For many veteran artists, disco was simply a mountain that couldn’t be climbed….not that they didn’t try. The Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, Elton John and so many others – even Frank Sinatra! – flirted with the genre only to find that that those sultry disco grooves weren’t as easy to emulate as they may have appeared to be. Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb not only climbed the mountain, but conquered it. The brothers had already amassed a back catalogue of some of the richest, most melodic and most soulful harmony-pop of all time when they teamed with producer Arif Mardin to branch out into R&B and dance styles. Little could they have guessed that, for better or worse, they would become synonymous with the disco revolution. The Bee Gees’ miraculous transformation has just been chronicled by Reprise Records on a new 5-CD box set, Bee Gees 1974-1979 (Reprise 081227955281). Containing all of the group’s studio albums and a sampling of bonus material released during those years, it’s an effective primer on the most commercially successful era of The Bee Gees’ long history – indeed, one of the most successful periods for any band in pop history. Mr. Natural (1974), Main Course (1975), Children of the World (1976) and Spirits Having Flown (1979) benefit from the box set treatment, as all four albums are remarkably consistent in style and quality.
The Bee Gees hadn’t had a U.S. Top 20 hit in two years – since 1972’s “Run to Me” off To Whom It May Concern – when they released their twelfth studio album, Mr. Natural, in 1974. The album didn’t reverse the Gibb brothers’ fortunes; the title track barely scraped the singles chart at No. 93. Their next album, of course, would change everything. But Mr. Natural remains the crucial link between the Bee Gees’ lush, baroque period (which earned the group Beatles comparisons) and their disco years, with renowned producer Arif Mardin injecting R&B, soul and funk textures into the brothers’ harmonies.
If Mr. Natural lacks the hook-laden melodies many came to expect from the Bee Gees, it nonetheless features some of the Gibbs’ finest singing and a fresh, reinvigorated feeling. An emphasis on the beat, foreshadowing their future work, enlivened the tough “Down the Road” as well as “Heavy Breathing.” Perhaps the most rocking track the group had recorded to that point, it finds Barry at his throatiest, and also boasts searing guitar. Mardin added sizzling brass to both tracks. Barry dominates with his lead vocals, but he and Robin have a number of wonderful joint showcases including the dreamy, sensual and sparkling “Charade” (with Mardin’s most lush string arrangement) and “Voices,” a throwback to the “classic” Bee Gees sound in its delicate melody.
Other tracks recall the Bee Gees’ earlier years. The gospel-tinged “Give a Hand, Take a Hand” dated back to 1970 and was first recorded during the Cucumber Castle sessions and subsequently covered by P.P. Arnold and the Staple Singers. “Had a Lot of Love Last Night” matches “Charade” for its ethereal beauty, and Barry’s solo composition “Lost in Your Love” is another pretty ballad. But Barry’s most lasting contribution to Mr. Natural might be a fleeting one. Just listen to the driving “Dogs” to hear what may be the very first appearance of his familiar falsetto; his unique sound in that range would be developed much further on The Bee Gees’ next long-player.
Arif Mardin returned for 1975’s Main Course. “Get on up, look around/Can’t you feel the wind of change?” goes the lyric to the third track on the album, a catchy anthem that explicitly incorporated the burgeoning sound of disco. It was impossible to ignore that powerful wind. It was reflected in the new logo that graced its cover, yes, as well as in the new choice of recording locale – Miami’s Criteria Studios. But the real evidence was to be found in the album’s grooves from the very first track: “Nights on Broadway.” The heavily rhythmic track was as sophisticated as it was thrilling, shifting in tempo and feel over an irresistible, pulse-pounding groove. Not to mention it introduced Barry Gibb’s falsetto as a major component of The Bee Gees’ sound; Barry later recalled “discovering” the falsetto as a powerful instrument when producer Martin asked if he could “scream” to up the song’s excitement.
Arguably even more powerful was another infectious call to the dancefloor: “Jive Talkin’,” with its deeply funky, synthesized bassline (courtesy Maurice Gibb and the group’s collaborator Blue Weaver), signature scratchy guitar intro from Barry, and burbling beat. “Jive Talkin’” went to No. 5 in the U.K. and No. 1 in the U.S., the group’s “comeback” hit and first Top 5 since “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” “Nights on Broadway” also went to Top 10 in America, but the success of those two songs shouldn’t overshadow the strength of the entire album. “Edge of the Universe” and “Baby As You Turn Away” are as melodic as any of the group’s big hits, and Main Course also lives up to its title with diverse highlights like the No. 12 Pop hit “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)” as well as the attractive “Songbird,” the hard-edged rock-cabaret of “All This Making Love,” the Robin-led ballad “Country Lanes,” and the country-and-western-flavored “Come On Over.” Main Course charted at No. 14 in the U.S. and remained on the Billboard 200 for 74 weeks.
