Happy 50th Anniversary to the Bee Gees’ third studio album Bee Gees 1st, originally released in the UK July 14, 1967 and in the US August 9, 1967.
"The most significant new musical talent of 1967,” read the audacious industry trade tagline heralding the release of "New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the Bee Gees' first single under a freshly-inked contract with manager Robert Stigwood and NEMS Enterprises. Stigwood's confidence in his newly acquired Gibb brothers was quite remarkable given that he'd only first heard the band's demo tapes—which had been shipped to his office by Gibb family patriarch, Hugh—about twelve weeks earlier by chance.
"It is unbelievable because we didn't expect anything of the kind," Barry Gibb reflected in the liner notes of the album's 2006 re-issue. "I think most of the industry weren't really interested in signing more groups up. We just got very lucky that Robert had received the demos sent by my father and became interested. We didn't know where he was, but he found us. It all happened very, very quickly."
While their initial rise to fame under Stigwood's wing may have appeared meteoric, the Bee Gees' arrival into popular consciousness was nearly a decade in the making. They'd been performing together in some capacity since December 1957, when brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice sang in public for the first time in between films at the Gaumont Theatre in Manchester, England. Barry had reportedly written his first song, "Turtle Dove,” in 1956, although the first known recordings of the Bee Gees wouldn't be made until 1959. The fledgling Gibbs, despite their unsettled adolescent voices, demonstrated a stunning natural ability to effortlessly harmonize—that pure, raw vocal talent was evident on their earliest of records even if they lacked the compositional complexity and nuance of their later material.
After the Gibb family emigrated to Australia in the summer of 1958, the brothers began performing nearly anywhere that would have them to support their financially fragile household. Their precocious musical professionalism, coupled with Barry's developing skill as a songwriter, began to solidify their reputation and generate interest within the local record industry. In 1963, the Bee Gees would sign their first recording contract with Festival Records' Leedon label. It was a relationship that generated little in terms of commercial success, save for a few minor hits, but created a multitude of opportunities for the Gibbs to hone their craft as singers and songwriters.
Resolute in their pursuit of musical success, the brothers convinced their family to return to England in early 1967, but not before finally scoring a regional hit single in Australia with "Spicks and Specks,” a track that would shockingly receive a renaissance 48 years later when it was featured in a season five episode of the AMC television series of The Walking Dead. In advance of their departure, they sent acetates of the most recent material they'd recorded with friend and producer Ossie Byrne, who would accompany the family on the five-week trip back to England. They made landfall in Southampton aboard the Italian ocean liner SS Fairsky on February 7, a journey the Gibbs paid for in exchange for nightly performances on the ship. On March 7, the Bee Gees were booked into London's IBC studios to begin the recording sessions for Bee Gees' 1st, the album that would launch the band into international stardom within months.
"We ran through a lot of stuff," Barry said of the first batch of days they spent in the studio. "I think we did about a week there straight. Robert dropped in every night and would suggest things. Tell us what he didn't like and what he did like. The songs were formulated in that week from ideas composed on the ship [en route to England]. In those days, if you weren't the Beatles, you made an album in three weeks, and that's what happened."
Stigwood served as 1st's producer, with Ossie Byrne as co-pilot at the helm. To round out the brothers' sound and to solidify their presence as an actual rock band, Australians Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney on drums and guitar, respectively, were hired for the studio sessions and remained as de facto members of the Bee Gees for the next two years.
The title Bee Gees' 1st is a bit of a misnomer given the band had already released two studio albums—The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs (1965) and Spicks and Specks (1966)—while in Australia. 1st is, therefore, more of an evolution than it is a pure debut. But given Barry hadn't yet turned twenty-one, and Robin and Maurice were still teenagers when it was released, makes its vision and execution as a whole impressive. The musical and lyrical maturity it took for the still-green Barry and Robin to pen a lead single as darkly inspired as "New York Mining Disaster 1941" is an accomplishment in and of itself. But 1st is a mosaic of compelling musical moments; some are confection, some are sparkling, and others are just wonderfully strange.
“New York Mining Disaster 1941" was reportedly realized on a darkened stairwell in the Polydor offices during a power outage. "We were imagining we were in a mine," explained Robin Gibb, "because of the atmosphere." Barry continues: "we found out later that there was a mining disaster in the state of New York in 1935. But we weren't worried about describing a historical incident. It could have happened anyway. The song wasn't actually describing a mining disaster. It represents any disaster anywhere." Three different versions of the song were recorded, including one with a full orchestra. In the end, a sparse take with just an electric guitar, bass, percussion, and a cello was the chosen candidate. Despite its morose subject matter, the public promptly ate it up and sent the Bee Gees directly into the top twenty in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
The single's B-side was the Stax/Volt-inspired "I Can't See Nobody,” arguably one of the Bee Gees' finest R&B compositions. It was one of the first worldwide showcases for Robin's extraordinary vocal vibrato. It could have easily been an anchor single in its own right, but it lived out a deservedly long life in the Bee Gees' live set lists and innumerable greatest hits compositions over the next five decades.
