Music

The Broken-Hearted Bee Gees

From left: Robin, Barry, and Maurice Gibb at the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. (Reuters)
The band was much more than white jumpsuits and disco balls.

The Bee Gees died professionally twice, in less than a decade, then three of the four Brothers Gibb (two of them Bee Gees) died too young. This is why HBO’s documentary about one of the biggest pop groups of all time is called The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart instead of The Bee Gees: You Should Be Dancing. Just as first-time viewers of Saturday Night Fever are shocked to discover that the film is anything but campy fun, the disco kings turned out to embody loss. Mourning his departed brothers, the sole survivor of the pack, Barry Gibb, says, “I’d rather have ‘em all back here and no hits at all.”

Documentaries tend to fall into two categories: publicity or journalism. This one is very much characteristic of the former camp; directed by Steven Spielberg’s longtime producer Frank Marshall, it avoids dwelling on awkward topics such as divorce, alcoholism, and drug abuse, which plagued the Bee Gees and their little brother. The film’s strength is its rich technical detail about the Bee Gees songs, such as “Jive Talkin,’” whose famous opening riff grew out of the sound Barry’s car made driving over a bridge in Miami, where the band was recording. Recording at “a dump” in France on the urging of a tax-dodging manager, the band’s drummer was temporarily absent so the Bee Gees used a two-bar drum passage from the already-recorded “Night Fever” to make a repeating loop, then put a bass line on top of it to create the foundations of “Stayin’ Alive.”

Elder brother Barry and the younger twins, Maurice and Robin — who began singing professionally in 1958 Australia — had crafted many brilliant lush ballads based in three-part harmonies and filled out with rich orchestral sounds by the late Sixties. It was a velvety easy-listening sound, and as a disco-loving twelve-year-old in the late Seventies, I was stunned to discover the propulsively engaging Brothers Gibb (the initials became the group’s name) had once been purveyors of elevator music, enough to fill an entire album with weepy love songs such as “Words,” “I Started a Joke,” “Massachusetts,” and “To Love Somebody.” “I had six Rolls Royces before I was 21,” Maurice once recalled. “Don’t know where they are now.”

Then things fell apart for the first time. Robin and Barry quarreled frequently (Marshall’s movie doesn’t specify exactly what the problem was) and Robin left the band at the height of its success in 1969. After one last big hit in 1971 — “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” hit number one — the group sank into oblivion. Two disastrous albums followed, and the Bee Gees were reduced to being a bar band in the north of England. Atlantic Records was about to drop them. Between 1971 and 1975 their sound became as dated and out of touch as a hoop skirt at Woodstock.

What followed was perhaps the greatest comeback for a pop act since Frank Sinatra’s 1953 return to stardom. Bee Gees labelmate Eric Clapton told the brothers he’d enjoyed a creative revival after renting a place at 461 Ocean Boulevard in Miami and recording at the nearby Criteria Studios. The brothers moved into the same house (made famous on a Clapton album cover) and began searching for a new sound. They found it in “Jive Talkin’,” a completely unexpected breakaway into a funky disco beat. Atlantic (so legend goes) sent the record out to radio stations with a blank label because the Bee Gees’ brand was so devalued. Another hit, “Nights on Broadway,” proved to be an equally strong statement, and Barry’s chance use of falsetto in a backing vocal, modeled on in the sound of R&B groups such as the Delfonics, set the stage for a string of glittery dance songs built around the falsetto, which became the Bee Gees’ signature. Band manager Robert Stigwood launched his own label, RSO Records, and after buying the rights to a (fictitious) New York magazine cover story about the disco scene in Brooklyn asked them to contribute a few new songs for the soundtrack. They not only came up with several but one of them, “Night Fever,” struck them as an excellent title for the movie. Stigwood thought it sounded a bit porny, so he added “Saturday” to it.

Saturday Night Fever was intended to be one of many quickie disco exploitation films (Car Wash, Thank God It’s Friday) meant to use a thrown-together plot to pump up record sales. Instead, it became a defining film of Hollywood’s greatest decade, with four original Bee Gees songs, plus a fifth they wrote for Yvonne Elliman, becoming hits. The Bee Gees sound ruled the charts in 1978–1979, not only under their own name but via songs they wrote for others, such as the Bee Gees–sounding “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” and “Shadow Dancing” for little brother Andy and the title song for Grease. At the end of the decade, though, the bottom fell out.

The movie suggests two related causes of this, both wrong: the infamous “Disco Demolition” night of July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, where between games of a planned doubleheader a radio publicity stunt involving a bonfire of hated disco records caused rock-loving fans to storm the field and cause so much chaos that the second game was a forfeit. This was a symptom, not a cause, of the fall of disco, and the film’s suggestion that a combination of racism and homophobia led to a backlash against three straight white guys is nonsense, as is Marshall’s citation of novelty hits such as “Disco Duck” as evidence that bad songs hurt the disco brand. In fact, the song (which is heard in Saturday Night Fever) had come and gone three years earlier; what really happened was simply a case of too much of the Gibb sound, especially Barry’s falsetto. It was as if radio had become a banquet of sweets, and we all got sick of it at the same time. The disco inferno burned itself out.

The band was essentially booted off the radio in 1980. Andy, who became a star at 19, was only 30 when he died after much cocaine abuse, in 1988. Maurice died suddenly at 53, in 2003, the victim of a twisted intestine, and Robin died at 62, of cancer, in 2012. Today Barry Gibb — since 2018, he is Sir Barry — gets far less respect than he deserves. The views of fans interviewed in the documentary, such as Justin Timerberlake and Eric Clapton — who says suggesting the Bee Gees move to Miami was one of the best things he’s ever done — ought to convince you that the Bee Gees were much more than mere beneficiaries of a fad. Their music defined their peak years as surely as the Beatles did theirs, and at his best, Barry was a songwriter to rival Paul McCartney.

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