Taking the reins from Mardin and adding Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson to the production team, Barry, Maurice and Robin returned in fall 1976 with Children of the World, the third disc in the new box set. The U.S. No. 8 album was another R&B-oriented effort, and the platinum-seller introduced such smashes as the joyful disco anthem “You Should Be Dancing” (No. 1 Pop, Dance and R&B/No. 4 U.K. Pop), the ravishingly wistful “Love So Right” (No. 3 Pop) and the lusty “Boogie Child” (No. 12 Pop). The Bee Gees’ golden touch rubbed off on other artists, as well; the pulsating soul-funk tune “You Stepped into My Life” charted for both Melba Moore and Wayne Newton. The sweeping “Love Me,” a sublime Robin lead vocal on the album, scored for Yvonne Elliman. The new production team took its cues from Mardin’s style, but furthered the band’s impressive use of synthesizers and continued to embrace disco while never losing sight of multi-layered harmonies (just listen to the a cappella sections of the title track), well-utilized orchestration (including the smoking horns of “Boogie Child” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”), strong melodies and smooth grooves. Soon, The Bee Gees and disco would be all but synonymous. But first, in May 1977, the Gibbs issued the Here at Last…Bee Gees Live album which, alas, isn’t a part of this box set and remains domestically out-of-print. It was their first live album, and one of only two in their catalogue to this day.
Barry, Maurice and Robin took the message of “You Should Be Dancing” to heart when they scored the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever and found themselves at the epicenter of disco. In the U.S., the soundtrack, released in November ’77, was certified 15× Platinum, remaining on the album chart for 120 weeks until March 1980 – with 24 weeks at No. 1 from January to July 1978. Across the pond, Saturday Night Fever spent 18 consecutive weeks at No. 1. Though the new box set does not include the five-time Grammy-winning soundtrack, the bonus disc entitled The Miami Years does contain its three No. 1 singles - “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love” – as well as “More Than a Woman” and “If I Can’t Have You.” The former was included in renditions by both the Bee Gees and Tavares on the Saturday Night Fever album, and the latter was included in Yvonne Elliman’s version. The Bee Gees released their own version, heard here, as the B-side of “Stayin’ Alive.”
The Bee Gees followed up Saturday Night Fever with Spirits Having Flown. The fourth album in this set, it capped off an incredible run for the band. The album's first three tracks – the dramatic “Tragedy,” achingly beautiful “Too Much Heaven” and the slinky R&B/dance fusion of “Love You Inside Out” - were all released as singles and all reached No. 1 in the U.S., which tied The Beatles’ record for an unbroken string of six U.S. chart-toppers. (“Too Much Heaven” became a favorite of no less a musical eminence than Brian Wilson.) Spirits also became the first Bee Gees album to make the U.K. Top 10 in ten years, as well as their first and only No. 1 there. But just because Spirits was a natural continuation of the Saturday Night Fever sound, that doesn’t mean that the band had given up on its adventurous tendencies. Even the less memorable tracks on the album show the Gibb brothers at their creative peak, in full control of the intricate, multi-textured sound and production. Spirits peters out a bit on its second half, but that seems almost inevitable after its opening 1-2-3 punch and the gleaming title track. Other highlights like the brassy “Search, Find” and the moody, relatively spare “Stop (Think Again)” inevitably pale in comparison but make pleasant rediscoveries when revisited. When the Gibbs returned in 1981 with Living Eyes, they had fallen victim to the disco backlash; the album didn’t even make the U.S. Top 40. Spirits Having Flown remains the culmination of an unparalleled period of artistic and commercial success.
The 11-song Miami Years disc completes this set. In addition to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack selections and the Bee Gees’ own “If I Can’t Have You,” it adds the previously released Fever outtake “Warm Ride,” the gentle, shimmering “Our Love (Don’t Throw It All Away),” and two period B-sides (“Rest Your Love on Me” and “It Doesn’t Matter Much to Me”). The compilers have also included the promotional 12-inch version of “Stayin’ Alive,” previously released on CD, but not the other 12-inch mixes that fans have long craved on CD. A consolation comes in the fact that the Bee Gees Extended EP, available on Record Store Day, will include the disco mixes of “More Than a Woman,” “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing” plus “Stayin’ Alive”…but this release will only be available on vinyl. The Miami Years is rounded out with the Barry and Robin-penned “Emotion,” a No. 3 hit in 1978 for Samantha Sang, with Barry on (very) prominent background vocals. However, the Sang version isn’t here but rather the Bee Gees’ 1994 version. While the inclusion of the song is commendable, the nineties rendition with its drum machine and slick, electronic production can’t help but sound jarring.
Each of the five discs is packaged in a standard mini-sleeve, and Spirits Having Flown recreates the original gatefold. All except Mr. Natural and the new Miami Years include a replica insert, as well. All tracks have been sourced from previously released masters. Collectors may lament that 1974-1979, the third in a series of box sets following the truly comprehensive The Studio Albums 1967-1968 (with three albums on six discs, containing a stunning array of rare and previously unreleased music) and The Warner Bros. Years 1987-1991 (which premiered a live concert and added a selection of rare bonus tracks), has no rare material. As with the Warner box, no booklet of credits and/or liner notes has been included.
Bee Gees 1974-1979 is one stop shopping for this seminal era. While hope remains that previously unreleased and new-to-CD material will surface in the future, this collection adds up to an ideal, affordable package for fans who haven’t already picked up these classic albums on CD. You’ll find that night fever is positively contagious.