In Their Own Time

"The Bee Gees were possibly the greatest pop songwriters of all time."
If Dennis Davison intends ironic effect, he doesn't betray it in his voice. Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, the singer/ songwriter/guitarist for that city's pop-psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen sounds serious. No, earnest. "I obviously prefer their earlier stuff, their pre-Saturday Night Fever stuff," he allows, "but even then they wrote some pretty catchy tunes. They have such an incredible catalog of songs. I can't think of too many other bands that have written that many great songs."

Well, how about the Beatles?
"Yeah," he says, drawing out the word, exhaling it. "How many more?" he adds, throwing down the gauntlet.

Davison likes the Bee Gees (brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb). In fact, he likes them so much that he and Jigsaw Seen guitarist Jonathan Lea honchoed a 21-track Bee Gees tribute album, Melody Fair on suburban-L.A.-based eggBERT Records. It includes bands you may know (Dramarama) playing Bee Gees songs you probably don't know ("Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry"); bands you likely don't know (Baby Lemonade) playing Bee Gees songs you probably do know ("How Deep Is Your Love"); and various permutations thereof.

"I was quite surprised with some of the older songs," notes Maurice Gibb, speaking by phone from his home in Miami, "some of them, like 'Kilburn Towers' and 'Exit Stage Right.' I thought most of these songs may not have been heard in America. I mean, those songs were jam sessions. Those were our experimental days in Australia. To see these songs like 'Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator' -- good grief!"

While apologetically admitting that he and his brothers are unfamiliar with the bands on Melody Fair, Gibb gives the Bee Gees' stamp of approval to the tribute. "It's a great collection of people's ideas of our songs worked in to fit their styles,'' he says, "and very well done, too. It's brought back a lot of great memories for me."

The album ranges all over the stylistic map, with particular concentration on material from the Bee Gees' first records: the Jigsaw Seen's Rubber Soul treatment of "Melody Fair" (originally on the 1969 rococo double-album Odessa), the Movie Stars' country and western take on "I Can't See Nobody" (from 1967's 1st) and Kristian Hoffman's static-cling reading of "Lemons Never Forget" (from 1968's Horizontal).

"Something about their style is so melancholy," notes Davison, attempting to explain what he finds so appealing about the sound found on those '60s albums. "There's a certain sadness about it, and yet they have these peppy melodies occasionally. They basically were copping a lot of the things that were going on at the time -- the Beatles, certain aspects of psychedelic music -- but they just did it in their own warped way."

Applying the word "warped" to anything Bee Gees-related likely stretches many people's credulity: when they think of the group, if they think of them at all, they remember the disco hits from the '70s, a time period when the Gibbs experienced their greatest popularity, reeling off a string of number ones ("You Should Be Dancing," "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy," "Love You Inside Out") and dominating the airwaves.

"I think that when most people hear the name Bee Gees, they immediately get this mental image of the guys in the white flares and the hairy chests and gold medallions and this whining, high-pitched disco music," says Alec Palao, bassist for San Francisco-based pop gurus the Sneetches, who covered the little-known "Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator" on Melody Fair. Barely pausing for a breath, Palao continues, "Whereas, in fact, the band were -- probably still are -- but certainly were great songwriters and performers of the first degree when they started in the mid-'60s. In the first five years of their career, they produced some really great pop records, which are basically disavowed now by them and by most connoisseurs of pop music because they're thinking of what they did later when they became massively popular.

Before their nine-alarm disco inferno with "Jive Talkin'," "Nights on Broadway," "Love So Right," et al., the Bee Gees had already gone through two distinct career cycles. They first sang together while growing up in late-1950s Australia, where, after a string of some 14 consecutive stiffs, they scored with the spare, mid-tempo pop-rocker "Spicks & Specks" in 1967. But just when they achieved success in Australia, the Gibbs returned to their native England, hooking up with Beatles manager Brian Epstein, producer Robert Stigwood and arranger Bill Shepherd. In England, they quickly segued into their second life with a series of affecting, heavily orchestrated hit ballads -- "To Love Somebody," "Holiday," "Words," "I Started a Joke" -- distinguished by the brothers' close harmonies, way-outre lyrics and Robin's tremulous lead vocals.

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Michael Yockel