257. Bee Gees – I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You (1968)

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British tennis player Virginia Wade made headlines on 8 September when she defeated Billie Jean King to win the US Open Women’s Singles event. It was her first Grand Slam singles title and her only one at the US Open. That week, the Bee Gees had their second and last number 1 of the 1960s.

Since the success of Massachusetts, the Gibb brothers (and co) had continued work on their second album to be released internationally. Horizontal, which hit the shops in February 1968, featured their first number 1, and another hit, World. Guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen had an increased influence this time around, meaning Horizontal was heavier and darker than the very-1967 Bee Gees 1st.

From there, the Bee Gees made their first appearance on US television and toured the world. They also turned down the opportunity to write and perform the soundtrack for Joe Massot’s psychedelic Wonderwall (1968), which was eventually taken on by George Harrison.

Their single, Words, became one of the most famous Bee Gees ballads, but follow-up Jumbo/The Singer Sang His Song only reached number 25 – their worst chart performance up to that point. But the band were recording like their lives depended on it – in June they finished recording their next album, Idea, and the following month they set to work on Odessa. Despite this purple patch, tensions were growing.

On 12 July, during early sessions for Odessa, they set to work on their next number 1 song. It’s believed that Robin wrote the lyrics for I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You ‘on the spot’, with the music coming jointly from him and his brothers. Robin decided to write from the viewpoint of a man on Death Row that had murdered his wife’s lover, who was determined that the prison chaplain send a final message to her.

This urgent slice of blue-eyed soul ditches the gentle psych-folk of Massachussets and is more like their other early classic, To Love Somebody. Thematically of course, it’s similar to Tom Jones’s Green, Green Grass of Home – but better. Perhaps it’s the fact that the singer committed a crime of passion due to his wife’s affair, but it’s so much easier to identify with and feel sympathy for this character than Tom when you compare the two.

I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You is never included in lists of Bee Gees classics, but I really love it. It’s rather earnest, and melodramatic, but all the better for it. Originally it was intended for soul singer Percy Sledge, who did cover it. The pleading, plaintive vocals hit the spot, as always with the Gibbs (co-producer and manager Robert Stigwood had called the singers back to the studio that night to record the three-part harmonies), and the chorus is really addictive. The bass is especially good, courtesy of Maurice, who at the time was a huge admirer of Paul McCartney’s style, and it’s also him on the mellotron, which makes the chorus even more memorable.

Confusingly, there are five versions, all made from a single recording, in stereo, mono, played at different speeds, with different fade-outs, and percussion and strings sounds at varying volume. The percussion is a little off-putting actually, when too high, as it sounds like a CD track that’s stuttering. The mono single version has it all about right, though.

The Bee Gees also recorded a video, which you can see above, featuring the group performing in a white room on a revolving platform. Simple but effective, unlike Barry’s all-in-one black blouse, which is a bit much, really.

Released just before Idea, but not included on the UK version of the album, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You only spent a week at number 1 before Hey Jude took over. In the US, it became their first top ten hit. But things soon turned sour for the Bee Gees. Since 1967 they had been seen superstars, and potential rivals to the Beatles. As we know, however, the wilderness years beckoned. Melouney and Petersen wouId soon quit, and then Robin would briefly leave. It would be a full decade before they had another number 1 single.

Written by: Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 September)

Births:

Anti-war activist Anas Altikriti – 9 September
Actress Julia Sawalha – 9 September

Deaths:

Golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September

245. Esther and Abi Ofarim – Cinderella Rockefeller (1968)

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Spring began with the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 on 1 March. Reducing the right of entry for immigrants from the British Commonwealth to the UK, I’m sure it will have made Enoch Powell a happy man. The following day, coal mining in the Black Country, which had played a big part in the Industrial Revolution, came to an end after some 300 years with the closure of Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley.

Ten days later on 12 March, Mauritius gained independence from British rule, and three days later the Foreign Secretary George Brown resigned from his post. One of the most colourful Labour MPs of the decade, Brown had a big drink problem, and following his resignation, Private Eye coined the phrase ‘tired and emotional’ to hint at his alcoholism. 17 March saw a demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London against the Vietnam War. The protest became violent, leading to 91 police injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.

What was the soundtrack to these tense times in? Surely something like Street Fighting Man by the Rolling Stones? No, it was this weird little one-hit wonder – Cinderella Rockefeller, by Israeli husband-and-wife Esther and Abi Ofarim.

Esther Zaied was born in Safed in 1941 to a Syrian Jewish family. She was performing as a child, and loved singing Hebrew and international folk songs. In 1958, she met musician and dancer Abi. Born Abraham Reichstadt in what is now Israel in 1937, he was also a precocious talent, attending ballet school at 12 and owner of his own dance studio at 18. The duo married in either 1958 or 1961 depending on where you look, and were performing as Esther and Abi Ofarim from 1959 onwards. At the same time, Esther would perform solo and won the Song Festival in Tel Aviv in 1961.

