Originally posted July 13, 2007
As regular readers of this blog might have already surmised, during the years that I was learning late about rock ’n’ roll, rock, and pop music – during the years 1970 through 1972 or so – two of my guides were the guys across the street, Rick and Rob. Nearly every time I crossed Kilian Boulevard in those days, I heard something new, and most of the times, it was something I wanted to add to my growing record collection.
So on a summer evening in 1970, I wandered over to Rick and Rob’s house and joined them in one of the spare rooms in the back of the house, where one of the record players was located. We lounged around, drank some Cokes, shared news about friends’ summertime diversions and listened to music. The two albums that I recall from that night were the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Best of Bee Gees. I’d never heard any of Sgt. Pepper before that evening – I had a lot of catching up to do, as I’ve indicated elsewhere – but I’d heard some of the Bee Gees’ stuff.
The Bee Gees, in their first artistic incarnation, were generally looked on as a Beatles Lite, an Australian packaging of a sweet little pop group that had a pretty good sense of melody and got some good production. But the group, critics and discerning listeners seemed to say, was essentially less than substantive, followers and not leaders in the advance of pop music toward artistic relevance. It’s true that if the Bee Gees were advancing anything during their run of hits in the 1960s, it was pop music. While the Beatles rocked on occasion – and did so well when they wanted to – the Bee Gees were a pop confection. And that was at a time when pop was being seen as less and less relevant.
After all, wasn’t it the purpose of music to make heavy statements about the world and our place in it? Well, no, the purpose of music is far more diffuse than that, but I think that in the case of popular music – traditional pop, pop rock, R&B, rock and country, even today’s rap and hip-hop (and any other popular genre that I’ve left out) – entertainment has to be high on the list of things to accomplish. If a piece does not capture the audience’s attention, there is no way that any message embedded in the piece will be transmitted. I’m reminded as I write this of the turgid films, operas and plays produced during the last century in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China: the ideological message was primary, and entertainment value, if it was thought of at all during the creation of the pieces, was way down the list of things to worry about.
That’s an awful heavy comparison for pop music, but in the late 1960s, as pop, pop rock, and rock began to explore production techniques and topics not previously heard on the radio or on record, a lot of the more “serious” material produced was so unentertaining as to be unlistenable. You’ve got to grab the audience before you can preach to them or make them listen to an experiment. That’s why the Beatles’ more experimental pieces worked. That’s why The Who’s Tommy worked. (Those are just two that worked; there were numerous others that did as well as many that did not.) They were entertainment first and message second.
Now, in the case of the Bee Gees, there was no heavy message in their work for most of the 1960s. They and the people behind them produced pop, lovely songs with frequently cryptic words. (In 1970s, the Bee Gees’ reign as kings of the discotheque was still seven or eight years in the future—a long time in pop culture terms – and was unimaginable during that summer when Rick, Rob and I listened to their greatest hits LP.) I’d heard some of the songs before Rob dropped the LP on the stereo that evening: I knew “I Started A Joke” and “Words.” And “To Love Somebody” was familiar, too. But the rest of the record was new to me, including “First of May,” “New York Mining Disaster, 1941,” “I’ve Gotta Get A Message to You,” and the rest.
I liked it, a lot. There were some odd production techniques, some odd endings. There was the singularly strange bounciness of “Spicks and Specks.” And sometimes the lyrics were vague, leaving the listener wondering if they singer knew more than he was letting on (or leaving a critical listener wondering about the Bee Gees’ ability to write a complete and coherent lyric, but that was a realization a few years down the road.) As I think back, however, the Bee Gees were not nearly the only performers being cryptic or vague at the time. After all, the word “Dylanesque” had to come from somewhere. In any event, I liked the record. And in a few weeks, Best of Bee Gees was in the cardboard box where I kept my albums, getting frequent play. (So, too, was Sgt. Pepper.)
Not long after that, Rick came over one evening with Rob’s new acquisition: Odessa by the Bee Gees. It was a double album from 1969 with its jacket covered in red velvet, with only the words “Bee Gees” and “Odessa” on the front. Below on the front was the Atco logo, evidently an addition to later printings, as on-line images of the jacket don’t show the logo. And inside was some of the most captivating music the Bee Gees ever made.
Some of the lyrics still left one wondering exactly what the writer meant. But set in jewels that ranged from the country-ish “Give Your Best” to the sweet “First of May” (which reached No. 37 on the charts as a single), and from the lush instrumental “Seven Seas Symphony” (one of three instrumentals on the album) to the epic title track, the lyrics worked and the record worked.
Perhaps the most sensible comment I’ve ever heard or read about Odessa came from the Rolling Stone Album Guide, which called it “the Sgt. Pepper’s copy all ’60s headliners felt driven to attempt,” noting that it “wasn’t bad; faulting it for pretentiousness makes absolutely no sense.”
And to me, another thirty-seven years down the pike from there, that assessment still holds. Odessa remains one of the hundreds of albums I have in the RealPlayer, and when a track from the record pops up, it brings a smile. It’s lush pop, attempted at times on a heroic scale. Whether grandeur in pop is silly or thrilling is a judgment best left to each listener. As for me, although I recognize the Bee Gees’ straining in the attempt for something grand, the effort alone works, because it’s built on a foundation of entertaining music. I still like the album.
Bee Gees – Odessa, Pt. 1 (1969)
Bee Gees – Odessa, Pt. 2 (1969)
Tags: Bee Gees