The Bee Gees are remembered today for Saturday Night Fever, and thumping 4/4 disco sung in a manic falsetto by guys in white suits in the late 70s. But that was a second act for the Brothers Gibb, who had shone in the 60s as a sort of Anglo-Australian answer to the Beatles, propelled along by superbly melodic tunes that seemed like ersatz Lennon-McCartney at the time, and now sound, from the perspective of this tuneless age of one note verses and rhythmic talking, like the siren songs of a lost golden age.
Massachusetts is a perennial favourite, and I think their best composition. It was written as a reaction to one-hit-wonder Scott McKenzie’s 1967 San Francisco, the really rather lovely tribute (penned by friend John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas) to the supposed hippie utopia then growing organically around the environs of the world famous Haight-Ashbury intersection, where peace and love were said to be ushering in a new golden age in which the pure Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was in the process of being realized. Well, not so much, as it turned out. When George Harrison made the pilgrimage in the summer of ‘67, he was appalled to find nothing but dishevelled LSD junkies lying around in the littered, dirty streets, strung out, filthy, hungry, and clueless. Before that ugly reality set in, though, it seemed like everybody dreamed of going to San Francisco, where flower children would likely meet the weary travellers at the airport and guide them to the promised land astride unicorns, while they strummed their guitars, and sang of truth, kindness, and justice.
The Bee Gees, perhaps ahead of the pack in intuiting the inevitably more down to earth reality, imagined a disillusioned visitor growing homesick amid the revelry, and longing to return to the East Coast state of Massachusetts, a place they’d never been, where they imagined the lights going out as the whole population went the opposite way in a mass exodus to California. It’s a timeless premise: fun is fun, but all dreamy interludes have to end, and the lure of home is powerful.
It’s said that at first the brothers didn’t intend to sing it, having written it instead for the now all but forgotten Seekers, but for one reason or another good sense overcame them and they recorded it themselves. In the result they achieved their first UK No. 1 while going to the very top in countries all over the globe, and breaking into the American market by reaching 11th spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It sold over five million copies. They were to reach ever more dizzying heights in the years that followed, finally becoming so ubiquitous that they all but singlehandedly spawned a countercultural backlash against well-crafted pop music in general, and Disco in particular, but after it was all over, and they joined what some would have called the “nostalgia circuit”, Massachusetts was always one of the first that audiences wanted to hear. It still would be I’d wager, except sadly, over fifty years on, only Barry now remains. He’s got a new album out, titled Greenfields, in which he revisits the catalogue in collaboration with various artists, but Massachusetts isn’t on it, and I can’t imagine why, or why Alison Krauss, who duets with him on Too Much Heaven, didn’t lobby for it. If it was my song, boy, I’d never let the world forget it.