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The Bee gees: Staying alive and being uncool

Has history been fair to the Bee Gees? Long accused of cultural theft, arrogance and – worst of all – naffness, they risk being remembered as a pastiche. But behind the band’s baggage SOPHIA DEBOICK discovers a far more complex legacy

When Barry Gibb donned a gold lamé jacket thrown on stage at the conclusion of his Sunday afternoon ‘legends’ slot at Glastonbury this year, it was a bittersweet moment.

The performance crowned five decades in the business, but he was appearing without his late brothers, twins Robin and Maurice. The crowd’s adoption of joke shop disco props and the security staff’s synchronised dance moves to Stayin’ Alive underscored how 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, and a pastiche of disco, has come to define the Bee Gees’ whole career.

But that record was only one chapter in a chequered history for a band that often saw success despite themselves and whose lows were as spectacular as their highs.

As we pass the 50th anniversary of the Bee Gees’ first No. 1, Massachusetts, the ‘kings of white disco’ image that has consolidated around them must be challenged, exposing a band of contradictions.

The Gibb brothers were only teenagers when they first met with success, but they wrote and recorded songs of staggering maturity. They were never cool but are one the best-selling acts of all time. And while they had a reputation for being arrogant and egotistical, they always let the star shine in their extensive work for other artists.

The Gibb brothers sang their way out of poverty, and it left them with a massive chip on their shoulder. The Gibb family had shipped out from post-war, poverty-stricken Manchester to Australia in 1958 as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ on the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, but found life was little better there. Their ex-drummer father moved from job to job and became a less than supportive manager to the boys, as their virtuoso singing talent and Barry’s innate feel for songcraft saw them become the family breadwinners.

Their novel, close harmony act had gained traction on the Australian club circuit, but by 1967 – with Barry aged 20 and the twins just 17 – it was clear Britain was the place to be if you wanted a music career. Ironically, their fun proto-Monkees single Spicks and Specks (amazingly, their eleventh) reached No. 3 in Australia as they were on the boat for England. But in London they would meet Robert Stigwood, and their career would really begin.

As a London talent agent, Stigwood had been behind Joe Meek’s eerie Johnny Remember Me, sung by his actor client John Leyton, which had been a No. 1 hit in 1961. He had acquired part of Brian Epstein’s management company, managed Cream, and would later produce era-defining musicals, starting with Hair. The ultimate music business Svengali, his fortunes would be tied to the Gibb brothers’ for the next 25 years.

The Bee Gees signed with Stigwood in early 1967, landing slap bang in the middle of Swinging London. The release of seminal albums by The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, as well as Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour made it the year of psychedelia.

Indeed, The Beatles’ sonic blueprint was the Bee Gees’ lodestar, and Stigwood showed no more imagination in promoting them in that vein. Their first UK single, April’s New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones?) was about the most unlikely title for a hit single imaginable, and although the early 1960s had seen a trend for songs about death and disaster, that was then passé. But as a folky take on the sound of The Beatles, complete with an Eleanor Rigby-esque cello, it went Top 20 in both the US and UK.

They debuted on Top of the Pops in May and released the LP Bee Gees 1st the following month. The album was a mixed bag stylistically, but the psychedelic cover by Klaus Voormann, designer of The Beatles’ Revolver, indicated their intentions and they would grasp at psychedelic authenticity on their albums for years to come.

Yet, typical of their contradictory nature, this overblown, Beatles-informed album fayre contrasted with their ability to produce simple and original ballads. September’s Massachusetts was their breakthrough, getting to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and they finished the year by turning on the Carnaby Street Christmas lights. In less than a year they had truly arrived.

The following year they did it all over again. Rolling Stone complained of their Horizontal LP ‘The Bee Gees are to the Beatles as Cliff Richard was to Elvis Presley’, but they also released the unmistakable classic ballad Words. August’s I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, written and sung by Robin, was another UK No. 1, despite making a prisoner on death row its protagonist – a classic example of the band over-reaching in their attempts at profundity.

