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Bee Gees

Given the mercilessly short shelf-life of most pop bands, who could’ve predicted that the Gibb siblings (Barry, Robin, and twin Maurice) would’ve lasted the pace while others fell by the wayside. And who’d have guessed that after a few average OST/scores (and whole lot more besides), that the BEE GEES would be responsible in large part for the biggest selling soundtrack of all time – “Saturday Night Fever”.
Spanning five decades, The BEE GEES were a global hit-machine phenomena amassing a plethora of hits from 1967’s `New York Mining Disaster 1941’ – often sub-titled “Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones” – and `Massachusetts’, to 2001’s swansong `This Is Where I Came In’. Sadly, with the passing of Maurice in 2003, and Robin in 2012, only the oldest and one-time pin-up Barry Gibb has survived. Let’s hope by keeping a high profile on American TV talk shows and the odd performance of an old BG nugget, Barry has still extra petrol left in the tank.
Formed in 1958 by the brothers Gibb, in Brisbane, Australia (although they originally hailed from the Isle of Man), the boys’ inaugural performance had taken place three years previously at their dad’s Manchester “Blue Cats” residency, where they played skiffle covers (yes, LONNIE DONEGAN had a lot to answer for!).
Barry, Robin and Maurice continued to cut their teeth (quite, er… literally!?) in the parochial talent contests/amateur shows in their new hometown of Brisbane, going under the name the Brothers Gibb, before abbreviating the slightly religious-sounding moniker to The BEE GEES. Interest in the talented schoolboy group was not long in coming and, in 1959, disc-jockey Bill Gates offered to manage the trio, promising them further lucrative gigs and airwaves space.
Becoming ever more adept at songwriting, the lads were subsequently signed to local label, Leedon, where they released numerous 45s to moderate success; among them (as Barry Gibb & The Bee-Gees): `Wine And Woman’ and `I Was A Lover, A Leader Of Men’ from their Australian-only debut long-player, SING & PLAY 14 BARRY GIBB SONGS (1965) {*4}.
When 1966’s MONDAY’S RAIN {*4} fell on deaf ears and realising that they were potentially big fish in the small Aussie music-biz pond, the trio packed their bags and headed back to England. Ironically, as they made their plans to travel to the mother country, the attendant `Spicks And Specks’, reached No.1 down under, resulting in their aforementioned album being re-promoted under the single’s title.
However, their collective minds were made up and they settled in London, virtually unknown but totally confident of their ability to storm the world-leading British charts. Recruiting a drummer (Colin Petersen), lead guitarist (Vince Melouney) and manager (the notorious Robert Stigwood), The BEE GEES secured a deal with Polydor Records and released their debut British single, a re-boosted `Spicks And Specks’, which failed to capture an immediate audience. With flower-power now the in-thing with teenage audiences, the company were swift to see the potential of the Barry and Robin-penned `New York Mining Disaster 1941’ (suffixed in the US by the chorus, “Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones”). The brothers’ distinctive combination of good looks, vocal harmony and astute lyrics, slotted in seamlessly with other contemporary Brit beat groups of the day as the single rose into the UK and US Top 20s.
Hot on its heels came their classic, much-covered ballad, `To Love Somebody’ (a bigger hit Stateside), while The BEATLES-esque parent set, BEE GEES’ 1st (1967) {*7}, climbed into the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. Obvious competitors to the likes of The HOLLIES, The MOODY BLUES etc., their progressive pop sound was underway by way of `Cucumber Castle’, `Holiday’ and `Please Read Me’.
With airplay support from Radio One, `Massachusetts’ struck a chord with the British public who catapulted the platter to pole position, while in America it stalled just outside the Top 10. In a post-“Sgt. Pepper” era, the BEE GEES pinpointed a rather large gap in the market, and with `World’ (another Top 10 volley from follow-up LP, HORIZONTAL (1968) {*6}), plus the psych-tinged `And The Sun Will Shine’, `The Ernest Of Being George’ and `With The Sun In My Eyes’, had er… shades of bubblegum-pop. One just wonders why they left out the romantic-addled smash, `Words’, and for that matter the double-A-sided Top 30 hit, `Jumbo’ and `The Singer Sang His Song’.
