THE CHILDREN OF ROCK BELT
(Richard Goldstein, New York Times, July 30, 1967)
Posted by VallyVal
When the Bee Gees were first introduced to New York radio audiences as "the
English surprise," it was considered suave to wink at a girl you were trying to
impress, and coolly observe: "Of course you know they're the Beatles in drag."
It was a logical conclusion. After all, this "English surprise" was managed by
Brian Epstein, the man who first decided that what the world needed was not another
crew-cut casanova warbling a eulogy to his hotrod, but something longhaired, frenzied, and
English -something Beatle.
But more than common management, this new combo shared something musical with Lennon and
McCartney: their sound. "New York mining disaster 1941" would have been a
credible title for a new Beatle composition, and the production (intoning strings to back
a sparsely tragic tale) would have been an appropriate sequel to "Eleanor
Rigby." Even the vocal phrasing - clipped, soft and incredibly sad- had a certain
McCartney quality to it.
Heads shot back when the radio announcers revealed that the Bee Gees were themselves -
three brothers (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb) and two acquaintances (Vince Melouney and
Colin Petersen)- all Australians. Even more startling was the revelation that the Gibbs,
who wrote the song, had been local show business luminaries since they were about 7. Now
pushing 18, they left behind a string of hits Down Under to emerge triumphant - a
superphoenix. They didn't even need ashes.
For, despite the objections of a few partisans (before rock'n'roll came of age, we called
them "fans"), "New York mining disaster 1941" was a solid hit. Long
after the novelty of successful imitation had worn away, its own subtle power continued to
impress. Here was folk music in a truly modern idiom. Concise, and not rambling like the
classic ballad-narrative, utterly personal and underplayed rather than melodramatic, it
employed a poet's truism that journalists are just beginning to understand: a tragedy is
the sum of its details. Their chronicle offered no data and no summation other than the
quiet nobility of a miner facing death who calmly advises an apocryphal Mr Jones:
"Don't go talking too loud: you'll cause a landslide." The power is not in the
lyric but in its implications, and that sense of indirection placed the Bee Gees a hefty
cut above copycats.
Now, with the release of their album, "The Bee Gees First" (Atco), they are
reluctant to talk about the Beatles. They claim any similarity is "an accident of
birth," explaining that the Lennon-McCartney sound has influenced everyone. They
insist "Mining Disaster" was conceived and recorded before Epstein ever heard
the group (the Gibbs wrote all the material they perform on the album, and if this
collection is any indication, their talent as songwriters alone is formidable).
But the deja vu comes in the arrangement -all those musical and vocal
embellishments that grace a simple melody. Here is where one hears reverb and tonal
distortion a la "Revolver" (play "In my own time" and
"Taxman" back to back); beyond the similarities in composition, the feeling of
having heard those harmonies before is too strong for comfort, and chance can be as
dangerous as calculation.
The group's success with other styles (and this album is a very mixed package) makes such
imitation unnecessary, and even deceptive. As it is, the listener must transcend
familiarity to discover what is actually worthwhile about the Bee Gees. the new single,
"To love somebody" backed with "Close another door," is a belting
rhythm and blues set. Not many voices in rock can scream without screeching. But Barry
Gibb has a strong voice (listen to him wail on "Close another door") with
tremendous range (listen to him sigh on "Holiday"). At his best, he is his own
stylist, and that goes for the music he sings as well.
"There's still this overriding thing of being commercial, which is always on your
mind," he admits. It's an old line in rock'n'roll, but the Gibb brothers mean
something other than the cliché when they speak of slick.
The time when "going commercial" meant creating repetitive and simplified music
is over, and this album is all the proof of that one needs. It is right in the financial
mainstream -eclectic, zany and cryptic- but it is skilfully conceived and sewn together.
All the cuts are within the conventional three-and-a-half minutes; there are no radical
innovations, and so it is not a "key" work. But it is the result of a
renaissance, if not the cause of one.
The rock revolution is history now; the Bee Gees are its children. Their sound will never
be duplicated by four guys standing under a lamp post on a summer night. It is finely,
carefully wrought music, meant for deep listening, and its imagery is etched in terse
filigree. The lyrics are simple, but they sting. For example, of Craise Finton Kirk, haute
monde hero of one song, the Bee Gees observe: "His wavy hair continues not to
You can approach this album assuming it will be complex; today's rock audience demands
that. To be profound is to be professional. Good poetry sells. To blow the mind with
radical departures is commercial. The pseudo-sound that passed for Pop music five years
ago has become a vital, probing sound. Today, slick means skill.
"When people put out ads saying you're the most significant new talent of 1967,
you've got to live up to it," says Robin. "So you do as much as you can to keep
away from basic chords and rhythms."
And though Pop enthusiasts often mistake mere novelty for quality, "The Bee Gees
First" is that not-so-rare occasion when the two coincide. There is a good deal of
background orchestration, but it all falls into place nicely; it neither smothers a good
composition nor tries to mask a bad one. The special effects are abundant, but they are
not a raison d'etre. The songs are all-important.
Two major compositions ("Every christian lion hearted man will show you" and
"Holiday") are superb examples of eclectic Pop music. They share a brooding
ecclesiastical mood ("We always thought if somebody put monks in a song it would
sell"). The former son begins with Gregorian chanting, then slides into an easy
rhythm, followed by some salty vocalizing in the chorus. It moves back and forth from
religiosity to rock (ending in a mournful drum fade-out) with brilliant continuity because
all the melodies are tightly knit; they speak to one another.
"Holiday" has more secular overtones, but it uses a cathedral organ to juxtapose
a gay lyric with a melancholic tune. The tension between words and melody provides just
the right setting for what the Bee Gees want to say in "Holiday": the
protagonist cannot love the girl of his dreams. His statement is executed with precise and
stunning musical irony.
"The Bee Gees First" is so brimming with the new poetry of Pop that one almost
overlooks some cagy xerography within. It is tempting to believe that the composers of
"Cucumber castle" -which sounds so fresh and original- imitate the Beatles by
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