F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously declared that there are no second acts in American lives. It’s a good thing that the Bee Gees aren’t American, then, because they’ve had at least two very distinct acts in theirs: In the ’60s, they were pop princes, scoring one hit single after another. Then they seemed to go quiet for a few years, and you couldn’t have been blamed for thinking they were done. Suddenly, they re-emerged as the kings of disco in the late ’70s. Saturday Night Fever hit, and the rest is history. The second act, from a purely commercial perspective, was even bigger than the first.
When Odessa (Reprise Records/Rhino) was released in February 1969, the stereo format was still a rather recent phenomena. Many bands, including the Beatles, didn’t spend a lot of time concerning themselves with stereo mixes. They were something of an afterthought. For example, the stereo mixes for Sgt. Pepper were done in two days after the recording was finished, and the Beatles had left the studio.
On the other hand, great care was taken with the mono mixes. Since recording was for the most part done on four-track machines in those days, the mixing was done as the recording went on. Since there was only one speaker, great care was taken with the placement of the various sounds in the mono field. If you’ve had a chance to hear the the mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper, unavailable in the U.S. for years, you know what I mean.
Stereo was the new thing, however, and Americans got a steady dose of bad, sometimes absurd stereo versions of recordings that had really been intended to be heard in mono. One such album was the Bee Gees’ sixth album (fourth released internationally), Odessa. I have provided a little bit of recording history because the lavish 40th anniversary reissue of Odessa marks the first time that the crucial mono mixes have been available in the U.S.
While Odessa provides a wonderful musical experience, the original album is just as often remembered for its packaging. The double album came wrapped in a red flocked cover. Shortly after its release, it was alleged that workers at the plant that was making the covers were suffering from allergic reactions to the flocking, and the beautiful cover was discontinued. Subsequent reissues came in a more traditional sleeve, and in 1976, RSO Records edited the work down to a single LP, and put it out in a traditional cardboard sleeve.
Thankfully, Reprise remembers the original, and they have enrobed the new three-disc CD in the same red flocking that graced the original release. It’s not their fault that the prevalent format has changed to CD, making the package smaller than the grand LP format, but it’s a beautiful little box, worthy of the music contained within.
Speaking of music, maybe I’d better get to it.Á‚ Odessa begins appropriately with the title track “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)”. The stirring tale of shipwreck in the Baltic Sea seems to be the beginning of a concept album, especially when the album’s spectacular packaging is considered. But there is no concept at work among the 17 tracks. In fact, Barry Gibb announced to an expectant press at the time, “It won’t have an overall format … there won’t be any sound effects, just ballads with an emotional message.”
Once you stop worrying about concepts and just enjoy the songs, you’re in for a great listening experience. One classic pop song follows another. The music is acoustically based, but often fleshed out with grand orchestral arrangements by Bill Shepherd. There are intense Robin Gibb performances on “Black Diamond,” and “Lamplight”, and equally impressive performances by brother Barry Gibb on the hit “First of May”, and “Sound of Love.” In fact it was the decision to release “First Of May,” instead of “Lamplight” as the first single that led Robin to leave the band in late 1968 for a solo career, only to return to his brothers in 1970.
Back to the mixes for a moment. Once you’ve had a chance to digest the album in stereo and mono, go back and a/b the tracks. Note the amazing differences in the mixes. It’s an investment of time that I found very worthwhile.
The package’s third disc contains demos and alternate versions of every track on the album. The demo of the title track is particularly fascinating, as the artistic process is revealed to the careful listener. You can hear that the year 1899 that is cited in the released version, was 1866 on the demo, and the Dutch ship Onstrauss was changed to the British ship Veronica for the release. The disc also contains two songs from the Odessa sessions that were not released on the original version, and a 30-second promotional spot for the album.
The box also includes a poster, a Bee Gees sticker, and an informative booklet, featuring capsule descriptions of each song, together with recording information.
Having already had two unforgettable acts, and suffered the death of brother Maurice Gibb in 2003, it may seem that the Bee Gees are once again done. I’m not ready to count them out, though, and it should surprise no one if one of these days Barry and Robin Gibb hit the top of the charts one more time. Until then, Odessa remains the classic statement of the Bee Gees’ first act.