Trying to conceive of the Bee Gees without the Beatles is as impossible as imagining the Osmonds without the Jackson Five. Though it is easy to forget it in this disco daze, the Bee Gees were the original ersatz, presented under the auspices of Brian Epstein himself. So it’s only appropriate that their live album should be released almost simultaneously with the Beatles’ own. The contrast tells us a lot about who the Beatles were and what show business thought they were.
Without the Beatles, it seems certain that Barry and Maurice would not appear onstage as guitarist and bassist, respectively. The heart of their imagination is in vocals, and in clean, disciplined production — values they derived from the Beatles all right, but after disposing of the ruckus that is the heart of The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve rarely heard a live pop album with the tightness and clarity of Here at Last, and I’ve rarely heard one with less rock & roll. Songs like “New York Mining Disaster 1941” once seemed very Beatlesque indeed, but there’s nothing like it on Hollywood Bowl, and what the Beatles did there, the Bee Gees simply ignore. The intention isn’t censorious; the beat and the power simply aren’t relevant. For the Bee Gees and their showbiz brethren, the Beatles’ sound was whatever sliver you wanted to take it to be, since you could hardly have it all.
Nor is all that raw power very much missed. From “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” which opens this set, to the recent disco-oriented songs like “Jive Talk-in’,” which closes it four sides later, the Bee Gees pick up almost every trick. “Nights on Broadway” is not only of a piece with “I Started a Joke,” both are performed with incredible precision; in fact, the technical facility it takes to weave the harmonies of “Holiday” makes emotion a secondary consideration. The timing of these songs is exquisite, and, for once, we have a pop group with enough imagination and restraint to use strings well live — the scoring has body where most other pop music is flaccid. The arrangements are just pared-down versions of the originals, so that a song like “I Can’t See Nobody” might be something James Taylor wrote. Neither the McCartney manqués — like Eric Carmer, and Henry Gross — nor the raw-power advocates can boast anything so flawlessly executed.
The Beatles did not necessarily save rock & roll, but they may have rescued show business. Without them, the Bee Gees would have no reason to take such care with their stage presentation, and we might have wound up with an atrocity rather than a very skillfully made concert recording. But show business emerged from its dalliance with the Beatles only slightly changed, as the Andy Gibb album, Flowing Rivers, demonstrates. Trying to imagine this record without its sibling sponsors is as hopeless as trying to conceive of Little Jimmy Osmond without his.
Andy owes his brothers; Barry wrote — or cowrote — the two best songs here, produced them, sings on them. They sound more than a trifle like the Bee Gees, though two voices aren’t as good as three. The other songs are near cousins of the stuff on Here at Last, but not nearly as swell. Without those (Beatles-derived, of course) harmonies, Gibb music doesn’t amount to much. But then, you could say that about a lot of what’s making the rounds on turntables these days.