25
Aug 06

THE BEE GEES – “I Gotta Get A Message To You”

FT + Popular18 comments • 3,556 views

#257, 7th September 1968

 

In a curious way this song feels ahead of its time, anticipating a strain of 1970s pop – “Seasons In The Sun”, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” – that slathered tracks with melody and melodrama. At its best the style smuggles something affecting inside its padding of hokum – or makes the hokum so outrageous or pretty that you don’t care. “Message” doesn’t do that for me, I can’t find a reason to care about the singer’s crimes or dilemmas or backstory or whatever the hell is going on: the hand-wringing vocal just feels contrived, and after a portentious intro the record drags. People looking for the dark side of 1968 may find the Bee Gees’ doomed pleadings strike a chord, but in almost any year there are better gathering storms than this.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Doctor Mod on 25 Aug 2006 #

    Yes, it does anticipate that 1970s melodramatic narrative song craze–but the Bee Gees had been doing that since their arrival (“New York Mining Disaster 1941”) and carried it on for a bit (“Odessa”). But this song also looks backwards, sharing a common theme with “The Green Green Grass of Home.”

    And although I seem to be acquiring a reputation for “looking for the dark side of 1968” (but hey–I lived through it), the Bee Gees’ little story songs are always too, too focused on protagonist’s own emotions to be concerned with contemporary events “out there.” The title suggests an urgent “message,” but all that the lyrics reveal about the message is “tell her I’m sorry” and otherwise aren’t about a message at all–personal OR political–but rather a repeated “one more hour and my life will be through (oh no-o, oh no-o).”

    A song that is “about” execution for a crime (but here only in the sense of the protagonist’s emotions about it happening to him) could make a political statement, but as capital punishment was abolished in the UK in 1965, this would seem unlikely. A more probable explanation is an attempt to invoke some sort of “romantic” vision of the past in some never-neverland. Remember “Cucumber Castle”?

  2. 2
    Tom on 26 Aug 2006 #

    :)

    Actually Doctor Mod the “dark side of ’68” thing was a little tweak at Robin C, who (I felt) over-weighted this particular track in a recent posting.

  3. 3
    Chris Brown on 27 Aug 2006 #

    What I find odd is how few Bee Gees songs I actually know. This isn’t one of them. I suppose it’s because they carried on having new hits so far into my own lifetime.

  4. 4
    Doctor Mod on 28 Aug 2006 #

    The shoe fit and so I wore it . . .

    Chris, I find that little is said about the two seemingly separate career periods of the Bee Gees. What is remembered is the second period, the “Disco Bee Gees,” all high falsetto, chest hair, and white polyester–and vastly more successful commercially than their earlier incarnation. “Gotta Get a Message” is from the first period in which the Bee Gees were a quintet (a drummer and guitarist in addition to the Gibb brothers) who were at first promoted as a successor to the Beatles (the first of many, including Badfinger). Their lyrics were a bit obscure and imaginistic and thus confused with meaningfulness. Even then they seemed a bit twee–or, more kindly put, quaint. Because the group members couldn’t get along with one another (and their disputes, often reported with a great deal of soap opera dramatics, got a lot of attention in UK music press), they broke up (or nearly broke up) frequently. Their work became more and more self-indulgent and obscure, and they’d rather disappeared from the radar by 1970-71. Later they emerged, reformed and disco-fied, in the mid-70s, by which time many had forgotten their earlier (and much different) work. It’s only been in the past ten years or so that the earlier works have been “resurrected.”

    Further thoughts on my previous comment–I want to clarify that a song with this theme has the potential for making an anti-capital punishment statement, yet this song does no such thing. I actually gave it a listen–the first in a long time–and must conclude that the protagonist doesn’t protest his fate but actually accepts it as just punishment: “Well I did it to him / Now it’s my turn to die.”

  5. 5
    Chris Brown on 28 Aug 2006 #

    Yeah, that’s the sort of lines I was thinking along – obviously I knew they had all these hits back then, and I have actually heard ‘Mass’ often enough to know the chorus – but on the whole the Seventies material (and beyond; my personal memories of their music come mainly from the Eighties) has largely obliterated the earlier material from actually getting heard.

    The only song of theirs from this era that I know all the way through is ‘To Love Somebody’, and that of course is largely from other versions. There was a sort of Bee Gees revivial c. 1998 when they got their Brit Award and ITV sponsored a big tribute series/album and that was dominated by the white suit stuff.

  6. 6
    koganbot on 28 Aug 2006 #

    Mod OTM in regard to the fundamental irrelevance of the Bee Gees to any actual external zeitgeist – until, inexplicably, “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Tragedy,” where the zeitgeist swirled into them, emanated from them, reflected from them. And then, back to inconsequence. The thing about their early work is it was very good and then suddenly it wasn’t. The sentimental songs were basically white soul done with flair and agony, then suddenly they were replaced by insipid quavering sap. The Beatle harmonies were dramatic (don’t recall offhand what malarkey “Cucumber Castle” was about [though the alb is several feet away from me if I want to find out], but the harmonies left a shivery sting in the back of my neck), then it became mush. And then “Nights on Broadway” came, and they were good again. (Probably not so simple, but since I couldn’t stand the singles starting with “Massachusetts,” I never explored the associated albums.

