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 for their debut album Bee Gees 1st, and in a masterstroke, 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 party in London, at the time.
Robert Stigwood was both revered and reviled within the bitchy and at times violent UK pop music industry, and occasionally he crossed the line and incurred the wrath of others. He was less than masterful in his attempts to prise the Small Faces away from their hard -as-nails manager Don Arden (Sharon Osborne’s father, below), who had his henchmen hang “Stiggy” out of a fourth storey 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, 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, with cellos to the fore, and introing with strings and guitar strumming, 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, 116 of them being children at the local school, when a slag heap slid down the mountainside and engulfed the town.(below)
The song was first envisaged when the brothers took a break from recording on the darkened back stairs of Polydor Records studio at Stratford Place (London), 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 as well as backing vocals with Barry, and Phil Dennys orchestral arrangement lent a quiet desperation to the song. The video featured the band miming the song in the studio, interspersed with shots of miners, schoolchildren, and headframes, Robin looks impossibly young, he was barely seventeen, bowl haircut, a snaggletooth smile set off by one silver implant, awkward stagecraft poses – chin resting on a hand or arms crossed in defensive mode, trying to look laconic; but he had written the lyrics, and his recorded vocals were moving, affecting, and completely original.
It was an international hit, charting #14 in the US and #11 locally, a dramatic, surreal, and haunting ballad, which established the template for future Bee Gees songs, their so-called “pocket symphonies”, until they ultimately embraced disco music and Barry found his falsetto.
The B-side to it was I Can’t See Nobody, a yearning Phil Spector-style lament with a superb arrangement, an engaging hook, and memorable lead vocals by an emotionally-invested Robin. It was written by Barry and Robin in 1966 towards the end of the family’s time living in Brisbane (Aust), and originally recorded with Ossie Byrne and Nat Kipner at St. Clair Studios (Syd), but this first version was not released. At the Bee Gees 1st recording sessions at London’s IBC Studios, the song was re-recorded in March 1967 with overdubbing, Robin again sang lead vocals, and all three brothers featured on the chorus, Robert Stigwood now joined Byrne as co-producer of the track. “I walk the lonely streets/ I watch the people passing by/ I used to smile and say hello/ Guess I was just a happy guy/ Then you happened, girl/ This feeling that possesses me/ I just can’t move myself I guess it all just had to be…”
The fact that I Can’t See Nobody was definitely a hit-worthy, stand-alone song in its own right, and should have been afforded that opportunity, would jarringly resonate between Barry and Robin in the future, in the most devastating way, and lead to the brothers’ estrangement, as Robin grew to resent the fact that his compositions, and songs on which he was lead vocalist, would be relegated behind Barry’s songs, with the unfailing approval of Robert Stigwood. In the promo clip Robyn projects real melancholy, he is very young, there are adolescent pimples, haunted puppy-dog eyes, and bad teeth; but there was that voice, a heartbreaking revelation of blue-eyed soul, that would never sound better.