Not only have I debated with other fans, I’ve endlessly debated with myself as to what the absolute finest Bee Gees albums actually were. So let’s spark up that debate once more! Only this time, with a little mathematics to help us out. Put the kettle on, get comfy, fire up the speakers and get ready to dive deep – I mean really deep – into the glorious back catalogue of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb.
With an international career of LP releases spanning the 34 years from 1967 to 2001, the Bee Gees were one of popular music’s greatest, most varied and most prolific phenomena across 22 different official studio albums, including the twin soundtracks of Saturday Night Fever and Staying Alive.
Gibbologists will almost always talk about Fever at the top of the pile and while that soundtrack – as well as its forgotten sequel Staying Alive – only contained five new Gibb songs each, for the purposes of this article we’ll count them as full LPs due to their significance in the brothers’ catalogue. Beyond Fever though, fans generally mention the first international LP, First, as well as titles like Odessa, Main Course, Spirits Having Flown, Living Eyes, One, Size Isn’t Everything and Still Waters.
But what of Cucumber Castle? That’s the Bee Gees album that most often feels like my favourite even if it isn’t necessarily what I regard as their best. Then there’s the fact I’ve always rated the brothers’ second international album, Horizontal, above their more widely heralded debut.
Albums like High Civilization and Life In A Tin Can often occupy the bottom couple of slots for many fans and yet I find so much to like (and even love) about both of those. Then there are changing tastes. When the final Bee Gees album, This Is Where I Came In, came out in 2001, I thought it was an even better work than its predecessor, the huge comeback that was Still Waters. 17 years on and my opinion has flipped.
In making this list I’ve excluded the two Bee Gees albums recorded for the domestic Australian market in the mid 1960s before they found global stardom in ’67. I’ve also removed from consideration the fine albums Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote for other artists, namely younger brother Andy as well as Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Ruffin, Carola, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross. Solo works also haven’t been included, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check them out. Barry’s In The Now (2016) and his Hawks soundtrack (1988) are particularly strong, as is Robin’s How Old Are You (1983). As for Maurice, I’ve always felt Railroad (1970) was one of the top 10 greatest Bee Gees songs that never was.
So let’s get started! In order to rank the albums, I decided to rate each song as well. Here’s how I’ve determined the value of the points system for songs:
10: Flawless – among the elite of all pop songs by any artist of any era
8: Very Good
5: Not Great
4: Not Good
3-1: Varying degrees of dreadful
Once I assigned each song with a number, I worked out the average score for each album. Acknowledging the potential limitations of a methodology that works purely on the highest average song rating in determining an album’s total score, I decided to count how many songs per album were rated 8 or above and include this information in my formula. This was done to off-set albums with a large number of ‘flawless’ or ‘excellent’ songs being disproportionally pulled down by a couple of lower-ranked songs.
Trying to remove emotion from the argument, is an album with an average of 7 but with a several 9 and 10 rated songs better or worse than album with no 9s or 10s but a greater consistency of scores? It seemed to me that there should be some reward – however statistically slight – for albums with a higher percentage of top rated songs.
Here is the formula for each album’s final score and subsequent star rating:
FINAL SCORE: Sum of album’s song totals + number of album’s songs rated 8 or above divided by the number of songs on the album = final score. The final score is out of 10.
STAR RATING: Final score divided by 2, rounded to the nearest half a point = star rating. For example, a final score of 6.75 translates to 3.37, rounded up to 3.50 out of five, or ***1/2 stars. This is calculated to reflect the fact that album reviews are traditionally out of five.
This system still has it flaws in that it overlooks non-mathematical considerations like an album’s overall feel, emotion and stylistic variety, not to mention the impact and importance of cover art. And putting all of that to one side, there’s the notion that the whole can often be greater than the sum of its parts.
My ultimate hope with this list is that it will expose non-Gibb believers to the magic of these extraordinary songwriters and cast aside some of the lazy narratives that exist about the Gibbs, namely that their post-disco era output is less worthy of critical analysis. I also hope to convert some casual fans into the leagues of the obsessive like myself – you can do it! There’s also scope for serious fans seeing these scores and then reassessing songs and albums they may previously have overlooked.
I’m adamant there isn’t a dud in the entire Gibb catalogue and this is proven by the 22nd ranked album still having a final score of 6.75 in my points scoring system and enough to qualify as three and a half stars from a possible five. It’s where we begin:
22: THIS IS WHERE I CAME IN (2001, total score: 79, songs 8 or above: 2, final total: 81, avg: 6.75, star rating: ***1/2)
- This Is Where I Came In – 7
- She Keeps On Coming – 5
- Sacred Trust – 6
- Wedding Day – 8
- Man In The Middle – 7
- Deja Vu – 8
- Technicolor Dreams – 7
- Walking On Air – 6
- Loose Talk Cost Lives – 7
- Embrace – 7
- The Extra Mile – 6
- Voice In The Wilderness – 5
The followup to five-million selling Still Waters (the Bee Gees biggest selling LP since Spirits Having Flown), it feels mean-spirited seeing This Is Where I Came In ranked so low, especially given it was the final studio album the brothers ever released. It’s by no means a weak effort as its average score of 6.75 attests, but it was the first Bee Gees release since the Staying Alive soundtrack in 1983 to not have a truly great single (the title track, while a UK top 20 with some nifty guitar work from Maurice and some funky verses from Barry, didn’t catch on in the way that late period hits for the group like Alone, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Secret Love, One and You Win Again had).
TIWICI was presented as comprising solo works (Barry’s Voice In The Wilderness, Sacred Trust, Loose Talk Cost Lives and Technicolour Dreams, Robin’s Deja Vu, She Keeps On Coming and Embrace, Maurice’s Man In The Middle and Walking On Air) in addition to the brotherly collaborations that are the hallmark of Bee Gees albums (the title track, Wedding Day and The Extra Mile).
As such, you could argue TIWICI lacks the spark that usually happened when the brothers pooled their talents, but never the less, there’s still a chunk of fine songwriting on display. Barry has said of late that he wished Wedding Day had been a single and while I agree, I also remain convinced that if Robin’s Deja Vu had had the additional stardust of some Barry and Maurice vocals and guitars on it too, it could’ve also been a hit.
As was always the situation for the Gibbs, there was an excess of quality material that didn’t make the final cut, in this case Robin’s electro Euro-pop Promise The Earth (7), his more boy band-sounding R&B ballad Sensuality (7) and the group-shared Just In Case (7). Promise The Earth and Just In Case made it onto some international editions of TIWICI as bonus tracks and they are superior than a couple of obvious candidates to have been swapped with, namely the somewhat awkward She Keeps On Coming and the big ballad intended for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, The Extra Mile.
Had that switch been done, and then also Sensuality for Voice In The Wilderness, TIWICI would’ve scored 87 at an average of 7.25, moving the album up a position to a tie for 21st. Regardless, TIWICI was a good album and a deserved success, reaching the top 10 in places like the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Austria and top 20 positions in the US, Australia, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
21: LIFE IN A TIN CAN (1973, total score: 55, songs 8 or above: 3, final total: 58, avg: 7.25, star rating: ***1/2)
- Saw A New Morning – 6
- I Don’t Wanna’ Be The One – 7
- South Dakota Morning – 9
- Living In Chicago – 5
- While I Play – 6
- My Life Has Been A Song – 6
- Come Home Johnny Bride – 8
- Method To My Madness – 8
The second lowest ranked Bee Gees album came out during the flat patch in their career before their R&B overhaul of the mid-70s gave them the kind of fame that eclipsed even their first wave of albums and hits. Tin Can’s brevity – the shortest of any Bee Gees LP at just eight songs – misleadingly suggests a lack of inspiration, but given it was already the brothers’ fifth LP of the decade, it’s hardly like they were scrounging to write a song.
Indeed if you include the record-company rejected A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants, from the same year, Tin Can was the Bee Gees sixth album in three years. The brothers were as prolific as ever and some of the material – complete with harmonica, steel peddle, violins and direct references to American place names – was extremely pretty.
The folk ballad South Dakota Morning may be Tin Can’s highpoint, but the country singalong Come Home Johnny Bride isn’t far behind, nor is Method To My Madness with its clever melded Robin and Barry leads – a song I would’ve scored a 9 if not for the slightly sloppy vocal hiccup by Robin at the 2:21 mark. There are also moments of other Tin Can songs that really gel even if the songs themselves overall don’t – just listen to the repeated lines in My Life Has Been A Song of, “like a melody, a melody, a melody,” and hear how beautiful this could be with the right song around it. But as meritorious as these songs may be, the commercial sensibilities of the Gibbs were undeniably off.
That is, of course, except in Asia where fans in Hong Kong loved Saw A New Morning so much they sent it all the way to number one.
I’ve long thought a combination of the best tracks of Tin Can and A Kick In The Head would’ve made a quite lovely (if not particularly commercial) acoustic-driven piece of work. For the fun of it, here’s what that 13-song album could’ve looked like and how it would’ve ranked (though this is only hypothetical and not part of the official rankings):
*18*: A KICK IN THE TIN CAN (1973, total score: 97, songs 8 or above: 5, final total: 102, avg: 7.84, star rating: ****)
- Saw A New Morning – 6
- I Don’t Wanna’ Be The One – 7
- South Dakota Morning – 9
- My Life Has Been A Song – 6
- Come Home Johnny Bride – 8
- Method To My Madness – 8
- King And Country – 9
- Wouldn’t I Be Someone – 7
- It Doesn’t Matter Much To Me – 7
- Elisa – 9
- Home Again Rivers – 7
- Jesus In Heaven – 7
- Life, Am I Wasting My Time – 7
Well would you look at that? The nonexistent A Kick In The Tin Can jumps up three places from 21 to 18. I doubt it would’ve set the world on fire sales-wise, but with first-rate songs Tin Can songs like South Dakota Morning, Method To My Madness and Come Home Johnny Bride, not to mention the gorgeous balladry of King And Country and Elisa from Kick, it could’ve been quite the little gem.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
20: 2 YEARS ON (1970, total score: 85, songs 8 or above: 5, final total: 90, avg: 7.50, star rating: ***1/2)
- 2 Years On – 5
- Portrait Of Louise – 8
- Man For All Seasons – 9
- Sincere Relation – 6
- Back Home – 7
- The First Mistake I Made – 8
- Lonely Days – 10
- Alone Again – 7
- Tell Me Why – 6
- Lay It On Me – 7
- Every Second, Every Minute – 8
- I’m Weeping – 4
The first of many comebacks the Bee Gees would make, 2 Years On’s lead single Lonely Days became their biggest Stateside hit up to that point. From the perfection of the harmonies in the verses to the Stax-influenced, thumping chorus, it was a stunning return for the recently reunited brothers. Elsewhere, Man For All Seasons is one of countless criminally underrated Gibb album tracks, Every Second, Every Minute and Back Home showed that – gasp – the Bee Gees could do genuinely good rock songs, while Portrait Of Louise, The First Mistake I Made and Lay It On Me were fine additions to the growing body of Americana-inspired songs in the Bee Gees cannon (think Odessa’s Marley Purt Drive and Give Your Best To Your Friends as well as most of the Cucumber Castle album).
