Bee Gees Greatest
Limited Special Edition
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Ah, senior year in college…The freedom, the parties, the unidentified naked underclassmen passed out on the floor…All this bliss was shattered one afternoon when Mary, my roommate, brought home the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever.” My first reaction was, “This is on the wrong speed.” When Mary insisted it wasn’t, my second comment was “What happened? The Bee Gees sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks!”
I laughed at their newfound accelerated identity. Barry? Robin? Maurice? What happened? Was this same group of brothers who’d produced such heart warming ballads as “Holiday,” “I’ve Just Gotta Get A Message To You” and “I Started A Joke?” Well, the joke was on me. “Saturday Night Fever” soared to number one, and not one, not two, but three singles by the Bee Gees (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “How Deep Is Your Love”) and a fourth by former Clapton back up singer Yvonne Elliman (“If I Can’t Have You”) topped the charts. Everything the brothers Gibb touched for the next 4-5 years turned to gold, or at least platinum. Barry and Robin wrote the tuneful “Emotion,” a #3 hit for Samantha Sang (who never sang another noteworthy song on her own), and the Dr. Zhivago influenced #1 “Woman in Love” for Barbara Streisand; Barry scored a #1 with the indecipherable “Grease” sung by Frankie Valli, and all three brothers got some serious coin for writing the country bumpkin #1 “Islands In The Stream,” performed by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. At one point on the singles charts, “Stayin’ Alive” was replaced as the #1 song in the nation by Andy Gibb’s “Thicker Than Water,” which was supplanted by “Night Fever,” then “If I Can’t Have You,” making Barry Gibb the only artist to ever have four #1’s in a row. All that success didn’t come without a price – by 1980, the backlash against disco had begun (and I was leading the charge). The growing perception was the Bee Gees had sold their soul (s) for a few shekels. Wrongfully accused as the Dr. Funkenstein’s who’d created the ugly disco creature (K.C. & The Sunshine Band, the Village People anyone?), the Bee Gees popularity slowly dissipated until falsetto-less albums such as “E.S.P” in 1987 and “One” in 1989 restored their reputation.
Now that my ears have finally recovered, here comes the release of “Greatest Hits.” Spread over 2 CDs, “Greatest Hits” 28 tracks include the previously unreleased “Warm Ride,” and remixes of your favorite bump and grind mirror ball missives.
Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb had placed seven songs in the top 20 in a mere two years between 1967-69, including the folky “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the soulful “To Love Somebody” (written for Otis Redding), and “Massachusetts,” which was with a few votes of being the state’s song until someone mentioned the writers weren’t American. Sibling rivalry, specifically between oldest brother Barry and Robin prompted the latter to go it alone in 1969. The brothers reunited a year later, ushering the second phase of their careers with powerful pop ballads like the piano pounding “Lonely Days,” the weepy “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” and the tender “Run To Me.”
Punk, the scourge of all things melodic, and the baby steps of the dance music craze began blocking the Bee Gees progress on the charts. The hit machine was running low when the brothers Gibb convened in Miami in 1975 to record the album “Main Course.” Their previous album, “Mr. Natural,” had been an unnatural bomb. Despite producer Arif Mardin’s push for the group to explore their passion for R & B, they were uncertain if the change in direction would be successful. On their way to the studio each morning their car would pass over a small bridge. Barry took note of the bouncing sound the shock absorbers made and thought it might make a good backing track. The result was “Jive Talkin’,” which was delivered to DJs in a plain cover with limited information about the artist. The DJs went along with the ploy, playing the single without first announcing who the artist was. Sales skyrocketed even after a stunned public was told the perky pop sound was the new Bee Gees record. The successful third resurrection of The Bee Gees had begun – this time as leisure suited groove masters with an abundance of gold chains and chest hair.
The 2 CD retrospective takes all the high heeled hits and rump bumping best sellers and puts them in one neat package (naturally with a white cover to match John Revolta’s pants suit). “Don’t Throw It All Away (Our Love)” was a hit for brother Andy, a successful solo artist. His siblings had been providing Andy with material from the outset, including the hits “Shadow Dancing,” and “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” (you can easily hear his older brothers chirping in the background).The group often recorded demos that were nearly as elaborate as the finished product. In this case, The Bee Gees version is also superior to brother Andy’s more adolescent pop stylings. Barry’s vocal sits on the outskirts of Chipmunkville, but the reflective pace and Barry’s over dubbed offsetting baritone back up give it more of an adult flair.
“Stayin’ Alive” was Saturday Night Fever’s Rosetta Stone, a tribute to growing up in the tough streets of New York: (lyrics). The irony was “Stayin’ Alive” was also the Bee Gees full court Chipmunk press with Barry’s falsetto sounding as tough as a best two out of three falls between Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. The pounding rhythm track, although completely fabricated, gave “Stayin’ Alive” staying power. With drummer Dennis Byron attending his father’s funeral, the Bee Gees used a drum machine to keep time, looping the same beat throughout the length of the song. So, there you go. You can blame Dennis Byron for the birth of disco.
If John Revolta can strut down the street to the beat of “Barely Alive,” then “You Stepped Into My Life,” is the soundtrack for a black-hearted confident villain, a disco terminator. Blue Weaver’s synthesizer slithers and Barry tempers the energy with a from his past strangled leads. It’ll help you understand the allure of The Bee Gees’ dance music.
