This isn’t the story I was going to write. I was watching a BBC program on the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I heard a sound that made me think of something else. “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, but not used for the album. It was the vocal track for “Strawberry Fields Forever” that struck me, and I thought about where I’d heard that sound before. Where was it…? (sound of harp strumming and wavy dissolve)
Ed Sullivan had landed in London one afternoon in late 1963 and was amazed by the thousands of screaming teenagers who’d come to the airport to welcome home a rock group. Okay, he’d seen mobs at an Elvis show, but… the airport? In England? Always attuned to potential bookings for his show, Sullivan asked about them, then booked them for the following February, and so many teens tuned in to the Sullivan show that night that it set viewing records that weren’t beaten until M*A*S*H went off the air.
I think you have to understand the context. The context was everything because the music was everything as 1964 saw the first wave of the British Invasion. The Beatles had opened the floodgates and many bands that followed were good, some were great, and almost all of them were exciting. But the Beatles led the pack and for a period they had the top five positions on the singles charts, a feat never since duplicated. Everyone at my school and everyone at every other school knew about them. The Beatles were something important, they were coming, and we all got the memo, which was: Watch! And 73 million people did.
(And parents started freaking out. If you’ll allow me a brief digression: At my school soon after the Beatles’ first appearance on the Sullivan show, Little Bill Miller was a junior and had hair maybe a quarter-inch over his ear until the Vice Principal, Mr. Canosa (remember him, Abbi?) came into Little Bill’s Social Studies class and took him downtown to the barber shop and paid for his haircut. Yup, that happened, and it was starting to happen all over America. And yes, there was a Big Bill, he was a senior.)
Their first album released here was “Meet The Beatles.” The music was poppy and excellent, but then the experimentation started with Rubber Soul, and we kept up. At that point anything could happen. We studied the covers of their albums, we listened carefully, looking for clues and hidden gems. The Beatles were playful and we paid attention. By Rubber Soul, album cuts had our interest rather than the singles. We were all smoking pot and some were taking LSD, and if you looked at their recent photos, they were, too. We heard about them on the news and in the music mags, and we paid attention. We were all up-to-date with whatever news came out, but after Revolver, there hadn’t been any news. None. Total blackout. We knew they were in the studio, we knew they were getting more “out there” and we wanted to go with them, but it was taking a long time. And that was it. If you think the anticipation over the newest iPhone is intense, you have no idea. We had grown, and to some measureable extent, they had led the way. We wanted more; we were starved for new Beatles material. To say we waited for their next release doesn’t do justice to our interest. We were avid collectors of Beatles news and rumors; we traded them and discussed them. Some of us were perfervid, man!
In August of 1966, The Beatles had upped the strangeness with Revolver, whose singles were “Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby” only one record on sides A & B. Then nothing for seven months! We were waiting. And then they put out “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” and we settled in for another long wait until another song hit the radio waves. It had to be the Beatles, but no one was saying who it was. But- just listen! The vocal on “Strawberry Fields Forever” sounded like it was recorded in a cave, and so did this one! It had to be the Beatles- but the DJs said they didn’t know who it was, and all they told us was that the record had come in with a blank label with only “BG” on it. Speculation was rife that BG stood for Beatles Group. They liked to play with us, remember? And it sounded like them! And then we heard that the group was managed by Brian Epstein, who everyone knew was the manager of the Beatles!. And it was a bit eerie, so yeah, it had to be the Beatles. Who else could it be? The song was “New York Mining Disaster, 1941.”
This is what happened: Ever hear of Robert Stigwood? He produced music and later, films, and he was a very big deal in 1966, which was when the Beatles stopped touring. In 1967, Stigwood made a management deal with Brian Epstein and used his connections and his PR wiles to introduce his new group from Australia. BG was the Bee Gees, which we later found out stood for the Brothers Gibb, and you know all about them now.
So in 1967 the culture had formed around the music and we were letting our hair grow, smoking pot, decorating our rooms with psychedelic posters and all the rest, and we listened to the underground, free-form radio station that played the hip new music. It was ritualistic, it really was. Music was our religion and songs were our mantras; radio was the soundtrack and albums were the doctrines we studied. We were serious about it, so when we heard this new song…
Everyone listened to it, studied it, sang it, and wondered who it was. It was a huge mystery. Yeah, we talked about it! It was a brilliant strategy, friends, and this was how everyone in America met the Bee Gees, who most people now only know from their disco days. Everyone knows them now, and “New York Mining Disaster, 1941” was their first American release. They followed it with some wonderful music that I hope you know- songs like “I Can’t See Nobody,” “To love Somebody” and “Holiday.” But this was about their first release and how they did it.