Two years later she entered Eurovision, representing Switzerland with the French song T’en vas pas. As the competition drew to a close, Esther looked to be the winner, but due to a last-minute change in the scores from Norway, she lost out to Denmark.

After this disappointment, their career as a duo went from strength to strength in Germany. They had their first hit in 1966 with Noch einen Tanz, and the following year their biggest hit in that country, Morning of My Life, which was written by Barry Gibb as In the Morning, which the Bee Gees had recorded before moving to the UK.

Later that year they recorded Cinderella Rockefella. This bizarre novelty song had been written by US Grammy award-winning classical guitarist Mason Williams and folk singer Nancy Ames, known in America at the time for being a regular on their version of That Was the Week That Was. Together they had written the theme to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

What fresh hell is this? Cinderella Rockefella comes across as a demented version of I Got You Babe, set to the theme of sitcom Steptoe and Son. I was aware of the tune beforehand but assumed it was sung by, I don’t know, perhaps a pair of old comics or actors. So it came as a shock to see it was actually a young Israeli married couple who resembled models. It is, as far as I’m aware, the only song by Israelis to reach the top, and it’s the first to feature yodelling since the days of Frank Ifield in 1963.

I do normally love the more unusual, eccentric side of pop, and I don’t actually mind the rickety 20s-30s-tinged Cinderella Rockefella to begin with. But after 30 seconds or so Esther’s shrill yodel in particular becomes a little bit like some kind of torture, and Abi’s almost as awful in his smugness. The lyrics are awful. And yet, you will end up with that mad bastard of a tune in your head for some time afterwards. So there you go, proof that the late 60s may have been a great time for music, but the charts were still prone to irritatingly catchy weird stuff at times.

Apparently Cinderella Rockefeller was the final song played on Radio Caroline. What an awful way to go out. Williams recorded his own version of the duet he co-wrote later in 1968 with Jennifer Warren. Warren was later very well known for duets, too – as Jennifer Warnes, she recorded Up Where We Belong with Joe Cocker, and (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life with Bill Medley, for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Dirty Dancing (1987) respectively.

As for Esther and Abi Ofarim, well, they recorded the promo you can see above, in which they parade the streets of London, one glammed up and one in top hat and tails. Their song topped the charts elsewhere too, and they toured the world in 1969. However, they divorced in Germany in 1970, and inevitably the musical partnership was over too.

After going their separate ways, Esther ended up performing on the late Scott Walker’s 1970 album ‘Til the Band Comes In (their manager, Ady Semel was also Walker’s, and he wrote lyrics for the album). Semel even talked up the idea of the duo becoming more permanent, but nothing came of it. She recorded an eponymous solo album of folk songs with orchestral arrangements in 1972. Since then, she has disappeared into obscurity, but there are videos out there if a beaming Esther performing in Hamburg in 2017.

Abi continued in music too, but developed alcohol and drug problems. He also became a manager through his company PROM, and, somewhat bizarrely, managed one of the greatest groups of all time, Can, before he was sacked in the early 70s. He mounted legal challenges but they ended badly for him. In 1979 he was arrested for posession of drugs and suspected tax evasion and sentenced to a year on probation. Abi documented his issues in his autobiography Der Preis der wilden Jahre (The Price of the Wild Years) in 1982.

In 2009 he released his first album in 27 years, Too Much of Something, with his long flowing locks on the cover, he looked rather like Iggy Pop with a tan. Five years later he began running Jugendzentrum für Senioren (Youth Center for Elderly People) in Munich to help lonely old people. Abi Ofarim died in May 2018, aged 80.

Written by: Mason Williams & Nancy Ames

Producers: Abi Ofarim & Chaim Semel

Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 February-19 March)

Births:

Actor Daniel Craig – 2 March
Actress Patsy Kensit – 4 March
Politician Theresa Villiers – 5 March
Politician Paul Marsden – 18 March 

238. Bee Gees – Massachusetts (1967)

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The Bee Gees. Through thick and thin, in hard times and great times, the iconic Gibb brothers, Barry, Robin and Maurice sang together for 45 years (minor the occasional split) until Maurice’s untimely death in 2003, creating some of the bestselling songs of all time for themselves and other high-profile artists, and yet, seem to me to be strangely underrated. They had five number 1s as Bee Gees, spanning three decades, and this is the story of their early years and first number 1, Massachusetts.

The Gibb brothers were born on the Isle of Man to English parents. Barry was born 1 September 1946, and twins Robin and Maurice on 22 December 1949. They moved back to their father Hugh’s home town of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester in 1955, where they formed skiffle and rock’n’roll group the Rattlesnakes. The group featured Barry on vocals and guitar, Robin and Maurice on vocals too, and friends Paul frost on drums and Kenny Horrocks on tea-chest bass.

