At the beginning of 1967, the three Gibb brothers got on a boat and left behind a marginal Australian career with hopes of making it big in England. By April they had an international hit with “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” which established their formula for the next few years: melodic ballads frosted with inscrutable lyrics, orchestral arrangements and precise, high-pitched harmonies. At the time, rumors circulated that the Bee Gees were the Beatles recording under a pseudonym (the Bee Gees’ name was supposedly code for “Beatles Group”) — hard to believe, considering this was the same band that would go on to sell 15 million copies of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Take that as evidence either of the public’s hunger for anything vaguely Beatlesque or that a whole generation really was stoned beyond all comprehension. The 1960s Bee Gees were polished, technically gifted — and, it must be said, a bit priggish. “I’m afraid that I can’t agree with the Beatles’ recording of ‘I Am the Walrus,’ ” said Barry Gibb in 1967. “They never had to use dirty words before, but they are using them now. What’s the point?”
With stereo and mono mixes of their first three albums — 1967’s Bee Gees 1st and 1968’s Horizontal and Idea — plus three extra discs of B sides and outtakes, this lovingly compiled box set is the holy grail for the sort of Bee Gees fanatic willing to argue that 1st is marginally better than its two successors. The rest of us are better off enjoying individual tracks: “I Started a Joke” (from Idea) is the best word salad here, with lead vocals by Robin Gibb — it seems evocative but actually makes no sense. Other highlights include the more direct “To Love Somebody” (from 1st), intended for Otis Redding before his fatal plane crash. But far too many tracks bog down in syrupy strings and sodden tempos — listeners today may find themselves wishing that disco had come ten years earlier.