Robin Gibb recalled: "We recorded this at London's IBC studio because it was dark and emulated a mining shaft. The result was a very lonely sound.” Barry and Robin Gibb wrote the song while sitting on a darkened staircase following a power cut, and the echo of the passing elevator inspired them to imagine that they were trapped in a mine. The song recounts the story of a miner trapped in a cave-in. He is sharing a photo of his wife with a colleague while they wait to be rescued. According to the liner notes for their box-set Tales from the Brothers Gibb (1990), this song was inspired by the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in Wales. According to Robin, there actually had also been a mining disaster in New York in 1939, but not in 1941.
The song begins in the chord of A minor; but as Maurice Gibb explained: "There's a lot of weird sounds on this song like the Jew's harp, the string quartet, and of course the special way that Barry plays that guitar chord. Because of his tuning when he plays the minor at the beginning of the song which is different from a conventional A minor, it's a nice mixture when I play my conventional tuning together with Barry's tuning because his open D and mine are different." Barry said, "It's Hawaiian tuning, there they play the same way I do. I got a guitar for my ninth birthday and the guy who lived across the road from us just came back from Hawaii and he was the one who taught me that tuning, that's how it started and I never changed.”
Maurice Gibb recalled: "The opening chord doesn't sound like a conventional A minor. Barry was using the open D tuning he'd been taught when he was nine, and I was playing it in conventional tuning. It gives an unusual blend. People went crazy trying to figure out why they couldn't copy it.”
Robin Gibb said: "...all the DJs on radio stations in the US picked it up immediately thinking it was the Beatles, and it was a hit on that basis. It established us in those early years. It helped our following record which was nothing like the Beatles.”
- Paul McCartney said: "It was the 'Mining Disaster' song that [manager Robert Stigwood] played me. I said 'sign them, they're great!' And they went on to be even greater.”
- The 1969 David Bowie song "Space Oddity" owes a debt to the style, arrangement and lyrics of "New York Mining Disaster, 1941." Like that song, "Space Oddity" is about a trapped man who is doomed to die, and the song is similarly structured as a series of statements addressed to another person. "'Space Oddity' was a Bee Gees type song," Bowie’s colleague John "Hutch" Hutchinson has said. "David knew it, and he said so at the time. The way he sang it, it’s a Bee Gees thing. As Marc Bolan (T. Rex) explained: "I remember David playing me 'Space Oddity' in his room and I loved it and he said he needed a sound like the Bee Gees, who were very big then."
- Atco retitled the song "New York Mining Disaster, 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones?)" to make sure people could find it in the shops.
- When a music magazine reported "widespread rumors" that this song had been written by Lennon and McCartney, Robin Gibb said, "Rubbish! We've always written our own songs. I've been writing since I was ten, before Lennon and McCartney were even on stage. People can say what they like. If they don't believe us, they can ask The Beatles."
- The song is unusual in that the lyrics do not contain the song's title, though the originally planned title, "Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones," does appear in the chorus.
- Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison met Maurice Gibb at a party several years later, and told him that he had bought a copy of "New York Mining Disaster, 1941" because he thought it sounded so much like The Beatles. Maurice's response to Harrison was that the resemblance "was unintentional" and Harrison said, "I knew that, I admire your work.”
- Barry Gibb explained about this song: "If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles. And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was The Beatles under a different name.
- Bassist Maurice Gibb, though, had previously said that "New York Mining Disaster, 1941" was in fact influenced by the Beatles, said, "New York Mining Disaster, 1941" was a total rip-off of The Beatles, we were so influenced by them. In fact it started a mystery [in the USA] about us, because they started playing [it] and saying, 'They're this new group from England that begins with a B and finished with an s' so they all said, 'Ah, it's The Beatles, not naming it, they're doing that trick again.' The disc jockey would play it and play it and play it and, 'Guess who it is?' and people would guess, and they wouldn't get the answer. To us it was an honor, to actually think we were as good as The Beatles.
- Gibb also said the success of this song owes a lot more to the perseverance of Robert Stigwood than he has previously been given credit for. "We had quite a hard time at getting the Bee Gees played. We weren't all totally convinced that Stigwood was picking the right song to plug, but at the end of the day, he was a forceful character. All of these guys were... Chas Chandler (manager of Jimi Hendrix) was the same, Kit Lambert (manager of The Who) was the same. They all argued their case with passion, you know, they lived it, they were like that."
- For fun, here are The Bee Gees in 1963 singing “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
Bee Gees “Time’s Passing By” from 1960.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.