THE ONE-EYED FAN IN THE BUTCHER’S STOREROOMThe Bee Gees at Ossie Byrne’s St. Clair Recording Studio, 56 Queens Rd., Hurstville
The Bee Gees are now regarded as one of the great phenomena of popular music. The most successful group to ever come from Australia, they are reputed to have sold 110 million records, over 20 million copies of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack alone. However, the eight years that the English show-biz brothers spent in Australia weren’t nearly as profitable. They were once so broke they couldn’t even afford guitar strings. What follows is the story of how a one-eyed fan working in a butcher’s storeroom in suburban Hurstville helped change their fortunes.
It’s early 1966 and the Bee Gees are still serving a gruelling apprenticeship. There’s the occasional concert and TV appearance, and there’s the more usual treadmill of clubs, RSL’s and beer-barns. They’ve issued 9 failed singles. Hip fans give them no respect. They’re called Beatle imitators, young upstarts, whingeing Poms. Life could be better. Their Leedon Records contract has been taken over by Spin Records, a new independent label owned by Australian Consolidated Press, plus four directors of Everybody’s magazine, and Sydney entrepreneur, Harry M. Miller. Heading Spin Records is an American, Nat Kipner, songwriter, record and TV producer, and WW2 U.S. Airforce veteran. He’d worked in Aircorps Supply (81st Air Group) based in Finchaven, New Guinea.
Kipner takes the Bee Gees to the small St. Clair Recording Studio in Queens Road, Hurstville. The studio is a converted storeroom behind a butcher’s shop. The shop itself is used as the studio office. It’s been operating for less than a year, mainly recording Sydney beat groups and suburban R’n’B bands. Like Sam Phillips’ fabled Sun Studio in Memphis c.1954, St. Clair features two mono recorders. While hardly state of the art for 1966, St. Clair is serviceable and cheap. Even better, it is run by one of their biggest fans.
Soon the Bee Gees are given free run of the studio when it’s not booked. Twins Maurice and Robin Gibb begin composing songs, just like their big brother, Barry. Some of these songs will eventually provide singles or album tracks for other Australian artists. Meanwhile, the Bee Gees’ bad luck continues. Everybody’s reports on 20 July 1966 – "The Bee Gees’ new disc, "Monday’s Rain", has been barred by every radio station in Sydney on the grounds that the Bee Gees are not original enough. Surely they’re joking!…The Bee Gees for heavens’ sake write their own material." Make that 10 failed singles. Yes indeed, life could be better.
Despite the setbacks, the Bee Gees have staunch allies. First and foremost, the Gibb family itself works tirelessly for the group’s success. Secondly, fellow performers like Col Joye, Ronnie Burns and Jimmy Little record Gibb songs, and talk up their talents in interviews. Thirdly, Spin Records and Nat Kipner continue to nurture the precocious trio. And then there’s Ossie Byrne.
Ossie Byrne is their fan who runs the St. Clair studio. Ossie is 40 years old. His full name is Oswald Russell Byrne, and he was born in Queanbeyan, NSW, in 1926. He’s from a musical family, the youngest of nine children. His mother played concertina, his brother Geoff plays cornet and sings light opera. Ossie taught himself piano, and also played cornet in a municipal band. The Byrne family lived on the Oakes Estate in Canberra. The large Byrne family had it tough during the Depression, and like many others in Australia, received help from the Salvation Army. It was in a Salvo brass band that Ossie learned to play trumpet. Both he and Geoff attended Queanbeyan High. Ossie eventually relocated to Wollongong in the mid-1950s. Here he built his first small recording studio in his home in Tarrawanna. Ossie loves pop, jazz, rock’n’roll, all types of music, but mostly pop.
Ossie Byrne believes the Bee Gees are the most original band in Australia. He tells 18 year-old Barry and the 16 year-old twins to keep recording, keep writing songs. Persistence will bring more results than luck. Ossie knows about luck. When Ossie was 18, he’d been in the RAAF; like Nat Kipner, he’d been stationed in New Guinea. Ossie had been badly injured. He lost an eye. His war traumas are never mentioned. For a party trick, he’ll sometimes pop out the glass marble from his eye-socket and ghoulishly wink. Too right Ossie Byrne knows about luck. He knows he’s lucky to be alive. After the war he’d played piano with groups in Canberra and Sydney. Before moving to Wollongong, he’d worked as a finance officer in Rockdale, still playing in bands at night, sometimes with old service mates.
In late 1961, Ossie helps manage a local instrumental group called the Del-Fi’s. He records some of their material in his Wollongong home studio. The Del-Fi’s provide back-up for visiting vocalists, like Dig Richards, George Johnston and Averill Trotter. The Del-Fi's bass player, Jim Steedman, recalls, "In June 1965 Leedon Records issued a single of us backing Wollongong singer, Derek Lee. It was recorded at Festival studios. Later that year Ossie moved up to Sydney, and we didn't see him again."
Another of the visiting singers is the young British-born Trevor Gordon. He’d been a schoolmate of the Gibb brothers in Brisbane. By 1965, Trevor will have recorded several of Barry Gibb’s songs. In 1969, back in Britain, Trevor Gordon will team up with Graham Bonnett to form The Marbles. The Marbles will have an international hit with yet another Gibb composition, Only one woman.
