First of May (B R&M Gibb) and Lamplight (BR&M Gibb) and Don’t Forget To Remember Me (B&M Gibb) and I.O.I.O. (B&M Gibb)– Bee Gees 1969 and Saved by The Bell (R Gibb) – Robin Gibb 1969
The most famous band of siblings had broken up in 1969, the final straw for Robin had been the decision by Barry, supported by Robert Stigwood, to make First of May, a Barry Gibb solo vocal, the first single off the album Odessa, over the competing claims of Robin’s Lamplight.
Odessa is an album which reflected the fracturing of the band, originally titled An American Opera (which it wasn’t), then Masterpiece (which was blatantly self-congratulatory), and then Odessa (which just puzzled everybody), confusion was rife from the get-go. There was a general lack of artistic and creative direction and cohesion right from the conceptual stage of development, with the mythical loss of the HMS Veronica in 1899 supposed to be the inspiration for their magnum opus, but somewhere along the way this vision, like the ship, and ultimately the album, sank without a trace. Alex Petridis of The Guardian, neatly summed up the general reaction to Odessa “No record encapsulated the Gibb brothers’ majestically skewed pop vision like Odessa…Which amid the usual gorgeously orchestrated heartbreak, featured mock national anthems, country and western, and a title track that set a new benchmark for their magnificent oddness: harps, flamenco guitars, mock-Gregorian chanting, a burst of Baa Baa Black Sheep, lyrics about icebergs and vicars and emigrating to Finland. Quite what Odessa’s concept was supposed to be remains a mystery, but it’s the kind of album you listen to rapt, baffled as to what’s going to happen next.”
Robert Stigwood must take much of the blame for the failure of Odessa, he was obsessed with the idea of the brothers replicating the double album indulgence, complexity and thematic narratives of other artists – the Beatles White album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Cream’s Wheels On Fire, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, and the Who’s Tommy.
The Bee Gees were not only unable to create such a concept album, but they were exhausted, artificially stimulated, fighting amongst themselves, and lacking clear guidance and direction from their manager Stigwood, who was massively distracted at the time, bringing his debut production of Hair to the public.
Upon the release of Odessa, lead guitarist Vince Melouney had left the band, his parting sentiment was expressed in Such A Shame, a song he wrote and sang on the UK version of the album Idea, a lament at the obvious disintegration of the band.
The brothers were exhausted and fractious, the album lacked their usual sure-footed verve and spontaneity, it was a double album with an opulent red flock cover and gold lettering, intricate string, and orchestral arrangements, dense lyrics and opaque metaphors, there wasn’t an obvious single, it was all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Eight songs into the recording of Odessa Vince Melouney departed, First of May was released in March 1969, Barry’s solo vocals were effective, the song has a nursery rhyme quality to it, and overly sentimental strings, but with a gorgeous melody, that became a seasonal Christmas favorite with the lyrics “when I was small and Christmas trees were tall…” despite the fact, that the song has, probably apocryphally, been attributed to Barry’s Pyrenian mountain dog, Barnaby. It seems more likely that Barry was lamenting the looming schism within the group, and the estrangement of the brothers, as he fervently declared their “love will never die”, but the poignant vocals-only fade-out invited speculation, and left some to ponder the future of the brothers Gibb.
Despite Robin’s protests that Stigwood had assured him that Lamplight would be the album’s lead single, ahead of Barry’s First of May, and cover artwork (above) seems to support that decision, it was really a no-brainer, Lamplight was ponderous, with hymnal harmonies, stop-start guitars, and the absence of an engaging hook upon which to hang Robin’s soaring vocals, there was in fact a stronger case to be made for Robin to have performed lead vocals on First of May, instead of Barry.
Never the less First of May was only a moderate hit in Australia (#13) and the US (#37) but did better in the UK at #6, the album Odessa only performed moderately, #20 in USA, #10 in UK, and #13 in Aust, but has been re-evaluated more favorably in recent years.
After collapsing with nervous exhaustion following his split from the band, and successfully resisting an attempt by his parents Barbara and Hugh to make him a ward of the court due to his perceived addiction to amphetamines, Robin recovered to record his first solo album Robin’s Reign. The title is clearly a swipe at big brother Barry who he blamed for marginalizing and under-valuing his contribution to the Bee Gees work, this was Robin’s declaration of independence.
Saved by the Bell was released in August 1969, it is strikingly similar in structure to a former Bee Gees hit, I Started a Joke, and lyrically somewhat banal and repetitive, “I cried for you” hammered home the grief and loss that he was feeling. Robin’s plaintive vocals combined with an infectious melody, and the accompaniment of brother Maurice on piano and backing vocals, produced a hit record which, unsurprisingly, sounded like a Bee Gees single, and it charted at #2 in the UK and #7 in Aust, but bombed in the US at #87.
At the same time Robin’s siblings Barry and Maurice also scored a #2 hit in the UK and top 10 in Australia with the country-tinged Don’t Forget to Remember, which featured sweeping strings, Barry’s Nashville drawl, but it was the only hit single lifted from their Cucumber Castle album, the first the brothers had made without Robin.The single bombed in the US at #73 but others felt that in the hands of genuine country artists, it could have been a bigger hit Stateside.
The third single lifted of Cucumber Castle, after If I Only Had My Mind On Something Else had bombed globally, was the Bee Gees first foray into world music, with the African-influenced I.O.I.O, written by Barry and Maurice during the period of Robin’s absence from the group, and inspired by a recent visit to Africa by Barry. The title I.O.I.O. was derived from the calls on the chorus sung by Maurice accompanied by Colin Petersen’s drumming, Barry sang the verses and played guitar. Former Bee Gees guitarist Vince Melouney was featured, as he had played on the song’s first session in June 1968 during the sessions for the album Idea, but as he left the group following the Odessa album he was not present when the song was finalised in late 1969. Pentangle drummer Terry Cox added drums on the final session, and the song was notable for being the only Bee Gees A-side single to feature any vocal solos from Maurice Gibb, these being the I.O. chant, it was a top ten hit throughout Europe and South America, but only charted #14 in Aust, #49 in the UK and #94 in the US, however it did become a live performance favourite.
The band continued to fracture with the sacking of drummer Colin Petersen who famously stated that the band would not be able to continue without him. In 1971 the brothers would re-form and subsequently confirm that the sum of their parts was far greater than the individual contributions of each brother outside the family circle.