Various Artists

Maybe Someone Is Digging Underground: Songs of the Bee Gees

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In most respects, Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, and the late Maurice Gibb ended up in that same rarified musical territory occupied by the Beatles -- as recording and performing musicians, the Bee Gees' string of charting singles, their overall sales figures, and the sheer familiarity of their voices came close to rivaling, if not almost exceeding the work of the Liverpool quartet. Their success as songwriters has been a little more problematic, however, perhaps because they didn't see any internationally successful covers -- of the sort represented by, say, "A World Without Love" (recorded by Peter & Gordon), which came along while the Beatles were still ascending -- until their own presence as performers was so ubiquitous as to dwarf any other activities on their part. But it wasn't for lack of trying in placing their songs with others, and even producing the recordings in question for others, as this CD demonstrates. Maybe Someone Is Digging Underground is a very cleverly titled compilation of rare Bee Gees covers which, alas, may end up better known by its alternate title, Songs of the Bee Gees. The CD contains 22 covers of the Bee Gee's songs cut during the 1960s and the very start of the '70s, almost none of which have been on CD before, and none of which have ever been assembled in one place before. And it's filled with surprises, kicking off with an astonishingly good rendition of "Spicks and Specks" by Status Quo, off the latter's debut album -- with its heavy beat and visceral singing, plus a loud organ sound, it's a fully credible- '60s hard rock rendition of the song; the Montanas' "Top Hat" was another abortive Tony Hatch-produced effort by this underrated, star-crossed group, a B-side that deserved better with its cheerfully, trippy ambience. And speaking of trippiness, there's "Butterfly," a soaring harmony number with a beat (and some brass coming in at just the right moment), plus lots of hooks and a mood that recalls the best psychedelic-era work by the Beatles and the Hollies. "The Storm" is a passionately ornate piece of vocal prestidigitation by the Family Dogg. Rather less successful -- but still worth hearing -- are the tracks here representing other artists covering the Bee Gees' songs that the Bee Gees did record; there's a well-intentioned (but doomed) attempt to reinterpret what might be the best record in the Bee Gees' entire history, "Morning of My Life" (aka "In the Morning," by Cliff Aungier), working in a folk-pop mode; and the Velvett Fogg's version of "New York Mining Disaster 1941" grafts on some superfluous heavy guitar. Rather better is Tangerine Peel's rendition of "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You," with its in-your-face acoustic rhythm guitar and drums, and perhaps an even heavier use of the Mellotron than the original displayed; and P.P. Arnold's soulful rendition of "To Love Somebody," which seems close to how the composers originally viualized the song. Robin Gibb was definitely singing behind the single-named artist Oscar on the latter's version of "Holiday," and he -- possibly joined by Maurice Gibb (Oscar can't recall) -- outshined the featured artist, who was a little bit too poppish in his approach. Similarly, Gerry Marsden's version of "Gilbert Green" from mid- '67, is an awkward fit, and sounds as though the singer was searching for his version of "Penny Lane" or "Strawberry Fields Forever," while the song was something quite different. Billy J. Kramer's version of "Town of Tuxley Toymaker" featured the Bee Gees' backing vocals, in a much more successful effort at pop-psychedelia; and the Sands' version of "Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator" strikes an almost perfect balance between harmony vocals and psychedelic guitar. David Garrick's original rendition of "World" may prove essential listening, not only as a concert track -- the only one here, culled from a live album cut in Munich -- but also for featuring as his backing band an outfit known then as "Dandy", who would go through some lineup changes as the Iveys before emerging to fame as Badfinger. Not everything here is quite as intriguing as these dozen or so tracks -- Paul Jones is a great singer but is too melodramatic on "And the Sun Will Shine," and Cliff Aungier's version of "Words" is too strange -- a mix of soul and orchestral pop that sounds like two different recordings being played on overlapping radio frequencies. Adam Faith's "Cowman Milk Your Cow" is a totally unexpected piece of psychedelic folk-rock, however, that seriously extends the perceived strength and musical longevity of Faith's career. The Nomads' version of "The Singer Sang His Song" is a harder rendition of the song than the Bee Gees' own (one of their rare chart failures), but it is no more successful. "Maypole Mews" by David Garrick is more ornate pop, achingly pretty if not earth-shattering in any other way. The two most unexpected tracks on the entire album derive from the period of the group's breakup, one a Maurice Gibb co-authored piece called "The Loner" which never surfaced in any direct Bee Gees project but shows up here as a richly harmonized, sunshine pop rendition by the Bloomfields, and the Maurice Gibb-produced "Have You Heard the Word," a Beatles parody credited to the Fut that is familiar from its many bootleg appearances from the early 1970s, when it was believed to be a Beatles' studio good. The CD ends with the City of Westminster String Band, an instrumental that's too good to resemble elevator music but it's otherwise here, apparently, thanks to its availability. Regarless, there's not a track here that can be ignored by any fan of the Bee Gees or, for that matter, any devotee of 1960s British pop/rock or pop-psychedelia, and the annotation by David Wells is so informative and entertaining in its own right as to represent the equivalent of another CD in value. Oh, and the sound is state-of-the-art digital, circa mid-2004, another reminder of the neglect accorded the Bee Gees' own catalog as of that date by Polygram and Universal, apart from one hits compilation and an upgrade of Saturday Night Fever.

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