The presence of a couple of lesser tracks in I’m Weeping and the title track put the final total at 90 across 12 songs instead of 81 across 10. That average of 8.10 would’ve seen 2 Years On rank 14th instead of 20th. Even better would’ve been an inclusion of a ballad as gorgeous as anything found in this first phase brothers’ career, Morning Of My Life.
Originally recorded as In The Morning in the mid-60s in Australia, the Bee Gees redid the song during the sessions for 2 Years On with smoother, richer harmonies and production. Used for the film (and soundtrack) Melody that became popular in Japan, Morning Of My Life was never a hit in the US or UK but it didn’t take long for it to establish itself as a fan favourite (it would also later appear on Best Of The Bee Gees Volume 2 in 1973).
Still, it speaks to the depths of the Gibb catalogue that a song as profound as Morning Of My Life could get left off what was an extremely important album for the Bee Gees as far as re-establishing them as group. Had Morning Of My Life (10) been included in place of I’m Weeping (4), and if 2 Years On (5) had been omitted, 2 Years On would’ve scored 92 at an average of 8.36. That would’ve taken it to a ranking of 10th.
As it stands, 2 Years On is still a highly rewarding listen. More importantly, there was enough promise that the Bee Gees were back as a collective force, especially in North America, across Asia and into Australasia.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
19: STAYING ALIVE SOUNDTRACK (1983, total score: 36, songs 8 or above: 2, final total: 38, avg: 7.60, star rating: ****)
- The Woman In You – 7
- I Love You Too Much – 8
- Breakout – 6
- Someone Belonging To Someone – 7
- Life Goes On – 8
Six years after the record-breaking Saturday Night Fever came a sequel that once again involved a side of brand new Gibb songs. Released at the height of the 80s backlash against the Bee Gees, the brothers also felt the perceived lukewarm response to the project related to their songs being misused in the film. “Rocky in leg-warmers” is how they’d come to dismiss the Sylvester Stallone-directed movie, but it’s important to note that while Staying Alive never came close to matching Fever in terms of box office receipts or albums sold, the soundtrack still shifted a very healthy five million units internationally.
The songs themselves ditch the falsetto and play like Barry’s 80’s solo works, though Robin and Maurice are listed as co-writers and vocalists. The electro-funk of The Woman In You did surprisingly well in peaking at US #24, while the gentle Someone Belonging To Someone stalled at both US and UK #49. The latter’s commercial potential may have been limited by the truncated melody of the chorus for the first part of the song, with the track really coming to life in the back half with the key change and the repetition of the chorus melody. There’s both a beautiful love song as well as a hit lurking somewhere within the framework of Someone Belonging To Someone and I hope it gets found one day.
As it stands, the soundtrack’s two best cuts were the non-singles I Love You Too Much (one of the the saucier Gibb songs lyrically) and the melancholy Life Goes On (which has the line “living your life in someone else’s heart” six years before being used again in Wish You Were Here). With the brothers concentrating on solo projects and outside albums for the likes of Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross, it would be another four years until the next ‘Bee Gees’ album. It would be worth the wait.
Most Famous Song:
18: TRAFALGAR (1971, total score: 86, songs 8 or above: 6, final total: 92, avg: 7.66, star rating: ****)
- How Can You Mend A Broken Heart – 10
- Israel – 8
- The Greatest Man In The World – 9
- It’s Just The Way – 7
- Remembering – 4
- Somebody Stop The Music – 8
- Trafalgar – 7
- Don’t Wanna’ Live Inside Myself – 8
- When Do I – 4
- Dearest – 4
- Lion In Winter – 7
- Walking Back To Waterloo – 10
The second Bee Gees album after the brothers reunited (and their seventh international release overall), Trafalgar is often viewed as one of the best of the band’s early period LPs. It feels like one of their best too, but no matter how I look at it, I can’t find a way to get it higher than 18th on the rankings. In a nutshell, the reasoning is simple: this otherwise excellent LP is blighted by three of the weakest songs the Bee Gees ever laid to vinyl. This isn’t merely a shame, but an unnecessary shame given the abundance of good material the brothers had at their disposal.
The high points are Trafalgar’s bookends: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart became a standard as well as the first of nine US number one hits for the Bee Gees as performers (16 as songwriters), while the album closer – the rousing Walking Back To Waterloo – is every bit as good.
In between there’s some credible blues-rock in Somebody Stop The Music (particularly the song’s back half when the “don’t love ya’, baby don’t love ya” section kicks in), a couple of pleasant Maurice songs in the title track and It’s Just The Way (though neither a patch on his solo stuff like Railroad or On Time) and a couple of soul-influenced pop numbers with Israel and Lion In Winter.
The Greatest Man In The World and Don’t Wanna’ Live Inside Myself are attractive Barry ballads of the highest order, and if not for the presence of that previously mentioned dire trio – Dearest, Remembering and When Do I – the album would’ve rated over a full point higher on 8.88. That would’ve been enough to rocket a nine-track version of Trafalgar all the way to 5 on these rankings.
Alternatively, if unreleased solo works by the brothers from several months prior been included, namely Barry’s Victim (9) (which is in part a lyrical precursor to How Can You Mend A Broken Heart) , Robin’s genuinely haunting Sing Slowly Sisters’ title track (9) and Maurice’s Railroad (10) (that chorus! Those violins!) instead of the aforementioned trio, Trafalgar’s adjusted final score would’ve been 111 at a 9.25 average. Obviously an amusing but futile exercise in isolated “what ifs?”, but this score would’ve shot Trafalgar into the top four Bee Gees albums of all time.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
17: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (1972, total score: 98, songs 8 or above: 6, final total: 104, avg: 8.00, star rating ****)
- Run To Me – 10
- We Lost The Road – 7
- Never Been Alone – 6
- Paper Mache Cabbages And Kings – 8
- I Can Bring Love – 9
- I Held A Party – 6
- Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights – 9
- Sea Of Smiling Faces – 7
- Bad Bad Dreams – 7
- You Know It’s For You – 5
- Alive – 9
- Road To Alaska – 6
- Sweet Song Of Summer – 9
“Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere”, isn’t just one of the most bonkers lyrics of any Bee Gees song, it’s comparably weird to the weirdest utterances by a mainstream pop act in popular music history. The fact it’s a repeated refrain that sounds like some sort of Yiddish folk song makes it all the better. Give the song a title like Paper Mache, Cabbages And Kings and all up you’ve got one of the great oddities of the Bee Gees back catalogue.
The track is hilariously unruly and I love its presence on To Whom It May Concern as a reminder that early Bee Gees albums were so tremendously (and often unusually) imaginative. How did they think this stuff up? To Whom It May Concern’s other real curiosity is the moog synth-spectacular Sweet Song Of Summer. Together with it’s rumbling bass, chanting and shimmering cymbals, Sweet Song Of Summer stays just on the right side of crazy and as such is one of the absolute hidden gems of the Bee Gees early years.
Other standouts are the knockout secular gospel of Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights (I always wished Aretha Franklin had found this in the same way she’d found Elton John’s Border Song), Barry’s lullaby-like I Can Bring Love, the US top 40 ballad Alive and the album’s big hit, the soaring Run To Me (a US top 20 and the brothers’ first foray into the UK top 10 in over two years).
Even the slight misses on the album, like the semi-sequel to I Started Joke that is I Held A Party – “I held a party and nobody came / strangely I was upset” – have charm because, like Paper Mache, their lyrics are so quirkily morose.
While not one among the more famous Bee Gees LPs, there’s a strong case to be made that To Whom It May Concern is easily one of their most underrated.
Most Famous Song:
16: CHILDREN OF THE WORLD (1976, total score: 77, songs 8 or above: 4, final total: 81, avg: 8.10, star rating ****)
- You Should Be Dancing – 10
- You Stepped Into My Life – 7
- Love So Right – 10
- Lovers – 8
- Can’t Keep A Good Man Down – 6
- Boogie Child – 7
- Love Me – 9
- Subway – 7
- The Way It Was – 7
- Children Of The World – 6
The followup to one of the more significant pop music comebacks all of time – 1975’s Main Course – Children Of The World saw the Bee Gees unable to work with producer Arif Mardin due to contractual reasons. Arif had helped revolutionise the brothers’ sound and make them current again, so it was with some nerves they set out on their own, albeit with expert assistance from engineer Karl Richardson and arranger Albhy Galuten. Together with Barry, the Gibb-Galuten-Richardson production team would ultimately get judged among the most successful in the history of the American charts, but even with the Bee Gees on an upward curve in 1976, nobody could have predicted what was just around the corner.
Sandwiched between Main Course and Saturday Night Fever, Children both expands upon the danceable, falsetto-drenched R&B sounds that Main Course hinted at and acts as a precursor for the Fever phenomenon that was soon to follow.
All 10 of Children’s tracks could fall under the classification of “R&B” with six of the 10 being uptempo. Too often critics and fans have said words to effect of, “Main Course was the Bee Gees first disco album”, but Main Course had two explicitly country songs! Though with tracks like Jive Talkin’ and Nights On Broadway, you can see the trajectory Main Course had put the Gibbs on, a trajectory that paved the way for Children’s lead single and one of the defining songs of the disco era.
You Should Be Dancing. Even the title has a cockiness to it, especially coming from three guys who just three years earlier were writing about a gate they used to swing on in childhood (Harry’s Gate, A Kick In The Head). From gates to dance-floors, the transformation was stunning. Suddenly the Bee Gees were at the cutting edge. More than that, they were urban. Three white Isle Of Man-born, Australian-reared British brothers were reinvented as Miami-residing, chest-bearing medallion men capable of lines like, “she’s juicy and she’s trouble”.
From the layers of percussion to the tumbling bass to the falsettos that shadow the horn section in the instrumental breakdown, there is a deceptive amount of detail. And for a song so famous for its high-pitched vocals, the brief use of natural voice as the sexy icing on the top – “my woman keeps me warm” – is killer.
