CD Review of The Studio Albums 1967–1968 by Bee Gees

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The Studio Albums 1967–1968
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Reprise
Released: 2006
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Few artists have had their history so poorly rewritten by the public as the Bee Gees. It’s an unfortunate but well-accepted reality that the reputation of the brothers Gibb never properly recovered from their success during the disco era; despite the fact that the trio moved on and were in no way stylistically mired in the “Saturday Night Fever” sound, the general populace nonetheless associated them with disco and therefore remained forever hesitant to embrace anything they released thereafter. The irony, however, is that while disco became almost an albatross around the neck of the Bee Gees, their success during that era was so tremendous that it’s often forgotten that they were actually a product of the ‘60s rather than the ‘70s.

The Bee Gees are finally taking their history into their own hands – with the help of Reprise Records – and are attempting to rebuild their reputation in chronological order, starting with their first proper album, the appropriately titled Bee Gees’ 1st. To kick-start the process, though, they’re also releasing a box set that includes their first three albums (the other two being Horizontal and Idea). Each of the albums has been expanded into a two-disc set; a la Rhino’s recent Monkees reissues, the first contains both mono and stereo versions of the songs, and the second disc contains early versions, alternate takes, rarities, and previously-unreleased material. The booklets are also top-notch, filled with extremely in-depth liner notes and archival photos.

The sound of the music contained within The Studio Albums 1967–1968 may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with anything prior to “Stayin’ Alive” – almost as surprising as the fact that there used to be more members of the Bee Gees than just Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb – but music critics have long trumpeted Bee Gees 1st as one of the best debut albums of the ‘60s, and rightfully so. But, then again, I’m a music critic. Even so, this record finds the Bee Gees easily holding their own amongst their pop peers of the day: the Hollies, the Zombies, the Moody Blues, and, yes, even the Beatles. The hits from the album – “Holiday,” “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” and “To Love Somebody” – have stood the test of time thanks to the band’s many greatest-hits collection…or, in the case of “To Love Somebody,” because it’s been covered by everyone from Billy Corgan and Janis Joplin to Nina Simone and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Those, however, are all pretty downbeat, melancholy songs, and they’re not entirely representative of the album as a whole, although lord knows “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You” sounds almost gothic when it opens. Still, opener “Turn of the Century” is baroque pop perfection with a cheery, harmony-laden chorus, “In My Own Time” is only a slight left turn from the Beatles’ “Dr. Robert,” and the piano-led music hall stylings of “Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts” make it, as its lyrics state, very, very nice.

With Horizontal, the Bee Gees proved that they were just as capable as the Beatles with their ability to evolve rapidly over the course of just a few short months; while the album doesn’t necessarily hold together as cohesively as its predecessor, it’s only because the band was busy expanding their sonic palate. “World,” the epic ballad that opens the disc, has a guitar squall at the 37-second mark that will have you wondering, “Did I really just hear that?” The bizarrely-titled “Lemons Never Forget” is pretty rocking, “Massachusetts” continues the group’s lyrical fascination with America, and “The Ernest of Being George” must’ve been a bitch to record, given its bizarre starts and stops. “The Change Is Made” is surprisingly bluesy, while the title track brings things to a psychedelic close.

Idea, meanwhile, is arguably the least of the three albums included, but it’s still a damned good record, at least partially because it counts “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” and “I Started a Joke” among its tracks. Like its predecessor, it opens with a ballad, this time spotlighting the sweeping majesty of “Let There Be Love.” It’s followed by the shuffling “Kitty Can” before returning to another lovely ballad, “In the Summer of His Years.” “Such a Shame” is damned near a country song; it’s a rare non-Gibb composition, having been written by guitarist Vince Melouney. Other great songs include the rock-out of the title track, the string-laden “Kilburn Towers,” and the appropriately-titled closer, “Swan Song.” You also have to figure that recruiters for the BRAF quite enjoyed the track entitled “I Am Going to Join the Airforce,” which featured the lyric, “I've seen my friends and they all agree / That's it's better then joining the army or going to sea.”

Within the bounty of bonus material spread amongst these three albums, be prepared to find a side of the Bee Gees you never knew; these guys were downright goofy at times, and, among the Bee Gees 1st bonuses, no track better exemplifies it than “Mr. Wallor’s Wailing Wall.” “House of Lords” is a particularly lovely baroque pop number (it was all the rage back then, you know); meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, if you’re skeptical that the Bee Gees can do garage-styled blues-rock, check out “I’ve Got to Learn.” Idea includes the bizarre “Barker of the U.F.O.,” the silly “Sir Geoffrey Saved the World,” and the better-than-it-sounds pop of “Mrs. Gillespie’s Refrigerator.” In particular, “Ring My Bell” is so good that the fact that it not only wasn’t a single but, indeed, has never before been issued is mystifying. (Also, if you get this set as a holiday gift, be sure to rush to the three Christmas songs, because the medley of “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is a must-hear.) Idea’s “Chocolate Symphony” is a nice psychedelic pop nugget, there’s a lovely instrumental called “Gena’s Theme,” and also a lost A &B side (“Jumbo”/“The Singer Sang His Song”); the bonus disc closes with two Coca-Cola commercials recorded by the band.

So are you sold yet? Maybe it’s too much to take in all at once; I have given you a fair amount to chew on. Well, if you want to start slow, just pick up Bee Gees 1st, but if your interest is piqued, trust me and just get this box set and be done with it. If you’re a fan of ‘60s pop, you won’t be disappointed.

~Will Harris