In Their Own Time
"The Bee Gees were possibly the greatest pop songwriters of all time." If Dennis Davison intends ironic effect, he doesn't betray it in his voice. Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, the singer-songwriter-guitarist for that city's pop-psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen sounds serious. No, earnest. "I obviously prefer their earlier stuff, their pre-Saturday Night Fever stuff," he allows, "but even then they wrote some pretty catchy tunes. They have such an incredible catalogue of songs. I can't think of too many other bands that have written that many great songs."
Well, how about the Beatles?
"Yeah," he says, drawing out the word, exhaling it. "How many more?" he adds, throwing down the gauntlet.
Davison likes the Bee Gees (brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb). In fact, he likes them so much that he and Jigsaw Seen guitarist Jonathan Lea honchoed a 21-track Bee Gees tribute album, Melody Fair, released this past summer on suburban-L.A.-based eggBERT Records. It includes bands you probably know (Dramarama) playing Bee Gees songs you probably don't know ("Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry"); bands you probably don't know (Baby Lemonade) playing Bee Gees songs you probably do know ("How Deep Is Your Love"); and various permutations thereof (well-known power-popsters Material Issue performing the hit "Run to Me," unknowns the Appleseeds performing the impossibly obscure "Exit Stage Right").
"I was quite surprised with some of the older songs," notes Bee Gee Maurice (say "Morris") Gibb, speaking by phone from his home here in Miami, "some of them, like 'Kilburn Towers' and 'Exit Stage Right.' I thought most of these songs may not have been heard in America. I mean, those songs were jam sessions. Those were our experimental days in Australia. To see these songs like 'Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator,' good grief!"
While apologetically admitting he and his brothers are unfamiliar with the bands on Melody Fair, Gibb gives the Bee Gees' stamp of approval to the tribute. "It's a great collection of people's ideas of our songs worked in to fit their styles," he says, "and very well done, too. It's brought back a lot of great memories for me." (Actually, the Gibbs were familiar with one artist on Melody Fair A Beri Rhoades, their niece, who sings "I'm Not Wearing Makeup," written and produced for her by her uncles in the mid-Eighties. "She's now given up the music business," Maurice points out.)
The album ranges all over the stylistic map, particularly concentrating on material from the group's first records: the Jigsaw Seen's Rubber Soul treatment of "Melody Fair" (originally on the 1969 rococo double-album Odessa), the Movie Stars' smooth-and-easy C&W take on "I Can't See Nobody" (from 1967's 1st), and Kristian Hoffman's static-cling reading of "Lemons Never Forget" (from 1968's Horizontal).
"Something about their style is so melancholy," notes Davison, attempting to explain what he finds so appealing about the sound found on those Sixties albums. "There's a certain sadness about it, and yet they have these peppy melodies occasionally. They basically were copping a lot of the things that were going on at the time A the Beatles, certain aspects of psychedelic music A but they just did it in their own warped way."
Applying the word warped to anything Bee Gees-related likely stretches many people's credulity: When they think of the group, if they think of them at all these days, they remember the Bee Gees' disco hits from the mid-to-late-Seventies, a time period when the Gibbs experienced their greatest popularity, reeling off a string of number ones ("You Should Be Dancing," "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy," "Love You Inside Out") and dominating the airwaves.
"I think that when most people hear the name Bee Gees, they immediately get this mental image of the guys in the white flares and the hairy chests and gold medallions and this whining, high-pitched disco music," says Alec Palao, bassist for San Francisco-based minor-key pop gurus the Sneetches, who covered the little-known "Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator" on Melody Fair. Barely pausing for a breath, Palao continues: "Whereas, in fact, the band were A probably still are A but certainly were great songwriters and performers of the first degree when they started in the mid-Sixties. In the first five years of their career, they produced some really great pop records, which are basically disavowed now by them and by most connoisseurs of pop music because they're thinking of what they did later when they became massively popular."
