|Barry Gibb at the Grand Ole Opry, 2012.|
Two years ago in July of 2012, Bee Gee Barry Gibb walked onto the most hallowed turf in country music, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Casual fans and non-believers may’ve been surprised at the fit, but those with a wider knowledge of the Gibb back-catalogue knew it was only a matter of time before history’s second most successful popular songwriter* got to show off his country credentials.
From their first taste of fame in the late 60s through to their final studio album in 2001, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb always dabbled in a variety of pop sub-genres including orchestral pop, Beatle-esque pop, folk, rock, blues, soul, R&B, funk, disco, Euro-pop and yes, country. And whether it was with songs that could be appropriated to country like Massachusetts and How Can You Mend A Broken Heart or pure country numbers like Sweetheart and Rest Your Love On Me, the Gibbs were never shy about their love of the genre.
As it stands, one of the most played songs the Bee Gees ever wrote is Islands In The Stream, a song recorded by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (1983) and frequently cited as the biggest country hit of all time.
Elephants in rooms need addressing, so here goes. I remember Barry Gibb once saying words to the effect of, “disco is only a dirty word if you’re not the act most associated with it.” I love this quote for many reasons, not the least because it showed Barry at peace with his place in music history. Beyond that, if you are using the word “disco” to describe a substantial category of music than it should be no more a dirty word than rock, dance, R&B, hip-hop or country etc. There’s good and bad in every music style, so to be the act most associated with one of the most famous music-related words of the 20th century is something to be proud of.
What then becomes so rewarding about delving into the Bee Gees catalogue is that those with knowledge limited to the Saturday Night Fever years discover that not only could the brothers mix structurally-complex dance songs like Night Fever with smooth ballads like How Deep Is Your Love, but they could do Americana better than The Band with Marley Purt Drive. Then there’s the folk of Sun In My Morning, the late 80s pop bombast of You Win Again, the R&B balladry of How To Fall In Love Part 1, the funk of Love You Inside Out, the rock of Idea, the adult-contemporary romanticism of Woman In Love, the updated Motown of Chain Reaction and the soul of To Love Somebody. And for the purposes of this article, the frequent forays into country.
Briefly on another tangent, something occasionally said even by staunch admirers of the Gibbs is that they were melodically and vocally superior than they were lyrically. What this overlooks is a point made in the recent The Paris Review article about the Bee Gees: the appeal, even if it was subconscious, of the “melancholic emotion, even paranoia,” of the brothers’ lyrical content.
There are countless examples of this with a couple of songs mentioned in the Paris Review article, namely How Deep Is Your Love. This isn’t just a sweet little song about a nice guy loving a great gal without a care: “…we’re living in a world of fools, when they all should let us be.” Words: “…this world has lost its glory, let’s start a brand new story.” When you start to analyse even the most recognised Bee Gees songs, you begin to understand there was often a lyrical plane far elevated beyond just love gone right or love gone wrong.
Indeed Love So Right told us that the “perfect story ended at the start,” while You Win Again has the protagonist surprised he was even allowed to “stay around” the girl he loved but feared he never knew. These are hardly run of the mill musings on love and relationships and this is without even mentioning material like Massachusetts: “…the lights all went out in Massachusetts, the day I left her standing on her own,” or New York Mining Disaster: “Have you seen my wife Mr Jones, do you know what it’s like on the outside?” It’s safe to say I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You‘s tale of a man on death row wanting to speak one last time to his girl is the only UK #1 hit in history with that particular scenario.
Was this unique exploration of sadness and emotion in so many Bee Gees songs as vital to their extraordinary success as their melodies and harmonies? It’s a question at least worthy of analysis. Their early 1994 UK top 5 For Whom The Bell Tolls wasn’t just a goodbye song, it was goodbye with a whack of unrequited or perhaps uneven love: “for you it’s goodbye and for me it’s to cry, for whom the bell tolls.”
Whether it was the naked honesty of To Love Somebody‘s “you don’t know what it’s like, to love somebody the way I love you,” or Stayin’ Alive‘s “life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me,” the connecting lyrical thread of the Gibbs seems to be of sadness, of us against the world and of battles against the odds. And yet the melodies, harmonies and production are so sublime and so sophisticated as to make so much of the catalogue too arresting to be depressing.
The Bee Gees are a band I love and now that Barry – a true gentleman I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing on several occasions – is the only brother left, I feel protective of their reputation and legacy. Of course they don’t need protection because achievement-wise they accomplished everything a pop band could hope to shy of the Beatles. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, nine Grammys, 220 million records sold, writers of 21 different US or UK #1 hits etc. As for recognition, just read any one of the many five-star reviews from Barry’s past year and a half of Mythology concerts. But the enlightening of Bee Gees-skeptics appears to be unshakably in my DNA.
With that in mind, what better genre than country to enlighten the few remaining skeptics? As alluded to before, my Grand Ole Opry set-list includes material easily appropriated to country music plus songs more obviously country sounding. There are also a couple of R&B songs that Barry has already completely overhauled on his previous Opry visits i.e. Stayin’ Alive. This is not a list of all the country songs written by the Gibbs, nor is it a definitive list of their best country songs. Merely these are my picks for a hypothetical but conceivable concert at the Grand Ole Opry.
Whether preaching to the converted or the soon to be, here’s my dream Barry Gibb Grand Ole Opry set-list. Truth be told I’ve already seen my dream Barry concert – that was at the Hollywood Bowl in June – click here for my review. This is something different though. YouTube links to a dozen of my favourite of the most overt of Gibb country songs are provided to ensure this is an argument I can’t lose (always a good thing). Spanning 1966-2012, enjoy some terrific music from a band you might not have associated with this genre:
1: Marley Purt Drive (1969)
2: Don’t Forget To Remember (1969)
3: Give Your Best To Your Friends (1969)
4: I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You (1968)
5: Blue Island (1993)
6: Sweetheart (1969)
7: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (1971)
8: Massachusetts (1967)
9: Come On Over (1975)
10: Hold Me (1983)
11: You And I (1983)
12: Rest Your Love On Me (1978)
13: Lost In Your Love (1974)
14: Come Home Johnny Bride (1973)
15: I Can’t Help It (Andy Gibb / Olivia Newton-John 1980)
16: To Love Somebody (1967)
17: Bury Me Down By The River (1969)
18: Then You Left Me (1969)
19: Buried Treasure (1983)
20: Evening Star (1983)
21: King And Country (1973)
22: Islands In The Stream (1983)
23: Sun In My Morning (1969)
24: Railroad (Maurice Gibb solo song) (1970)
25: In The Morning (1966)
26: The First Mistake I Ever Made (1970)
27: Soldier’s Son (2012, Ricky Skaggs & Barry Gibb)
28: South Dakota Morning (1973)
29: Words (1968)
30: Stayin’ Alive (1978)
Next: maybe an article entitled, “What If Barry Did An Entire Concert At Harlem’s Apollo Theater? 30 Soulful Bee Gees Songs.” Why not. Such is the magic of music and the meeting of genres that some of the songs on this list would sound just as good at the Apollo.
*According to the Guinness Book Of Records, in part based on Barry Gibb having written or co-written 21 different US or UK #1 singles. Paul McCartney is regarded as the most successful popular songwriter in history.