In Their Own Time

How deep is your love for the Bee Gees?

They continued to crank out hits in the early Seventies ("How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," "My World," "Run to Me"), experienced a dry spell, tapped into the disco juggernaut, moved to Miami (where all three brothers have lived since 1977), and, in the Eighties, turned their attentions to writing and producing for mainstream staples such as Dionne Warwick, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Kenny Rogers. While the group's own recent albums have failed to generate any chart heat in the United States, they have sold decently in Europe.

Given this history, this prolific output, this longevity, it comes as no great cosmic slap upside the head that someone should want to fete the Bee Gees. And amid the glut of tribute albums released in the past few years, more unlikely bands and solo artists (Shonen Knife, Sonny Bono) have been salaamed to. Generally such tributes serve two functions, celebrating the work of a musician or group while exposing listeners to material they might not otherwise hear. Of course, these tributes tend to be fun for the participants, too, offering them an opportunity to filter a favorite song through their own sensibilities.

Take Melody Fair. Almost four years ago, avowed Bee Gees fans Davison and Palao chatted about their two bands putting out a seven-inch vinyl EP of Bee Gees songs. "On a very small scale," recalls Davison, "just for the fun of it." But when Davison told bandmate Lea about the project, Jonathan suggested to Dennis that they expand it into a full-blown tribute album. "It started to snowball from there," Davison says. They sent out a press release about the planned tribute, record-biz bible Billboard printed it, and bands submitted tapes. Davison worked out a deal with New Jersey-based Skyclad Records, which had released two Jigsaw Seen records. Things looked cool.

But then Skyclad folded. Several bands missed their deadline to turn in a song. Others sent in wretched versions of Bee Gees classics. "We had enough tracks for an album," Davison explains, "but it just seemed like something was missing, so we went out and solicited bands we thought would make it more fun to listen to." Accordingly, they persuaded the Insect Surfers to transform the big Bee Gees hit "Massachusetts" into a raveup sun-sea-sand instrumental. By that time, alternacuties Baby Lemonade had caught wind of the tribute and contributed a crunchy rendition of the Gibbs' disco-era ballad "How Deep Is Your Love." Meanwhile, Davison's friend Jud Cost, a Santa Clara-based contributor to various rock magazines and fanzines, hooked him up with the eggBERT label, which agreed to release Melody Fair.

The tribute merely embroiders on a longstanding tradition of covering Bee Gees songs, one that dates back almost 30 years. For instance, brassy Scottish singer Lulu included a version of the Gibbs' second U.S. hit, 1967's "To Love Somebody," on her debut album from that same year (unavoidable footnote A Lulu was married to Maurice from 1969 to 1973); the Flying Burrito Brothers, led by Gram Parsons's dolorous vocal, gave "To Love Somebody" a country spin in the early Seventies; faux soul man Michael Bolton recently went top of the pops with it; Eric Burdon psychedelicized it; Janis Joplin sang it; so did Nina Simone.

And it's not just "To Love Somebody." The Bee Gees' cover-version conga line extends around the block: Al Green ("How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"); Richie Havens ("I Started a Joke"); early-Eighties psychedelic-popsters the Three O'Clock ("In My Own Time"); Young Fresh Fellows' singer-guitarist Scott McCaughey ("You'll Never See My Face Again"); Elvis Presley, for crying out loud ("Words").

"They've always maintained a very high standard of songwriting," Palao contends. "They're real pop craftsmen of the first order. If you take their songwriting at face value, it's very heavily Beatles-influenced and fairly standard," he continues, specifically addressing the Gibbs' pre-disco work. "But then they have this whole other sort of area that they work in A the whole lyric sensibility is very, very strange. Some of those records have these incredible moods on them that very few other groups could really conjure up. A lot of it has to do with the way they sing them, especially Robin's voice, which quivers like jelly, literally. And it lends the kind of subject matter and the settings of the songs kind of a weird atmosphere. Take 'I Started a Joke.' They probably wrote it as a kind of a fairly nice pop song, but if you listen to the lyrics, it's bizarre: 'I started a joke/that started the whole world crying.' It's really morbid!"

Davison concurs. "Who knows what any of their songs are even about?" he asks rhetorically. "But that's part of their charm. I think they're mostly about death."

Absolutely. "I Started a Joke." "New York Mining Disaster 1941." "Odessa." "I Gotta Get a Message to You." Death, death, death, death. Maurice Gibb doesn't dispute the assessment. "We're a morbid bunch," he jokes. "'I Started a Joke' was one of the songs that people, still today, have their own perception about. It's sort of a sad thing, in particular with Robin and his melancholy voice." You could say that, especially when Robin sings, to the sound of ascending-into-Heaven strings and harps, "Till I finally died/which started the whole world living." Ditto 1968's "I've Gotta Get a Message to You" (it preceded "I Started a Joke" into the U.S. top ten by four months), on which Barry and Robin traded achy-breaky lead vocals. "Basically, it's about a man going to the [electric] chair," explains Maurice. "Everyone thought, 'That won't make a hit.' But it did. It's weird."

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