While the other danceable tracks on Children aren’t quite in the same league as You Should Be Dancing – few dance songs of the decade were – Boogie Child, Subway, Can’t Keep A Good Man Down, You Stepped Into My Life and Lovers are all quality works. The lite funk of You Stepped Into My Life and the exuberance of Lovers (I always dug those gruff “got ta’ make ya’ understand” lines) are particularly good.
As for the ballads, the big-chorused Love Me was inexplicably not a single (though was a hit for Yvonne Elliman), Love So Right (a US #3) was as authentically soulful as anything Earth, Wind & Fire, the Stylistics or the Delfonics were doing, and The Way It Was ended up being covered by none other than Gladys Knight. If the Kenny Everatt-parodied title track remains the most slight song on the album, it shouldn’t distract from an LP that while not as vital as Main Course, is still a snapshot of a band close to the top of their game.
Most Famous Song:
15: IDEA (1968, total score: 99, songs 8 or above: 7, final total: 106, avg: 8.15, star rating: ****)
- Let There Be Love – 9
- Kitty Can – 8
- In The Summer Of His Years – 5
- Indian Gin & Whisky Dry – 7
- Down To Earth – 7
- Such A Shame – 6
- I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You – 10
- Idea – 8
- When The Swallows Fly – 8
- I Have Decided To Join The Airforce – 6
- I Started A Joke – 10
- Kilburn Towers – 9
- Swan Song – 6
The two A-list singles of I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You and I Started A Joke dominate the Bee Gees third international LP, though despite a bit of filler (albeit filler with tantalising titles like I Have Decided To Join The Airforce and In The Summer Of His Years), so much of the joy of Idea is still in the buried treasure.
The lovely Kilburn Towers suggests a Simon & Garfunkel influence (though not even S&G could sound this good singing about a “little white jug”), the maraca-tastic folk of Kitty Can showcases the harmonising of Maurice, the title track is among the brothers better rock songs, while Let There Be Love is perhaps the most sophisticated musical and vocal arrangement of the brothers’ career to that point.
Buried treasure to one side though, a while back I wrote an essay about the genius opening lines of so many Bee Gees songs and there are few better examples than I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You with Robin’s, “The preacher talked with me and he smiled / he said come and walk with me / come and walk one more mile”. Scene-setting in pop music was rarely so cinematic and straight away you sense what is confirmed a few lines later – that this 3-minute pop song is also the tale of a man on death-row.
Most Famous Song:
14: HIGH CIVILIZATION (1991, total score: 84, songs 8 or above: 6, final total: 90, avg: 8.18, star rating: ****)
- High Civilization – 8
- Secret Love – 9
- When He’s Gone – 8
- Happy Ever After – 9
- Party With No Name – 7
- Ghost Train – 9
- Dimensions – 7
- The Only Love – 8
- Human Sacrifice – 7
- True Confessions – 6
- Evolution – 6
Some strange things happened to the Bee Gees after their comeback in 1987. You had You Win Again topping the UK charts but stalling at US #75. Two years later in 1989 there was the single One hitting the US top 10 but for some reason missing the UK top 40. Then in 1991, Secret Love returned the Gibbs to the UK top 5, but wasn’t even released as a single in the States. As a result, its parent album High Civilization completely failed to chart Stateside, but sold well in the UK and in the case of Germany, in the millions.
It’s fair to say High Civilization divides Bee Gees buffs. It lacks the underdog status that pulls fans in to embracing LPs like Mr Natural and Living Eyes, while the accessible, Supremes-recalling pop of Secret Love was not an overly accurate gauge of an album full of long intros and a tech-heavy percussive sound (Prince’s engineer Femi Jiya oversaw the album).
But give High Civilization a chance because the song-craft is there, lengthy intros or not. The title track – a rare social commentary by the brothers with an intriguing off-the-beat chorus – was Barry’s choice of single, though clearly not the record company’s. A shame because it’s not inconceivable to me that this could have caught on as a followup to Secret Love, but instead the less immediate (but still appealing) When He’s Gone was chosen as the US single.
With almost no US record company promotion, both the album and song disappeared, which given the sizable success of the One album, single and world tour just two years earlier, is baffling. And yet the European market for the Bee Gees was booming again.
The first half of the album in particular is excellent with some of the best lead vocal interplay between Barry and Robin of any Bee Gees album. From the almost dark industrial pop of the title track to the Motown bounce of Secret Love to the sublime adult/contemporary balladry of Happy Ever After, this is clearly no hastily thrown together project, even if the album’s slightly same-y home stretch pulls down its final score.
The two stabs at electro-funk – Party With No Name and Maurice’s Dimensions – succeed, while it’s Ghost Train that is Civilization’s real dark horse. Secret Love and Happy Ever After may be the album’s two finest songs and the title track could’ve been one of the more brave late period Bee Gees singles, but it’s Ghost Train that’s the real discovery.
There’s the nervous energy of the intro, the fast phrasing of Barry’s pre-chorus, the woah-ohs of the first part of chorus, Robin in his upper-register for the middle chorus and the harmonies of all three brothers for the “ghost train” refrain. The song structure is complicated and this is before we even get to the outro, complete with sound effects of a children’s playground, a cool military drum loop that may or may not be a Beatles Strawberry Fields sample and then an abrupt end with a lit match and Barry defiantly saying, “right!”
Ghost Train in many ways sums up Civilization beyond its big hit single: on the one hand it’s long, there’s a truckload going on, it takes a few listens and there’s a clear attempt to sound modern that manifests in a prominent use of high-in-the-mix drum programming. But get beyond that and the hefty hooks are there, as are the harmonies. If you listened to High Civilization once in 1991 and relegated it to the back of your Bee Gees collection, it’s time to give it a whirl again. Be patient and it will reward.
Most Famous Song:
13: LIVING EYES (1981, total score: 76, songs 8 or above: 6, final total: 82, avg: 8.20, star rating: ****)
- Living Eyes – 8
- He’s A Liar – 7
- Paradise – 8
- Don’t Fall In Love With Me – 9
- Soldiers – 6
- I Still Love You – 6
- Wildflower – 7
- Nothing Could Be Good – 9
- Cryin’ Every Day – 8
- Be Who You Are – 8
By 1981 the Bee Gees were at a crossroads. The most dominant force in American popular music for the past half a dozen years suddenly found themselves blacklisted by US radio. They’d just completed the 15-million selling Guilty album for Barbra Streisand and their previous studio album, 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, had sold a similar number of copies. As songwriters and producers they still couldn’t have been hotter, but much of the radio industry had gone cold on “the Bee Gees”, though just how cold is jaw-dropping even today.
From the 30 million copies of Saturday Night Fever to the 15-20 million of Spirits Having Flown to the 15-million of Guilty to the… wait for it… 750,000 of Living Eyes. To fully explain why and how Living Eyes was such a massive come down for Barry, Robin and Maurice can’t adequately be condensed into a couple of paragraphs because it involves the complicated sociological and even racial and homophobic motivations for the disco backlash.
The fact that the Bee Gees were pop tunesmiths of the highest calibre who could write in every imaginable genre from country to blues to soul to folk to the the danceable R&B that became “disco” was lost on a generation of American music fans. The Bee Gees were disco, disco was over and therefore so too were the Bee Gees. A nonsense then and a nonsense now, but it meant that Living Eyes would’ve had to have been both extraordinary and extraordinarily on the pulse if it was going to succeed.
Add to the obstacles the small matter that the Bee Gees were amidst the largest record company lawsuit the industry had ever seen (US $200 million – eventually settled out of court), that their record label was in the process of being absorbed and that midway through recording they’d let go the “Bee Gees Band” of Dennis Bryon (drums), Blue Weaver (keyboards) and Alan Kendall (guitar) that had been with them since the mid-70s, it’s little surprise the album was a turkey.
Or was it? Commercially, yes. Artistically though, a more nuanced take is needed. I can look at every track on Living Eyes and irrespective of public backlash, radio blacklisting, record company upheaval, inter-band politics and personnel changes, there’s nothing that sounds like an out and out smash. Unlike the hit-packed Guilty album for Streisand from the previous year and the hits that came in the following three years with the Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross albums, bar a couple of tracks, Living Eyes was almost old-fashioned.
So how come it makes it to 13 on these album rankings? It’s because even with a lack of hits, it’s an album that always deserved to find an audience. It’s because even though there’s a hard to pinpoint disconnect in much of the production on Living Eyes (the drumming – even with the presence of two of the greatest session drummers in history with Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd – sounds oddly mechanical), it’s an album that many devoted Bee Gees fans love to the extent of feeling protective over. And maybe in the hands of a producer like David Foster (who in 1981 was about to start working his sheen-filled platinum magic with Chicago), maybe, just maybe there was a hit buried in there.
Indeed, a rejected song from the Guilty album for Barbra Streisand the previous year, Carried Away (9), would’ve been the most radio-ready song from Living Eyes had the Bee Gees chosen to do it themselves. Olivia Newton-John would soon find a home for Carried Away as an album track, but when you listen to the more ear-wormy Gibb-demo, it’s not hard to imagine it as a kind of sequel to Too Much Heaven. If Carried Away had made the cut over one of the album’s 6-out-of-10 tracks, Living Eyes would’ve scored a final total of 85 at an 8.5 average – enough to take it to a tie for seventh place.
As for what did make the album, Living Eyes’ pretty title track has attractive enough chord progressions that with the right arrangement and production could’ve put it on a par with Spirits Having Flown’s sublime title track. The same could be said for Paradise, while the Robin-led Don’t Fall In Love With Me – minus the distracting intro – has one of the most whopping, harmony-laden hooks the brothers ever sung: “Gonna’ be a lonely night / nothing but a lonely night / gonna’ be a lonely night…”
I Still Love You is pleasant if non-essential, while lead single He’s A Liar – a US #30 – is a song I’m desperate to hear with new ears. It has the details and the riffs and and even one of the brothers best ever videos, but something still feels missing.
Elsewhere, Soldiers is an interesting deviation back to falsetto, Maurice’s Wildflower has an easy charm and Barry’s excellent Nothing Could Be Good has a hairs on the back of the neck moment with the layered vocals of “sing to the Almighty / if that’s what you need to do / love what is true”. Other standouts are the multi-faceted orchestral closer Be Who You Are and the New Wave dance-pop of Cryin’ Every Day – the album’s most current (for 1981) sounding track. Other than some quietly sensational lyrics (“your love is a cathedral and I came down here to pray”), Cryin’ Every Day is also worthy of close listening for the use of Robin in natural voice lead backed by Barry in falsetto.
