For quite some time, the prospect of death has held a fresh terror. The British Heart Foundation’s step-by-step guide to cardiopulmonary resuscitation advises performing chest compressions ‘to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees’. This means that the last sound some of us will ever hear is ‘Stayin’ Alive’, with our chests as the drums:
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive!
Ah! ah! ah! ah!
Stayin’ alive! Stayin’ alive!
Despite their success, the Bee Gees have always been regarded as naff. They are to pop music what Fanny Cradock was to cookery or Julian Fellowes is to the world of letters. Bob Stanley is on a mission to rescue their reputation. ‘I’ve written this book as an attempt to give them their rightful place at the very top of pop’s table,’ he declares in his introduction: ‘I also want to explain why and how the Gibb brothers have been othered, and – unlike the Beach Boys – rarely treated with the respect they should have earned as a right.’ He argues that, from the beginning, they were regarded as out-siders, though this could be said of virtually every pop star, apart from Julian Lennon and Ziggy Marley.
They were born on the Isle of Man –described by Stanley as ‘an island with a strange mystique’ which, in the late 1940s, ‘used the birch for capital punishment’, which sounds very time-consuming. Barry and his younger twin brothers, Robin and Maurice, avoided the birch, though not for want of trying. Once the family moved to Manchester, Maurice stole toys from Woolworths, while Barry and Robin were enthusiastic arsonists, setting fire to a shed, a car and a shop. Before long, Barry was caught stealing a child’s pedal car and given two years probation.
The brothers were saved by their talent for writing and singing three-part harmonies. ‘We were like the Brontë sisters,’ recalled Robin, who was the oddest. ‘We created our own world and fed off our fantasies and ideas.’ In later years, Robin would dye his hair red to match the coat of his Irish setter, and was filmed at home with his pet chinchillas for The Rolf Harris Show.
Back in the 1940s, their father Hugh had been a successful northern dance band leader on the Mecca ballroom circuit, but by the 1950s the work had dried up and he was obliged to take a series of dead-end jobs, including delivering bread and selling fridges. He was quick to spot his boys’ worth, though, and appointed himself their manager while they were still in shorts.
The Gibb family emigrated to Australia in 1958, arriving in Brisbane on Barry’s 12th birthday. As child stars on television and radio, they were soon providing the family income. After a fidgety series of name changes – Barry and the Twins, Johnny Hayes and the Blue Cats, the Rattlesnakes, and BGs – they finally settled on the Bee Gees. It was a name that prioritised Barry Gibb, and his dominance was a source of resentment to the others for the rest of their lives.
The pop scene in Australia in 1963 was based around surfing records. Oh to have heard ‘Murphy the Surfie’ by Col Joye’s Joy Boys or Little Pattie’s ‘He’s My Blonde-Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy’ when they were hot off the presses! But fashion soon changed and the Bee Gees moved nimbly with the times, leaping from surfing to the Mersey sound, singing in state-of-the-art venues such as the Police Citizens’ Boys Club in Wagga Wagga and the Lyndale Disco, Dandenong.
Their preoccupations were already emerging in their compositions. Stanley is less interested in their characters than in their music, but they emerge as self-pitying, very driven and slightly boring, a not uncommon combination. One of Robin’s early songs was called ‘I Don’t Know Why I Bother With Myself’.
Stanley deals with the three-year age gap between Barry and the twins but fails to mention the obvious divide in the looks department. While Barry was as handsome as a film star, Maurice was runtish and Robin was skinny and gawky with horizontal Ken Dodd teeth. Surely this disparity played a part in their lifetime of rivalry and resentment.
The brothers moved back to England at the beginning of 1967 and were almost immediately signed up by the bullish showman Robert Stigwood, who promoted them as ‘the next Beatles’. It turned out he wasn’t far wrong, at least in terms of sales. By that autumn their single ‘Massachusetts’ had taken over from ‘All You Need is Love’ at number one. ‘And the lights all went out in Massachusetts/ And Massachusetts is one place I have seen’ went the chorus. Like many Bee Gees songs, its meaning is hard to fathom, particularly as they had never set foot in America. In the early 1980s they were stylishly parodied on a single called ‘Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices’ by a satirical group, the Hee Bee Gee Bees.
Other lyrics of theirs go ‘Now I found that the world is round/ And of course it rains every day’, and ‘You can see if you stand on your chair/ That there’s millions and millions and millions and millions of people like you’. They’re a far cry from Confucius, but, as Stanley points out, the songs somehow work: pop is driven by sound, not sense.
Success intensified their sibling squabbles. When one of his own songs wasn’t released as their next single, Robin walked out. Barry countered by telling the music press: ‘I wouldn’t say he’s slow – I’d just say he was dead.’ When Maurice agreed to play on Robin’s solo effort, Barry erupted in fury. At one point both Barry (‘I’m fed up, miserable and completely disillusioned’) and Robin (‘I’m dead, my life’s been sold’) abandoned the group, leaving Maurice the only Bee Gee. Maurice then joined the cast of a jolly musical about Marie Lloyd, but proved so glum that its writer, Ned Sherrin, asked his co-star Barbara Windsor to ‘give him one’. Windsor kindly obliged, but the woe-begone Maurice emerged from the experience no perkier.
By the early 1970s the Bee Gees were in the doldrums. One of their singles failed to make the American top 100, though ‘Little Willy’ by Sweet made it to number five. Once again they felt that the world was picking on them. By 1974 they were performing to half-full houses at the Batley Variety Club. ‘People in England don’t value their art,’ said Robin.
Then along came disco. Out went the pining ballads and in came the campy CPR beat. Their careers were resuscitated. In 1978 ‘Night Fever’ and ‘Stayin’ Alive’ held the top two positions in the US charts for 12 weeks between them. But even as they were whizzing around America in their private jet, they remained disgruntled. ‘Being the Bee Gees is like three people being one person,’ complained the prickly Barry. ‘It’s impossible. We are each of us having an identity crisis.’
Robin disliked Barry’s bossiness and Barry disliked Robin’s moodiness. Maurice retreated to the bottle. They were united only in being cheesed off at not being asked to perform at Live Aid like the Beach Boys. ‘The Beach Boys? No hit in, what, ten years? Forget it, I don’t care,’ said Barry. He had a point; but, as Cliff Richard and Leo Sayer had already discovered, no amount of success can make you hip.
In the world of pop, which regularly rewards death with adulation, even Maurice’s fatal heart attack in 2003 and Robin’s death from cancer in 2012 failed to give them the kudos they so craved. Will this book, with its gooey title, do the trick? Stanley doggedly analyses all the hit songs, and hundreds of others best forgotten, in the language of the rock anorak, by turns cloudy and loopy:
‘Night Fever’ was not that dense, liquid perfume which makes you feel slightly sick. This was not the sound of too much air freshener. This was air itself. Night-time air. The city.
Yet, beyond it all, the Bee Gees could write beautiful songs. Perhaps their piercing falsettos served to obscure their essential quality. Many of their finest compositions reveal their worth only when sung by other, more soulful artists: Janis Joplin’s ‘To Love Somebody’, Nina Simone’s ‘In the Morning’, Al Green’s ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?’. It’s worth listening to their song ‘I Started a Joke’, which was covered not so long ago by the Pet Shop Boys. In retrospect, it seems to capture something of the bathos involved in being a Bee Gee:
I started to cry
Which started the whole world laughing
Oh, if I’d only seen
That the joke was on me.