Jimmy Had a Bomb and the Bomb Went Bang: Reconsider the Bee Gees

Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing. This week: Roadside Graves’ John Gleason takes on the often misunderstood world of the Bee Gees; a group whose larger catalog and career has long been overshadowed due to their role as pop-culture figurehead of the late seventies Disco movement. Gleason, in his own words, below.

“Townes van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Steve Earle famously said that.

If I had my way I’d fashion something similar about the Bee Gees and the Beatles but I’m not as quotable as Steve and my intention is not to fill up the comments section with irate Beatles fans. Yet, there have been many parties (actually more like many a bar) in which I have proclaimed sincerely that the Bee Gees are better than the Beatles. In doing so I have begun many passionate and dynamic conversations/arguments with strangers, friends, and bartenders. The truth is that I firmly believe that music can be universally qualified as good or bad by critics and listeners by certain criteria but regardless of the specifics of how you are judging music or how many stars or numbers you deem appropriate all that truly matters is how the listener feels and responds to the music when no one is around. When the headphones are on and the judgements aren’t so severe, when the windows of the car are up, or when you are safe among friends what are you listening to? I would agree with anyone that the Beatles produced both influential and quality music, yet for some reason which I will poorly attempt to explain I instinctively prefer the Bee Gees.

This is in no way an attempt to justify the disco-era Bee Gees. The Disco era is what most casual listeners think of when they hear the words Bee and Gees (an assumption well tested). I imagine Disco is something you either love or hate and any praise here won’t change that much, although I do highly recommend the Disco badass-ness of Tragedy (both the song and the Metal Bee Gees tribute band).

Personally I have always been attracted to the underdog and the underrated which could alone justify my adoration for the Bee Gees but its so much deeper than that and my fascination increases each year. It’s surely a combination of many factors and not limited to; the brothers harmonizing, Robin’s odd warble and intense verging-on-Muppet style voice, Barry’s perfect hair, the balance of ballads and psych-pop, the insane and odd lyrics that at times add up to complete nonsense, the orchestration among the the stomps, and the ability to write damn fine songs worthy enough for the varied likes of Nina Simone, Low, Faith No More, the Animals to recognize and cover. It’s hard to argue with songs like “To Love Somebody” and “I Started a Joke.”

Still I remember seeing 70’s footage of a bulldozer crushing a pile of disco records marking the hatred and end of a genre and with it the band that embraced disco was then dramatically ignored and considered pure cheese. Bee Gee’s earlier records like Bee Gee’s 1st, Idea, and Horizon are genuinely great and interesting 60’s pop records but let’s consider delving deeper into their catalog specifically the odder and mostly ignored records during the period of 1969-1972.

Odessa, their sixth record and most ambitious endeavor was so over the top that the double vinyl included red velvet and gold lettering that needed to eventually be replaced due to the record plant workers having allergic reactions (Wikipedia!). Odessa seems like it was birthed as a concept record but upon closer listens one gets the sense that any good song written during the period must have been deemed worthwhile. I can find no other explanation how an awesome   country song (“Marley Purt Drive“) about an overflowing orphanage relates to a song about Thomas Edison. Yet for all it’s excessiveness in design, length, and genres Odessa is a genuine success, thoroughly enjoyable, amusingly weird and well balanced art pop music. The title song “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)” is a record and statement onto itself. Brimming over the 7 minute mark the song starts with an odd narrative providing a time and history while also citing nursery rhymes about sheep and includes lyrics like “Treasure, you know the neighbors that live next door. They haven’t got their dog anymore.” Which I could suppose are reasons someone might not want to listen to this record, but I consider this the Bee Gee’s finest song and took me from casual admirer (see ABBA) to complete obsessive collector (ala Fleetwood Mac). Odessa belongs in every music junkie’s collection right beside other lovingly long and worshiped records like TUSK and London Calling.

MP3: The Bee Gees :: Odessa (City On The Black Sea)

2 Years On, their 8th record and possibly most coherent is an easy Bee Gees gateway drug. Simply play “Lonely Days” (see video) for a nonbeliever. The song accurately captures everything that the Bee Gees do well. My personal favorite is “The 1st Mistake I’ve Ever Made” which includes sorrow drenched vocals and lyrics like “I was born to a lonely women in a town called Buffalo. Never knew the man who never stayed.”