Living Eyes is an underdog of an album, simultaneously wrongly ignored while also being (mostly) uncommercial in nature, but still chock full of rewarding, emotional songs.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
12: ESP (1987, total score: 78, songs 8 or above: 6, final total: 84, avg: 8.40, star rating: ****)
- ESP – 8
- You Win Again – 10
- Live Or Die (Hold Me Like A Child) – 7
- Giving Up The Ghost – 8
- The Longest Night – 9
- This Is Your Life – 5
- Angela – 9
- Overnight – 7
- Crazy For Your Love – 7
- Backtafunk – 8
By 1987 it had been four years since the last project under the “Bee Gees” banner, the Staying Alive soundtrack, and a full six years since the brothers’ last proper studio album Living Eyes. As I’ve written about in the past, the Gibbs were far from inactive during this period, writing and producing no less than 12 albums in the 80s in the build up to ESP.
Yes, you read that right, 12 albums. It’s staggering just how prolific Barry, Robin and Maurice were in the 80s with solo albums and blockbuster works for some of the biggest names in the industry. Having taken this time to rest brand “Bee Gees” after the over-saturation of the late 70s and subsequent backlash, by 1987, the time felt right again. Working with Arif Mardin for the first time since Main Course in 1975, the result was huge success in Europe and the UK, but frustratingly, not the States.
Barry once told me in an interview that the biggest disappointment of his career was You Win Again being ignored by US radio programmers. A masterclass in unusually-structured pop songwriting, You Win Again has truncated verses, key changes, codas, ad-libs, an unmistakable stomping intro, superb (and subtle) brotherly harmonies and hooks for Africa. Based on a melody Barry heard in a dream and woke up and recorded into his tape recorder next to the bed, the Bee Gees worked extremely hard on You Win Again and it shows.
It’s not hyperbole to say that You Win Again was as good as any late 80s pop song by any major act and it’s criminal it only reached US #75. Outside of the States the story couldn’t have been more different with the song hitting UK #1 and keeping George Michael’s Faith from the top spot. In doing so this gave the Gibbs the title of being the only act to have UK #1 singles in the 60s, 70s and 80s. A monster hit across the rest of Europe too (as well as Asia and Australasia), You Win Again propelled ESP to international sales of more than three million.
The rest of the album is highlighted by a mixture of ballads (Barry’s Angela is an excellent split of natural voice leads and falsetto ad-libs, while Robin’s emotional lead on the exquisitely produced The Longest Night – check out that Marcus Miller bass – gave him his best song solo or for the Bee Gees since 1981’s Don’t Fall In Love With Me), a couple of fine pieces of funk-pop (Giving Up The Ghost and Backtafunk), mid-tempo pop-rock (Overnight and the title track) and a Motown-esque throwback in the vein of Chain Reaction (Crazy For Your Love).
Speaking of which, given the massive success of the Gibb-written Chain Reaction for Diana Ross just a year and half earlier in the UK and Australasia, it’s strange that Crazy For Your Love wasn’t heavily pushed as single in those markets.
Regardless, what’s clear to me is that critics – especially American ones – simply didn’t know how to take the Bee Gees in 1987. Stateside reviews at and the time and even retrospectively frequently fail to mention You Win Again, let alone the fact it was one of the biggest hits of the entire year in Europe and the UK. The attitude is one that if it didn’t happen in the States then it didn’t happen at all.
Mardin’s production is layered but crisp and there’s a detectable confidence throughout ESP, even if the partially-rapped, hit-title referencing This Is Your Life tips over into cringe. I’ve always thought of ESP as a punchy album with the dominant (but not domineering) late 80s programming and synth sounds. Where Living Eyes‘ (1981) production was a fraction out of step with top 40 radio and the Staying Alive soundtrack (1983) sounded like a Barry solo album, ESP was a highly contemporary work with harmonies that were clearly a group effort. The trading of lead and background vocals between the brothers was the most fully realised in a true group sense since Main Course and I’m relieved to see that the maths in my rankings has confirmed what I’ve always felt to be true: ESP is as good as it’s underrated and is thoroughly deserving of its ranking in the top dozen Bee Gees albums.
Most Famous Song:
11: FIRST (1967, total score: 108, songs 8 or above: 8, final total: 116, avg: 8.28, star rating: ****)
- Turn Of The Century – 7
- Holiday – 9
- Red Chair Fade Away – 6
- One Minute Woman – 8
- In My Own Time – 6
- Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You – 8
- Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts – 8
- New York Mining Disaster 1941 – 10
- Cucumber Castle – 8
- To Love Somebody – 10
- I Close My Eyes – 6
- I Can’t See Nobody – 9
- Please Read Me – 7
- Close Another Door – 6
The album that launched the brothers Gibb to the world and instant success in both the US and UK is a sprawling, highly creative, at times extraordinary body of work. At 14 songs, it’s only three tracks shorter than the classic double album Odessa the Bee Gees would release two years later in 1969. While First’s final ranking is affected by a couple of tracks that are quirkier than they are melodious, this is a remarkable album – all the more so when you consider Barry was just 20 and the twins 17 when they released it. To think that music and storytelling so unique (New York Mining Disaster 1941), so timeless (To Love Somebody), so soulful (I Can’t See Nobody) and so eccentric (Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You) could come from songwriters this young remains staggering. And it was only the beginning.
Most Famous Song:
10: HORIZONTAL (1967, total score: 92, songs 8 or above: 8, final total: 100, average 8.33, star rating: ****)
- World – 9
- And The Sun Will Shine – 8
- Lemons Never Forget – 8
- Really & Sincerely – 6
- Birdie Told Me – 7
- With The Sun In My Eyes – 6
- Massachusetts – 10
- Harry Braff – 4
- Daytime Girl – 8
- Earnest Of Being George – 9
- The Change Is Made – 9
- Horizontal – 8
A oft-told, well-intentioned fallacy about the brothers Gibb is that their songs were deceptively simple. Any round-the-campfire guitarist* who’s looked at those chords and sequences will tell you what rubbish this is, just as anyone who’s seriously studied popular music can point to songs as diverse as Lonely Days, Nights On Broadway, Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love and You Win Again as being lessons in the value of employing unexpected chords and song structures.
However, where the “deceptively simple” cliche does, admittedly, have some merit is on songs like To Love Somebody from First and on Horizontal’s standout track and one of the biggest selling Gibb songs ever, Massachusetts. This is four chords of remarkable beauty and four easy chords at that, but there’s still the almost mysterious powers of the Gibb imagination to set this love song not only in America, but in a state they’d never been. It’s so different to any other love song or flower-power song of the era that it could never just wash over you. And those harmonies…
The second greatest Bee Gees song of the 60s (after To Love Somebody) isn’t the only standout on the brothers’ second international album with Horizontal dotted with half a dozen quite sensational songs. It’s an album to convert the non-believers with too. Confronted with a “rockist” who dismisses the Bee Gees because they profess to not liking “disco”? Play them Horizontal’s trio of bluesy, unforgettably-titled rockers The Change Is Made, The Earnest Of Being George and Lemons Never Forget. Then there’s the pyschedelia of the international top 10 hit World and the hymn-like beauty of And The Sun Will Shine. Prepare to be an evangelist.
Coming in at 10 in the album rankings, Horizontal is the third highest ranked early period (1967-1974) Bee Gees album.
*Or maybe I’m just a useless guitarist!
Most Famous Song:
9: MR NATURAL (1974, total score: 86, songs 8 or above: 7, final total: 93, avg: 8.45, star rating: ****)
- Charade – 7
- Throw A Penny – 8
- Down The Road – 8
- Voices – 8
- Give A Hand – 7
- Dogs – 9
- Mr Natural – 8
- Lost In Your Love – 9
- I Can’t Let You Go – 7
- Heavy Breathing – 6
- Had A Lot Of Love Last Night – 9
Working with famed Atlantic Records R&B producer Arif Mardin for the first time, Mr Natural was seen as almighty flop when it came out with a peak position of 178 in the US and no traction in the UK. While the title track was a major Australasian hit, outside of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Southeast Asia, the Bee Gees were in dire commercial straits.
History now shows that Mr Natural was a fitting dress rehearsal for the stylistic overhaul that would soon see the Gibbs dominate the US singles charts in a way no act had done since the Beatles, but in 1974, they were in serious trouble.
With the benefit of hindsight, you can hear a reinvigorated band. There’s nothing remotely “disco” here, but there is some first-rate, smooth blue-eyed soul in the title track as well as Lost In Your Love, Had A Lot Of Love Last Night and Throw A Penny. Indeed if you take out that midsection in Throw A Penny with the “listen to the wise man as he breathes” and cut straight to the sensational repeating finale of “throw a penny / for my children / for my children / goin’ down”, you’ve got yourself another bonafide Gibb classic.
Down The Road is good danceable rock (and possesses the wondrous lyric, “ain’t no heavy Mr Leather gonna’ paddle my butt…”), Heavy Breathing is about as heavy as the Gibbs got sound-wise, while the Elton John-influenced Dogs is the album’s centre piece. With its beautiful piano-driven melodic verses, an urgent chorus, subtle falsetto background vocals and the line, “Are you following me / just like Moses to the see / do you think I’ll give you freedom in the end?”, Dogs would’ve easily been good enough for their next album, the blockbuster comeback Main Course. As it stands, it’s proof you should never dismiss Bee Gees albums that failed to sell because if you dig deep enough, you’ll always find some treasure.
Most Famous Song:
8: STILL WATERS (1997, total score: 95, songs 8 or above: 7, final total: 102, avg: 8.50, star rating: ****1/2)
- Alone – 10
- I Surrender – 7
- I Could Not Love You More – 7
- Still Waters Run Deep – 7
- My Lover’s Prayer – 8
- With My Eyes Closed – 8
- Irresistible Force – 8
- Closer Than Close – 7
- I Will – 9
- Obsessions – 9
- Miracles Happen – 9
- Smoke & Mirrors – 6
It’s hard to overstate just how big a comeback Still Waters was for the Bee Gees in the late 90s. After a decade of see-sawing fortunes where they’d score in either the US or the UK but never both at the same time, finally the stars aligned. It wasn’t just in the US and and UK though as Still Waters reached the upper echelon of charts the world over, producing three UK top 20 singles on the way to sales of more than five million.
