Reliving the Bee Gees fever

ROBIN and Barry Gibb are so overpoweringly familiar that just sitting opposite them feels odd. Robin, now 59 and still pencil-thin, is the sharper, the more protective of the two. Robin’s the one you can imagine having an actual stand-up fight in defence of the Bee Gees’ good name, while Barry, 63, seems rather more relaxed, beatific even, his snow-white hair artfully draped over his shoulders, a small smile never far from his lips. The pair arrange themselves on the long black sofas at the back of Studio A at Hit Factory, in Miami, Florida, looking entirely at home. Of course, they should do — in the mid-1970s, Barry, Robin and their late brother, Maurice, pretty much moved in here to create some of the biggest-selling records of all time. By that time, they had already enjoyed enormous success as a neo-psychedelic pop-rock group signed to the same management company as the Beatles. Then they had split. Then they had suffered three full years without a single hit.

It’s a long, long way from being in such a crushing slump that you’re reduced to banging out gigs between your oldies in a Yorkshire variety club to writing and recording a soundtrack album that sells in excess of 30 million copies, but the Bee Gees made that journey in just three years. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever made the Bee Gees as famous as it is possible for a human being to be. Yet 50 years after they began singing together at home in Manchester, a lot of their music still sounds utterly remarkable, whether it’s the late-1960s hipster Bee Gees of albums such as Idea and Horizontal, the global-superstar Bee Gees of Nights on Broadway, You Should Be Dancing and Jive Talkin’, or the radio-eating, grown-up super-pop Bee Gees of How Deep Is Your Love or You Win Again. There is a reason that their catalogue of songs is one of the most profitable in pop history. “It’s taken us six years to come back from Maurice’s death,” Barry says. “His passing scattered everything to the wind. Robin drove himself on, but I couldn’t find the passion, I couldn’t force anything else out. I thought we were done.” Products of a showbusiness home — their father Hugh was a band-leader who met their mother, Barbara, at one of his gigs — the Gibb brothers began singing together in cinemas while growing up in Manchester. In 1958, the family emigrated to Australia, and the three boys began performing professionally, playing pubs and speedways, singing on TV, even doing pantomime. Four years later, they would leave Australia by boat. The Bee Gees arrived in Southampton in February 1967 — three weeks later, they’d signed a five-year management deal with Robert Stigwood, the director of NEMS Enterprises, a company owned by the manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein. Stigwood insisted on a group, so the brothers’ Australian friends Vince Maloney and Colin Peterson were hired. They signed a deal with Polydor and delivered a huge hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941. The band’s debut LP, Bee Gees 1st, was a critical and commercial smash. Wonderfully picturesque songs such as Harry Braff and Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You pointed clearly towards a Britpop sound still 30 years in the future. Just teenagers, the brothers became part of the pop royalty of the day. In 1969, the Bee Gees released the double-LP epic Odessa, an album so rich in fantastic songs and ideas — Melody Fair, “an Eleanor Rigby sort of thing”, is brilliantly dramatic, while Whisper Whisper is surely the sharpest, most morally complex song ever written about a drug-dealer — that, 40 years later, it remains a remarkable document to free-spirited creativity. “Odessa was our madness,” Robin says. “We were recording in the studio the Beatles had been in, and we were unafraid to work with whatever came into our heads.” Sadly, more progressive recordings were scaring off their fan base. Arguments followed and the brothers fell out. Between 1970 and 1975, the Bee Gees scored only a handful of hits. It was the opening track of 1975’s Main Course record that pushed the brothers into a whole new stratosphere of fame and success. Jive Talkin’ was an immediate, huge hit in America and Britain, as was the follow-up, Nights On Broadway, which featured Barry’s crystalline falsetto. Their next album, Children Of The World, went platinum, with You Should Be Dancing kicking off a string of hits. The brothers were recording in France when Stigwood called to ask if they would be interested in creating the soundtrack to a new — as yet untitled — film. The film was 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, and the album produced six No. 1 hits. Night Fever was the Bee Gees’ first UK No. 1 for a decade. “Fever introduced the most creative recording period in our lives,” Barry says. “The following five years, we had a ball. We were the biggest thing around.” By the end of the 1970s, the Bee Gees were involved in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit with Stigwood, and they stopped recording as a group. Barry wrote Guilty for Barbra Streisand and Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, while the brothers came together to write Islands In The Stream for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, as well as creating the startling Chain Reaction for Diana Ross. No new Bee Gees album would emerge until ESP — and the hit You Win Again — in 1987, their first UK No. 1 for eight years. The 20th — and, to date, last — Bee Gees album, This Is Where I Came In, had definite echoes of their late-1960s pop-rock glories and was released in 2001. “We’ve made some of the best records of all time,” Robin says.

“And that’s because we’re not afraid of trying new things. We’re only really afraid of losing an idea.” Would they like to start again? “God, no!” Robin laughs out loud. “Pop music used to be so much more gregarious, more flamboyant. Today, it’s so conservative.” “We’ve had incredible happiness and incredible sadness in our lives,” Barry says. “But we know there are songs we have written that will always touch people.” — The Sunday Times ■ The Ultimate Bee Gees, a collection of greatest hits celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary, is released today through Reprise/Warner Music.

Source: NST Online

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