As a group, they were never easy to pigeonhole. They were never part of the psychedelic underground but early songs like New York Mining Disaster 1941 were quirky enough to set them apart from the run-of-the-mill pop. Likewise, whilst Robin Gibb could, for a while, sport some of the longest hair around with his Charles 11 at court look, big brother Barry sat at the other end of the sartorial spectrum with his then ‘man at C&A’ image, According to a Melody Maker poll of pop stars in the run-up to the 1970 election, he was also one of only two artists quizzed to admit supporting the Tories and Ted Heath (the other, rather bizarrely, being Vincent Crane, mainstay of Atomic Rooster and ex-organist with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown).
What set them a cut or six above most groups was the song writing skills that put the Gibb brothers firmly up in the musical elite. Even at this stage in their career, To Love Somebody had been covered by Janis Joplin and Nina Simone and Esther and Abi Ofarim had done the definitive cover of Morning of My Life. (The success of this, it must be said, was largely Esther’s. Abi’s contribution to that musical partnership seemed largely to consist of sometimes off-key harmonies and an irritating line in stage patter).
Though not perhaps one of their finest songs, Massachusetts was the Bee Gees' first Number One, knocking Englebert Humperdink’s The Last Waltz off the top spot. Like many of their songs at that time it had a simple folk-type melody, surrounded by a lush orchestration, and, like New York Mining Disaster 1941, a sketchy ambivalent lyric open to interpretation. Why was the song’s author trying to get to San Francisco? Was he hoping to see, as the Flowerpot Men had just suggested, in Lets Go to San Francisco, sunny people walking hand in hand and flowers growing to the sky? Was he really expecting to hitch a ride for the 2700 miles it was from Massachusetts? That would be like standing at the Hammersmith Flyover and hoping to thumb a lift to Tehran. Why did the lights all go out? Was this a reference to the Northeast Blackout of November 1965 when the electricity in a number of northern states, including Massachusetts, was cut off for several hours? If so, though, he would have been two years early for the Summer of Love in San Francisco.
In a sense, of course, it is not a song about an actual place at all and could have been about anywhere. Despite what the lyric says, the Gibbs had not been to Massachusetts at that point of time and the word was chosen because they liked the sound of it. In this, Massachusetts was in a different genre to Waterloo Sunset, which was a lyrical sketch of a real place and time. This, nominally about somewhere specific, was about a ‘placeless place’, more to do with feelings than geography. It was also important that it was American. As Robin Gibb explained, ‘There is always something magic about American place names. It only works with British names if you do it as a folk song’.
The choice, however, was interesting. It may have been stuffed with American history and heritage but to the average British person, Massachusetts was a blank canvas. Mention New York, Chicago, Mississippi, the Rocky Mountains, even San Jose, in a song and the listener would have some shared image - even if it was based on fantasy - of what the place was like. When Gladys Knight sang Midnight Train to Georgia, a string of films from Gone with the Wind to Deliverance provided a mental picture of what Georgia might be like. Massachusetts, however, remained unexplored territory. Boston, maybe Harvard, might conjure up associations. Nantucket might strike a chord with readers of Moby Dick, or alternatively, with those viewers of Weekend World who recognised the theme tune as Mountain’s 1970 tour-de-force, Nantucket Sleighride. What, however, did Massachusetts itself signify?
I thought of this on a trip to Massachusetts and found Robin Gibbs’ tremulous vibrato echoing in my head as I saw the roadside signs signifying that Massachusetts was indeed one place I had been. Whether there is one place that typifies Massachusetts, I doubt. For the short time I was here, however, that place could have been Walden Pond near Concord, where the writer and anarchist Henry Thoreau resided in a cottage in the woods for two years in the 1840’s in an experiment of simple living. Walking round the waters that reflected the hues of the New England foliage it was possible still to get a sense of the seclusion and the ebb and flow of seasons that drew Thoreau there. In that setting, Massachusetts fitted. ‘Going back to Massachusetts’ was like the Green Green Grass of Home or Rubert Brooke’s Grantchester, a place - real or imagined - that the author idealises as home.
The Bee Gees always ploughed their own furrow and opting for Massachusetts over San Francisco in 1967 was not untypical of their perspective. Often, other artists did better covers of their works than they did themselves. Massachusetts was reportedly written with the Seekers and Judith Durham in mind but in this case, the Bee Gees take on it fitted the sense of loss and return perfectly. It is a mark of their songwriting skills that they could write a song about a place they hadn’t seen which the listener could then take and fit to the place when they did see it.
Link to song
Link to song