Something occasionally said even by staunch admirers of the Bee Gees is that they were melodically and vocally superior than they were lyrically. What this overlooks is a point made in a recent The Paris Review article about the Gibbs: the appeal, even if it was subconscious, of the “melancholic emotion, even paranoia,” of the brothers’ lyrical content.
There are countless examples of this with a couple of songs mentioned in the Paris Review article, namely 1977’s How Deep Is Your Love. This isn’t just a sweet song about a nice guy who loves a great gal, instead: “…we’re living in a world of fools, when they all should let us be.” It’s a love song, yes, but it’s also us against the world.
A decade earlier the notion of “us against the world” was also present in a ballad that soon became so ubiquitous it was almost instantly a standard, Words: “…this world has lost its glory, let’s start a brand new story.” When you start to analyse even the most recognised Bee Gees songs, you begin to understand there was often a lyrical plane far elevated beyond just love gone right or love gone wrong.
Indeed Love So Right (1976) told us that the “perfect story ended at the start,” while You Win Again (1987) has the protagonist surprised he was even allowed to “stay around” the girl he loved but feared he never knew. These are hardly run of the mill musings on love and relationships and this is without even mentioning material like the brothers’ first worldwide #1 hit in 1967 Massachusetts: “…the lights all went out in Massachusetts, the day I left her standing on her own.” Such was the sadness that an entire state metaphorically went dark!
On New York Mining Disaster 1941 (also 1967) the Bee Gees sang of a trapped miner: “Have you seen my wife Mr Jones, do you know what it’s like on the outside?” One year later they took the melancholy and despair to even another level with I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You‘s tale of a man on death row wanting to speak one last time to his girl: “I’ve got to let her know, just in time before I go…” It’s safe to say this is the only UK #1 hit in history with this particular scenario.
Was this unique exploration of sadness and emotion in so many Bee Gees songs as vital to their extraordinary success as their melodies and harmonies? It’s a question at least worthy of analysis. Their early 1994 UK top 5 For Whom The Bell Tolls wasn’t just a goodbye song, it was goodbye with a whack of unrequited or perhaps uneven love: “for you it’s goodbye and for me it’s to cry, for whom the bell tolls.”
Whether it was the naked honesty of To Love Somebody‘s (1967) “you don’t know what it’s like, to love somebody the way I love you,” or Stayin’ Alive‘s (1977) “life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me,” the connecting lyrical thread of the Gibbs seems to be of sadness, of (once again) us against the world and of battles with odds to be overcome. And yet the melodies, harmonies and production are so sublime and so sophisticated as to make so much of the catalogue far too arresting to be depressing.
To finish, here’s a song which I’d describe as having all of the above: sad lyrics coupled by melody, harmony and production so beautiful that the song could never be characterised as depressing. Tear-jerking yes, depressing no. The song is Wish You Were Here – the tribute Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote for younger brother Andy when he died at the far too young age of 30 back in 1988.
Wish You Were Here should’ve been released as a single – one of countless Gibb album tracks I still can’t believe were overlooked. But that’s OK – it’s not as if the Bee Gees didn’t have enough hits. But Wish You Were Here has always sounded timeless to me and it’s a loss to anyone grieving it not being a radio staple. There are lyrical complexities in the song, but it is the sincerity and simplicity of the repeated line, “they were good times and I wish you were here,” that gets me. Because when all is said and done, when we lose someone we love that’s how we feel: they were good times and I wish you were here.