The lead single, Alone, was a UK top 5, US top 30 and a top 10 entry in most major markets. Finally it was OK to like the Bee Gees again and barely a month passed between 1996 and 1999 where they weren’t in the news with a positive story. There were the multiple cover versions of old Gibb songs becoming hits again for modern artists, there were the lifetime achievement gongs that piled up from everyone from the Brits to the American Music Awards to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, there were the high-profile documentaries and interviews with people like Oprah, there was One Night Only tour, and behind it all, there was a genuinely outstanding pop album supporting it.
Peaking at UK #2 and US #11, there’s a lushness and continuity of sound to Still Waters that belies the reality it was the work of several different producers, namely Russ Titleman, Arif Mardin, Hugh Padgham, David Foster and Rafael Saadiq. There’s no question that the bagpipe-driven Alone – a sensational pop song with duel Barry and Robin leads – is the album’s alpha cut, but this is a thoroughly consistent album.
Indeed, it could have been even better had two of its most interesting songs not been relegated to B-sides, Rings Around Moon and Love Never Dies. I’d go so far to say those tracks would’ve been the second and third most vital songs on Still Waters after Alone. Rating them scores of 9 each, if they’d been added to the album and Smoke And Mirrors (6) left off, that would’ve led to a final score of 116 at an average of 10.54, enough to rank Still Waters as the second greatest Bee Gees album.
An even more radical take is that if that album had to stay at 12 songs, I’d have dropped the title track and renamed the album Rings Around The Moon. What a great title! And title-aside, this ethereal, stripped-back, acoustic guitar-led ballad may have been a more valuable contribution to the album’s overall feel and variety than the somewhat airbrushed Still Waters Run Deep. With the renamed Rings Around The Moon LP swapping Still Waters Run Deep for Rings Around The Moon and Smoke And Mirrors for Love Never Dies, that would’ve been a final total of 109 at an 9.08 average.
Ah, the fun of what ifs! Still, a score of 8.50 and a ranking inside the top 10 is befitting an album as smooth and meticulously crafted as this. The vocally complex I Will and Miracles Happen are two of the finest ballads the Bee Gees did post their 1987 return, while the steadily building Obsessions is a reminder of just how good the Gibbs were when they teamed with Arif Mardin.
One final Still Waters what if: I always believed the uptempo, very 90s R&B number I Surrender would’ve been a better fit for top-40 radio than the followup single to Alone, I Could Not Love You More*. Co-producer for the track David Foster said it sounded like an absolute smash, but for some reason it was overlooked.
Ultimately it didn’t matter because the momentum was such for the resurgent Bee Gees in the late 90s that one big hit – and a brilliant one too – was enough to sell the album. In many ways, it was also enough to seal their legacy, exactly 30 years after the brothers’ first international hits.
*While both I Could Not Love You More and Still Waters Run Deep reached the UK top 20, they dropped quickly from the charts.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
7: CUCUMBER CASTLE (1970, total score: 95, songs 8 or above: 8, final total: 103, avg: 8.58, star rating: ****1/2)
- If I Only Had My Mind On Something Else – 8
- IOIO – 8
- Then You Left Me – 9
- The Lord – 7
- I Was The Child – 7
- I Lay Down And Die – 8
- Sweetheart – 9
- Bury Me Down By The River – 9
- My Thing – 7
- The Chance Of Love – 8
- Turning Tide – 6
- Don’t Forget To Remember – 9
The semi soundtrack to a silly TV special nobody saw likewise became an album that few people bought. A shame because Cucumber Castle should lay claim to being one of the two best pre-disco-era Bee Gees albums, even if it only featured two-thirds of the group. With Robin having quit following the release of Odessa (1969) and drummer Colin Peterson ousted not long after, in a matter of months the Bee Gees had gone from a five-piece (including guitarist Vince Melouney) to a four-piece to a three-piece to finally, just Barry and Maurice.
The initial Barry/Maurice songwriting duo produced a couple of standout tracks that were ultimately left off Cucumber Castle, the impassioned Tomorrow, Tomorrow (written for Joe Cocker but not recorded by him) and the stunning acoustic ballad Sun In My Morning. I’d give Tomorrow, Tomorrow a score of 9 and Sun In My Morning the full 10 – they’re that good. Swap those two songs for a couple of Cucumber Castle’s two lower scoring tracks (namely Turning Tide and I Was The Child) and you’ve got a final total of 111 at a 9.25 average – enough to be the third highest ranked Bee Gees album ever.
But we’ll settle for 7th and an early period Gibb record that’s only bettered by Odessa. Following on from the Americana-style of Odessa tracks like Marley Purt Drive and Give Your Best, Cucumber Castle may’ve been attached to a very British TV comedy, but the music frequently draws on American gospel, soul, folk and country.
Even the way Barry starts singing about his “woman” during this period sounds more Memphis than Manchester. There’s “went up the stairs and kissed my woman,” from Odessa’s best track, Marley Purt Drive, there’s “I’ve got my woman there to guide me”, from Sun In My Morning and then by late 1970, there was Lonely Days’ “Where would I be without my woman?” Said more as a statement than a question, there was a self-assured masculinity in this era of Barry’s voice.
All that confident Americana couldn’t help the lead single in the States though with Don’t Forget To Remember stalling at 73. In the UK the public lapped up this new country-twanged incarnation of the Bee Gees to such an extent that it almost gave them their third chart-topper after Massachusetts and I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message. Peaking at UK #2, Don’t Forget To Remember was a mammoth hit in pretty much every major international market except the States, topping charts in countries like New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Given Don’t Forget To Remember was such a success, it may’ve been a missed opportunity that it wasn’t followed with the similarly twangy (and equally catchy) Sweetheart. Later a top 30 entry for Englebert Humperdinck, Sweetheart has verses almost as hooky as its chorus and sounds like a hit.
Instead seven months would pass – from August 1969 when Don’t Forget To Remember was released – to March 1970 when a followup single finally arrived. When it did, it was the attractive, whimsical If I Only Had My Mind On Something Else. Attractive and whimsical, yes, but not something to necessarily jump from the radio. With the actual album unreleased until April 1970 – now a full eight months after Don’t Forget – any momentum for the project was derailed.
This helps explain why Cucumber Castle could house a hit as big as Don’t Forget and still fail to sell, as hugely disappointing peaks of #57 and #94 in the UK and the US show. This was also at a time when the brothers were becoming almost as famous in the UK for their public squabbles as for their music. They could still generate headlines in the British press, but by 1970, they were no longer guaranteed sales.
Internationally they rebounded with the quirky African-flavoured I.O.I.O – a top 10 smash everywhere from Brazil to Austria to New Zealand – but there was little transatlantic airplay. From that moment on, Cucumber Castle sank from view, Barry and Maurice had already split and it seemed like it was curtains for the Bee Gees. Then unexpectedly, the three brothers reunited in the back half of 1970 and stormed back to the upper reaches of the US charts with their biggest Stateside hits. There was no longer a need for the two-person Cucumber Castle in the Bee Gees story, nor for the strong solo albums each brother worked on that to this day remain unreleased (except for Robin’s Sing Slowly Sisters that received a lavish box set reissue under the name Saved By The Bell a few years ago).
What this means is that the general public missed out on the wonderful gumbo of the soul, gospel, country and folk of Cucumber Castle album tracks like Then You Left Me (I love this song and the hook on the repeated “Ba-by” lyric is hefty), Bury Me Down By The River (with backgrounds from P.P Arnold), The Chance Of Love (check out Barry’s “yeah!” vocal at the 1:09 mark) and I Lay Down And Die (some of Barry’s most soulful and convincing closing ad-libs).
I can’t help myself leaving it at that though, because Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Sun In My Morning weren’t the only gems left off Cucumber Castle. A contender for being the most convincing rock song the Gibbs ever recorded, Who Knows What A Room Is (9) is a swaggering wall of sound ditty with falsetto ad-libs that predate Nights On Broadway by a full six years. Songs like this are just too good to be sitting hidden away and I pray one day for a repackaged Cucumber Castle with this song (as well as the easier to find Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Sun In My Morning) as bonus tracks.
And just for the fun of it, a hypothetical Cucumber Castle that included the three songs just mentioned and reluctantly dropping My Thing (as well as I Was The Child and Turning Tide) would’ve scored 115 at a 9.58 average. And that, ladies and gentlemen, would make it the second greatest Bee Gees album of all time.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
6: ODESSA (1969, total score: 137, songs 8 or above: 11, final score: 148, avg: 8.70, star rating: ****1/2)
- Odessa – 9
- You’ll Never See My Face Again – 7
- Black Diamond – 9
- Marley Purt Drive – 10
- Edison – 6
- Melody Fair – 9
- Suddenly – 8
- Whisper Whisper – 6
- Lamplight – 9
- Sound Of Love – 10
- Give Your Best – 9
- Seven Seas Symphony – 8
- With All Nations (International Anthem) – 7
- I Laugh In Your Face – 8
- Never Say Never Again – 7
- First Of May – 9
- British Opera – 6
Hugely ambitious, at times ostentatious and a patchwork of everything from old time country & western to classical instrumentals, 1969’s Odessa is worth the hype. Not just one of the greatest Bee Gees albums, the 21st Century assessment of Odessa is normally that it’s up there with the finest albums of the 60s, though it wasn’t quite received that way at the time.
Originally decked out in a plush red felt cover, Odessa was meant to be some sort of a concept album about a fictitious ship and its sinking. Ultimately the adherence to a strict storyline fell apart just as the brothers themselves were falling apart under the weight of egos, substances and what they’d later call “First Fame Syndrome”. Against the odds though, the music was brilliant even if sales were down on the previous three albums. From an essay I wrote for the album’s 45th anniversary in 2014, I discussed how conversations about Odessa invariably come back to the interpersonal chaos caused by the single release of First Of May:
Robin Gibb wanted his lead Lamplight to be the A-side while manager Robert Stigwood favored Barry’s First Of May. As a result Robin quit the Bee Gees with the brothers not fully reuniting for another 15 months.
I’ve always thought both songs were terrific. Lamplight begins and ends in eccentric style: a French sung opening over vigorously-strummed guitars with the same melody later sung at the song’s end in English. In between, Lamplight has a big, accessible Bee Gee chorus with three-part harmonies dominated by Barry. As a fellow Bee Gees fan pointed out to me by email, there’s an argument to be made that Lamplight was an equal Robin and Barry song, making a nonsense of First Of May vs Lamplight being Barry vs Robin. Robin saw it differently.