Before "Jive Talkin'," before "Nights on Broadway," before "Love So Right," the Bee Gees already had gone through two distinct career cycles. They first sang together while growing up in late-1950s Australia, where, after a string of something like fourteen consecutive stiffs, they scored with the spare, midtempo pop-rocker "Spicks & Specks." But just when they finally achieved success in Australia, the Gibbs returned by boat to their native England, hooking up with Beatles manager Brian Epstein, producer Robert Stigwood, and arranger Bill Shepherd (with whom they'd worked previously). Back in England, they quickly segued into their second life with a series of affecting, heavily orchestrated hit ballads ("To Love Somebody," "Holiday," "Words," "I Started a Joke") A songs distinguished by the brothers' close harmonies, way-outre lyrics, and Robin's tremulous lead vocals on approximately half the songs.
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."
As for both Davison and Palao's contention that those early Bee Gees' records bear some resemblance to Beatles songs from the same time, Gibb pleads guilty. "We were so into the Beatles, and still are," he says. "They were the greatest influence we've ever had. We would say, 'Wonder what the Beatles' next record will be?' And then we would pretend we were the Beatles, write the song, and then record it. 'Exit Stage Right' was our sort of 'Paperback Writer.' And 'Lemons Never Forget' was our sendup of [the Beatles' record label] Apple. We would imagine what they would write, and that's how we came up with some of these titles" (like, for example, "The Earnest of Being George," performed by Spindle on Melody Fair). And, in a somewhat elliptical turn, Gibb says that when he and his brothers first heard the tribute, "We thought it was very Beatlesish."
Jud Cost, who contributed wry song-by-song notes to the album, heard Beatles riffs in Bee Gees songs, too. "To tell the truth, I'm not a huge Bee Gees fan, at least not until I got into this [Melody Fair]," confesses Cost, speaking over the phone from his home in Santa Clara. "I was such a Beatles fan when I grew up that I thought, 'These guys [Bee Gees] are mock-Beatles.' You know, that first thing they did A 'Welsh Mining Disaster,' or whatever the hell it was called, was an obvious Beatles cop." But Cost came around recently, going so far as to pick up all the early Bee Gees albums on CD while visiting London. "The more you delve into this stuff," he allows, "you find there's a lot of hidden pop gems."
And yet after living with the tribute album for so long and then listening to the Bee Gees' versions afterward, Cost notes somewhat mordantly, "I can see where about half the time there's been an improvement on the original version by the artists that did the Melody Fair stuff. That's just my opinion, and some Bee Gees fans would quake at hearing that."
Dennis Davison and Alec Palao would quake. Last summer the pair, assisted by Cost, put together three shows (two in L.A., one in San Francisco) that featured bands performing only Bee Gees songs. Davison's Jigsaw Seen and Palao's Sneetches played, as did other bands from the tribute album. Also on hand at the San Francisco show was singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, who, Davison recalls, performed the Gibbs' "Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself." But Cost remembers Harding's performance for the way he jived the crowd: "John Wesley Harding got up there and said, 'Fuck the Bee Gees! They were never any good. What are all you people doing here anyway?'"
Well, Davison and Palao, at least, were genuflecting to their heroes. Both in their thirties, coming of age musically (Davison in Baltimore, Palao in London) in the wake of the late-Seventies punk-rock explosion, they missed out entirely on the Bee Gees Sixties hits, and later dismissed the group's disco output. "Like a lot of people from my generation, I disregarded that stuff completely," Palao says. As for Davison, he remembers that "when it [disco] was happening, I didn't like it. Of course, I wasn't allowed to A I was in a punk band." Now Davison scarfs up as many Bee Gees records as he can, including imported bootlegs of ancient material.
Davison already has begun coordinating two additional tributes A one to late-Sixties L.A. psychedelic savants Love, the other to poppy first-wave Brit invaders the Hollies A and in January the Bee Gees repaired to their local studio to write and record their next album, due out some time next year. Meanwhile, Bee Gees-written songs keep surfacing: former Bronski Beat/Communards singer Jimmy Sommerville recently reworked yet another version of "To Love Somebody," this one in a reggae style, and took it into the British top ten, while indie nippers Catherine included the brothers' 1967 "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You" on their debut EP, Sorry.
"It's the greatest form of flattery that someone thinks your songs are worth enough to sing and then do their own version and enjoy it at the same time and actually love the song," Maurice Gibb says. "That's a great honor for us, and I don't think that feeling ever changes."
Melody Fair is available from eggBERT Records, 2755 Via Hacienda, P.O. Box 10022, Fullerton,
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