When I was growing up, The Bee Gees were a bit of a joke - a mass of chew sets as parodied by Kenny Everett, and a reminder of disco's flirtation with the mainstream. I never had a strong opinion either way with The Bee Gees; the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was big - a monster - and that was both good and bad but it played on over my head (given my age at the time). And that was that, really.
And then I heard To Love Somebody - which is to say I heard it in the context of The Bee Gees; their composition. Before that I just knew (of) it - a song that hovered in the air, that was performed by dozens of artists, more than dozens. Same with Words and I Started a Joke and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
I'll tell you, straight up, to this day, I prefer hearing Al Green doing How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? and I'll plump for The Chambers Brothers' version of To Love Somebody - but from my earliest days as a music-fan, an active listener, I became obsessed with hearing the original version - and even if the "original" was performed by an artist who was not the songwriter, I've always made myself search on to seek out the songwriter's version of the tune (it's why even though I hate the f**king Eagles! I can enjoy JD Souther's "cover" of his own song, New Kid in Town for example).
So, then I had a frame-of-reference, and a handy slogan, The Bee Gees were great songwriters - that was the line I used if I ever had to defend my interest in the band. And I probably need to point out that I was 12 or 13 here - so perhaps any interest in The Bee Gees, in and of that particular time and place, did need defending.
And then, that was it. For a while. No more thoughts about The Bee Gees. Good songwriters, and that'll do nicely.
Then, many years on I've got the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on double vinyl and I'm digging a lot of the material on it - and that's fine. You didn't even need to know yourself whether it was being appreciated with any ironic detachment. Bargain records were being snapped up, some for the tunes, some for the session players, some for their cover images and some for their status as big-sellers or influential albums, or whatever...
And then, I found myself in a covers band attempting Jive Talkin'. That groove. And the joy in this song - such a great job of transcending a novelty-lyric, cut to fit a trend, to widen the band's appeal. You can appreciate that song just for the rhythm-section, there is so much going on and a lot of space around what feels like melodic, harmonic congestion. The Bee Gees have this way of making chaos simmer in the background, bubbling beneath so that the mood of the song shines through regardless of how busy it might feel.
From then on, I've been hooked on The Bee Gees - but they're a band that deserves an alternative greatest hits. I totally understand people feeling they don't need to ever hear the likes of Stayin' Alive again. That said - I'm generally down with Night Fever, More Than a Woman and How Deep Is Your Love.
But I'm far more interested in the story of the band as songwriters and producers, Barry working with Barbra Streisand to create Guilty, say, or Dionne Warwick's Heartbreaker and Dolly and Kenny's Islands in the Stream.
And in 2006 it was a real treat to have reissues of some of the band's earliest albums, Bee Gees' 1st (actually their third album, but what's in a name), Horizontal and Idea. Great, great albums - bursting with pop brilliance. Light on cliché, chock-full of classic songs.
And then there's Odessa - the confused, confusing and completely brilliant linear concept album. The record that tore the band apart, forcing them to rethink their approach, to reinvent themselves - to hitch themselves to bandwagons, sure, but to make sure they didn't fall victim to the pressures of being a tight unit that toured, released albums and singles endlessly. This was the start of The Bee Gees spreading out and rethinking their focus with music.
And through the band's career there are, in and around the big sellers, surprising songs that almost fall between the cracks, one foot in camp disco-tinged pop, one foot somewhere else entirely - or the overwrought ballads that almost punish the listener into submission; the result a beautiful and profound pop song.
My new favourite Bee Gees song is Nights on Broadway, the single that followed on from Jive Talkin' on the Main Course album. Again, there's a great other version in the one offered by Candi Staton. And that is the version I heard first. But in recent years I've become fixated with the one recorded by The Bee Gees.
So, these thoughts - and many others about the band - were conjured in part by watching In Our Own Time, a Bee Gees documentary that will play on New Zealand TV this Monday night as part of the Prime Rocks series. It's a great wee career overview, pointing to the Brothers Gibb for everything beyond the oft-mentioned harmony and falsetto singing, looking at the competition and feuding, the writing and producing, the huge success working with other artists, the late career comeback and then of course that wonderful singing too.
I'm happy to out myself a Bee Gees fan. No shame here. A staggeringly brilliant catalogue, deceptively simple pop - and there is so much there beyond the done-to-death radio fodder (and in fact so much of that manages still, somehow, to continue with some form of a freshness) but I was struck, watching the Prime Rocks doco, with the notion that really it's impossible to dismiss The Bee Gees for whatever perceived sins there might be within their recorded work - that trace-around disco sound is, for better and worse, the doorway that many entered through to discover other wonderful music by great artists. And if your best frame of reference is that Faith No More covered I Started a Joke, well, then that in itself is (at least) a start.
I reckon there's something for everyone - and so much of that very early work deserves your time, either for the first time or for a reminder of the potent - often close to perfect - pop music that Barry, Robin and Maurice offered up as if running entirely on instinct. Never mind how calculated you're sure it all seemed to be; what matters is the music as an end result. And the best of The Bee Gees' music is - to my ears - astounding.
So, what do you reckon? Bee Gees fan? Or no chance - not now, not ever? And will you tune in on Monday for the Prime Rocks: In Our Time screening? What are your favourite Bee Gees songs and albums? Or is your idea of the image of The Bee Gees just too much of a deterrent for you to dive in to the recorded catalogue?
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