As for First Of May, if anything it was a braver, less-obvious choice as single. Not a traditional 60s pop song by any stretch (though nor was Lamplight), this was stately, orchestral music with one of the more unusual endings I can think of for a British UK top 10 single. In radio-speak, you often talk about cold intros or outros meaning a song that begins with the full vocal and one that doesn’t fade-out at the end. The Beatles’ Hey Jude is an obvious example of a cold intro. Outros normally vary between chorus repetition in a fade-out, or if it’s a cold outro, an instrumental resolution of the melody i.e. Billy Joel’s Piano Man, Katy Perry’s Roar etc.
Where First Of May is unique is that when all the instrumentation goes to leave Barry alone saying, “don’t ask me why, but time has passed us by, someone else moved in from far away,’ his vocal is fading down as he sings. Perhaps this makes the listener sit up and take notice. For me the trailing off of the vocal gives that final line an extra dose of melancholy to what is already a wistful song. Beautiful.
Ultimately neither First Of May nor Lamplight are my absolute favourite songs from Odessa. The best song Robbie Robertson never wrote – Marley Purt Drive – has always been one of my go-to Gibb songs to convert non-believers who only know the Fever material. With Marley Purt Drive (“15 kids and a family on the skids, gotta’ go for a Sunday drive” is a dynamite lyric) my Odessa #1, then comes a song from each of the brothers: Barry’s sad and soulful The Sound Of Love, Robin’s hook-laden Black Diamond and Maurice’s rocking Suddenly. The country & western of Give Your Best rounds out my top five in an album filled with excellent, often surprising, songs. And I haven’t even mentioned the epic title track nor the Japanese hit Melody Fair.
Yes, that “epic title track” is truly that. Somehow the still teenaged Robin was inspired to come up with a seven-and-a-half minute tale of a shipwreck, an iceberg and a broken-hearted man who’s lady loves “the vicar more than words can say”. And she’s just moved to Finland. And it’s the year 1899.
The only double studio album of the Bee Gees career, Odessa has 17 songs with 11 of those scoring higher than 8 or above – more than any other album they made. Sure, a trimmed version would’ve seen it rank even higher than 6, but so much of the enjoyment of Odessa is its sprawl. Besides, the depleted Bee Gees would soon be churning out an outstanding single disc that like its predecessor, would defy the circumstances of its turbulent creation.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
5: ONE (1989, total score: 89, songs 8 or above: 7, final total: 96, avg: 8.72, star rating: ****1/2)
- One – 9
- Ordinary Lives – 10
- Bodyguard – 8
- It’s My Neighborhood – 7
- Tears – 9
- Tokyo Nights – 8
- Flesh & Blood – 6
- Wish You Were Here – 10
- House Of Shame – 7
- Will You Ever Let Me – 7
- Wing & Prayer – 8
If ever there was a Bee Gees album that should’ve sold millions and millions around the world that didn’t quite, it’s 1989’s One. Finally they were back in the US top 10 with the title track, but for some reason British radio wasn’t interested this time around. An even better song was the album’s lead single Ordinary Lives, though that inexplicably missed in both the US and the UK. As for Wish You Were Here, there’s arguably no greater non-single in the entire Gibb catalogue.
Commercial frustrations to one side, this is still a project that shifted over one million copies worldwide and served as the launchpad for a highly successful international tour – the brothers’ first full concerts in a decade. Taken as a pair with 1987’s ESP, these two fine albums in quick succession restored the Bee Gees as performers (and not just songwriters) and sent a message that they were very much a going concern again.
More than that, ESP, One and the subsequent world tour did so much to recast the Gibbs’ previous 22 years of international recordings in a new light: like Rod Stewart, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees were now among the rarified air of multi-decade, multi-generational hit-makers. Not only were their old songs still around and still sounding good, but the brothers themselves were still around and still sounding good. And without ESP and One, the even bigger comeback of the late 90s may never have happened.
That One happened at all is a testament to the Bee Gees’ relentless drive as well as the power of music to heal. March 10, 1988 was the day the Gibb family lost the youngest of their clan, baby brother Andy, aged just 30. Distraught, Barry, Robin and Maurice took several months off before returning to the studio later in the year. Removing some of the bombast of ESP, they crafted a first rate adult/contemporary album, led by a trio of emotional songs as poignant and complete as anything they’d done: Ordinary Lives, Tears and Wish You Were Here.
Elsewhere, the title track was the carefree US hit with the tight groove and the catchy chorus, It’s My Neighbourhood was the gentler cousin of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Bodyguard was the sensual R&B ballad, Flesh And Blood and House Of Shame were the serious stabs of pop/rock, Will You Ever Let Me was the dance number, Tokyo Nights was the pop singalong and Wing And A Prayer the outstanding uptempo falsetto throwback (that also could’ve been a single contender had it not been relegated to being a bonus track on the US edition of the album). All very good, even excellent songs. But the crux of One lies in those three previously mentioned songs: track 2 (Ordinary Lives), track 5 (Tears) and track 8 (Wish You Were Here).
Even the way these three are spaced apart gives them the feeling of being the foundation and pillars of the album. Ordinary Lives has a distinct thumping drum courtesy of an uncredited Don Henley (how did this stay secret for so long!), sensational natural voice leads from Barry, and to my ears, unison (as opposed to harmony) vocals by Barry and Robin on the choruses. There are added harmonies from all three brothers on top and sonically, it’s a sublime record.
Lyrically it is too with lines that suggest of Andy’s loss even if that wasn’t the intention; there’s talk of glowing “in the sun”, of “incredible highs and lows”, there’s “say goodbye cruel world / no pity no pain tonight / whatever the cost all is lost”, and the visceral impact of the repetition of the lines “we were ordinary people / living ordinary lives”. In so many ways there’s nothing ordinary about the Gibbs, but in terms of their humble beginnings and the “incredible highs and lows” they faced, maybe they were just “ordinary people”.
The brothers didn’t tend to write autobiographically, but coming so soon after Andy’s death, it’s hard not to feel his presence in a song like Ordinary Lives.
Whether Ordinary Lives was explicitly about the youngest Gibb brother or not, there’s no question he was the inspiration for Tears and Wish You Were Here. As heartbreaking as anything the Bee Gees had ever written and like Ordinary Lives but more directly, these two songs get you in the guts with the repetition of a short phrase. For Tears it’s “I will not sleep tonight / there will be tears tonight”, while Wish You Were Here’s repeating “They were good times / and I wish you were here / wish you were here” is so devastatingly succinct.
The fact Wish You Were Here was also paired with the most memorable chorus (not to mention opening riff) of any Bee Gees ballad since 1979’s Too Much Heaven makes me scratch my head it wasn’t a single. Like Too Much Heaven, it could’ve been set up as a charity single for a cause dear to Andy’s heart and it could’ve been a great act of philanthropy as well as a number one hit.
One contained one more great what if: Shape Of Things To Come. Written for the 1988 Olympic Games album and omitted from One, the song was not a priority release up against Whitney Houston’s One Moment In Time. A shame because this is another ripping track with Barry switching between his natural voice and falsetto in thrilling style for the verses. The chorus almost sounds like Maurice on some words, but is likely Barry and Robin in unison. Shape Of Things To Come is pop/rock in the vein of the ESP title track, but is an even stronger song. Had Shape (9) been included on One over Flesh And Blood (6), One would’ve scored 98 at an average of 8.90, enough to bump it up two further places to third.
But fifth it is for an album that almost 30 years on still sounds timeless. Which of course is a fairly tired cliche when talking about albums, but if 1987’s ESP and 1991’s High Civilization remain accurate snapshots of where pop music was in the late 80s and early 90s, the album in between those – One – really could’ve come out anytime between 1989 and the year of the final Bee Gees album, 2001. It was a meaningful, mature, beautifully crafted album by pop elder statesmen who were rightfully back at the top of their game.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
4: SIZE ISN’T EVERYTHING (1993, total score: 89, songs 8 or above: 9, final total: 98, avg: 8.90, star rating: ****1/2)
- Paying The Price Of Love – 8
- Kiss Of Life – 8
- How To Fall In Love Part One – 9
- Omega Man – 8
- Haunted House – 9
- Heart Like Me – 8
- Anything For You – 6
- Blue Island – 9
- Above And Beyond – 6
- For Whom The Bell Tolls – 10
- Fallen Angel – 8
Late period Bee Gees albums don’t come much better than this. Indeed, pop albums by veteran acts rarely get any better than Size Isn’t Everything – an LP that produced three UK top 30 hits, including the top 5 power ballad For Whom The Bell Tolls (also huge in South America, especially Brazil where it hit #1). Album sales in the UK and Europe were respectable too and if not for a number of health issues for Barry forcing the cancellation of a supporting tour, Size Isn’t Everything could’ve well been a true international success. For that the brothers would have to wait four more years and the almost as good Still Waters (1997) album.
Almost as good, because if Still Waters finally restored the Bee Gees to the kinds of sales they’d long deserved, it’s important when understanding and determining the narrative of the group to realise that particular album was no isolated late career creative flourish. For a decade prior to Still Waters’ multi-millions and all the positive press, TV specials and lifetime achievement gongs that came with it, the Bee Gees had been releasing high quality albums at a rate of almost one every couple of years. And unlike what has been printed – or perhaps more accurately – not printed in some of the recent biographies about the Bee Gees, every single one of these albums yielded major hits in the US or the UK (though never both at the same time) as well as in Europe and South America.
Not for the first time, the Bee Gees confused some American critics who even in the 90s still didn’t know how to frame the band as anything other than a disco act. If “disco” is the writer’s primary framework for assessing the Gibbs as opposed to “pop”, and if the first thing they hear on a new Bee Gees album is the electronic R&B of the drums on opening track Paying The Price Of Love, they may be tempted – and they were – to say disparagingly that “the Bee Gees are now trying to do hip-hop”. Never mind the fact there was nothing hip-hop about the song other than that it was R&B influenced and heaven forbid, sounded current for 1993.
If, however, the writer understands the Bee Gees were first and foremost a pop act who wrote in every imaginable pop sub-genre, then those opening drums of Paying The Price Of Love aren’t the band “now trying to do hip-hop”, they’re merely the Bee Gees doing what they always did. And that is, writing melodic, emotionally-driven pop songs that were sometimes slow, sometimes fast, that sometimes you could dance to and sometimes you couldn’t. The Bee Gees love of R&B goes right back to 60s songs like To Love Somebody and I Can’t See Nobody so the fact they were still inspired by black music at the time of Size Isn’t Everything is hardly surprising.
