To comprehend the Bee Gees is to comprehend much that is banal, without grace, and trite.
This is necessarily to say that the Bee Gees have deep roots in one of the most neglected areas of rock music, the popular romantic ballad. What is called rock and roll sprang not only from the blues, rhythm and blues, and country-western, but also from the American popular song. Even the early vocal groups mined this lode of mediocre material: “The Way You Look Tonight” by the Jaguars anticipates “Where or When” by Dion and the Belmonts in this respect.
Most often the adoption was not so direct, although (for instance) Bull-moose Jackson’s early rhythm and blues recording “I Love You, Yes I Do” is clearly in the tradition of big band ballad vocals. This ballad tradition is not dead, even in rhythm and blues: James Brown has done several resurrections of “I Love You, Yes I do.” The early interaction of American popular music with rhythm and blues and country-western produced unique conventions in both of these forms for the treatment of the romantic ballad. Thus rock and roll even at its inception could draw on “impure” romantic ballad traditions in both rhythm and blues and country-western.
But in some cases the link of rock with the American popular song was more direct. Paul Anka is really unthinkable without a tradition of Johnny Rays before him, and the later Platters essentially formed a symbiotic relationship with the American romantic ballad mediated by rhythm and blues. Out of all this attention several definite, definable rock traditions of the romantic ballad arose with their own specific conventions.
So there we have the Bee Gees: banal, graceless, trite, let us add melodramatic. And let us also add that this is all in one of rock’s oldest and strongest traditions. Finally let it be said that in their chosen area, with the romantic ballad set of conventions, the Bee Gees are impressive masters of their heritage. Hell-bent on sounding pretty, defiantly reactionary and out no doubt for the bread and popular air-play, the Bee Gees have their game down very well. The crude essentials are there even on the first Bee Gees big hit in Australia, “Spicks and Specks.”
But we are still missing an essential component of the Bee Gees, namely that they are a British group, a commercial wake for the middle Beatles. An analogy may be permissible here: the Bee Gees are to the Beatles as Cliff Richards was to Elvis Presley; if the Righteous Brothers embodied virtuoso codification of the rhythm and blues set of conventions, the Bee Gees embody the virtuoso codification of the British group set of conventions.
In this regard, listen to “Playtown,” “Big Chance,” and “Tint of Blue” on Rare Precious & Beautiful, a new reissue of early Bee Gees material recorded in Australia. On this reissue we can hear the developing Bee Gees: only a few ballads (“Jingle Jangle” in particular), a lot of British group imitation. It’s all rather uninteresting except in the light of later Bee Gees development.
Bee Gees’ 1st, Horizontal, and Idea can easily be considered as a group, for one of the Bee Gees’ essential dynamics as a group is stasis. The drums are a bit heavier on Horizontal. Idea is a little less interesting on the whole than the two others, but nevertheless these three albums are a defiantly stable portrait of the artists, without agony of growth or forward movement. For the sake of analysis a more or less arbitrary selection of Bee Gee songs is in their case an entirely justifiable procedure; first then we will consider the Bee Gee ballad.
“And the Sun Will Shine” starts out with low basses and the ubiquitous guitar. The Bee Gees thrive on simplicity: the simple chorded guitar, basic drum patterns, often a spare piano line. The warbly Pitney vocal rides initially over the guitar, then the drums come in (a little heavier than usual), cellos are added, eventually violins, then horns. A stop-time break, and the return to majestic basses, now punctuated by full orchestra.
A second build-up utilizing full orchestra, the drums more nervously moving forward, leads to another stop-time break, and now the violins take over swooping and dipping, candy oozing at every musical turn. And there it is: an identifiably Bee Gee piece of finely-turned schlock.
