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

236. Scott McKenzie – San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (1967)

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‘San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…’

If a raging, savage cynic like Hunter S Thompson could write so warmly about San Francisco in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then it must have indeed been quite a place. After two homegrown Summer of Love anthems from Procul Harum and the Beatles, the third that summer to hit number 1 came from US singer-songwriter Scott McKenzie with his tribute to the hippies of the Golden City.

McKenzie was born with the very un-hippy-like name Philip Wallach Blondheim III in Jacksonville Florida, January 1939. When only six months old the family moved to Asheville, North Carolina. At school he became friends with John Phillips, future member of the Mamas & the Papas and writer of this number 1 you’re reading about. In the mid-1950s Blondheim sang with Tim Rose in the Singing Strings at high school, and later formed doo-wop group the Abstracts with Phillips, Mike Boran and Bill Cleary.

The Abstracts soon became the Smoothies and they signed with Decca Records. Around this time, Blondheim decided if he was ever going to be famous he needed to change his name. Comedian Jackie Curtis said he looked like a Scottie dog. He has a point, but I’d say he looks more like a Spaniel. Anyway, from then onwards he became Scott McKenzie (McKenzie was the name of Phillips’s daughter).

During the folk revival of the early-60s, McKenzie and Phillips teamed up with Dick Weissman to form the Journeymen. They recorded three albums for Capitol Records, but failed to ignite the charts and so they disbanded in 1964. McKenzie and Weissman went solo, while Phillips formed the New Journeymen, who eventually morphed into the Mamas & the Papas. McKenzie was offered the chance to join them, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to cope with the pressure and declined. He did however audition to join the Monkees, but was rejected for looking too old at 24.

In the spring of 1967, Phillips, along with music producer Lou Adler, Alan Pariser and Beatles and Beach Boys press spokesman Derek Taylor planned the first major rock festival, inspired by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Celebrating the counterculture, the Monterey International Pop Festival was planned for 16-18 June at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California. Phillips may have been a hippy, but he was also a budding businessman. Some of the psychedelic era’s biggest acts agreed to play for free, including Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas & the Papas (of course) and Otis Redding. Documented in a famous film by DA Pennebaker, without Monterey we may have never had the music festival culture we have today.

With Phillips being such a canny businessman, he could see the way the wind was blowing, and decided, why stop there? He wanted a song to promote the festival, and hopefully make him a lot more money in the process. So he wrote San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) in 20 minutes to promote his project. Perhaps deciding it would look too cynical to get his group to record it, he asked McKenzie, who was an unknown by comparison. Members of the Wrecking Crew were hired as backing, with Phillips and Adler co-producing. Phillips also provided guitars and sitar. The song was released that May.

It’s looked down upon these days for not being a cynical marketing tool, but I don’t mind San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). The lyrics are a little cheesy and bland, but it’s well-produced, with Gary L Coleman’s orchestral bells and chimes making for an atmospheric sound, and together with McKenzie’s wistful vocal, it makes for a strangely downbeat tune, seemingly mourning the passing of the hippy movement while it was at its peak.

It’s an unusual number 1, and it was certainly a case of ‘right place, right time’. Strangely, it didn’t get to number 1 in the US, despite him performing it at the festival, so I’m guessing that San Francisco must have seemed to many Brits to be a mystical, out-of-reach paradise, and buoyed on by the success of Procul Harum and the Beatles, McKenzie’s folk song seemed a suitable way to follow up the mood of hippy celebration that summer. It even inspired the first Bee Gees number 1, Massachusetts, later that year.

Scott McKenzie would remain a one-hit wonder. The follow-up, a re-release of his debut single, Look in Your Eyes, failed to chart once more. Phillips co-wrote and co-produced Like an Old Time Movie, but that and debut album The Voice of Scott McKenzie, didn’t capture the public mood. But McKenzie was aware of the fact he just wasn’t a natural pop star, and after his second album Stained Glass Morning in 1970, he retired.

McKenzie resurfaced in the 80s and rode the nostalgia wave of the baby boomers as part of the new version of the Mamas & the Papas, and then in 1988 he co-wrote the risible Beach Boys hit Kokomo with Terry Melcher, Mike Love and Phillips for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.

In 1998 McKenzie left the Mamas & the Papas and retired once more. He appeared at the Los Angeles tribute concert for Phillips in 2001. Nine years later he began suffering from Guillain–Barré syndrome, which would eventually claim his life in 2012 at the age of 73.

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). ruled the charts for most of August. During that time… playwright Joe Orton was battered to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell at their North London home on 9 August. Halliwell then committed suicide. The hippy movement took a knock on 14 August when The Marine & Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 declared participation in offshore pirate radio in the UK illegal. Therefore, Wonderful Radio London closed down that afternoon with one last song – A Day in the Life by the Beatles. Three days later, Coventry City, who had been promoted to the Football League First Division for the first time, lost their manager when Jimmy Hill announced he was leaving his position to become a television pundit.

Ten days later, the manager of the Beatles shocked the music world, dying of an overdose aged only 32. This comes as a surprise to me now, as I assumed he was a fair bit older. More on this when I cover Hello Goodbye. And on 28 August the first late summer holiday on the last Monday of the month occured in England and Wales, replacing the previous holiday, which occured on the first Monday of the month. Bet it rained.

Written by: John Phillips

Producer: Lou Adler & John Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 4 (9 August-5 September) 

Births:

Scottish ice hockey player Tony Hand – 15 August 
Footballer Michael Thomas – 24 August
Politician Greg Clark – 28 August
Comedy actor Steve Pemberton – 1 September
Field hockey player Jane Sixsmith – 5 September 

Deaths:

Playwright Joe Orton – 9 August
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein – 27 August