If those reviewers had listened past Paying The Price Of Love (which, by the way is a fine song in its own right with a sit-up and take notice Barry falsetto that leads into a sample-me-now instrumental breakdown at the 2:45 mark), not only would they have eventually heard the previously mentioned For Whom The Bell Tolls (the vocal arrangement of Barry in both falsetto and strong natural voice, the three brothers in harmony and Robin’s knockout chorus lead is Grammy-worthy), but the Euro dance-pop of Fallen Angel, the smooth R&B balladry of How To Fall In Love Part 1 (there was never a part 2, but all is forgiven when you hear the addictive beauty of those repeating “experience is not enough / I’ll show you how to fall in love”, lines), the perky Omega Man (Maurice’s most memorable song since Railroad more than 20-years earlier) and most notably, the pared-back Blue Island with little more than an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and three of music’s most gifted harmony singers. It should’ve been a single.
Speaking of “should’ves” and “what ifs”, Size Isn’t Everything may be the finest late period Gibb album but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been even better. Once again, a couple of excellent songs leftover from the sessions ended up as non-album B-sides. The pop-rock of My Destiny is a musical cousin of 1988’s Shape Of Things To Come (and is just as vocally complex), while 855-7019 has a groove dying to be sampled, not to mention a fat hook based on the phone number of the title. I’d score My Destiny a 9 and 855-7019 an 8 and if they replaced Anything For You (6) and Above And Beyond (6), Size Isn’t Everything would’ve totaled 104 at an average of 9.45 – enough for it to rank as the second greatest Bee Gees album ever. Perhaps just as significantly, it would’ve been their only album other than the Fever soundtrack to have all of its tracks score 8 or above.
Most Famous Song:
Non-Album Hidden Gem:
3: SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN (1979, total score: 85, songs 8 or above: 8, final total: 93, avg: 9.30, star rating: ****1/2)
- Tragedy – 10
- Too Much Heaven – 10
- Love You Inside Out – 10
- Reaching Out – 8
- Spirits (Having Flown) – 10
- Search, Find – 6
- Stop (Think Again) – 8
- Living Together – 9
- I’m Satisfied – 8
- Until – 6
By 1978 it was official: only one other act in the history of recorded sound could compare to the level of chart dominance the Bee Gees were experiencing and that was the Beatles. Records were being smashed everywhere: biggest selling album of all time (Saturday Night Fever), only songwriter to have four consecutive US number ones (this is not merely four number ones in a row written or co-written by Barry Gibb, it’s four songs that were the four number ones in a row on the Billboard chart by anybody), only songwriters ever to simultaneously have five songs in the US top 10 and by December of that year, a seventh song for the calendar year as songwriters to hit US number one.
That seventh song was Too Much Heaven – the lead single from the event that was the followup album to Fever, Spirits Having Flown. The album itself would be in stores early 1979 and would predictably top charts virtually everywhere in the world. All told, the total sales for Spirits Having Flown are estimated at being anything from 15-million to 30-million. As colossal as those figures are, they would’ve been even higher had there not been a greatest hits album with four of Spirits’ songs released the very next year.
As 1979 progressed, two further cuts from the album would also reach the summit of the US charts – Tragedy and Love You Inside Out – the latter matching the Beatles record of six consecutive US number one singles. Quite simply, as the decade drew to a close, the Bee Gees were the biggest band on the planet.
They were also on the cusp of a backlash the likes of which still remains historically significant as far as pop culture phenomena are concerned. Spirits Having Flown was a strong enough work – extraordinary even – that it could mitigate the emerging forces conspiring against the Bee Gees, namely that white, male, heterosexual rock fans were feeling threatened by the wild popularity of music they deemed to be the domain of blacks, hispanics, women and gays.
That, plus over-saturation, the misfire of the Sgt. Pepper film (1978) and a lack of understanding by those with a predisposition against the Gibbs that the falsetto had long been an integral part of R&B going back to the days of black gospel quartets meant that Spirits absolutely had to be good. And it was. Hotly anticipated, divisive, parodied, beloved, drenched in other-worldly falsetto, the zenith of 70s production values and among the most distinct blockbuster pop albums ever made; Spirits Having Flown was all of those things.
“Here I lie / in a lost and lonely part of town,” is how Spirits’ opening track Tragedy begins and is yet another killer opening line for a Gibb song. For 12 years – 1967-1979 – the Bee Gees had been honing the art of writing songs of gripping desperation set to irresistible melodies. Fictitious mining disasters, love-struck men on death-row, jokes that started the whole crying; Tragedy had more in common with early period Bee Gees songs than casual listeners may’ve realised.
It was also bombastic, had a cool fake explosion sound effect, an almost paranoid energy and an indelible hook that all added up to something that could’ve never not been a hit. Ironically, it was not especially easy to dance to and is arguably closer to rock than disco.
Nor was there anything “disco” about track two, Too Much Heaven. Among the elite of all Gibb ballads, this heavily overdubbed expose of the Barry Gibb falsetto featured the horn section from the band Chicago and 40 years on, still sounds grand on the radio. It’s also a case study in poetic license and writing lyrics that convey feeling more than literal meaning. As in, Too Much Heaven is an arresting title in that other than being unique, it creates an emotional reaction even though taken in isolation – Too – Much – Heaven – it theoretically shouldn’t mean anything specific. The best Gibb titles never passed you by and Too Much Heaven was a cracker.
As for “nobody gets too much heaven no more / it’s much harder to come by / I’m waiting in line”, the meaning gains clarity even if the rules of grammar are bent a little. This is a love song, but it’s a love song with the recurring Gibb themes of battling against the world. Recurring theme, yes, but an entirely new way of saying it and set to a melody so gorgeous that years later Barry rated it as good as anything he and the twins had ever created.
The third in the trio of number one smashes was the funk-pop of Love You Inside Out. Famously the favourite Bee Gees song of a certain Michael Jackson, it’s little surprise this has been sampled by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z.
Track four, Reaching Out – another shimmering falsetto-led ballad – was only a minor dip from the 10/10 quality of the first three tracks, while track five – the title song – is so breathtakingly perfect as to be this Bee Gees fanatic’s all-time favourite Gibb composition.
I’ve written entire essays about the Spirits title track before, but the short version is that from the spoken countdown intro of “Oh yeah! 1, 2, 3, 4…” to the – and it’s not hyperbole to say – majestic instrumental fadeout, this is the biggest rival to Stayin’ Alive as the Bee Gees greatest production achievement. A calypso-influenced verse structure sung in breathy natural voice is coupled with a heavier synth-grounded chorus that gives way to the flutes of the outro (as played by Herbie Mann) and fadeout. And every bar of that “majestic” (to quote myself) fadeout adds a new musical element.
Musically near peerless and lyrically a quasi-religious paean that, like Too Much Heaven, gets you viscerally more than intellectually, Spirits Having Flown makes it four 10 out of 10s out of five from the album’s first side.
Yes, side 2 has the closest the late 70s Gibbs got to filler with Search, Find and yes, perplexing album closer Until sounds like only half of a potentially very good idea, but the smoky nightclub sophista-soul of Stop, Think Again and the bright I’m Satisfied are excellent. As for Living Together, that funky breakdown at the 3:10 mark of just Barry, drums and bass and then horns is enough to elevate this to 9/10 status. Living Together is also unusual in that it features a rare Robin falsetto on the “I lay my heart on you” section.
Speaking of which, some Bee Gees fans regard Spirits Having Flown as a Barry Gibb solo album in everything but name. This is unfair to Robin and Maurice in terms of their involvement in the songwriting process, but it’s true that it’s Barry’s falsetto that dominates the album to the point of being present on nine of the 10 tracks while being a lead vocal on both verses and choruses for eight of the 10 (the title track is natural voice for the verses and Until is mostly in natural voice). This has also led some critics to say there was “too much falsetto” on the record, but Barry’s point over the years is valid: the falsetto-sound was so hot for the Bee Gees in the late 70s, why not do a falsetto album?
He’s right. Not Children Of The World, not Main Course, not Still Waters; there’s not any other full album in the Gibb catalogue to have anything like the amount of falsetto on it that Spirits does. This makes it unique in Bee Gees history, but there’s also a case to be made that no mega-selling album by any act ever went this far with the male falsetto. Eddie Kendricks did entire falsetto albums when he left the Temptations, but those sales are minuscule in comparison. Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey had one of the great falsettos, as did Marvin Gaye, the Four Seasons’ Frankie Vallie, the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson and the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr.
As I’m always at pains to say, the Bee Gees were far from the only group to use this vocal technique. But Spirits Having Flown owned that falsetto not as the icing on the cake, but as the cake, the main course and the appetiser too.
Most Famous Song:
2: MAIN COURSE (1975, total score: 87, songs 8 or above: 9, final total: 96, avg: 9.60, star rating: *****)
- Nights On Broadway – 10
- Jive Talkin’ – 10
- Wind Of Change – 8
- Songbird – 9
- Fanny (Be Tender) – 10
- All This Making Love – 8
- Country Lanes – 7
- Come On Over – 8
- Edge Of The Universe – 8
- Baby As You Turn Away – 9
Sometimes misleadingly referred to as being the Bee Gees first “disco” album, Main Course may have stormed the charts, shifted several million and ushered the brothers into the era of falsettos, medallions and danceable R&B, but there are still plenty of the Gibb trademarks of old, specifically the big melodies, the gorgeous familial harmonies and the utilisation of a range of genres. There’s the sad and tuneful Baby As You Turn Away, the soul ballad Songbird, the jaunty All This Making Love (love that tiger roar), the lyrically curious Edge Of The Universe (“just my dog and I at the edge of the universe”) and the twin country songs of Country Lanes and Come On Over (the latter a hit for Olivia Newton-John).
Oh, and the single four best mid to uptempo R&B songs Barry, Robin and Maurice had ever written up to that point: Nights On Broadway, Jive Talkin’, Wind Of Change and Fanny Be Tender. Wind Of Change is a more than decent stab at a Stevie Wonder-like social commentary and it’s a mark of how phenomenal those other three are – not to mention the fact they were hits – that it gets overlooked.
Nights On Broadway is an exceptional song. From the tight melodic funk of the intro (Blue Weaver on a badass synth bass, while seemingly from nowhere Dennis Bryon announces himself as an R&B drummer to be reckoned with), to the unforgettable opening line – “Here we are / in a room full of strangers,” – to the vocal arrangement that has everything from Barry solo, Robin solo, Barry and Robin in harmony to all three in harmony and finally to Barry in his career-defining falsetto ad-libs; songs like this are proof of the artistry that can be in the DNA of popular music.
