Spicks and Specks (B Gibb) – The Bee Gees 1966
Hugh and Barbara Gibb were respectively a dance band leader and a singer who plied their trade on the ferry that crossed the harbor at the Isle of Man and around Manchester whilst raising their five children – Barry, twins Robin and Maurice, daughter Lesley and youngest son Andy. Barry and the twins were performing at the local Gaumont cinema as early as 1957 and their amateur and semi-pro gigs were promising, father Hugh greatly revered the crooning harmonies of the Mills Brothers, and stressed to his three eldest sons, the importance of replicating their dulcet harmonies and smiling, polite demeanor.
The youngsters were however unhappy about enduring the bitterly cold Manchester winters and were bored with schoolwork, they became quite mischevious – truancy, petty thievery and a touch of arson brought them to the attention of the law – and their parents, who were also looking to secure their future employment, decided to make a fresh start in Australia.
The Gibbs joined the other million British immigrants who became Ten Pound Poms, the subsidized cost of the boat fare to Australia; along with the Gillards (Julie), Abbotts (Tony) and Bonds (Alan) who all arrived in Australia this way.
En route the three boys entertained their fellow passengers by giving impromptu performances in the stern of the boat, one of their fellow passengers, who was mesmerized by the Gibbs performances, was one Redmond “Red” Symons, future lead guitarist with the Skyhooks.
When the family arrived in September 1958 Barry was twelve and the twins were nine years old, their father mentored the boys and they made their Australian public debut in 1959 at the Redcliffe Speedway in Brisbane, picking up pennies from the track in reward for their efforts. Their name the Bee Gees was coined after combining the identical initials of speedway manager (Bill Goode) who had recommended them to local 4BH DJ who played their songs (Bill Gates) with the initials of the group leader Barry Gibb, originally calling themselves the B.G.s. Their mother’s name was Barbara Gibb, another BG, and surely a good omen for the future.
The brothers were uniquely talented, writing and performing their own songs from an early age and Bill Gates proved to be an important promoter of the group, introducing them to Sydney DJ Bob Rogers, and assisting them to secure appearances on local Brisbane TV shows Anything Goes, Brisbane Tonight, Strictly for Moderns, and Cottee’s Happy Hour.
Throughout the1960’s Barry and ultimately Robin emerged as successful songwriters, penning hits for Col Joye – (Underneath the) Starlight of Love 1963, Ronnie Burns –Coalman and Exit Stage Right in 1966/67, and Johnny Young – Craise Finton Kirk in 1967, but despite these hits, the Bee Gees first five single releases flopped, however it was to be their sixth release that would provide the breakthrough hit, even though they almost gave it away!
Given the group’s lack of chart success thus far in Australia they seriously considered giving Spicks and Specks to Dinah Lee to record, but fortunately they were dissuaded from doing so by Sydney songwriter/producers Nat Kipner and Ossie Byrne, who saw that the song had hit written all over it.
Spicks and Specks was recorded with producer Nat Kipner at Ossie Byrne’s four-track St. Clair studio in Hurstville (Syd), it was a haunting, slightly melancholic piece, and became their biggest hit in Australia prior to departing for the UK in ’67, peaking at #5 locally and becoming the 25th biggest-selling record of the year, ironically after their record label Festival had failed to renew their contract.
The excellent Barry Gibb melody is anchored on the bold and resonant piano riff devised and played by Maurice and a constantly recurring rhythmic ostinato bass pattern, which producer Bill Shepherd had introduced on former- Aztec Tony Barber’s hit Someday, which involved duplicating the electric bassline on a piano and then double-tracking it. A military drumbeat and brassy orchestration all combined to produce a song that sounded remarkably like the Beatles. A grainy black and white promo video was shot at Bankstown Airport (Syd) with the brothers cavorting around light aircraft with several go-go dancers, including Denise Drysdale, in tow, and mugging to the camera in imitation of the Fab Four’s zany stunts in their latest movie.
The brothers had now set their sights on success in the UK and were confident enough to write in advance to Brian Epstein and request that he audition them upon arrival and take them under his wing!