  7. 7
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Aug 2006 #

    Odessa to be listened to urgent and key, also Mr Natural from ’74, the first record with Mardin producing, no hits but one of the great blue-eyed soul albums.

  8. 8
    bramble on 6 Sep 2006 #

    Its easy to forget how good some of the early Bee Gees stuff was. ‘To Love Somebody’ was covered by Nina Simone and Janis Joplin and Morning of My Life was a gem in the right hands (Esther Ofarim). I dont know if it was Maurice Gibb or a session player who played bass on Gotta Get a Message but its worth listening to just for that

  9. 9
    Alex K on 25 Dec 2006 #

    This is one of the most underrated sngs ever. Yhe fact they lyrics ae a little vague just makes the song more universal, like it could be about Nelson Mandella. Yhe melody is awesome and the vocals are great, even though the song lends itself to a thousand cover versions. If it was the only song they ever wrote and recorded, the Bee Gees would not be forgotten.

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Re 8: that’ll be Maurice on bass. He wasn’t much of a songwriter* compared to his brothers, but he was the best Macca-influenced bassist I can think of. Really melodic and upfront. He was also responsible for coming up with the ultra-compressed piano sound that was an early Gibb motif (notably on World, Words, and the title track of Horizontal).

    This song was written for Percy Sledge, apparently. Not sure why they thought a prison-related death disc would suit him. The Gibbs are really from another musical planet. Nothing ever makes much sense.

    * an exception is The Loner by the Bloomfields – gorgeous west coast harmony pop, and the theme from a REALLY BAD film starring Richard Harris as a legendary Israeli footballer.

  11. 11
    Mark G on 16 Mar 2011 #

    Believe me, I tried with “Odessa”.

    I decided I ‘quite liked’ side 2.

    Then, one day, putting it on, had to take it off after 2 mins.

    I do not like The Bee Gees. (although the single “World” is a keeper)

  12. 12
    wichita lineman on 17 Mar 2011 #

    I think Odessa is frequently sluggish; I want to pitchshift half the songs, or edit out a verse, or fade them early. The standouts (title track, First Of May, Lamplight, Melody Fair) are exceptional, but for the most part its grand ambition clouds the fact most of the songs are nothing like as strong as ones of the first three albums. Nicely fractious internecine lyrics (I Laugh In Your Face, Never Say Never Again) don’t save the day. Obv I still love it, Gibb nut that I am, but the velvet sleeve and crisis point for the Gibbs has made it their “Mojo story” album, generating more press than it probably deserves.

    Punctum, good call on Mr Natural. If Charade was a town I’d move there tomorrow.

  13. 13
    punctum on 17 Mar 2011 #

    What if anything is happening with reissuing Sing Slowly Sisters the Robin Gibb solo album that RG couldn’t even remember recording? There was an interview with the great man in Mojo around 2003 wherein he said he would definitely look into the matter but it hasn’t materialised in the CD racks yet. Nor, for that matter, has Robin’s Reign.

  14. 14
    Mark G on 17 Mar 2011 #

    It was “Marley Purt Drive” I particularly liked, which I believe also appeared on the charity disc “Nothing’s gonna change my world” which famously had the original mix version of “Across the Universe”

    I only mention it, because by gum! can you sing “Let it be” along with it? yes.

  15. 15
    wichita lineman on 17 Mar 2011 #

    Re 13: They seem to be more into random merch (a Bee Gees watch, complete with late 70s logo watchface? Ooh, lovely) than taking care of their catalogue these days. The deal with Rhino was rumoured to be netting them $1m a year, so it’s no surprise they were dropped and that no one else will pick them up. So not much chance of a deluxe Main Course yet, let alone Sing Slowly Sisters.

    As I may have mentioned before (I surely have), Robin Gibb had the first hit record with a drum machine on it – Saved By The Bell (no.2 in ’69), which Roy Wood described as the worst record of the year and a “put on” in the NME.

    You can probably sing half of Music From Big Pink over Marley Purt Drive as well.

  16. 16
    Moarie on 3 Jun 2012 #

    In lieu of providing concrete details of his cases, the narrator is walking to imminent death! That’s enough to turn most people into internal slobbering messes and pitching last pleas to some virginal mother figure in their lovies outside, than suddenly wearing Dylan-esque cojones to model their epithtes after Hurricane. Seriously? Who’d look to teenage blatherings (if talented teens) for sociological significance of 1968?
    My goodness, is musicology about measuring up to sticks than appreciating why someone’s creativity is fueled and nurtured by insularity that thrives on engaging in distilling experiences into abstractions, internalizing them (hence the unapologetic, polarizing stylization), whilst breathing in its own bubble of perfected formal details?
    A daft waste of breath that contributes nothing to society? Haven’t they always charged for stream of consciousness poetry or films (Inland Empire)?

  17. 17
    Jamie on 19 Jul 2013 #

    It’s about being on death row, nothing to do with the death sentence in the UK!

  18. 18
    lonepilgrim on 3 Jul 2016 #

    I do remember being quite overwhelmed by this as an 8 year old. The simplicity of the lyrics made it easy to comprehend and the melancholy mood and intense delivery made it immediately engaging. ‘Music from Big Pink’ featured ‘Long Black Veil’ which may well have served as a template for this but whereas the earlier song expresses a subdued fatalism this conveys an earnest sense of longing.

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