To Whom it May Concern, their 10th record and one I admit to wrongly ignoring for my first few years of Bee Gee diving simply because the cover sucked – It looks as if this may be another live record or some Australian only import collection of unrelated tracks. I was playing cards in a cabin near Saranac Lake, NY and it was our long lost friend Ed’s turn to choose the music. (This would be the last time I saw him alive so this record is important on many levels personally.) He threw on To Whom it May Concern and it sounded like most other Bee Gees records until the fourth track “Paper Mache, Cabbages, and Kings.” Now, this could be the worst, most interesting and nonsensical Bee Gees song ever. It sounds at times like a circus on Halloween night then   switches into a typical power vocal Gibb brother chorus then breaks into a loose jazz jam and prior to dissolving ends with an anthemic foot stomping Springsteen chant, “Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang. Jimmy was everywhere.” (Which we lovingly stole for the end of our live version of “Ruby”).

MP3: The Bee Gees :: Paper Mache, Cabbage, and Kings

Trafalgar, their 9th record is filled with superb Bee Gees ballads like “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and “Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself” and is easily one of the most likable records of this odd period, but it’s “Lion in Winter” that will break and bring you down to the Gibb’s feet cursing yourself for waiting so long to accept their warm embrace. “Lion in Winter” is Bee Gees at their most badass lyrically referencing James Brown, stripping down to at times just a simple steady drum beat, and staging Robin for his most epic and passionate screaming as the orchestra slides and the bass glides. It’s a song for beautiful dudes fighting in a bar wearing long fur coats and ship captain hats.

MP3: The Bee Gees :: Lion In Winter

The Bee Gees are worth obsessing about and have such a varied and extensive record catalog that I hope you may reconsider them and find something worthwhile. Take them home for a night. There’s something for everyone. They are fascinating. Barry is stunningly beautiful. Robin is persuasive. Maurice is their brother. I get nothing out of this, other than trying to make new friends who may want to hang out and listen to Odessa with me tonight it its entirety.

26 thoughts on “Jimmy Had a Bomb and the Bomb Went Bang: Reconsider the Bee Gees

  1. Fascinating. I had absolutely NO idea that the Bee Gees existed prior to the disco era. Thanks for opening up a new avenue of musical exploration! Of the tracks showcased here, “Lion in Winter” is my fav.

  2. Whether I agree with you or not, I give you a lot of credit for, you know, cojones…The Bee Gees are better than…uhhhmmm…the Beatles? Quite a statement. You express your reasoning quite eloquently, though…

  3. I got the Odessa reissue in the media bin working for my local paper back in college. I was super stoked thinking that I’d unearthed secret Bee Gee’s gold. Turns it was just kind of a shitty Zombies record.

    Anyway, Beatles > Bee Gees. I mean, c’mon!

  4. If I were to make an argument for the The Bee Gees over the Beatles (Which would never happen) I would actually focus solely on their Disco work.

    It was their tweaking of Disco that singlehandedly started a phenomenon and altered the course of pop-music in the 70s. Before that they had no unique identity and mostly borrowed sounds and sensibilities from the likes of Beatles.

    It wasn’t so long ago that most of the trendiest bands were blending disco with some other genre or revisiting the earliest permutations of post Saturday Night Fever dance inflected rock music like post-punk and new-wave. You could argue that the sound that became the Bee Gees signature sound is more ubiquitous in contemporary music than the trademarks of the Beatles.

    With all that said, The Beatles are and forever will be kings of the mountain in my humble opinion; at the very least when compared to their peers.

    Great post though!

  5. Good post. Quality stuff. But (and I’m sure you hear this coming) the Beatles were by far better than the Bee Gee’s. They changed the face of rock and helped pave the way to different directions in music. Very few bands were as innovative, influential and changed their music as much as they did and still remain popular.
    Thanks for reminding us the Bee Gees were more than what they did for 70’s disco.

  6. I never really thought about the true songwriting prowess of the Bee Gees until I realized that they had written the original of “To Love Somebody.” The story goes that it was meant for Otis Redding, but he died before being able to record it. Can anyone even possibly imagine a song that powerful in the hands of Otis? Jesus….

