T'was Matthew Sweet who first got me reconsidering the Brothers Gibb: covering one of the Aussie sibs' sixties hits, "Come to Me," with Under the Covers collaborator Susannah Hoffs, he had me listening to a song I hadn't thought about in years – and, in so doing, made me hear the pop craftiness that had gone into that particular 45.
"The Bee Gees don't get enough respect," Sweet went on to write in Cover's liner notes, and the guy had a point. These skilled concocters of wispy sixties pop-rock had largely been supplanted in public memory by the bell-bottomed disco dorks of the late seventies. To be sure, the boys themselves had helped to create this lamentable situation (cf., a 1979 Bee Gees Greatest collection that ignored the band's sixties output entirely), but other pop idols have attempted similar acts of pop revisionism without abandoning their past completely.
Fact is, in their youth, the Bee Gees could be about as sharp a group of sixties popsters as ever got a crowd of teen girls weeping en masse and rending their blouses. Perhaps it's their misfortune to've first come into prominence during a particularly fecund pop era; maybe it's just the dreaded Wimp Factor. But despite a slew of both keen and soggy Top 40 AM radio hits, the early Bee Gees catalog has long been criminally under-repped in the U.S. Thankfully, this situation is now being redressed by the pop addicts at Rhino Records, who late last year released a boxed set of deluxe editions of the first three Bee Gees' releases – and even more recently put out single packages of each one of these albums (1st, Horizontal and Idea) for those of us without the disposable income to buy a six-disc boxed set on spec.
Recently picked up the first of these releases, 1967's 1st, and I was surprised by how tunefully eclectic the darn thing was. In addition to its trio of Sensitive Guy hit singles (elegantly schlocky "Holiday," quiet desperation classic "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and the Motown-indebted "To Love Somebody," which would also be a British hit for Nina Simone), the album is a veritable fruit basket of sweet stuff: from the chamber psychedelia of "Red Chair, Fade Away" to the Moody Blues-driven chant-work of "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You" to a surprisingly garage-stained nugget like "In My Own Time" (check out that "Taxman"-driven guitar), plus several risible slips of veddy veddy swingin' sixties whimsy ("Craise Finton Kirk Academy of Art," "Turn of the Century"). And for those who simply must have their unabashed Gibbian wimpiness, there's "One Minute Woman," which features Barry Gee getting down on his knees for a fickle and ungrateful lass.
So tell Matt Sweet the news: 1st is a prime piece of period pop-rockiness that deserves to be better appreciated. On more than one track I found myself thinking of the Hollies, another harmonic band of hitmakers who struggled to hold onto an audience as the seventies encroached and FM heaviness prevailed in the rock-and-pop universe. Perhaps I should've gotten out the coin jar and sprung for the full boxed set, after all?
Rhino's reissue contains two discs: first features 1st in both mono and stereo versions (my sound system's too crappy for me to be able to tell the dif); number two has the usual dee-luxe bells 'n' whistles: alternate takes of album tracks (e.g., a much more orchestrated version of the folk-rocky "Mining Disaster") plus some previously unreleased tracks (the most amusing of which is the lightly satirical "House of Lords"). The cuts sound more polished than the usual bonuses: even at their "roughest" the Singers Gibb maintain their engaging pop plasticity.
Final verdict: definitely worth respect.