The story goes that some time in December 1957, the Gibbs were on their way to a cinema to mime to a record, as other children had in previous weeks, but the record broke on the way, and so they sang together live and it went down a storm. Whether it’s true or not, it makes for a good tale. The following year the Rattlesnakes disbanded when Frost and Horrocks left, so the Gibbs formed Wee Johny Hayes and the Blue Cats, with Barry as Hayes.

That August the Gibb family emigrated to Queensland, Australia. The trio began singing to earn pocket money. In 1960, speedway promoter and driver Bill Goode dug those harmonies and hired the Gibbs to entertain the crowd at Redcliffe Speedway. During intervals they would be driven around the track and as they sang the audience would throw them money on to the track. Goode introduced them to Brisbane DJ Bill Gates. It was Gates, who, noting that he, Goode and Barry shared the same initials, named the boys the BGs.

Soon they were appearing on Australian television, and in 1962 they supported Chubby Checker. In 1963 the family were living in Sydney, when the star Cal Joye helped get them a record deal with Festival Records under the name the Bee Gees, and they began releasing singles under this name while Barry would also write for other artists. They had a minor hit in 1965 with Wine and Women, which led to their debut album, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. Talk about ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’…

The following year they came very close to being dropped when they met their new manager and producer Nat Kipner, who signed them to Spin Records. By getting unlimited access to a recording studio, the Bee Gees skills rapidly grew, but they became increasingly frustrated, and having paid close attention to the UK music scene, they made the decision to return to the UK in January 1967. Before they left, tapes had been sent over to the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who had passed ther tapes over Robert Stigwood, who had previously worked with Joe Meek and John Leyton, and recently joined NEMS. Ironically, it was on the journey to Blighty that they discovered their last Australian single Spicks and Specks, off an album of the same name, had been named Best Single of the Year by the influential music newspapaer Go-Set.

In February the Bee Gees signed with Stigwood and began work on their first international album, with fellow Australians Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney joining them on drums and lead guitar respectively. Inspired by the Aberfan mining tragedy, they released New York Mining Disaster 1941 as a single, and confusing some DJs who thought this was a new single by the Beatles thanks to some lovely harmonies and considerable charm, the single garnered some attention. They followed it up with To Love Somebody. Originally written for Otis Redding, it didn’t even reach the top 40, yet is now a pop standard. Their third album, The Bee Gees 1st, was released in July. Fitting in perfectly with the sound of the Summer of Love, the gentle psychedia made it into the top ten albums.

While promoting the album in New York, Scott McKenzie was at number 1 in the UK with the mournful hippie folk of San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote (The Lights Went Out in) Massachusetts as their reply. They knew nothing about Massachusetts, but they liked the sound of the name, and while strumming away to a tune not entirely dissimilar from McKenzie’s song, they decided that the song would specifically reference San Francisco, with the subject of their song having travelled there like so many others. So many others, in fact, that ‘the lights all went out in Massachusetts’

It’s a quirky little song, but lovely with it. Although deliberately similar to McKenzie’s ode to the Moneterey Rock Festival, it outdoes it, and that’s largely due to those gorgeous, idiosyncratic harmonies. Robin’s plaintive lead also works a treat. It’s hard to say from the sparse lyrics whether the Bee Gees were attacking the hippy movement, paying tribute to it, or just taking the piss somewhat, but it has rightly taken up place as another one of those patchouli-flecked psych-folk ballads that summed up the abiding spirit of 1967. Nicely understated and a sign of a future force to be reckoned with.

So it had been a wise move by the Gibbs to release it ASAP, rather than wait until they had finished their next album Horizontal, released in 1968. They were even considering not releasing it at all and were keen on giving it to Australian folk stars the Seekers. Massachusetts helped make Bee Gees one of the brightest new acts of the era, and of course, there was much more to come.

Massachusetts spent for weeks at number 1 that autumn. On 11 October, Prime Minister Harold Wilson won a libel action against Birmingham psych-rockers the Move after they depicted him nude in promotional material for their record Flowers in the Rain. A fortnight later, Parliament passed The Abortion Act, legalising abortion on a number of grounds from the following year onwards.

2 November saw Winnie Ewing of the Scottish National Party win the Hamilton by-election. Having formed in 1934, this was the first time the party had won a by-election. The single’s final week at number 1 was marred by two tragic accidents., with Iberia Airlines Flight 062 from Málaga Airport, Spain hitting Blackdown Hill in West Sussex. All 37 on board were killed. The very next day, an express train from Hastings to London derailed in the Hither Green rail crash, which killed 49 people. Amongst the passengers was Robin Gibb, who recalled in The Mail on Sunday on 1 November 2009, ‘Luckily I didn’t get injured. I remember sitting at the side of the carriage, watching the rain pour down, fireworks go off and blue lights of the ambulances whirring. It was like something out of a Spielberg film.’

Written by: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 October-7 November) 

Births:

Presenter Davina McCall – 16 October
Novelist Monica Ali – 20 October 
Footballer Paul Ince – 21 October 
Politician Douglas Alexander – 26 October
Bush singer Gavin Rossdale – 30 October