But the rest of the decade became fraught. A US tour was abandoned due to poor ticket sales and Stigwood, then working on The Who’s rock opera Tommy, steered the band into 1969’s Odessa, a double concept album based on a fictional 1899 shipwreck.

The album’s 19th century references came off as odd (witness Edison: ‘He made electric lights to read/ He gave us light today’), and it lost its way as the brothers’ relationship started to break down. Barry and Robin were the alpha and omega – one, the best-looking Gibb by a country mile and with a birthright to dominance as the older brother, the other with a puerile streak, his highly-strung nature aggravated by his amphetamine addiction – and they fought constant battles for supremacy.

The laid-back Maurice – who did a lot of the donkey work as the group’s natural musician – was caught in the middle, even as he had his own problems to deal with, spiralling into alcoholism and beginning his ill-fated marriage to Lulu. Robin jumped ship, legal battles ensued, and his hit solo single, Saved by the Bell, duelled in the charts with Barry and Maurice’s Don’t Forget to Remember.

The remaining duo made an attempt at a Beatles-style surreal knockabout comedy with the TV special accompanying their Cucumber Castle LP, but they lacked the Fab Four’s likability and comic timing. The disastrous floatation of the Robert Stigwood Organisation on the stock market almost ruined the brothers financially, and Robin rejoined in the summer of 1970.

Their fortunes would pick up briefly. The single Lonely Days (1970) was a global hit and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (1971) was their first US No. 1 single. But the characteristically awkwardly-titled album A Kick in the Head is Worth Eight in the Pants never got an official release, their label pulling the plug on it. By early 1974 they were reduced to playing the northern club circuit. They couldn’t have fallen further.

When Atlantic brought in their in-house producer Arif Mardin to work with the group on their next album, Mr Natural, it was the beginning of the rest of their career.

Mardin was a producer with genuine soul credentials, having produced Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Wilson Pickett, and he was in the process of giving the Average White Band a similarly authentic sound.

The album made a shaky move towards a more R&B-inflected feel, but it charted at an abysmal 178 in the US charts. By the end of the year it was clear that they needed a major change in direction if they were going to survive.

They began working at Miami’s Criteria Studios with Mardin and engineer Karl Richardson. Becoming immersed in American musical influences by virtue of the move to Florida, the brothers wrote Jive Talkin’. With an R&B sound, synth bass line and fashionable reference to African American street talk (which, by their own admission, they didn’t really fully grasp), the brothers had made a decisive break with the past.

The single’s press release faced the bias against them in the industry head on, saying desperately that as this was something completely new ‘please pretend it’s not them’.

The album Main Course, released in the summer of 1975, opened with Nights on Broadway, the first song on which Barry took his voice up an octave into a high falsetto. While the album did well commercially, Rolling Stone accused it of being ‘offensively co-optive’ and putting the band ‘in blackface’, and it indeed borrowed from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Kool and the Gang and Sly Stone.

In a 1999 interview Barry would say ‘With Main Course we started to turn black… or blacker. A healthy shade of brown’, and accusations of cultural theft would only increase with their work of the following two years, even as they were catapulted to the status of legends and, previously always a step behind, became the popular face of the sound of the zeitgeist.

In 1976 the Bee Gees finally went disco. A switch to young producer Albhy Galuten for September 1976’s Children of the World spawned You Should Be Dancing. As well as containing the extreme and abrasive falsetto that became the band’s signature, the bass line of the song, with a doubling of every eighth note that was first heard on Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People (1969), was a clear stylistic trademark of disco.

The song was so infectious, it was no surprise that it became a No. 1 record in the US. But other tracks on the album, like Boogie Child, drew accusations this white band we’re crudely imitating black groups.

