Rock bands that emulated the Beatles were 10 a penny in the mid/late ’60s. But among the legions of Fab Four disciples from that era, few sounded as sublime as Bee Gees. They decisively proved this point with Bee Gees’ 1st (actually their third LP, but first to be released worldwide). It’s a cornucopia of baroque psychedelic pop that out-John-Paul-Georged nearly everybody in the field. (Klaus Voorman, the brilliant artist who designed the cover for Revolver, also did a fantastic job with 1st.)
1st came out about six weeks after Sgt. Pepper’s in the UK, and peaked at #7 on the Billboard album chart. That’s how sophisticated pop-music consumers were in 1967. At this point, the Gibb brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice—were working with Australian musicians Vince Melouney on guitar and drummer Colin Petersen on drums. Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys handled the orchestral arrangements with panache. These musicians made for a formidable team.
Right off the bat, “Turn Of The Century” and “Holiday,” show Bee Gees’ vast emotional range. The former’s ebullient baroque pop with echt Beatlesque vocal harmonies, which contrasts with the latter’s lachrymose ballad of precious intimacy, although Shepherd’s orchestrations nudge “Holiday” into Moody Blues/Left Banke territory.
The album really takes off with “Red Chair Fade Away,” an eerie efflorescence of psychedelic pop in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” vein. It pushes a profound nostalgic button for people who love songs in which instruments such as flute and violin seem to be melting in the studio—a number larger than you’d think. Out of sheer quirkiness, Robin brays like a sheep after Barry repeatedly sings “red chair fade away” near song’s end, and “I can feel the speaking sky” is brilliant and terrifying synesthesia. Another towering high point is “In My Own Time,” whose strutting garage-psych recalls “Taxman,” a style I wish the Gibb bros attempted more often. (By the way, the Three O’Clock did a nice cover of this tune on 1983’s Sixteen Tambourines.)
“New York Mining Disaster” uh, mines the old-timey vibe of the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.” However, it is the Gibbs’ perverse genius to turn a tragic story about a worker being trapped in a mine into a soaring, feel-good hit. The bittersweet vocal harmonies and phrasing come off as a combo of “Good Day Sunshine” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The delightful psych lite of “Please Read Me” is as shaggily wonderful as your favorite Help! or Rubber Soul tune. “I Close My Eyes” is a very special song, bristling with strange beauty, staunch drumming, bravura fragile vocalizing à la 1966-era John Lennon, and a bizarre ee-ew sound that seems like a mistake that producer Robert Stigwood decided to keep for sheer WTF? value.
Beatles panto is fine and all, but do Bee Gees have soul? Oh, they certainly do. Dig “One Minute Woman,” a blue-eyed-soul charmer with sophisticated swagger and elevated by sumptuous strings and horn charts akin to a Lee Hazlewood production. “To Love Somebody” was originally written for Otis Redding, and it shows. One of the greatest love songs ever, it bursts with soul as it swims in a profound orchestral pathos and Barry sings his ass off. No wonder it’s been covered by Nina Simone, Rod Stewart, Roberta Flack, Gram Parson, Janis Joplin, and many others.
Saving the best for last, we come to “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” Featuring anguished mellotron played by Maurice and Gregorian-like chants (“o solo dominique”), Bee Gees set a Moody Blues tone before shifting into a stoned bliss psych-rock gem that stands up to the best of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Amazing that this song, with its odd dynamics and strange atmospheres, appeared on the B-side of the “Holiday” 45. I can’t be the only one who freaked upon hearing “Every Christian” on the radio for the first time. In the context of commercial airwaves, it’s hard not to gasp, “What is this?”
It’s that mad combo of sonic adventurousness and indelible catchiness that makes Bee Gees 1st the group’s zenith and a stone-cold classic. -Buckley Mayfield