Relying on their cohesive, crystal-clear harmonies, a rock-based orchestration and a second No.1 single, `I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You’, the attendant IDEA (1968) {*5} was a little overblown and pompous. Awash with their usual romantic melodramas, the songwriting trio (+ 2) quivered and quavered a balance between the serious (`I Started A Joke’ – a US-only hit plus `Let There Be Love’) and the flighty (`Kitty Can’ plus `Indian Gin And Whisky Dry’). With an abundance of songs and not every one of them suitable, the group even supplied The MARBLES (featuring future RAINBOW singer GRAHAM BONNET) with a Top 10 hit, `Only One Woman’.
Although it might be irrelevant, The BEE GEES dropped “the” definitive article when it came crediting LPs, the whys and wherefores a mystery to only themselves, their record label, the typographer and the pressing plant. Another anomaly was the all-too brief in/out Top 10 puncture (for one week only in UK charts as a whole) of the group’s next batch of songs, ODESSA (1969) {*8}. Could it be that Brit fans just couldn’t afford to buy into its obligatory Baroque-pop double-album concept (the Yanks didn’t see it that way!), or was it just that they preferred the lure of the accompanying singles, `First Of May’ and the non-LP hit, `Tomorrow, Tomorrow’. If by being a bold BEE GEES’ “White Album” rather than “Ogden’s Nutgone Flake” or “S.F. Sorrow” (remembering that The WHO’s “Tommy” was still in the can!), there were nice but strange orchestral touches here and there; best examples stemmed from the country-ish `Melody Fair’, `Lamplight’ and `Give Your Best’, plus `Black Diamond’, `Marley Purt Drive’ and the 7-minute opener, `Odessa (City On The Black Sea)’.
It was at this juncture in time that Maurice tied the knot with diminutive Glasgow pop star LULU, while the latter album marked the departure of Colin, Vince and solo bound ROBIN GIBB. The singer made it in his own right later that year with the massive selling single, `Saved By The Bell’.
As the decade drew to a close, it seemed that the once mighty BEE GEES were falling apart; not for the first time the brothers had surfed the big pop wave only to be wiped out. The BEE GEES kicked off the 70s to tie in with their soundtrack to TV rock musical comedy, CUCUMBER CASTLE (1970) {*5}, featuring BLIND FAITH, LULU (of course!) and even comic-actor Spike Milligan. Confusingly titled after a track on the group’s debut set, and usually remembered as the record-without-Robin (the tremulous Gibb sibling having abdicated in favour of a solo career), this was not the band’s finest half hour. Left to their own devices, love-knights-in-shining-armour (the sleeve is a kitsch novelty in itself), Barry and Maurice laid on the sentiment and strings with the proverbial trowel. `If Only I Had My Mind On Something Else’ was the catchy title of the opening track, setting in Arthurian stone the lachrymose, heavily-arranged, sub-BEATLES/neo-BACHARACH mood that permeated much of the rest of the album. About the only exceptions were `i.o.i.o’, dropping an enjoyably tokenistic, tropical-percussive hint of the dance-floor conquering to come, and the dippy pop-psych rhyming of `My Thing’ (ditto). This being 1970, the brothers even made their own attempt at country-rock, without much of the rock. They worked themselves into some half-convincing holy rolling – as well as some daft redneck accents – on `The Lord’, but Nashville Sound-alike `Don’t Forget To Remember’ was the big hit (a near UK No.1); their last of the 60s.
Even after Robin’s return later in the year and a lawsuit in which sticksman Peterson claimed the BEE GEES name(!), their moment seemed to have passed – in the UK at least. However, their Stateside momentum continued as `Lonely Days’ (from the MOODY BLUES-esque set, 2 YEARS ON (1970) {*6}) climbed into the US Top 3. The passing of The BEATLES had helped the brothers Gibb step into their shoes, and in songs like `Alone Again’ and the title track, there was once again promising signs.
Although the three contributed a bevvy of tried and tested songs to the – all but forgotten –
British teen romance, MELODY (1971) {*5}, the real draw of this soundtrack was still the one-off recording of the gorgeous `In The Morning’, Barry’s crowning glory and a song which had already been the subject of a stunning cover by NINA SIMONE. The remainder of the album included pleasant orchestrations courtesy of Richard Hewson, a school choir version of `Spicks And Specks’ and the cheesy-ly selected finale by CSN&Y of `Teach Your Children’.