“Children of the World” deals from a major strength – the brothers well oiled voices. It starts off acapella, and what little music there is comes mostly from Weaver’s gurgling synthesizer. “From arrival to survival...” Is that a comment on the boy’s career? Even if you despise the Bee Gees disco period, this one has enough of what brought them to our attention in the first place (catchy lyrical content and three part harmonies) to make it worth repeated listens.
“Night Fever” typifies the interesting yin and yang of the Bee Gees disco music. Most of the song is a pleasurable swirl around the dance floor, the wocka-wocka guitar, the flood of keyboards, and the brother’s hypnotic harmonies. But every once in a while the gerbils get into the mix. When Barry goes into full shriek mode it’ll give you the night sweats.
Barry gets his man-badge back during the verses of “Nights on Broadway”: “Heeeeere we are..” bellowing from the gut like a jump suited Luciano Pavarotti, and an underused Robin gets to light up the recording booth with a line of two.
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” from “Main Course” is a stylistic holdover, pre- Barry vein-in-the face backed up by the Chipmunks. You’ll get to hear Barry as he’s supposed to sound – human – and the Bee Gees when their music was still rooted in ballad rather than boogie. Not to disappoint the mirror ball crowd, this is one of the first songs where the eldest Gibb tested out his window-shattering falsetto near the very end of the song. Despite that brief lapse in judgment, “Fanny,” deals with relationships rather than rhythms, making it easier to identify with the narrator.
Every disco dude and diva needed a breather, a song they could clutch and grab to. Enter “How Deep Is Your Love,” which plays off the Bee Gees’ breathy vocals. There’s no straining, no pre-stroke vein popping out of the middle of Barry’s head. If chipmunks could have orgasms, they’d sound like this. (P.S. I once had the opportunity to sing “How Deep Is Your Love” at a party. I was very hesitant about singing this one, but someone has requested it, so we added it to our set list at the last moment. By the time we hit the chorus, “’Cause we’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be, it belongs to you and me,” a group of soccer moms and Wall Street dads were on the dance floor, clutching each other tenderly. Ah, the power of love.)
When the Bee Gees disco demolition derby went off the road, it usually careened head on into a wall of bad taste. Disco was meant be danced to, not listened to, so when you actually sat down and cocked your ear toward the speaker and diffused some of this through your skin, you realized where the expression “Disco sucks” came from. “You Should Be Dancing” is a prime offender, with The Bee Gees baying like unbridled donkeys alongside an army of Tito Puente wannabes that includes…Stephen Stills! Stills spent part of his childhood in Latin America, but that’s no excuse for him to imitate Ricky Ricardo. This horn flooded repetitive frenzy is meant to sound celebratory – instead it sounds like a trio of Perdue chicken’s being strangled. Dance, but don’t listen too closely.
If you’re wondering what the Budweiser ferret was doing before he made it in commercials give “Tragedy” a good listen. (Word has it the ferret is also using the name Neil Young.) High pitched is one thing, being able to shatter six inch glass is another. ”Tragedy” is just that – an unlistenable calamity.
There are other tragedies set to music on “Greatest hits,” including the brothers’ version of the Yvonne Elliman hit, “If I Can’t Have You,” which crosses the line separating tempting from torture. The boys occasionally reach for heights they shouldn’t, their voices quivering like a trio of sun worshippers in their underwear at the Artic Circle. Elliman’s version had a sturdy, hammering beat and was brimming with sexuality. There’s no hint of the narrator getting lucky here, as Barry comes across as having the sex drive of a eunuch.
The boys warble about their hearts or their livers hanging out in “Love You Inside Out,” but it sounds more like their trusses have given out, and in “Too Much Heaven” they complain that “Nobody gets too much heaven no more.” Well, that’s because they have to sit through the hell of this mawkish imitation of a ballad.
The Bee Gees had an unnatural love for country music, and with the exception of “Marley Purt Drive” (from “Odessa”) and Maurice’s lone vocal, “Lay It On Me,” (from “2 Years On”), their forays into Hicksville belong in a spittoon. “Rest Your Love On Me” is no exception, combining pedal steel, an Australian drawl, Arp synthesizer, and a disco cadence. Somewhere the corpse of Hank Williams is putting in his false teeth and coming after the boys, because this song bites.
Aside from negating one of their strong points – their angelic harmonies – The Bee Gees disco sound proved hazardous to their health. Robin, whose delicate vibrato always seemed in danger of making him sound like Elmer Fudd, began to stand stock still during live performances, his finger stuck in his ear, supposedly to keep his pitch, but likely to block out the noise. Barry, who was stuck singing in an exaggerated falsetto 2,000 octaves above his normal level, could be seen red-faced, a large vein protruding from the center of his forehead, a high note away from a stroke. As for Maurice, well, he’s dead isn’t he? See, disco kills.
Looking back, it’s still amazing that a trio of Australian brothers could become the de facto fathers of disco. But whether they were creating songs in the realm of folk, pop, baroque, adult contemporary or disco, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb could always come up with a good hook or a quality piece. That combination guaranteed success, even if you think they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks O.D.ing on too much Maxwell House.