Lost Classics: Bee Gees – Odessa

Bee Gees - OdessaBee GeesOdessa (Rhino)

It’s hard to convince anyone how great the Bee Gees really were because of three words: Saturday, night, and fever. But the reality is that there are two vastly different eras of the band, the Beatle-inspired early years and the band’s more famous disco period. The former made them occasional chart visitors while the latter made them superstars. For half a decade in the ’70s, there was barely a moment where you wouldn’t hear a song by or featuring the talents of the Brothers Gibb. And when it wasn’t them, their younger brother had a few chart toppers to consider.

I grew up in a time where it was socially encouraged among rock circles to despise disco, and for a while, I dutifully voiced my disdain for the genre. I’ve since come to terms with that premature dismissal, but I remember how hard it was during that time contending with my love of early Bee Gees albums. Prior to Saturday Night Fever, I had amassed a few of those original albums and enjoyed them immensely. But when the band became fixtures for the gold medallion crowd and when the “Gibb Sound” seemed to be on every other song on the radio, I purged those initial records and for years forgot how wonderful they were. I recently began to pull some of those early Bee Gees albums back out and there’s one that stands out as the best of the lot and is prime for (re)discovery.

Spread apart two vinyl sides and packaged in soft red felt, Odessa was intended to stand alongside other definitive statements like Sgt. Pepper’s, Tommy, Disraeli Gears, etc., but nearly forty years later, it gets barely a mention when experts compile their lists of essential albums of that period. What’s more, Odessa can easily best many of those albums in terms of scope, execution and sheer timelessness.

Indeed, one of the first things you’ll notice about Odessa is how eloquently arranged it is. While nearly every one of the album’s seventeen tracks is layered with strings, horns, and a wide array of instrumentation, none of them is marred with period-novelties or studio techniques that immediately tie it to the year of production. While Odessa gets ready to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, it sounds like it could easily have been crafted last week.

Throughout the double record, the Gibbs incorporate elements of chamber-pop, progressive rock, psychedelia, and country-rock all woven together with their unmistakable harmonies. It’s a glorious ride, and one in which you ponder why they didn’t go on to explore similar territories with subsequent albums.

The answer lies in the reality that Odessa was the one effort that nearly broke the brothers apart. With such a large effort to undertake, there were also large egos to contend with. Barry, who became the main focal point during the band’s disco period, had yet to establish himself as the de-facto leader. In fact, it was younger brother Robin who voiced their most notable songs during this period. The power struggle that ensued during the production of Odessa caused Robin to consider a solo career (mainly instigated by management), leaving Barry and Maurice to one Bee Gees album (Cucumber Castle) without him.

A year and a half later, Robin rejoined the fold and the rest is history.

But the real history is the Bee Gees that you haven’t discovered, the period when the Bee Gees were really a band (yes, they even had a regular drummer and guitar player) and they considered their competition to be the likes of The Beatles and other luminaries.

So why didn’t Odessa propel them into higher notoriety? A lot of the reason lies on the decision to release such a lofty project so late in the game: 1969. It’s interesting to consider that as the decade was coming to a close and other artists had already logged their artistic proclamation a year or two prior, the Brothers Gibb were finally getting around to their creative statement. Perhaps we can blame the initial public indifference towards Odessa on poor timing. But now that Rhino records has given it new life with a deluxe reissue, and since we’ve all had well enough time to reconsider how good some of the Bee Gees material is, there’s no reason why Odessa‘s brilliance should continue to be overlooked.

8 thoughts on “Lost Classics: Bee Gees – Odessa”

  1. I know it’s not from this album, but “I Started a Joke” is the worst song ever. Right up there with “Everybody Hurts” by REM. How can a band that fundamentally wimpy have recorded anything worth listening to?

  2. That’s from Idea. Love that album too, but you’re right, “I Started A Joke” (a Robin track) is pretty awful. The lyrics confounded me as a child (“I fell out of bed/Hurting my head/On things that I said”), so even at an early age I knew that there was something wrong with that song. True story: whenever my daughter was up crying, that song was one of the first ones that came to mind and I would begin singing it, in a desperate attempt to soothe her. I swear to God, it made her cry louder and as soon as I switched to another song (“Don’t Cry” by GnR, “Cry Baby Cry” by The Beatles, etc.) she almost immediately calm down.

  3. Good call, I’m glad to see this getting reissued. It’s no Odessey and Oracle, but it deserves respect. I dig their pre-disco stuff quite a bit. These guys simply had a way with a tune. Sure, the results could be maudlin/illogical/overblown/ball-less: that’s part of the charm!

    In a similar way I’m a fan of The Cyrkle, who mined a similar vein (and covered some Bee Gees). Even if its a bit hack-y, the songwriting always holds some goodies. I think my favorite aspect of this kind of music is that knockoff, safe A.M. radio psychedelia–almost like “here’s what I HEARD happens to your music when you take drugs and write pop hits!” :-)

    Now if you go further, to bands like the Neon Phiharmonic or Millenium, you really are in one-hit wonder territory and the twee faux Beatlisms take a turn toward liesure-suited schmaltziness.

    But its a fun world!

  4. The Bee Gees material is way beter than others posts here give indicate. Their strong points were melodies and vocals and they had dozens of classics that never got the critical recognition they deserved. U2 and Oasis have both given them credit for being up there are the top of pop music.

  5. Jake, “I started a joke” is a bad song but “worst song ever”?

    that puts us in Bobby Goldsboro territory. The Bee Gees were as lightweight as it gets but their harmony’s are some of the best EVER. Combine the two and you have non alcohol CSN.

  6. I enjoyed your review enough to include a summary of it in my weekly HOT Ones list for the big releases of each week. Just in case you’re interested, its HERE.

    Best – Adam

  7. Great review and I agree with the statement of Alex Kanakaris, The Bee Gees were far better than some of the prior comments here and “I Started A Joke” is a great song and one that propelled them back in the late 1960’s. I’ve never understood the ridiculous notion that a band going through a period of their careers you may not agree with negating their previous material that you might have loved. I loved their “disco” period which in reality was their R&B period, not disco, however, even if you didn’t like that period, it should in no way discourage you from enjoying their earlier material.

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