The psychedelic draw of ‘Bee Gees 1st’ 55 years later

Quick, close your eyes and answer this question: what’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions the Bee Gees? It’s OK to admit what we’re all thinking of: white suits, chest hair, medallions, high falsetto voices, disco rhythms, and John Travolta. The Bee Gees of the late 1970s have carved out one of the most unique niches in pop culture history, ripe for parody and unironic embrace.

But the Bee Gees have an entire decade of history that predates songs like ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and ‘More Than A Woman’. In fact, throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s, the Bee Gees would have been unrecognisable from their more famous form. They looked, sounded, and acted completely unique. They had a different lead singer, and they had band members whose last names weren’t Gibb. There was hardly a hint of groove or black R&B influence in their music.

The best way to experience the pre-disco Bee Gees is to jump in head first, preferably without context or background information. If you want the maximum whiplash effect, then put on Bee Gees 1st immediately after the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Filled to the brim with baroque pop instrumentation, fantastical imagery, and psychedelic experimentation, the band’s first international LP is the greatest example of the Bee Gees’ chameleonic tendencies long before anyone had ever heard of the word “disco”.

OK, how about just a little bit of context. The Bee Gees have always been centred around the Gibb brothers, Barry, Robin, and Maurice. But as the group transitioned away from being a pop vocal trio, the lineup was expanded to make the group a fully-fledged rock and roll band. That included bringing in drummer Colin Petersen and guitarist Vince Melouney, who helped round out the lineup that now had Maurice on bass and Barry on rhythm guitar.

That placed Robin as the band’s frontman. Barry and Robin would alternate lead vocal duties, but Robin was the centre of the band’s image, even if Barry was still the group’s main songwriter. The conflict that would arise from this division of labour would eventually lead to Robin leaving the band for a year in 1969, but back in 1967, it meant that Barry could write increasingly extravagant avant-pop that was mostly sung by Robin.

For the first four tracks of Bee Gees 1st, that’s exactly what you get. ‘Turn of the Century’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Red Chair Fade Away’ and’ ‘One Minute Woman’ are all lavishly arranged pop tracks that sound completely of their time. It’s not until the driving rock of ‘In My Own Time’ that the Bee Gees are able to step outside of heavily orchestrated psych-pop. That is until ‘Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You’ incorporates Gregorian chants into its intro.

The major pull on Bee Gees 1st is the contrasting directions that the band are being pulled to. You can hear the sweat and strain to stay on top of the pop music zeitgeist through the sprawling instrumentation, but you can also hear the group’s desire to push themselves towards a more straightforward pop direction. Nowhere is that conflict more apparent than in the album’s two major singles, ‘Now York Mining Disaster 1941’ and ‘To Love Somebody’.

The former is a mix of folk and early Beatles-like pop. In fact, there was a rumour that the Bee Gees were The Beatles recording under a pseudonym. “Robert [Stigwood] put it out in America for radio, but he didn’t tell anybody who it was,” Barry told 7News in 2012. “The trick for him was to make everyone think that it was The Beatles.”

The latter proved to be the Bee Gees first major breakthrough internationally. With covers by everyone from Janis Joplin to Nina Simone, ‘To Love Somebody’ showed the way forward for the Bee Gees. Contemporary coolness wasn’t as important as crafting unforgettable earworms. It was a lesson that allowed the Gibb brothers to easily jump from genre to genre without getting hung up on what sounds were considered cutting edge.

Occasionally Bee Gees 1st tries a little too hard to be reflective of its pop surroundings. Tracks like ‘Cucumber Castle’ and ‘Close Another Door’ are the worst kind of psychedelia: fluffy nonsense without any actual meaning or purpose. But more often than not, Bee Gees 1st sounds like the template from which bands like Queen, Yes, and The Zombies would soon cull from.

More than anything else, Bee Gees 1st is a fascinating look into how the entire world was getting caught up in the summer of love back in 1967. None of the group’s albums before or after would sound even remotely as heady as Bee Gees 1st did, but that willingness to commit fully to the sounds of the day gives the album a wild time capsule effect to it. This is an album that could have only been made in 1967, and that dedication to the contemporary culture comes through in every last song of Bee Gees 1st.

It might not have the same timeless qualities that would follow some of the band’s later music, but for the Bee Gees, Bee Gees 1st showed that they could compete with some of the biggest names in pop. 55 years later, the overly twee aspects of the album might be a little more grating, but the triumphant psychedelic flourishes prove that the Bee Gees were more than just a disco act.

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