First of May (B R&M Gibb) – Bee Gees 1969
The most famous band of siblings in popular music had broken up in 1969, the final straw for Robin Gibb had been the decision by Barry, supported by their manager Robert Stigwood, to make First of May, a Barry Gibb solo vocal, the lead single off the album Odessa, over the competing claims of Robin’s Lamplight. The Bee Gees L-R Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb, Colin Petersen.
The brothers were exhausted and fractious, Odessa lacked the usual sure-footed verve and spontaneity of their previous hits, it was a double album with an opulent red flock cover and gold lettering, intricate string, and orchestral arrangements, dense lyrics and opaque metaphors, a concept album that was poorly conceived, there wasn’t an obvious single, it was all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Eight songs into the recording of Odessa guitarist Vince Melouney departed, First of May was released in March 1969, Barry’s solo vocals were impressive, the song had a beguiling nursery rhyme quality to it, and overly sentimental strings, but with a gorgeous melody, and it became a seasonal Christmas favourite with the lyrics “when I was small and Christmas trees were tall…” as two childhood friends reflect on their innocent love and the day that they parted “Don’t ask me why but time has passed us by/Someone else moved in from far away…”
It seems 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 to the song 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 not to be. Lamplight was by comparison 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 (below).
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 underperformed given the Gibbs previous successes, #20 in USA, #10 in UK, and #13 in Aust, but has been re-evaluated more favourably in recent years, but First of May remains a delightfully unexpected Bee Gees Christmas classic.