Throughout June and July 1966, the Bee Gees virtually take up residence in Ossie Byrne’s St. Clair studio in Hurstville. Ossie produces most of these all night recording sessions, some are in tandem with Nat Kipner, while other sessions see the Bee Gees themselves take the controls. Ossie strikes up a friendship with Hughie Gibb, the boys’ father and manager. They discuss Ossie taking over the group’s co-manager role from Nat Kipner. Ossie looks the part – he’s a service veteran, a one-time JP, quiet and self-deprecating. The boys themselves treat Ossie something like a father-figure. The age difference between himself and the Gibb boys doesn’t bother him. If anything, it unites him with their ambitions. At 18 Ossie was old enough to be in uniform. Who’s to say these kids aren’t old enough to be in the charts?
June 1966 sees the emergence of the Down Under record company, believed to be Ossie’s own imprint label distributed through Festival records. Down Under operates from June to October 1966, and releases 13 singles, all recorded at the St. Clair Studio. Nat Kipner wrote many of the songs issued on Down Under; some of the other releases are written by Barry Gibb, or Maurice Gibb in collaboration with Nat. Ann Shelton’s delightful "I miss you" features the Bee Gees as backing band, and credits Nat Kipner and Ossie Byrne as the writers.
Three quarters of the way through 1966, the Bee Gees’ perseverance starts to pay off. Everybody’s magazine reports on the 10th of August that Barry Gibb & the Bee Gees have won the Adelaide radio station 5KA’s talent award for the best Australian composition for "I was a lover, a leader of men." It had been one of their failed singles from the previous year. Despite the award, Hughie Gibb continues preparations to take his family back to England.
Yet another Bee Gees single appears. It’s from those sessions held in June and July. Kiwi songstress, Dinah Lee, says, "At first the boys had been unsure whether the song suited them, so they offered it to me." She’d been prepared to record it but, after discussions with Nat and Ossie, the Bee Gees release it themselves. The new single is a ballad, paradoxically with a strong dance beat. It prominently features the St. Clair studio piano, a one-time pianola that’s had the roll ripped out. The piano riffs obsessively behind lyrics drenched in alienation, despair, heartbreak and loss, but as the song shifts up through its key changes, it allows Barry Gibb’s vocal to end with a triumphant rallying call. "Spicks and specks, Spicks and specks", he cries, soulfully but somewhat enigmatically. The song says yes, determination can defeat anguish, but that splendid and steely resolve just might increase your isolation. It’s a great record, one of the best Australian singles. Would it be their 11th dud in a row?
Spin Records release the latest Bee Gees single, "Spicks and Specks", in September 1966. On September 28th, it sneaks into the Sydney charts at number 38. It will go on to spend 19 weeks in the Sydney Top 40, and peak at number 3. Elsewhere in Australia it becomes a number one seller. The song’s impact is so great that the Melbourne based Go-Set magazine names it their "Best Record of the Year". It’s released internationally in late February 1967, and becomes their first European hit.
Ossie travelled with the Gibb family to England on the SS Fairsky. Even before they arrived in Southampton in February 1967, Ossie’s skills with mono recorders were passe. The London scene had moved on to stereophonic mixes and multi-track recording facilities. Consider Abbey Road Studios, London, where the Beatles were creating their Sgt Peppers LP:
"Sgt. Peppers was recorded on 1 inch 4 tracks and it was 2 or 3 machines running at a time to make Sgt Peppers, and they had amazing outboard gear, like old tube compressors, and George Martin was at the helm, he was cutting acetates and lining things up, it was a BIG DEAL." - Benjamin Gibbard, from US band Death Cab for Cutie.
Ossie had no formal training in sound engineering, and no experience with the new multi-tracking technology. He had to learn as he went along. While he learned, so did the Bee Gees. For the ambitious Gibb brothers it must have been a strange situation. Ossie was a family friend, as well as the group’s mentor and guide. However, like the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees were aiming to produce themselves.
In the month after the Beatles unveiled Sgt Peppers, the Bee Gees released their First LP in England on 14 July 1967. Colin Peterson, then the Bee Gees’ drummer, said these were "fantastic sessions in the studio…very, very inventive". The LP showed the band experimenting extensively with orchestrated arrangements, and tackling a diverse range of song subjects. Ossie’s production showed little evidence of any technical inadequacy. The sound was warm, even lush on occasions. On some cuts the orchestration approaches symphonic, yet always the voices, the harmonies and melodies, are the central focus, beautifully framed by Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys’ fine arrangements.
The Bee Gees’ First was a step forward in every facet of the Bee Gees’ development. As you’d expect, the London studio had resulted in a more polished sound than at Hurstville. As for the songs, most were as good as "Spicks and Specks", in some cases, such as "To love somebody", "I can’t see nobody" and "New York Mining Disaster 1941", they were even better. The harmonies were more intricate, the lead vocals more confident. It was a wonderful record, a triumph. By the end of the year it would be a Top 10 seller in the USA, England and Germany. In one delightful swoop they were no longer Beatles pretenders. They were peers. However, it would take them nearly a decade and their Main Course LP of 1975 before they would once again make an LP as consistently satisfying as their First.