When one pictures the Bee Gees, most of us wouldn’t immediately jump to the word ‘cool’. And for years this has been the primary reaction to the group from music critics and has made them the butt of many jokes. In turn this created a self-fulfilling cycle where they rarely get taken seriously. But that image should not be a reason for anyone to dismiss what is, when looked at objectively, one of the most successful and long tenured careers in music history. They’re a group who came from humble origins to sell over 120 million records and win a laundry list of awards and accolades. Despite that, when the greats of popular music are discussed they often aren’t included. Well, here I am to try and change that with a look back at the Bee Gees and why they deserve more respect.
Born on the Isle of Man in the 1940s the three Gibb brothers (oldest Barry and younger twins Robin and Maurice) were already performing music by the mid-1950s after moving with their family to Manchester. In 1958 the family, now joined by youngest sibling Andy, moved again, this time across the world to Australia. This was where the trio started to work professionally, and not long later they would take on the Bee Gees name. Contrary to the common story this wasn’t as a contraction of ‘Brothers Gibb’ but rather a reference to Barry Gibbs initials, as well as those of the two men who gave them early breaks in the Australian music industry, speedway promoter Bill Goode and radio DJ Bill Gates.
By 1963, at which time they were only 17 and 15, the trio signed their first record deal. Two albums of original songs and numerous singles would appear over the next four years, contained almost entirely to the Australian market. All three brothers would later speak of their time in Australia as a hugely important learning experience, especially as it meant they had been able to get fully professional experience from a young age. Major chart hits eluded them however until their final Australian single ‘Spicks and Specks’ which reached the top 10 just as the trio were making their way back to the UK.
It had been oldest brother Barry who had dominated the song writing in the group when they were in Australia but once back in the country of their birth they began to write more as a fully formed trio, with Robin in particular taking more lead vocals. Still all under the age of 21 they had almost immediate success in the UK with their first internationally available album and its accompanying singles. Primarily a soulful pop group with psychedelic touches in keeping with the times this period marked the groups first major period of commercial success, even with their earliest singles being accompanied by a bizarre rumour that they were the Beatles in disguise.
Nine Top Ten UK hits, a number one (‘I Started A Joke‘) and a breakthrough into the US top ten as well all followed in the next four years. Tensions between the brothers, particularly Barry and Robin, eventually led to Robin leaving the group briefly, and although he quickly returned, momentum was lost, and their first successful period was over. Many songs from this period have reached the status of pop standards and remain great examples of well-crafted and memorable pop music. For an example of their range though, see the contrast between the soul ballad ‘To Love Somebody’ and the baroque weirdness of ‘Odessa’. The Bee Gees were always wider ranging than critics would have you believe.
Whilst this period of chart success in the late ’60s was followed by a more fallow period commercially the trio would set the bedrock for their era of mega stardom across a series of underrated albums. Retaining their ability to write great ballads, the trio became increasingly influenced by soul and the music emanating from US nightclubs. This led to them building the sound that would define them for years, and it all started with an accident. Whilst recording the song ‘Nights on Broadway’ for their Main Course album Barry discovered a hitherto unknown ability to sing in one of the clearest and most sustained falsetto voices ever put to record. This immediately jibed with the growing disco movement, and combined with their trademark harmonies and embrace of danceable rhythms set them on the course for their most defining period—the Disco era.
Starting from the aforementioned Main Course and its lead single ‘Jive Talkin’ the Bee Gees were one of the foremost acts in arguably the most divisive explosion of a single genre since the dawn of the rock n roll era. In 1977 and 1978 alone the trio wrote or performed seven separate US Number 1 singles and set numerous other chart records. At one point they had written or performed four of the top five and set the record for consecutive number ones written with four. This was largely caused by them being the primary contributors to the then highest selling album in history, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. And much like that film, their depth of work during this period was much more than it first appeared.
Not only did they have much success themselves, but they also wrote chart topping singles for their younger brother Andy and others, as well as writing the theme tune to the period’s other defining film Grease, and having a surprise hit on the country music charts with ‘Rest Your Love on Me’. Not since John Lennon & Paul McCartney/The Beatles had one single songwriter or artist so dominated the charts in the US for a sustained period, and it hasn’t been replicated since. This immense success, topped off by the lavish and expensive Spirits Having Flown Tour in 1979, should be enough on its own to cement their legacy at the peak of pop music.
Unfortunately for that legacy this is the point where the backlash that has defined their reception ever since began. The ‘Disco Sucks’ movement had started at the genre’s peak, spurred on by the complete chart dominance it provided and the sheer variety of major acts that turned their hand to it, with even the rootsy Rolling Stones scoring a disco hit with ‘Miss You’. With hindsight it is pretty clear that this was a movement born out of an ugly mixture of homophobia and racism. From its inception disco had been closely associated with both black and gay culture and the backlash was largely founded on a rockist principle that ‘real music’ was manly and this disco stuff was too feminine to be taken seriously. Of course, this is plainly bigoted, but this poisonous backlash became accepted by music critics and radio.
‘No Disco Days’ became a staple of radio stations and various interest groups organised album burning parties that brought uncomfortable associations to totalitarian regimes. Throughout this there was little fight back from the music press of the time and Robin Gibb once commented that this period felt like ‘censorship’. It is hard to see something like this happening today with the democratisation of music consumption away from radio DJs and towards the listening public, but this pigeonholing of the Bee Gees has defined them for large parts of future generations.
The Bee Gees would recover commercially during the 1980s by working behind the scenes with other acts, chiefly penning massive hits for the likes of Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Perhaps the defining song of this period is one they didn’t record themselves until years later, the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duet ‘Islands in the Stream’. An instantly recognisable song even to this day, it remains a testament to their power as songwriters that even without any Bee Gees associations to most people this song has remained a standard. The group themselves would resume having hits of their own by the end of the 1980s even as they dealt with the tragic early death of their younger brother Andy. By the 1990s they had been accepted as true elder statesmen but their critical reception remained ambivalent until the end of their career in 2003 with the death of Maurice at just 53. Not only did they leave behind their own catalogue of chart hits, the long list of hits they gave away to other artists should always be remembered when discussing the contributions of the Gibb Brothers to popular music.
Above all the legacy of the Bee Gees is in writing and performing one of the most hit filled song catalogues in history, over numerous genres and a longer time than pretty much any other act ever. Barry Gibb is indeed the only songwriter in history to have a UK Number One single in five consecutive decades after the 2009 success of the Red Nose Day charity version of ‘Islands in the Steam’. The image of the Bee Gees as soft hands who were a flash in the pan during disco that has passed into comedic shorthand does them a huge disservice. Hopefully now that the group are sadly no more, with the death of Robin Gibb in 2012, their legacy will be analysed and appreciated on the level of other groups in the pantheon of musical greats. It won’t come a moment too soon.
Attached below is a playlist, around the length of a single album, that is your writer’s attempt to showcase the lesser-known sides of the Bee Gees work from the whole span of their career, as well as some of the hits they wrote for others. It should give anyone taking a step into their back catalogue an entry point besides the hits that shows how versatile and genuinely brilliant these brothers were.