    Also, to connect it further to John’s appreciation of the more country persuasion, check out Gram Parsons’ cover of the song. Amazing.

  7. Due credit to even trying this argument. … didn’t work for me (I lived through the disco era, and hope my kids never find a picture of me in platform shoes).
    I’m not surprised by Gleason’s focus on songwriting – his own on RG’s latest album is wonderful.

  8. What a great article. Contrary to public opinion, i agree that the Bee Gees are better than The Beatles. Fair enough, they admit themselves they started of as Beatles clones but they had the ability to change with the times and become influential in their own right. At the end of the day musical taste is all subjective and there is no right or wrong to this argument. But the Bee Gees kick The Beatles arses in my humble opinion!!))

  9. The Beatles are overrated. I’m glad to finally find someone else who’s willing to say any band (even the Bee Gees!) are better.

    These records are awesome! Thanks for turning me on to the Bee Gees.

  10. imagining the power of “To Love Somebody” in the hands of Otis? Not that difficult, once you hear James Carr’s cover of it . . . an Otis/James comparison would prb hold up better than Beatles/BeeGees.

    Words, Massachusetts and 1941 Mining Disaster are some of the early ones that estab the Gibbs’ writing cred.

  11. If you parse the entirety of the Beatles output and compare bands to the individual components (Rock, Pop, Psychadelic, Avant garde, Folk Rock, Blues, and so on) yes, you could argue that “any band” is better than the Beatles. When you stop to realize that you’re comparing giants from multiple genres to ONE band you start to see why the Beatles status is not entirely subjective.

  12. Melody Fair, Every Christian Lion Hearted Man, Kilburn Towers, Trafalgar, Nights on Broadway, Jive Talkin’, I can’t see nobody, 5th of May, Spicks & Specks. Once, in a effort to be groovy, I slapped Spicks& Specks on in front of my British girlfriends unsuspecting mum, who had been a dolly bird in swinging London and was aging like an Ex-Bond girl, and accidentally reduced her to tears. She hadn’t heard the song in 20 years, and she was suddenly sling shotted somewhere in time, that took her a good hour and a few stiff gin and tonics to return from. I love the Brothers Gibb unabashedly. I bought a Bee Gee’s Gold album in 4th grade about 1976, because I liked the commercial for it on TV, which featured Lonely Days and Gotta get a Message. Always a popster and a hook hound, I was hooked. I guess I managed to turn myself onto them, just before Disco Claimed them publicly, so I dodged that stigma. If you’ve ever seen Barry describe the way he uncovered the beat for Jive Talkin’ by imitating to his percussionist the sound the car tires made on a certain bridge that he kept driving over everyday on the way into the studio in Miami, or heard him describe how he discovered his falsetto so late in his career and totally reinvented himself as a singer, or heard the story of how Robert Stigwood walked into their Miami studio to hear their new album in it’s entirety, and demanded that he take the entire thing for the soundtrack to a film he was producing up in Queens, much to their dismay, you would begrudge them their disco years. It was an organic outgrowth, rather than the calculated maketing strategy it seemed at the time. Thanks for the good words on this marvelous misunderstood minstrels. I”ll bring a sixer and listen to Odessa with you, as soon as I get the kids to go to sleep.

  13. Ever since I first heard “I Started A Joke” on a commercial for MTV’s The State back in the early 90’s, I have been hooked on the psych-pop days of the Bee Gees. Thank you for such a beautiful appreciation of their work. It’s rare to hear something as oddly brilliant as “Odessa” spoken of with such reverence, especially by someone responsible for one of the finest “concept” albums of the present. Keep up the good work Roadside Graves and Aquarium Drunkard!

  14. Thank you for expressing what I’ve been saying for years. For holding such views I have been laughed at by my friends and castigated by my wife. When I put on any of these four records, everyone I know thinks it is a cue for them to leave. Not so… it’s time to ‘get-down and get-groovy’!!! Cheers to the Gibbs!!!

  15. Arguing The ‘Gees’s position over The Beatles may be an act of futility but thanks for bringing the more obscure, conceptual aspects of their canon to our attention. I remember the ‘Gees when I was a tyke in the ’60s: Holiday, I Started a Joke ( one of the most lugubrious songs ever written), Got to Get a Message to You, etc. They still stand today. Anyone can write a three chord song in a major key, but it takes a magician to make it a classic. When the history of the world is written, we’ll see that out of the billions there were but a handful of real magicians. The ‘Gees were certainly one of them.