“Massachusetts” is a classic in this genre. It opens immediately with orchestra (heavy cellos), a group vocal this time with the strings in a typically trite arrangement: it is great Bee Gees fluff. Piano, high violins, guitar, and harp open “Let There Be Love”; the vocal enters over just piano and guitar, then the whole orchestra enters with the harp. Eventually the whole group joins in the vocal; there is a first release, but the next verse around the strings are in from the start: the build-up has begun. The vocal is more intense, the strings thicker. A build pause leads through spiraling violins to a throaty solo vocal with the full orchestra; now the whole group is singing, the whole orchestra playing and then the song is over, an anti-climatic coda being supplied by both orchestra and group.
These songs then generally follow the Bee Gee ballad pattern: “Holiday,” “One Minute Woman,” “To Love Somebody,” “I Can’t See Nobody,” “World,” “And the Sun Will Shine,” “Really and Sincerely,” “With the Sun in My Eyes,” “Day Time Girl,” “Let There Be Love,” “In the Summer of His Years,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You,” “When the Swallows Fly,” “I Started a Joke,” and “Swan Song.” Among these ballads are many that are too sticky, and some that aren’t very good; nevertheless the romantic ballad is what the Bee Gees do best, and generally even if a song isn’t a classic Bee Gees’ ballad, the more tritely romantic it is, the better it is. Never before has a rock group so intensely and consciously set sail on a sea of syrup.
Even the English-group type vocals are gooey, homogenized fluffy hairless finely-crafted Bee Gees’ — not bad stuff necessarily. These tracks may be roughly divided stylistically into Beatle imitation and Bee Gee invention, often the two characteristics overlapping on the same track. It would be an impossible task to classify methodically what is being done here, even though the Bee Gees are the masters of the eternal recurrence, musical monotony: everything sounds the same. Repeated listening however blunts this critical in distinction.
To start at the beginning: “Turn of the Century” is a brilliant example of Bee Gee English-group homogenization. Harpischord and kettledrums, full orchestra, all beautifully executed, original Bee Gees. “Kilburn Towers” is an unusually light (for that Bee Gees) semi-bossa nova, shades of Chad and Jeremy, yet again original Bee Gees. Not so “Red Chair, Fade Away” or “Birdie Told Me,” two Beatle grabs, but both eminently successful with their antiseptic arrangements — now we can truly appreciate George Martin while we truly appreciate virtuoso codification: the particularly bland becomes the tolerable, maybe even the aesthetically pleasing. But what sort of aesthetic? This is not a new question in rock.
And then there are the Bee Gee oddities: “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You,” pre-Raphaelite rock and roll; “Cucumber Castle,” stilted and outdated jazz riffs. And there are the Bee Gee hard rock tracks: “In My Own Time,” “Taxman” revisited; Lemons Never Forget,” Beatles again; “The Change Is Made,” muffed fuzz-tone guitar; “Idea,” great guitar line drowned in clumsy breathlessness. The Bee Gees’ hard rock is generally poor, since nobody in the group is really very good at anything except singing and writing songs; Bee Gee oddities on the other hand often succeed. Nevertheless over-arranged British-group style vocals and romantic rock ballads must be considered their forte.
The banal, graceless, trite, and melodramatic conquer honestly; there is no bullshit, here, just unblushing romanticism. The artistic conservative with integrity may peddle his wares not only successfully but with style. What more can we ask? To paraphrase Robert Soma, we are given uncamouflaged sentimentality. The Bee Gee achievement may be measured by “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.” Working from a standard story line concerning a jealous lover about to be executed in prison (which the Everly Brothers could almost have written), the Bee Gees with violins and a beautiful organ line build a sugar-coated epic. It worked with “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” and it works here. The banality and sentimentality is there on the surface — there is no hide and seek game. The track is a perfect modern representative of its genre.
Naturally the question remains is whether the romantic rock ballad is worth a serious resurrection. Certainly in the larger musical movement of our time such intensive attention to a limited form so tied to decadent musical values must appear regressive. But as Ned Rorem has pointed out in connection with the Beatles, “genius doesn’t lie in not being derivative, but in making right choices instead of wrong ones.” While the Bee Gees aren’t the Beatles, they do have the capacity of occasionally making the right choices in their chosen area of rock. It is this sort of capacity that should not be ignored.