Whatever the ethics, the album went platinum across north America, where disco was already a commercial genre, as evidenced by the success of much younger Gibb brother, Andy, who had three consecutive Barry-penned US No. 1s as a blonde disco heartthrob in 1977-78.

Disco had originated in late 1960s and early 1970s New York and Philadelphia, emerging from the underground and the marginalised; it was gay and it was black.

Funk, latin and soul played at loft and warehouse parties morphed into its own genre and was transposed into high-end clubs. Between mid-1975’s Love to Love You Baby and mid-1977’s I Feel Love, Donna Summer had taken disco big, and when British music journalist Nik Cohn wrote a piece for New York magazine in June 1976 titled ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ if lifted the lid on the idea of an underground Brooklyn disco scene (in fact, he was fresh off the boat and based the whole thing on the earlier mod culture back home).

This article would propel the profile of the genre, however, when Robert Stigwood saw the basis of a film in the theme of a competitive working class youth culture which provides an escape from the realities of life, and set the Bee Gees to work on the soundtrack.

The Château d’Hérouville, on the outskirts of Paris, was an incongruous location to make a disco record, its elegant gloom more suited to David Bowie’s recently concluded Low sessions. However, its austere dilapidation, with no mod cons, focussed the Gibbs into producing a career-defining work.

Stayin’ Alive was the stand-out track, its guitar riff and claim to contain one of the earliest drum loops – an innovation brought to the sessions by Galuten and Richardson – making it completely distinctive.

It was memorably brash, infectiously danceable and sufficiently pop to have wide appeal. When the gritty Saturday Night Fever appeared in cinemas in December 1977, the song playing over the opening sequence of John Travolta’s Tony Manero strutting through Brooklyn swinging a paint can, it was perhaps their one genuinely cool moment.

Stayin’ Alive was an international smash single and the soundtrack album sold 25 million copies before the end of the decade. It was the biggest-selling record ever until Thriller and the best-selling soundtrack album until The Bodyguard. The record also featured work by other artists, like The Trammps’ Disco Inferno and KC and the Sunshine Band’s Boogie Shoes, but the Bee Gees’ contribution was a microcosm of their enduring strengths. How Deep is Your Love confirmed their mastery of the ballad, while If I Can’t Have You by Yvonne Elliman and More Than a Woman by Tavares confirmed their ability to write successful songs for other artists.

The Bee Gees were the acceptably white face of disco for a mainstream audience, just as the Manero character made the genre intensely heterosexual. But if this was plastic disco, stripped of its roots, it didn’t succeed in entirely whitewashing it. By the summer of 1979 disco was still perceived by white rock fans as black and gay, and the notorious ‘disco sucks’ campaign culminated in the blowing up of a pyre of records at a Chicago White Sox game, subsequently known as Disco Demolition Night. That the Bee Gees could be caught up in such genuine controversy was probably what made this the most exceptional point of their career,

The Gibb brothers’ story from then on was hardly one of unalloyed success, however. They were always keen to get into film, and although their involvement with Lou Reizner’s critically-mauled All This and World War II (1976), an ill-conceived anti-war film that married vintage newsreels to Beatles songs covered by artists of the day, had done little for their career, they were enthusiastic about Stigwood’s planned film version of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It all should have gone well. George Martin was producing the soundtrack and Stigwood had produced successful film rock musicals, including Tommy (1975), which was to be the film’s template. But Tommy had had Ken Russell’s visionary direction, Roger Daltrey’s charisma and was not trying to shoehorn old material into a shaky narrative, and the Sgt Pepper’s film was a disaster.

Originally promised a starring role, the Gibb brothers found themselves thoroughly usurped by the casting of the younger and prettier Peter Frampton, who was extremely hot property, his Frampton Comes Alive! having been the runaway hit album of 1976.

