Saturday, 29 July 2017


Bee Gees "Odessa"

In 1968 Bob Dylan's backing group, The Band, released an lp called "Music From Big Pink". Together with its follow up a year later, these records represent the single worst thing to happen to pop music in the 1960s and 70s. That is not to say these were bad records. They were not. They were stunning. But their influence was pernicious. Pop songwriters who produced light, sunny, melodic, memorable tunes took it upon themselves to produce supposedly authentic, roots material that drew on The Band's wellspring of Americana. A mix of country, blues, songs of the pioneers and an earlier, weirder America that supposedly tapped honest emotion and themes. The Band delivered that mix of searching for spirituality with a back to the earth rejection of the modern world that much of the hippie generation were searching for. The extraordinary photos of the group that adorned their lp covers showed people who were both hip and timeless, not so much sepia tinged as thoroughly dunked in the stuff. It led directly to The Beatles growing beards and recording atrocities like "Why Don't We Do It in the Road". You can spot these songs easily as they like to begin by pitching the listening straight into the story like "Marley Purt Drive"'s "Sunday morning, woke up yawning, filled the pool for a swim". The gold standard here is of course The Band's "The Weight": "I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout half past dead".

Here is a list of bad things in pop music that can be blamed on The Band:

  • beards
  • hats
  • 19th century clothing
  • Van Morrison's career after "Tupelo Honey"
  • The Band's career after 1970
  • Status Quo's ballads
  • The Eagles
  • Southern Rock
  • all songs in 4/4 time
  • acoustic guitars and pianos
  • accordions
  • singing drummers
Worst of all was what happened to The Bee Gees. (For the avoidance of doubt, let me point out that the preceding statement and list are meant to be light hearted and I like some of the things listed. But not beards.)

During their 18 months long UK recording career, The Bee Gees had made 3 albums of sublime, ambitious baroque pop music. They had extended the range of psychedelic pop to encompass narrative tales of unusual characters and places like Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Geoffrey, Harry Braff. Their influence was being felt by other artists who rushed to cover Bee Gees songs and write their own pale imitations. The group were heading the charts in the UK and making inroads into the US. Either off their own bat, or with the encouragement of their management, they decided their next record should reflect some sort of overall concept or narrative with the possibility of being turned into a musical. Perhaps they were influenced by the likes of "Sgt. Pepper's" and by the lps being released by the Moody Blues. Either way, this move was to prove disastrous.

While recording what would be released as the "Odessa" lp, Robin Gibb left the group taking with him a fantastic mother lode of material. He would record one fair to middling solo lp and one fantastic lp that would not be released until 2015. His brothers would follow "Odessa" with a poor lp called "Cucumber Castle" and a rubbish TV film that is one of the worst things I have seen. Maurice Gibb would record a solo lp that was also not released. The hits dried up and the group were reduced to performing in cabaret. But just around the corner was Robin rejoining, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart", "Lonely Days" and a whole new career. Although not before they recorded yet another album that was not released.

The main problem with "Odessa" is the quality of the material. The songs are just not very good. The Bee Gees' gift for idiosyncratic melody and off the wall arrangements is sacrificed for plodding one-paced songs that do not develop. "Marley Purt Drive" is the chief crime on the "let's try and sound American" charge sheet. Although they do declare "Give Your Best" to be a square dance.

The primary instrumentation on the album is acoustic guitars, keyboards, some drums and lots of vocal overdubs and orchestration. This might be fine spread across one record but across two it is wearisome. All the performances are either slow or feel slow. An atmosphere of torpor hangs over the whole project. The production is muddy and the sound all blurs into one big sludge.

The other problem with the album is that the concept has no concept. The opening song, "Odessa (City By the Sea)" sounds like the start of an extended narrative but the other songs have nothing to do with it. The song does have some ambition and is for the most part successful as a man on an iceberg fears he may melt away while his sweetheart loves the vicar more than him. This is the sort of unusual situation that the early Bee Gees excelled in describing.

There is an instrumental climax reached during side three but the record then continues for another side. There are extended orchestral pieces which are very light classical. There are neither recurring characters nor recurring themes. The outside cover suggests a luxury edition book and the inside cover has a dramatic illustration of a child being thrown onto a lifeboat from a sinking ship. But it all adds up to a big fat nothing. I think that The Bee Gees had shown themselves to be so fecund that they were unable to limit themselves to a few simple ideas across one record and preferred to cram everything into three minute singles. However, they felt compelled to finish a magnum opus so kept on producing songs long after inspiration had left. It is what I imagine Paddy McAloon's unreleased albums are like - gifted writers completing a set of songs as a challenge to themselves because they can. Or like Elvis Costello writing an lp of songs for Wendy James over a weekend just to show off. Just because you can does not mean you should, basically.

The instrumental pieces are a bit startling in that they do fit in with the tone of the rest of the album and are a bit strident and extravagant, a bit like a Nick Drake album suddenly featuring "Pomp and Circumstance" from the Last Night of the Proms. They sound, in particular "Seven Seas Symphony", like a soundtrack, perhaps to the mooted stage musical version of this album. Some of the songs did find their way on to the soundtrack of the film "S.W.A.L.K." in 1971. The last track, "The British Opera" sounds like it comes from a Busby Berkeley musical. And this may be where part of the problem lies - there is always a risk with Bee Gees music that it can easily tip over into middle of the road blandness and it is only their essential strangeness that prevents it from doing so. A lot of that strangeness went when Robin left. Illustrative of what was lost, is a story in relation to the song "Never Say Never Again":

            "Robin recalled that he wanted to write a song with the line, 'I declared war on Spain'. According to Robin: "Instead, Barry wanted something so normal it was ridiculous. He said my words were so unromantic. But what could be more normal than a man in love wanting to declare war on anything that was to him unlovely?""
In recording "Odessa" The Bee Gees lost their strangeness and became, for a while, just another group singing drippy songs.

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