The gorgeous "Holiday,” which would eventually become the Bee Gees' third consecutive US top twenty hit, was the blueprint for a career's worth of expertly-crafted Gibb ballads. While Barry and Robin's standout vocal interplay had become quite familiar to audiences by the time it dropped as a single in September 1967, "Holiday" was a creative victory for younger brother Maurice. "[It] starts with that beautiful organ sound," Robin describes of his twin's indispensable contribution in 2006. "He was magnificent with the way he used chord progression. He could play just a few chords and inspire you with the idea of a song, with melody and everything." The first twenty-four seconds of "Holiday" is almost hymn-like with its minor-chord melancholy, but the full-bodied orchestral flourishes at its climax—and another sterling performance by Robin—transform it into a gleaming pop classic.
The album's pendulum swings satisfyingly in different directions on the balance of the tracks, and it's especially fun to hear the Bee Gees be fearlessly weird—a sensibility with which they, unfortunately, parted as their catalog evolved beyond the late 1960s and early 1970s. The compressed piano-and-vocal-only jaunt "Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts" is essentially the Gibbs riffing abstractly, but its utter silliness is validated by the fact that it's so endearingly infectious. "Turn of the Century,” the album's opening track, is a fanciful little Baroque epic that the Bee Gees credit to the brilliance of their arranger, Bill Shepherd—another friendship the Bee Gees had forged during their Festival Records days. "When we got to England we knew we wanted to hear our music with an orchestra behind it," Barry said in the band's 1979 authorized biography. "Bill Shepherd was a very, very, very important cog in that machinery,” Robin affirms. "He had this vivid way with melodies in the arrangement. He came up with this great orchestral picture to complement the music." The Gibbs leaned heavily on that instrumental melodrama as primary scenery for their pop music sketches for the first several years of their career both in the studio and in concert.
Even more intriguing is the guttural Gregorian-esque chanting in between the verses of the magnificently trippy "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You,” a song that quickly drew comparisons to British peers The Moody Blues. "We did the monks in the background,” Robin explained. “'O Solo Dominique' is actually an expression we got from a church in Essex. I think it's 'Strength through fear of God and unity through church and family.' It was something to that effect, but it was in Latin, of course. And we repeated those words. We don't know, but it could be the hidden Da Vinci Code!"
The psychedelic imagery of "Red Chair, Fade Away,” the Brian Wilson-styled choruses of "Please Read Me,” and Barry's bleeding-heart romantic ode to the object of his affection in "One Minute Woman" are the work of a band who knew instinctively how to mesh their crystalline brotherly harmony and melodic savvy for maximum impact. The Bee Gees' unpretentious commitment to their craft—and sometimes a penchant for technical perfectionism—helped them transcend the confines of the British Invasion.
The crown jewel of 1st is, of course, the classic R&B ballad "To Love Somebody.” I'm certain Barry and Robin had made no plans to write one of the most enduring and covered songs in music history (they had, in fact, penned it in the hopes of legendary soul singer Otis Redding recording it before his untimely death), but there it is, tucked in near the middle of 1st's second side. Much hoopla has been made about it being resurrected by Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, and Billy Corgan, but for my money, Barry Gibb's clear-voiced reading adorned by billows of strings, horns, and tympanis is three pristine minutes of pop genius.
Embraced by fans and critics alike as some of their most luminescent work, Bee Gees' 1st would be reissued several times in multiple formats over the next forty years. In 2006, three years after the unexpected passing of Maurice Gibb, the album received the deluxe treatment from Reprise Records as part of a reissue program that spanned the Bee Gees' first four studio albums, revealing alternate takes, unreleased songs, and re-mastered recordings of the commercially issued tracks in both mono and stereo formats. All three versions of "New York Mining Disaster 1941,” plus variants of “Turn of the Century,” “One Minute Woman,” “I Close My Eyes,” “Cucumber Castle" and “Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts" were collected for the revamp, as were previously unavailable rarities “Gilbert Green,” “House of Lords,” “I've Got to Learn,” “All Around My Clock,” and “Mr. Wallor's Wailing Wall.”
1st laid much of the fundamental groundwork for the Bee Gees' illustrious six-decades-long career. Reaching the top ten in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Germany, and Norway, the album ushered the Gibbs into their first major wave of global celebrity that would greatly raise the stakes as they completed recording for their second album, Horizontal, in November 1967. Within eighteen months, the success the Bee Gees had longed to find for over a decade would tear them apart for nearly two years. Despite the fractured relationships between the brothers, Robert Stigwood would remain the Bee Gees' manager until the early 1980s—a partnership that would generate an almost unfathomable amount of financial and artistic prosperity for the Gibbs in the latter half of the 1970s.
To date, the Bee Gees are among the most successful recording artists in history, having sold in excess of two-hundred million records. Bee Gees' 1st is essential listening for anyone who cares about modern pop music and a window to the beginning of the Bee Gees’ overlooked legacy that shaped generations of singers, songwriters, and producers that followed them.