45 Years Ago – The Bee Gees Release ‘Odessa’
With the post-‘Sgt. Pepper‘ air still circulating with lofty, artistic ambitions, the Bee Gees delivered what many consider to be their masterpiece. Issued in March 1969, and wrapped in a fuzzy red felt cover, ‘Odessa’ was an artistic triumph for the band.
In undertaking a widescreen project such as this, the band tossed around possible titles for the album including ‘Masterpeace’, and ‘The American Opera.’ Though the original idea for the album may have been more conceptual in nature, it ultimately became simply a collection of interesting songs.
Despite any concrete ‘concept,’ it does play out like a unified work, and one that is stocked full of beautiful songs with incredible production. “People thought it was an in-depth album,” said Maurice Gibb in the Hector Cook biography ‘Tales Of The Brothers Gibb.’ “Like, ‘What do they mean by those lyrics?’ and ‘What’s this all about?,'” adding, “A lot of people regard it as our ‘Sgt. Pepper’.”
Recording began with sessions in New York City in late-1968, and continued through the end of the year in London. From the start it was clear much ground was going to be covered on this batch of songs.The lush orchestral sweeps and grand gestures of the title song give way to the psychedelic tinged pop of ‘Melody Fair’, while songs like ‘Marely Purt Drive,’ and ‘Give Your Best’ show a definite country influence. During the sessions, original guitarist Vince Melouney left the band, telling the NME at the time, “I have never really felt 100 percent a Bee Gee. The talent I have doesn’t come up to the standard of the Gibb brothers talent,” adding, “I realize my ideas don’t augment their ideas.” The departure of Melouney left the Gibb brothers (Barry, Maurice and Robin) and drummer Colin Petersen to complete the album.
The idea to do a double album was not the band’s choice, but rather their manager, Robert Stigwood. ‘Robert wanted a double album, we didn’t know why,” recalled Barry Gibb in ‘Tales Of The Brothers Gibb,’ “I think it was basically a financial deal. If we do a double album, everybody makes more money. Except the group.” Barry was never sold on the idea of the double album, saying bluntly, “a single album would’ve been perfect. It just seemed there was too much stuff that wasn’t that good.”
Though the band has always been saddled with comparisons to the Beatles, the plans for making it a double preceded the release of ‘The White Album.’ Critics, and fans alike, rallied around the double album, pushing it into the U.K. Top 10, and the U.S. Top 20.
As things moved on, Stigwood wanted the first single from the album to be ‘The First Of May,’ a song which features a solo Barry Gibb vocal, while Robin Gibb voted for the haunting ‘Lamplight,’ convinced it would be a chart-topper. Robin went as far as telling the Melody Maker, “I feel strongly about the whole thing. ‘Lamplight’ would have come off the album and not be the b-side,” angrily adding, “I will go even further and take my songs off the album if Mr. Stigwood doesn’t want to see eye-to-eye.” Give ’em both a spin, and chances are you will side with Robin on this one as well.
With ‘Lamplight’ pushed to the b-side, ‘The First Of May’ hit the U.K. Top 10, and the U.S. Top 40, but faded quickly. Feeling slighted at the time, Robin quit the group not long after the album’s release. During his nearly year-long absence, he managed to release his solo debut, the very fine ‘Robin’s Reign.’ He had even begun work on a second solo outing, ‘Sing Slowly Sisters,’ but by the end of 1970, it was shelved, and he was back in the group.
The album covers a lot of ground in its 17 tracks, and except for a couple slight missteps, has actually aged very well. In 2009, Rhino Records gave it the deluxe three-disc re-issue treatment, which paints the complete picture of those sessions.
It was the final statement of the Bee Gees of the ’60s. The ’70s would, of course, bring see the band finding a new sound and a huge new audience, but they would never again rise to the heady, artistic levels they set in their first decade. Something lost, something gained.