They spent most of the film following him around with no obvious purpose and the appalling script, lack of acting talent and dodgy soundtrack added up to catastrophe, despite an $18 million budget and the inclusion of big acts like Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Earth, Wind & Fire. On its July 1978 release many reviews called it the worst film ever made, Robin Gibb branded it ‘The biggest load of shit ever’ and it did massive damage to Frampton’s career.

But the ignominious failure of the film could hardly change that fact that the Bee Gees had gone stratospheric with Saturday Night Fever and 1979’s Spirits Having Flown would be their most successful studio album to date, containing the hit Tragedy, which melded Giorgio Moroder’s electronic disco with ABBA’s melodrama.

Meanwhile, Barry wrote the title track for Stigwood’s Grease, the brothers got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a mammoth 1979 tour saw them in their pomp, travelling in their own customised Boeing 707. A greatest hits album released as that tour ended was a US number 1. This was their final hurrah, however.

A legal battle with Stigwood over unpaid royalties opened the 1980s, the acrimony played out in a series of full page ads in Rolling Stone, and behind-the-scenes production and song-writing work would dominate the rest of their careers. 1980’s Guilty by Barbara Streisand featured Barry’s Grammy-winning title track as well as Woman in Love, co-written by Barry and Robin, which was a US No. 1.

Barry co-produced the album with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, and the trio would do the same to huge success for Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross on largely Gibb brothers-penned albums.

Warwick’s Heartbreaker (1982), Rogers’ Islands in the Stream (1983) and Ross’ Chain Reaction (1985) proved the Gibb brothers’ ability to write tailor-made songs for artists of outstanding pedigree that nonetheless were unmistakably ‘Gibb’. It was a great irony of their career that back in the year they broke through, Barry and Robin wrote To Love Somebody for Otis Redding, a song that showcased abilities they never let shine again. He was killed before he could record it, but the song’s deep soulfulness and its poetic lyrics (‘There’s a light/ A certain kind of light/ That never shone on me’) would see it covered by Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

This song showed that if they had had the courage of their convictions, and perhaps just stopped trying quite so hard, a simpler Bee Gees would have been a very fine thing indeed.

Barry’s solo work showed why simplicity was never an option for the Bee Gees, however: for example, his Now Voyager (1984) album, accompanied by a pretentious feature-length film starring him and Michael Hordern.

But, together, the Gibb brothers could still score hits. 1987’s You Win Again was a European hit and 1993’s For Whom the Bell Tolls from the typically adolescently-titled Size Isn’t Everything went Top 5 in the UK. 1997 would see the Arif Mardin-produced Still Waters become the Bee Gees’ first US Top 40 album in two decades, and Céline Dion featured Immortality, written by the brothers and featuring their backing vocals, on her mega-selling Let’s Talk About Love album.

In October, the band screwed their public image in Britain by unwisely telling Clive Anderson on his All Talk BBC show that they were once known professionally as ‘Les Tosseurs’, and Barry leading a walk-out in response to the inevitable teasing that followed.

But they never really went away and in the 1990s and 2000s bubblegum pop, chart dance and boy bands embraced them with abandon.

N-Trance’s Stayin’ Alive (1996), Take That’s How Deep is Your Love (1996), Boyzone’s Words (1996), Steps’ Tragedy (1998) and Chain Reaction (2001), 911’s More Than a Woman (1998) and One True Voice’s Sacred Trust (2002) showed that the Bee Gees had an affinity with pop that was timeless.

Andy Gibb’s death in 1988, aged only 30, following years of drug abuse affected the brothers badly, and Maurice’s death after suddenly being taken ill in January 2003 came as no less of a shock to Barry and Robin. In May 2012 Robin, who had been lucky to survive the Hither Green rail crash of 1967, which killed 49, died of cancer.

Barry was alone but not done with the business.

He embarked on a tour the following year and released a solo album last October. The title In the Now was appropriate as he moves forward and carries the torch for the band today, but as was clear at Glastonbury, what the Bee Gees represent now is the nostalgic pleasure of a half-remembered past.

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