Forgotten series: The Bee Gees – Odessa (1969)

The Bee Gees were in a precarious position in early 1969 when their only original double album was first released.

After two years of solid worldwide success and big hits, the Brothers Gibb were not getting along during this album’s recording sessions. Original Bee Gees lead guitarist Vince Melouney had left the band in November 1968, after the album was well underway because, for him, there was little to do guitar-wise with their new lush orchestral direction. Equally, the brothers’ tension after their first brush with fame didn’t create harmony within the band. Vince appears only on a couple of the album’s tracks.

That absence left the four remaining band members to complete the album, so Barry, Maurice, Robin and drummer Colin Petersen took the task hands-on and did just that. What they came up with was a masterpiece. Funny enough, it was almost titled Masterpeace at one point. The same can also be said for their essential Bee Gees 1st album in ’67.

Odessa has been called a concept album but, Barry Gibb dispelled that notion when it was released back in ’69. You can sort of draw a connection to a couple of the album’s songs but after that, no. The title track, “Odessa (City On The Black Sea)” sets the tone for the whole album, and it’s a grand dramatic one at that. Maurice Gibb’s gorgeous Flamenco guitar flourishes are among song’s highlights, along with the swelling orchestral ocean by Bill Shepherd. The vocals arrive as if descending down from heaven. Dramatic flair was always one of their strongest points in their early years.

The folky, Robin Gibb-sung “Black Diamond” is a very different sound that you would expect from them, but it’s most welcome. “Edison” is a catchy gem of a song, done in tribute to Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb; it’s one of the best songs on the whole album. The gorgeous “Melody Fair” is another Beatle-esque gem you’ve probably heard before on an old Bee Gees compilation. A couple of songs pointed to the future that would figure more on their next album Cucumber Castle: the country-rock ballad “Marley Purt Drive” (think of The Band with Barry on lead vocals), and Maurice’s confidently sung, baroque-inflected “Suddenly.”

Robin’s love-eternal ballad “Lamplight,” according to legend, was his choice for the album’s first single — and the reason he briefly split from the group not too long after the album’s release for a solo career. Barry’s ‘First of May’ was released instead as the A-side, with the former tune as the b-side. They’re both beautiful songs and you can go either way on what should’ve been the A-side. It must’ve been tough to pick a single back then. “First of May” is another timeless, wistful love song of past years gone by and love lost. It really tugs at your heart.

The English-looking-down-on-Australians themed “I Laugh In Your Face” features those grand Bee Gees harmonies you’ve known and loved. Three dramatic orchestral-only Gibb-penned songs (“Seven Seas Symphony,” “With All Nations,” “The British Opera”) and conducted yet again by Shepherd weave in and out of the album.

Fans are also pointed to the deluxe 3-CD boxed reissue of Odessa from Rhino/Reprise, which arrive in 2009 and included a pair of previously unreleased mid-tempo songs called “Nobody’s Someone” and “Pity.” It was a long overdue and much welcomed reissue: The whole double album was superbly remastered onto two CDs, in both the stereo and mono mixes along with a third disc entitled “Sketches for Odessa” that was dedicated to demos, alternate versions, a rare 30-second promotional record store spot and the two unreleased songs.

Sound quality-wise, you’ll notice a lot more clarity, detail and depth than you’ve ever heard before. Rhino Records also reissued a vinyl version in March 2009. Who knew there was actually a mono version of the album released in 1969? Apparently, the mono mix was worldwide then, but not available in America. Rhino even replicated exactly the original 2-LP set’s beautiful red felt cover with gold lettering and the green illustrated inner sleeve art for the CD sized box. Within, the CDs were housed in paper LP-like sleeves. A nice booklet briefly detailed the album’s story, with previously unseen Odessa era photos and there was even a cool fold-out poster of the group.

There’s also a fab Bee Gees sticker that replicated Petersen’s original drum head. I would’ve liked to have heard comments, whether new or old, from the Bee Gees themselves in addition to Andrew Sandoval’s fine liner notes. But overall, the reissue served as a new reminder that this album keeps getting better as time goes on. Odessa really stays with you.

Anyone who loves 1960s music or the Bee Gees themselves should have this album in their collection.

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Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.