Friday, May 30, 2014

So Now It's Okay to Like the Bee Gees?

Barry Gibbs, the last living Bee Gee, is playing to large crowds in a solo U.S. tour in 2014. He started in the huge Boston Garden, which is where I once saw the Rolling Stones. It's very big.

 Rolling Stone (the magazine) celebrates this with a collection of YouTube versions of "13 Essential Barry Gibb Tracks," most of them from the Bee Gees, beginning in the late 60s. The accompanying paragraphs are laudatory. They suggest that David Bowie essentially copied the Bee Gees in his early albums. So it's okay to like the Bee Gees now? Finally?

 When they started, the reigning tastemakers at Rolling Stone considered them Beatles Lite. Their middle period albums were ignored, their hits ridiculed. And that's before they rode the Disco wave with their songs in Saturday Night Fever, which was of course beneath contempt.

 Contempt was the attitude we faced when we included their first albums in our 1967-68 continuous play mix back in the Galesburg House for the Bewildered (169 W. First Street, now a national historical monument. Wait--update: they tore it down) where the tunes of that fantastic year were our senior year soundtrack at Knox College. Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Creem, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Buffalo Springfield, even Vanilla Fudge, but...the Bee Gees?

Two of the 13 Essential Tracks are from those first two albums.  "New York Mining Disaster 1941" is an acknowledged classic from their first one, and their first radio hit.  "To Love Somebody" also from that album (not in this list) was even bigger. "Holiday" was the third hit from the Bee Gees First.

But the critical bloom was off the rose already by their second album Horizontal, so the surprise of the Rolling Stone choices is "World," which led off the album and is immediately picked up thematically and musically in the next track.  Their daffy surrealism turned eerie, approaching what French surrealists like Eluard and Apollonaire might have written if they were in a rock band.  "Daytime Girl" sets a pattern of dreamy forboding.  Still, they could craft a radio hit when they wanted--though "Birdie Told Me" is a classic pop song, the album's hit turned out to be the melodic and yearning "Massachusetts."  Though "World" made the Brit charts, it was too weird for the US, or in those days, Rolling Stone.  Now apparently it's an essential.

By the time of their double album Odessa (with the red felt cover--I've still got it) the Bee Gees were more often ridiculed than respected.  Still, I continued to purchase and listen to every Bee Gees album in the early and mid 70s. Idea played at Iowa, Mr. Natural in PA. My allegiance while I was writing about rock at the Boston Phoenix was considered a puzzling eccentricity.  I do remember reading one writer somewhere (it may have even been on an album cover) brave enough to write a positive essay, though a lot of it was about how quixotic he was considered, how defensive he sometimes had to be.

 Now Bruce Springsteen is doing a Bee Gees song--and one from the disco era--and Gibb is doing a Springsteen (neither of them terribly good at it.) But that's less of a departure than Rolling Stone's--musicians by and large did not buy into the snobbery. Many recorded Bee Gees songs and copied their riffs. Musicians are like that.  (Irony here is that Jon Landau, by now the multimillionaire manager and former producer for the Boss, was the reigning imperial power as the record review editor at Rolling Stone in those years that established the Bee Gees as bad taste.)

 So I welcome the conventional wisdom to what I already knew: the Bee Gees were unique, unquestionably strange, but frequently haunting and oddly joyful.  I'm glad that at least one of them lived long enough to get some love as well as fame and fortune.  Welcome to the fan club.