In February 1968 the band released their second international album, Horizontal, which displayed influences ranging from the Beatles to baroque pop and psychedelic rock, the album was co-produced by Stigwood and the Bee Gees who were displaying a confidence and professionalism well beyond their years – Barry was 21 and the twins were only 18.
Massachusetts was released in late 1967 and featured striking harmonies with Barry and Robin sharing lead vocals, and a lush orchestral arrangement by Bill Shepherd that garnered the Bee Gees their first international #1 hit in both Aust and the UK and a #11 charter in the USA, where the band had performed the song on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Lucille Ball Show, and connected with the broad US middle American market that watched these shows every week.
The song had a folkie/country ambience that the Bee Gees thought may have adversely affected its success in the pop market, and they had originally written it for the Seekers to record, but it didn’t find its way to them, although they did subsequently record the song and include it on their Ultimate Collection album in 2003.
Robin’s tremulous vibrato carries the song and the arrangement is simultaneously melodic and brooding, the lyrics are cryptic and the vocals plaintive, the brothers were keen to write a song that included an unusual US place name, and whilst cruising New York harbor came up with the song title and completed the lyrics to Massachusetts in the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel.
It has been suggested that the song was also intended as an anti-flower power anthem taking the contrary position to such songs as San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) and Go To San Francisco, and exhorting those who had made the pilgrimage there to return home – to Massachusetts – and turn the lights on again.
Robin has recalled that the success of Massachusetts was bittersweet for him, on the day the record hit #1 in the UK it was Guy Fawkes night and he was a passenger on the Hither Green rail crash near Lewisham (above) in which 49 people died … “Luckily I didn’t get injured. I remember sitting at the side of the carriage, watching the rain pour down, fireworks go off and the blue lights of the ambulances whirring. It was like something surreal, out of a Speilberg movie.” Robyn’s heroic actions at the scene of the accident became part of Gibb folklore, he pulled injured and dead passengers clear of the wreck, despite he and his partner Molly being bruised and battered themselves. He took some time to recover from delayed shock, and the mental images of the carnage left him with survivor’s guilt, he dedicated the song Really and Sincerely as a hymn to the victims of the crash.
The second single taken off Horizontal was the poignant and sombre World, Barry and Robin shared lead vocals, multi-instrumentalist Maurice delivered a quavering Mellotron accompaniment, a resonant piano riff, and a fuzz-tone guitar to create yet another classic piece of orchestral pop. It was a typical Bee Gees ballad, replete with enigmatic lyrics and a Bill Shepherd-inspired orchestral arrangement with shimmering strings which are contrasted with more raucous sounds between each of the stanzas. On closer inspection the song did not have an obvious or catchy chorus, and its lyrics were rather trite and repetitive “Now I found that the world is round/ And of course it rains every day”, World charted #1 in Germany, Netherlands, and Singapore, top ten throughout Europe, #6 in Aust, #9 in the UK, but stalled at #15 in the US.
The follow up single to World was Words, a moody reflective ballad that was originally written for Cliff Richard, but he was only interested in recording it as an album track which would have been a mistake. All three brothers were credited with the composition with Barry providing soulful solo lead vocals for the first time. Words was yet another orchestral pop pastiche, it would always be performed solo by Barry when in concert and was a highlight of their live performances. The song was inspired by the power of words to elate, sadden, or inspire, and was basically created on piano by Barry when the more accomplished pianist, Robin, kept falling asleep after a big night out.
Given the internal issues the brothers were dealing with, the lyrics of this song, about how words can wound, perplex, uplift, and divide you – were prophetic indeed.
Maurice also discovered a unique piano sound when recording Words, he accidentally created a densely layered piano riff after micing the piano and twiddling the knobs on the control panel, IBC engineer Mike Claydon attributed it to compression of the sound, so that one piano sounded like 40 pianos, they had discovered their own version of this piano sound which George Martin would use so successfully on the Beatles Lady Madonna, released in March 1968.
Words was another hit, charting #1 in three European countries as well as Canada, #8 in the UK, and top twenty in Australia and the USA and was taken to a UK #1 in 1996 by British boyband Boyzone.
The follow up single was Jumbo, a confusing mix of psychedelia and Small Faces/Kinks influences, it was a failed experiment in diversifying their sound, barely scraping into the top twenty here and failing to impress overseas. Stigwood took the blame for the failure of Jumbo, he had the final say on their releases, and was clearly pre-occupied with the West End launch of his latest venture, Hair, at the time.
There had been a dispute with Stigwood over whether the B-side to this record, The Singer Sang His Song, should have been the A-side, it was another pocket symphony with all three brothers sharing vocals and there is a simple promo video of the brothers performing the song intercut with vision of West Indian singer P.P Arnold frolicking in the park with an unidentified male.
The band had released no less than seven singles and two albums in the past year and over-exposure was now threatening to undermine their popularity and credibility, their second international album release Horizontal was a solid if not spectacular charter – #8 in Aust and UK, #16 in the US, and #2 in France.
Rolling Stone magazine remained unconvinced about the Bee Gees, and as the self-appointed arbiters of musical good taste, rated the album Horizontal only 1.5 stars and damned it with faint praise, dismissing the Bee Gees as “nothing if not professional … (prizing) gesture over authenticity, they made Sixties jukebox songs… conveying genuine passion about as accurately as Hollywood kisses capture the mess and tangle of real love.” Rolling Stone generally didn’t like bands that came from Australia – they would similarly dismiss AC/DC and INXS in the future and be proven wrong, as they were with the Bee Gees.