The Stateside, chart-scaling `How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’ (a total flop in Old Blighty) kept their name in the spotlight, even opening (without much sense) the flag-waving, quasi-concept of 1971’s US Top 40 LP, TRAFALGAR {*6}. Sadly, it sunk without much trace in an unconcerned glam rock-ready Britain; `Lion In Winter’, `Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself’ and the title track, were truly canon-fired into the anuls of history.
Content to leave out recent Brit hit, `My World’ (also Top 20 in the States), but highlighting a prize among the harder-edged dirges of TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (1972) {*6}, `Run To Me’ was a then-rare Top 10 entry into the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. Steadying the ship with guitarist Alan Kendall on board (retained from their previous venture), tracks such as Robin’s `Never Been Along’, and group composition US hit, `Alive’, helped give the BEE GEES their third consecutive American Top 40 success.
Subsequently signing to their manager’s newly-formed Robert Stigwood Organisation/R.S.O. (also the “Ocean Boulevard” of CLAPTON), The BEE GEES released LIFE IN A TIN CAN (1973) {*4} to little response; even in America where they had now settled, it reached only No.69. The appropriately-titled `Living In Chicago’, the quavering `I Don’t Wanna Be The One’ and the minor hit, `Saw A New Morning’, were the LP’s only saving graces. While it was hardly likely to lead them into a life in a cardboard box, the brothers Grimm (er… Gibb) were at their lowest ebb in years.
Something different was needed to re-ignite the ol’ Antipodean magic, and the arrival in ’74 of famed producer Arif Mardin for their MR. NATURAL {*6} album, marked a watershed in the brothers’ career. Adopting a new dance-based sound, the icing on their funky rhythm-rich cake came in the form of the (then rare) falsetto harmonies, destined to become their trademark. Although only the title track scraped the barrel of the Hot 100, their genteel grooves of `Down The Road’, `Heavy Breathing’ and the sentimental `Charade’ pointed them in the right direction.
Again guided by Mardin, they were on to a winner with 1975’s MAIN COURSE {*8}, adding as it did seasoned keyboardist Blue Weaver (ex-AMEN CORNER) and drummer Dennis Byron. Comeback single, `Jive Talkin’’ deftly captured the essence of mid-70s funk and became a huge Stateside chart-topper (Top 5 in Britain). Throwing up a mirror-ball of confusion among their old fans, the excellent `Nights On Broadway’ and er… `Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)’, just about repeated the formula, while `Come On Over’ lent a hand to OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN’s sparkling resurgence.
CHILDREN OF THE WORLD (1976) {*7}, and its famous No.1 single, `You Should Be Dancing’ (Top 5 in the UK), drew further adulation from the Studio 54 crowd, while FM airplay and massive concerts catapulted the well-groomed wizards of Oz into a boogie wonderland. While `Love So Right’ and `Boogie Child’ gave the soulful BEE GEES further success Stateside, Britons would be a different egg to crack as punk heralded a new wave in the story of rock’n’roll. Almost cut off from its impending insurgence, it mattered not to a group on the crest of their own popular wave. Signifying how much the siblings had come in so short a space of time, the double HERE AT LAST… BEE GEES LIVE (1977) {*7}, balanced the old with the new for one heavenly album.
In the wake of their Arif Mardin-abetted re-invention as mid-70s white boy funk pretenders, the BEE GEES really got on the good foot with the phenomenally popular disco exploitation movie, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) {*9}; stealing the show on the OST with some of the most enduring dance-floor numbers ever recorded. Starring the then-unknown “Carrie” actor John Travolta, the double-disc became one of the biggest grossing soundtracks of all-time. Saturday nights would never be quite the same again after JT donned that white suit and cut some wildly impressive rug. By day, Tony Manero was the paint-shop sales peasant with no prospects; by night, he was the lord of the lights. There was of course more to the film than that, but it was Travolta’s dance routines – together with the mostly BEE GEES-penned/performed soundtrack – which inspired a generation. Convinced by Stigwood to come up with the pop score, both parties came closest to capturing that oft cited and much abused cultural phenomenon known as the Zeitgeist. They certainly captured something: having already laid the bass-popping, falsetto harmonising foundations on their previous couple of studio albums.