Bill Shepherd had also alerted expatriate Australian agent Robert Stigwood, then a Director of Epstein’s NEMS enterprises, to the imminent arrival of the Gibbs, and with Epstein’s blessing, and after an audition, Stigwood did not hesitate to sign the brothers to Polydor Records for five years.
Stigwood had successfully guided the careers of Johnny Leyton, Mike Sarne and Mike Berry to that time, and would emerge as one of the most powerful manager/publisher/promoters in the UK, with a stable of artists including the Bee Gees, the Who and Eric Clapton, with ambitious future projects in the pipeline to take his Robert Stigwood Associated Ltd. into musical theatre and films.
Stigwood was a canny and aggressive operator, he sensed that the time was right for a Beatles-sounding group like the Bee Gees to capitalize on the absence of the Fab Four from the touring scene, as they had retreated into their Abbey Road recording studios, and he was proven to be correct.
Upon arrival in the UK the Bee Gees took up residence in the London suburb of Hendon, and with Robert Stigwood drew their plans to conquer the world, history records that the Bee Gees went on to sell over 200 million records and collect five Grammy Awards in one of the most illustrious careers in popular music.
New York Mining Disaster 1941 (BR&M Gibb) – Bee Gees 1967
Ex-pat Aussie drummer Colin Petersen and former Aztec guitarist Vince Melouney were recruited to complete the Bee Gees formation, in July 1967 they went into the IBC Studios in London to record their first international album, the Bee Gees 1st, with producers Robert Stigwood and Ossie Byrne.
Stigwood was determined that the Bee Gees should sound as British and as much like the Beatles as possible, to capitalize on the fervor with which UK acts were being received in the US at that time. The brothers duly emphasized their British accents, Stigwood hired Klaus Voorman who had designed the Beatles Revolver cover, to provide the cover art, and in a master- stroke issued the first single off the album, New York Mining Disaster 1941, to radio stations without revealing the identity of the band – artfully deceiving the DJs into thinking that the song was from the Beatles, without misrepresenting its actual provenance. The term Bee Gees was being described as code for “Beatles Group’ so closely had the Bee Gees reproduced the sound of the Fab Four, as George Harrison had gently chided Maurice about at a London party, at the time.
Robert Stigwood was both revered and reviled within the bitchy and at times violent UK pop music industry, occasionally he crossed the line and incurred the wrath of others. He was less than masterly in his attempts to prise the Small Faces away from their hard -as-nails manager Don Arden, Sharon Osborne’s father, who had his henchmen hang “Stiggy” out of a fourth story window by his ankles, until he foreswore his interest in the act. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones also disliked Stigwood, who had failed to pay the band for a tour they had completed, Richards cornered “Stiggy” on the stairs at the Scotch of St. James Club in Soho and delivered several well-aimed knees to the groin of his debtor, roughly equivalent to the amount owed to the Stones.
New York Mining Disaster 1941 was the Bee Gees breakthrough hit, the ambience, phrasing and musical structure of the song created a sombre and melancholy aura around the group which was reinforced by the two other singles released off this album – To Love Somebody and Holiday.
While there was no recorded mining disaster in New York in 1941 it is likely that this melodramatically soulful ballad was inspired by the Aberfan tragedy in South Wales, when on October 21st, 1966,144 people were killed, including 116 children at the local school, when a slag heap slid down the mountainside and engulfed the town.
The song was first envisaged when the brothers took a break from recording on the darkened back stairs at Polydor Records studio and imagined what being trapped in a mineshaft would feel like and realizing that the stairwell would provide a great echo effect consistent with the mood of the song. Out of sensitivity for the victims of the Aberfan disaster, the song was re-located to New York, but the pathos of this ballad was undeniable, and it was favorably compared to the epic, heartfelt ballads of the Walker Brothers, who were storming the charts at the time.
Robin delivered soulful and poignant lead vocals in his best north country accent, as well as backing vocals with Barry, and Phil Dennys orchestral arrangement lent a quiet desperation to the song.
It was an international hit, charting #14 in the US and #11 locally, a dramatic, surreal, and haunting ballad, it established the template for future Bee Gees songs, until they ultimately embraced disco music and Barry found his falsetto.