It was 50 years ago yesterday that the Bee Gees first official international single, New York Mining Disaster 1941, was released. Spicks & Specks before it had been a hit in New Zealand, Australia and in the Netherlands too, but it was New York Mining Disaster 1941 in April 1967 that launched the brothers Gibb to instant international fame.*
A friend of mine messaged me the other day saying that the Bee Gees 1975 R&B smash Nights On Broadway had one of the greatest opening lines in pop music history: “Here we are, in a room full of strangers…” It’s a line that grabs and together with the urgency of the vocal and the tight, melodic funk of the Bee Gees band, this was never going to be a song that just passes you by.
Which got me thinking about other opening lyrics in Bee Gees songs. It’s reasonably well understood that Gibb songs often had distinct and memorable instrumental intros – something Maurice Gibb explained in a mid 90s TV doco as being entirely intentional. Think the opening chords of To Love Somebody in the 60s, the riff on Stayin’ Alive in the 70s, You Win Again’s mechanical stomps in the 80s, all the way to the faux bagpipes of Alone in the 90s. Bee Gees intros were hooks in and off themselves.
But what about the opening lines of so many of those songs? In the case of New York Mining Disaster 1941, “In the event of something happening to me, there is something I would like you all to see…”, this is the opposite of generic. This is no, “I love you so much” kind of blandness. For the 20-year old Barry Gibb and his younger brothers, the then 17-year old twins Robin and Maurice, to come up with such a unique scenario of human emotion, one that uses the vehicle of a fictitious mining disaster, is extraordinary. As far as an opening line goes, it’s a knockout.
I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You (UK #1 1968) starts in equally dramatic style: “The preacher talked with me and he smiled, he said ‘Come and walk with me, come and walk one more mile’.” The scene for a very atypical type of pop song – one about a man facing the electric chair – is set. Yes, these were ultimately songs about human emotion, but the ways the brothers told these stories had a sense of drama and melancholy that few of their peers even attempted.
Stayin’ Alive’s opening line of, “Well you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk,” might be the best of the bunch. Unforgettable. So unexpectedly badass. Each of the first nine words: “well”, “you”, “can”, “tell”, “by”, “the”, “way”, “I”, “use”, are also all different notes from the previous. The first repeated note is the back-to-back of “use” and “my”, making the song exceptionally hard to sing but impossible to ignore.
The great British R&B songwriter Rod Temperton once said that Michael Jackson loved songs with lots of different notes which is why Rod wrote him pieces like Rock With You, Off The Wall, Burn This Disco Out and Thriller. If you go back and listen to the first three in particular, they all echo Stayin’ Alive’s rapid note changes. When you realise how much Michael adored the Bee Gees late 70s output, it all starts to make sense. And it’s a further reminder of just how staggeringly good a song like Stayin’ Alive is.
Which is a digression from the power of the lyrics alone, but the marriage of words, melody and harmony was something the Gibbs did so effortlessly that’s it’s too easy to underestimate the craft involved.
So 20 years since Alone – “I was a midnight rider on a cloud of smoke,” – 30 years since You Win Again – “I couldn’t figure why, you couldn’t give me what everybody needs”, – 40 years since Stayin’ Alive – “Well you can tell by the way I use my walk…” – and 50 years since New York Mining Disaster 1941 – “In the event of something happening to me…”, next time you listen to a Bee Gees song, see if those opening lines are like anything else you hear on the radio.
*New York Mining Disaster 1941 peaked at UK #12, US #14, Australian #11, New Zealand #3, Netherlands #3 and Germany #10.