    Their last gasp before completely surrendering to Disco, Nights on Broadway, was another gem worth noting. Hate it if you will, but their Disco era was full of some crackin’ earworms (“You Should Be Dancing”). It’s easy to hate ’em for their extreme success but their songs of the era are some of Disco’s few worthy survivors. (I’ve heard the argument made that hating Disco was an excuse to make another claim against “Race” music. One could easily say that “HIp Hop Sucks” as well but wouldn’t be able to deny accusations of racism quite so easily.)

    On Nina Simone: Give her credit for doing something I don’t think any other artist has ever done. She could unearth the passion and gravity from a pop ditty that most would write off as fluff. To wit: See her perform and defend the inherent qualities (w/ some of my commentary) the overworn AM staple “Feelings.” http://jellyrollfortheearhole.blogspot.com/2010/09/nina-simone-feelings.html

    Thanks for more enlightenment from a great blog.

  16. Just discovered Aquarium Drunkard after last night’s Fruit Bats show. Now read this post and discovered a lot of old Bee Gees in my music library that I had never listened to….”Sun in My Morning” compares favorably to anything on Pet Sounds. Or by Fleet Foxes. This post has opened me up to a band I wouldn’t have ever bothered checking out (put off, like so many others, by disco era).

  17. Mate, we’d have a great ol’ time hanging out and listening to obscure Bee Gees albums! The Gibb brothers are hands down the most prolific, varied and brilliant songwriters to walk the earth. Americans need to understand that it is due to the insane dominance of the US charts the Bee Gees had in the late 70s that their enormous body of work both sides of that era has been forgotten. For example, the stunning ballad “For Whom The Bell Tolls” was a #1 hit in Brazil in 1994, as well as a UK top 5. Just because it wasn’t a hit in your country doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

    The Bee Gees are up there with the Beatles on stats alone, but are also comparable because like Lennon / McCartney, they wrote exquisitely in multiple genres. Proof: soul (To Love Somebody), R&B (Stayin’ Alive), disco (Night Fever), country (Rest Your Love On Me, Islands In The Stream), folk (Sun In My Morning), blues (When The Change Is Made), roots-rock (Marley Purt Drive), Euro-pop (Embrace), Motown-pop (Chain Reaction), rock (Idea) and of course, pure, brilliant pop (How Deep Is Your Love, Massachusetts, Words, You Win Again etc etc etc.)

    I find most people who ridicule the Bee Gees love their songs, they just don’t know it. Because if you don’t like the Bee Gees, you don’t like Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Elivs, Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Frankie Vallie, Smashing Pumpkins, Richard Ashcroft, Celine Dion, Conway Twitty, Kenny Rogers, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Wyclef Jean etc etc etc.

  18. Saw the Bee Gees live in the early 70’s, they were fantastic. Also have a few of the pre-disco albums. They played a good variety of styles and are well worth listening to.

  19. Very well done!, I have been love The Bee Gees since I was 11 I am 25 now. I am so glad I found them, I also thought they better than The Beatles :). I love every song they make ^_^.

  20. Very well written, I too have always thought The Bee Gees were an overall better band than were The Beatles. To write songs like “New York Mining Disaster”, “To Love Somebody”, “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Tell You”, “In My Own Time”, “Massachusetts”, “World”, “I’ve Got To Get A Message To You”, “I Started A Joke”, “Kilburn Towers” all while in their late teens & very early twenties is astonishing.

    Their harmonies, arrangements & orchestrations were outstanding and really on another level from their contemporaries. They wrote hits across genre’s and have had such a wide variety of people not only cover there songs but seek them out as writers for newer songs.

    I also loved how they fought thru adversity, including inner turmoil that caused a 15 month split, to come back, reinvent themselves into more of an R&B sound and with the help of bands like Earth, Wind & Fire & artists like Stevie Wonder, put that genre at the forefront of the music scene in the mid to late 1970’s.

    They were also fantastic producers as well, something the Beatles never were. The Bee Gees really were a unique musical force whose longevity and catalogue put them at the top of any “mountain” musically with any other artist, group or band one may think of as being on top.

Comments are closed.