian-only debut, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. Like the first volume of this series, it’s fascinating, but there are no familiar songs, and because it delves even further back, this is the sound of the band in its most embryonic stages. [Indeed, all three brothers were still in their teens when this material was made.] The first three cuts – “I Was a Leader, a Lover of Men,” the folk-flavored “Follow the Wind,” and the British Invasion-like sounds of “Claustrophobia” – are pretty interesting, but the quality goes a bit downhill after that. Interesting but inessential.
Rare, Precious & Beautiful, Volume 3 (1969, Polydor, U.K.)
Not released at all in the U.S. but available as a U.K. import, this third and final installation in the archival series collects some stray non-LP cuts with the remaining cuts from The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs that were left off of the second volume. Like all of the volumes in this series, it’s interesting, and it’s not without its keepers – “Peace of Mind” in particular – but there’s a reason why Atco passed over an American release of this one. There just wasn’t much public interest in this material, and who could blame them? – the band is audibly still very much in its growing stages on these tracks. It may be fascinating, but, ultimately, you can’t help but feel like this is one archival package too many and that the band might have been better served if the best cuts on the final two volumes had been packaged together. If you’re going to get any of the three discs in this series, stick to the first one.
Odessa (1969, Atco)
Buyer beware: there’s nothing here as ridiculously catchy as, say, “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” or “To Love Somebody,” and the most famous song here is the #37-peaking “First of May,” not exactly one of the band’s most popular singles, so the album isn’t quite as hook-laden as usual. You could also conceivably call the disc pretentious, not in the least since the album sports three separate instrumentals, including the sweeping “Seven Seas Symphony” (which doesn’t actually feature the band at all) and the closing cut “The British Opera,” whereas the band has traditionally shunned instrumentals on their other albums. But, the lack of solid singles aside, this loose concept disc is certainly the most unified album of the band’s baroque-pop period, if not the most coherent album in their entire catalog. This double-disc is very much an album piece and one that really begs to be heard in its entirety. Aside from “First of May,” the album sports such fine cuts as “Melody Fair,” “Lamplight,” “Odessa (City on the Black Sea),” “Suddenly,” the country-tinged “Marley Purt Drive,” and “Sound of Love.” It’s telling just how much of an album piece this disc is that RSO’s 1976 single-disc distillation of the album doesn’t work nearly as well (not in the least since it leaves out “Lamplight” and “Suddenly”), so be sure to get the album in all its unedited glory. Original 1969 vinyl pressings of the album also came packaged in a gorgeous red felt cover.
Cucumber Castle (1970, Atco)
One of the most obscure albums in the entire Bee Gees catalog, the band’s first album of the Seventies also has the distinction of being the sole Bee Gees album recorded sans Robin Gibb, who had bailed for a solo career. The album tanked, and this would be the first non-archival Bee Gees album released in America to fail to yield any Top 40 hits. Knowing all this, you might expect the disc to be terrible, but it’s surprisingly better than you would think, and cuts like “Sweetheart,” “Don’t Forget to Remember,” “I.O.I.O.,” and “If Only I Had My Mind on Something Else” are overlooked gems in the band’s catalog. It’s not an essential album by any means, but – assuming you can find a copy, this not being one of the band’s easier albums to unearth – it’s a notably more fun obscure album to sift through than any of the Rare, Precious & Beautiful collections, and Barry remains in relatively good form here as a songwriter.