Jive Talkin’ (the Bee Gees first US number one since How Can You Mend A Broken Heart in 1971) is less complicated in structure but arguable just as innovative. It’s so ear-wormy that you don’t necessarily notice that it sort of doesn’t have a chorus, instead having a recurring keyboard instrumental with Barry’s sung “da da da da da / da da da da da / daa daa daa daa daa daa” over the top. Most pop nerds know the story of the song’s intro and even its tempo being inspired by the sound of tyres going over a bridge in Miami, but whether you know the oft-told yarn or not, whether you’ve heard the song a million times or merely a thousand, listen to it again and listen to it loud.
Softly holding his guitar in chord-less fashion to numb the strings, Barry strums an addictive but hard to replicate groove that’s soon joined by Weaver’s slightly distorted synth bass. The rhythm that BG has in that right hand; insane. It still sounds like nothing else on the radio before or since.
As for Fanny, it has legendary Atlantic producer Arif Mardin’s fingerprints all over it, especially given its exhilarating back half modulation has echoes of Mardin’s work on Hall & Oates’ She’s Gone from just two years earlier. Then there’s the fun the brothers must’ve had with Mardin in conceiving of a vocal arrangement of natural voices, harmonies, natural voice unison singing between Barry and Robin, falsetto and octave lower natural voice unison by Barry and just about every other harmonic idea short of Bohemian Rhapsody’s 300+ operatic overdubs. Quincy Jones once said Fanny was among his favourite R&B songs of the 70s and you don’t argue with Q.
Side 2 of Main Course is very good, but side 1 is a contender for being the greatest Bee Gees side of vinyl of all. A contender, yes, but according to my stats, it, like the album as a whole, is just pipped by one other work.
Most Famous Song:
1: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977, total score: 50, songs 8 or above: 5, final total: 55, avg: 11.00, star rating: *****)
- Stayin’ Alive – 10
- How Deep Is Your Love – 10
- Night Fever – 10
- More Than A Woman – 10
- If I Can’t Have You – 10
The world will never know what would’ve happened had Bee Gees manager, the famed impresario Robert Stigwood, not rung his lads up while they were recording in France to ask for “a few songs for a movie”. The movie turned out to be the cultural landmark Saturday Night Fever and its attendant soundtrack the biggest selling album of all time pre Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Fever spent 24 weeks – as good as six months – atop the US album charts (a mere 18 weeks in the UK) and gave the Bee Gees three further US number one singles. 40-years since its release it’s still one of the top 10 sellers ever with estimated global sales of 45-million.
One of the key points in understanding the phenomenon of Saturday Night Fever – The Music as opposed to Saturday Night Fever – The Movie is that the Bee Gees had already written If I Can’t Have You, Night Fever, More Than A Woman and the non-Fever song Warm Ride prior to Stigwood’s call. Then came Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love, not to mention a couple of other standouts that found different homes other than Fever, namely Emotion (Samantha Sang), An Everlasting Love (brother Andy) and (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away (also Andy).
Given Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love were written with only the most limited knowledge of the movie – the Gibbs played no part in the film’s production – it’s not inconceivable that the followup Bee Gees album to Children Of The World would’ve looked a little something like this:
- Stayin’ Alive – 10
- How Deep Is Your Love – 10
- Night Fever – 10
- More Than A Woman – 10
- If I Can’t Have You – 10
- Emotion – 10
- (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away – 9
- An Everlasting Love – 8
- Warm Ride – 8
That’s some album. This project would’ve totaled 85, adjusted up to 94 with all nine songs scoring 8 or above (six of them 10s). This full length Fever hypothetical LP would’ve averaged 10.44 on my scoring system and would’ve been about as close to the most perfect pop album humanly possible. Given that in various guises four of those nine songs were US or UK number one hits, eight of them US or UK top 10s and the ninth – Warm Ride – a US top 40 and Australian top 5, I’ve got no doubt it would’ve shattered almost as many sales records as what actually happened.
I mention all this because it rams homes not just how extraordinary the Bee Gees were, but how extraordinarily prolific. In the late 70s they tapped into the zeitgeist so completely that – as you can see from above – virtually everything they wrote became either a hit for themselves or for another artist. Such was their control of the charts, rumours began that their record company wouldn’t release a song of theirs’ if they didn’t think it was a potential number one.
Putting the hypothetical to one side, the Bee Gees performed four new songs for the Fever soundtrack – Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love, More Than A Woman – and gave a fifth to Yvonne Elliman with If I Can’t Have You. Two older Gibb songs were also included on the soundtrack: Jive Talkin’ (not featured in the film) and You Should Be Dancing.
For the purposes of the rankings, I’ve removed Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing given they were on Main Course (1975) and Children Of The World (1976) respectively. I’ve also included If I Can’t Have You given it was one of the five new a Gibb songs for the film, even though Elliman eventually recorded it.
On that note, I’m sure it sounds like bias to say the Bee Gees original is superior to Elliman’s, but who cares? It’s a thrilling piece of pop that at least turned up as the b-side to Stayin’ Alive as well as several Greatest Hits albums. It’s also one of the heaviest-sounding Gibb songs of the era with crashing drums and piano notes that are rather more struck than tinkled. It is pained, emotionally-driven pop that both musically and lyrically has shades of Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You. Indeed, it’s been suggested it was written with Abba in mind.
As for those other four Gibb songs, what can be said about Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love and More Than A Woman that hasn’t been said before? Burt Bacharach once told me those songs are “as good as it gets”. Sometimes there’s deep analysis and sometimes it’s right to just cut to the chase. Bacharach knew his stuff: when it comes to pop music, it does not get any better. From the riff that defines Stayin’ Alive to the crazy song structure of Night Fever to the striking beauty of How Deep Is Your Love to the mysterious joy of More Than A Woman’s almighty chorus, the Bee Gees contributions to Saturday Night Fever are as Burt said, as good as it gets.
Digging a tiny bit deeper, Stayin’ Alive is like a pop hybrid that surpasses even the twin glories of its creation, namely Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City (lyrics) and Superstition (riff and groove). Full of dozens of perfectly interlocking components (drum fills, weaving violins, surging strings, punching horns, a literally life-saving tempo, natural voice counterpoint lines to the main falsetto lead etc.), Stayin’ Alive is a masterpiece on the same level as Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and the Beatles’ A Day In The Life. There’s no shame in it being the most famous Bee Gees song.
Night Fever is the impeccable disco update of Theme From A Summer Place, How Deep Is Your Love is the ultimate us-against-the-world romantic ballad – “‘cos we’re living in a world of fools / when they all should let us be,” while More Than A Woman’s euphoric chorus is matched by verses that remind just how poetic the Gibbs could be as lyricists: “There are stories old and true / of people so in love like you and me / And I can see myself / Let history repeat itself”.
Sure, the association with the film and the term “disco” became for a time an unshakable albatross around their necks, but history has judged both the film and its groundbreaking soundtrack extremely well. Rock fans from the 70s now admit they only pretended to dislike the Bee Gees, while Millennials are far more inclined to listen without prejudice. Ultimately, people love these songs; they get married to these songs; they party to these songs; they heal broken hearts to these songs. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1978 or 2018 or 2078, the very greatest songs of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb will always move the feet or the heart. Maybe the magic of Saturday Night Fever is that they moved both.
Most Famous Song:
Buried Treasure / Non-Album Hidden Gem:
- 22: This Is Where I Came In (2001, 6.75, ***1/2) – SAME PLACE
- 21: Life In A Tin Can (1973, 7.25, ***1/2) – SAME PLACE
- 20: 2 Years On (1970, 7.50, ****) – SAME PLACE
- 19: Staying Alive (1983, 7.60, ****) – UP 1 PLACE
- 18: Trafalgar (1971, 7.66, ****) – DOWN 2 PLACES
- 17: To Whom It May Concern (1972, 8.00, ****) – SAME PLACE
- 16: Children Of The World (1976, 8.10, ****) – DOWN 4 PLACES
- 15: Idea (1968, 8.15, ****) – UP 4 PLACES
- 14: High Civilisation (1991, 8.18, ****) – DOWN 1 PLACE
- 13: Living Eyes (1981, 8.20, ****) – DOWN 3 PLACES
- 12: ESP (1987, 8.25, ****) – DOWN 4 PLACES
- 11: First (1967, 8.28, ****) – UP 4 PLACES
- 10: Horizontal (1967, 8.33, ****) – UP 1 PLACE
- 9: Mr Natural (1974, 8.45, ****) – UP 5 PLACES
- 8: Still Waters (1997, 8.50, ****1/2) – UP 1 PLACE
- 7: Cucumber Castle (1969, 8.58, ****1/2) – SAME PLACE
- 6: Odessa (1969, 8.70, ****1/2) – SAME PLACE
- 5: One (1989, 8.72, ****1/2) – SAME PLACE
- 4: Size Isn’t Everything (1993, 8.90, ****1/2) – SAME PLACE
- 3: Spirits Having Flown (1979, 9.30, *****) – DOWN 1 PLACE
- 2: Main Course (1975, 9.60, *****) – UP 1 PLACE
- 1: Saturday Night Fever (1977, 11.00, *****) – SAME PLACE
- 22: This Is Where I Came In (2001, 6.75, ***1/2)
- 21: Life In A Tin Can (1973, 7.12, ***1/2)
- 20: 2 Years On (1970, 7.33, ***1/2)
- 19: Idea (1968, 7.38, ***1/2)
- 18: Staying Alive (1983, 7.40, ***1/2)
- 17: To Whom It May Concern (1972, 7.46, ***1/2)
- 16: Trafalgar (1971, 7.50, ****)
- 15: First (1967, 7.57, ****)
- 14: Mr Natural (1974, 7.81, ****)
- 13: High Civilization (1991, 7.90, ****)
- 12: Children Of The World (1976, 8.00, ****)
- 11: Horizontal (1967, 8.08, ****)
- 10: Living Eyes (1981, 8.10, ****)
- 9: Still Waters (1997, 8.25, ****)
- 8: ESP (1987, 8.40, ****)
- 7: Cucumber Castle (1970, 8.50, ****1/2)
- 6: Odessa (1969, 8.52, ****1/2)
- 5: One (1989, 8.54, ****1/2)
- 4: Size Isn’t Everything (1993, 8.81, ****1/2)
- 3: Main Course (1975, 9.00, ****1/2)
- 2: Spirits Having Flown (1979, 9.30, ****1/2)
- 1: Saturday Night Fever (1977, 11.00, *****)