It’s not that the hirsute, all-white-clad Bee Gees of the 1970s weren’t great. Those disco years and Saturday Night Fever tracks certainly were. But the Bee Gees also pulled off an—arguably—greater run in the late-‘60s. And lately, there’s been an uptick of interest in the Bee Gees’ first golden age—the experimental, soulful cousin to the British Invasion era—thanks to yet another career comeback from surviving member Barry Gibb.
The Bee Gees’ string of luminous recordings during the ‘60s is remarkable for both the deft incorporation of a huge range of instruments, as well as the songwriting skills of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb. In fact, songs the brothers wrote for Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers count as some of the better hits of the rock n’ roll era. So, for a moment, put the image of three falsetto singing-heads out of your mind and check out the 10 best songs the Bee Gees wrote and recorded before their disco breakthrough.
10. “I Laugh In Your Face”
The title sounds like a Ramones song, and indeed there is a cutting note of defiance in this song’s message, but the arrangements couldn’t be further from punk. Strings and choir voices blend in a massive harmonic onslaught that is one of Odessa’s high points. “The circus is coming to see you” is one of the scariest opening lines of a song ever, at least the way these guys say it, but don’t worry: laughing out of fear is the early Bee Gees’ sweet spot.
9. “Black Diamond”
Robin lets out one of his most stirring performances with a reverberant tremolo wail that lends weight to this relatively straight-ahead rocker from their offbeat epic Odessa. The nautical imagery that runs through the record is enhanced in this song by a scene that recalls Odysseus’ return from Troy. A weighty keyboard arrangement creates a timeless feeling and leads to an abbreviated valediction: “say goodbye to Auld Lang Syne.” The total effect makes for a standout moment from the band’s most ambitious early work.
8. “Really and Sincerely”
A mournful accordion sets a cinematic tone for a song that centers on an ecstatic, counterintuitive appeal: “Turn me down.” The band was ahead of its time in pairing bummer sentiments with aural pleasure, a mark of their unique talent well ahead of the dancing-my-despair-away mentality of their coming disco wave.
7. “Second Hand People”
A notably Liverpudlian accent, hard to avoid for many a band from this era, comes through on this brief little ditty from Spicks and Specks. The song is a laid-back celebration of not giving a shit: “We’re not living, just existing, / We’re not moving, just resisting.” But the chorus’ oddly phrased image of “treacle in a pond” suggests that when you go with the flow you might actually be disappearing into the current.
6. “To Love Somebody”
One of the most covered Bee Gees songs and one of the best, “To Love Somebody” captures the band’s reverence for Stax and ease with rock n’ roll songwriting. The soulful touch here is a prelude to another Gibb-penned classic, “Islands in the Stream.” Both tunes feature unforgettable choruses that make them karaoke classics. The Bee Gees’ stellar recording of “To Love Somebody” is notable, too, for some of the best arrangements of their early period: the French horns of the first verse give way to the dual flutes in the second and it all leads to a climactic brass hook. They famously wrote this song for Otis Redding who died before he could record it. It says a lot that they did the number justice themselves.
5. “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You”
A vocal refrain that echoes Gregorian chants alternates with a fuzzy rock number and the two strictly separate modes somehow complement one another perfectly, combining for a spooky psychedelic flourish. This superb single was released as the flip side to the similarly haunted and conflicted “Holiday.” Paired together with “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (see next entry) the tracks epitomize the band’s progressive bent during this visionary period.
4. “New York Mining Disaster 1941”
narrative from the perspective of a man searching for a loved one in the wake of a landslide. The speaker addresses one person in particular that he picks out from the chaos, repeatedly asking him: “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?” The act of naming a fictional character to whom the lyrics are being communicated—a trope of ‘60s pop—is effective because it eschews broad generalizations in favor of a specific, intimate interaction. A lyric like “I keep straining my ears to hear a sound. / Maybe someone is digging underground / Or have they given up and all gone home to bed / Thinking those who once existed must be dead,” is chilling because it isn’t just the singer who is saying such a desperate phrase out loud. It’s the character, too. When he shows Mr. Jones “a photograph of someone that I knew” we realize that we are seeing a mental snapshot thanks to the Gibbs’ expert storytelling.
3. “I Started a Joke”
This classic tune is one of the best and most beloved of the band’s early years because it captures their melancholic, self-dramatizing beauty in a masterful display. The lyrics follow a formal scheme, but also manage to also evoke a sense of tender vulnerability. Whatever the speaker tries to do, the opposite tends to happen: “I started a joke that started the whole world crying … I started to cry which started the whole world laughing.” The pattern leads to a sweeping, grandiose final verse in which he discovers that when he “finally died [it] started the whole world living.” The verses are punctuated by a chorus that triumphantly voices a sense of total failure and disappointment. Despite that contrast, Robin sings boldly without a touch of irony, giving the macabre message a confessional setting. The blissful posthumous voice of this tune manages to turn our attention from its words of death and despair to its feeling of life and beauty.
2. “Spicks and Specks”
This scorcher from 1966 shows off the Bee Gees’ dynamic control, as the song gradually builds to a snare drum’s steady march, recalling the occasionally martial rhythms of Roy Orbison’s ballads. Modulating upward in tone, the song builds tension incrementally, giving Robin space to go full soul singer. When the song finally explodes into Technicolor at the final refrain we feel a healing catharsis peculiar to pop music. The bouncing, propulsive energy of this song is more rock n’ roll than much of the Bee Gees’ early catalog and it gives a hint of the historic hit-making potential the band had coming in the following decade.
This is the ‘60s Bee Gees at their absolute best. It’s daring, tense and paradoxical music sung in a precise, highly controlled manner. We get the sense of a love poem being written under duress as the Gibbs brothers’ amazing vocal performances cloak the chorus in a shadow of fear. On the other hand, the verses, set in a dense harmonic field, hint at the celebration usually associated with a “Holiday.” The song suggests a lover who can give the speaker a break from his usual self. But to enjoy the holiday he must become the “puppet [who] makes you smile.” The Bee Gees excel at transforming frustration and alienation into blissful, musical escapism.