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)
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