The BEE GEES tapped into a latent mania for something which, at the time, was the exclusive preserve of inner-city black, Hispanic and gay communities. That something was disco, and through ageless songs such as `Stayin’ Alive’, `More Than A Woman’ (for the TAVARES) and `Night Fever’, the BEE GEES popularised and commercialised the genre, taking it overground and into the suburbs. Blessed with both an irresistible dance-floor pulse and a charming naivety, these songs – together with the previously released `Jive Talkin’’ and ballads like `How Deep Is Your Love’ (the first of a trio of attendant No.1’s) and the Yvonne Elliman-sung `If I Can’t Have You’ – defined an era, and catapulted the band into the superstar bracket.
All the more unfortunate, then, that they had to go and contribute to the disaster flick that was the Stigwood-conceived musical version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the failed late-70s BEATLES tribute.
In 1979, the album SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN {*7} spawned three further Stateside chart-toppers: `Too Much Heaven’, `Tragedy’ and `Love You Inside Out’. And in this remarkable feat the BEE GEES continuing to flash their hairy chests as if punk rock had never happened. Yet 1981’s effort, LIVING EYES (*4} surprisingly sank like a lead balloon, failing to break into either US or UK Top 40s. As the disco phenomenon subsided, the Brothers Gibb strategically withdrew to count their millions, and cue a bit of outside songwriting (for the likes of STREISAND, WARWICK, etc.), while pondering the next big thing.
Supplying songs for similarly pilloried “Saturday Night…” hangover, STAYING ALIVE (1983) {*4}, the venture proved to be a wrong move, and one which effectively closed this phase of their career. While the platinum-selling, BEE GEES-dominated score to this Travolta turkey wasn’t exactly ignored, the soundtrack didn’t generate nearly as much interest as its big brother. Which is probably as much as it deserved given that the film’s creators couldn’t even come up with an original title track.
If anything, the inclusion of the classic, 1977-vintage `Stayin’ Alive’ merely emphasised how much musical fashion had changed… for the worse. Gone was the debonair, falsetto funk of old; in its place a clutch of half-decent Gibb brother songs tainted by 80s production values. The only track strong enough to really rise above the malaise was `Someone Belonging To Someone’, a classy ballad which admittedly deserved more than its transatlantic Top 50 chart placing. `The Woman In You’, the other single lifted from this OST, actually charted higher. Of course, part of the problem was that disco had long since fallen foul of fashion, and the BEE GEES struggled to re-adjust their sound accordingly. The fact was that these songs were still stronger than much of the pop candy of the day, yet they were shoehorned into a kind of halfway house between disco and 80s artifice.
It was 1987 when they re-emerged on Warner Brothers with ESP {*4} and its hit single, `You Win Again’, although the critical storm clouds were gathering once again. Matters were made worse when young brother, Andy Gibb, who’d a few hits in the latter half of ’77, was found dead from an inflammatory heart virus, allegedly caused by cocaine abuse. During these hard times, the BEE GEES released a trio of fairly successful albums: ONE (1989) {*5}, HIGH CIVILIZATION (1991) {*3} and SIZE ISN’T EVERYTHING (1993) {*4}.
In 1997, the brothers became immortalised after their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; releasing STILL WATERS {*5} at the same time. Just when they were considered past their sell-by-date, the brothers re-appeared in a new and more commercial guise, looking as always in command of melody, harmony and rhythm, with fingers and ears shrewdly on the pulse of musical fashion.
2001’s transatlantic Top 20 success, THIS IS WHERE I CAME IN {*4}, saw them enter their fifth decade of recording with nary a hint of the jaded, faded listlessness that often permeated the umpteenth releases of certified rock dinosaurs. Nods to both the psych-pop era and their airbrushed heyday resisted them revelling in nostalgia; the brothers even making a passable stab at post-modern electronica.
However, the BEE GEES were now two when Maurice died (January 12, 2003) after receiving treatment for an intestinal blockage. Sadder still, in terms of a further BEE GEES reunion, Robin passed away on May 20, 2012, after being diagnosed with cancer the previous year. In conclusion, there have been few groups that have contributed so much to popular music over the previous half a century; they were indeed “Children Of The World”… “Spirits Having Flown”.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-MCS / rev-up MCS Feb2014

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