The Bees Gees: From Down Under To Disco

SINCE ENTERING POP MUSIC in the Fifties, the Bees Gees have had three careers on three continents, each more successful than its predecessor. The first was in Australia as child prodigies. In 1967, they came to Britain as suitable opposition to the Beatles. Finally in the mid-Seventies they found themselves setting the pace for the disco boom and emerging as songwriters of note on the adult-oriented rock scene.

The career of the three Gibb brothers began inauspiciously enough in December 1956 at the Gaumont cinema in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, where they volunteered for the regular mime spot preceding the Saturday morning films. The boys were all set to mouth their lyrics when the presenter broke the record they had been rehearsing to. Thus they were forced into their vocal debut.

The trio were no strangers to music, however. Father Hugh Gibb was a bandleader and drummer who had worked the Northern Mecca circuit and had met their mother in 1940 at a Manchester ballroom. They had married in 1944 and moved to the Isle of Man after the war where there was work to be found playing for holiday-makers. It was here that the Bee Gee brothers were born – Barry on 1 September 1946, the twins Robin and Maurice on 22 December 1949.

The family left for Manchester in 1955, where youngest brother Andy was born; that September Barry was given a trumpet by his father, followed by a £4 second-hand guitar that Christmas. The introduction to rock’n’roll came through sister Leslie, a fan of Bill Haley, Tommy Steele and Elvis.

Racing to success

In 1958 the Gibb family emigrated to Australia, settling in Brisbane, Queensland. Hugh Gibb became a travelling photographer and the youthful Barry made his first fumbling attempts as a songwriter. When the twins were nine and big brother Barry 12, they approached the local Redcliffe Speedway for a singing spot between races. They were engaged on the understanding that the only payment they would get would be whatever the crowd threw to them. Each weekend after that the brothers would return home from the race track with pockets weighted down by loose change.

This engagement led to their first serious break when an appreciative racing drive by the name of Bill Goode contacted Bill Gates, a local disc jockey. As a result they were asked to sing on radio and, for the first time, became known as the BGs (in honour of Bill Gates, Barry Gibb and Bill Goode). Later, when the name had stuck, it came simply to stand for the Brothers Gibb.

At this point they were performing the hits of the day to a mostly adult audience – singing Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ and ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lost Its Flavour’ – when their personal favourites were Ray Charles, Neil Sedaka and the Everly Brothers. This hotel and vaudeville work, supplemented by TV and radio appearances, soon put them in the position of being the family’s major money earners. It became obvious to Hugh Gibb that the time was right for him to take over as manager and make their career a priority.

In 1962 the Bee Gees were brought to Sydney by Col Joye, an Australian pop star of the time, and his agent billed them like locally with Chubby Checker and arranged a deal with Festival Records. They found moderate success with the singles ‘Three Kisses Of Love’, ‘I Was A Lover And A Leader Of Men’ and ‘Wine And Women’, but when the Beatles arrived they were virtually ignored.

When they had sailed to Australia in August 1958, the brothers had entertained on board as Barry and the Twins. In January 1967, aboard the Fairsky, they worked their passage back to Southampton as the Bee Gees, performing Beatle numbers in the ballroom to enthusiastic young Australians. Meanwhile, another Australian Robert Stigwood, had casually picked up a tape the Bee Gees had sent to his co-director at NEMS, Biran Epstein. Within a day of their arrival, Stigwood had set up an audition for them at London’s Saville Theatre. On 24 February 1967 the Bee Gees were signed to NEMS on a five-year contract.

Shortly after, they began writing for their debut album at Polydor Studios, and it was there in the well of a staircase, taking advantage of the natural echo, that they composed what was to be their first British hit, the plaintive, doom-laden ballad ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’. This ballad style with tremulous vocals and string orchestra was to characterise most of their British work. Australians Colin Peterson (drums) and Vince Melouney (guitar) were added to the band (with Barry playing second guitar and Maurice on bass). Bill Shepherd organised the orchestra.

Stigwood officially launched the Bee Gees in April 1967, spending some £50,000 on promoting the album Bee Gees First and the single ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’, calling the group ‘the most significant talent since the Beatles’. The single fulfilled its promise by going to Number 12 and, after an inexplicable flop with ‘To Love Somebody’, ‘Massachusetts’, a response to the West Coast longings of flower-power, became their first UK Number 1 in October.

Inside the cucumber castle

The Bees Gees were never a serious challenge to the absolute supremacy of the Beatles during this period, however. They had little sense of style, while their sensitive, string-based sound was too safe to have the cutting edge necessary to compete. Although they toyed with the mellotron and produced the surrealistic type of song titles fitted to the psychedelic era, it was always obviously derivative and self-conscious. Striving perhaps for the poetry of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Penny Lane’, they could produce only trite observations.

Despite the comparative lack of hysteria surrounding the trio and their music, they were well-liked; readers of New Musical Express voted the Bee Gees Best Group of 1967. Throughout the rest of the decade they scored regularly with UK Top Ten singles: ‘World’, ‘Words’, ‘I Gotta Get A Message To You’, ‘First Of May’ and ‘Don’t Forget To Remember’, all of them safely within their ballad limitations. The one time they did try and step the rhythm up, with ‘Jumbo’, they flopped.

As the Sixties closed, the Bee Gees were heading for a break-up. The once inseparable brothers had each married: Robin to NEMS receptionist Molly in December 1968, Maurice to singing star Lulu in February 1969 and finally Barry to a Scottish beauty queen in September 1970. At the same time there were the emotional problems resulting from such a concentrated period of success. Robin developed a taste for pills and decided on a solo career, Maurice perfected a London club lifestyle fuelled by alcohol and Barry became known as a marijuana smoker.

The Bee Gees effectively ceased to exist for a period of nearly two years from early 1969. In this period Robin scored Number 2 solo hit with ‘Save By the Bell’, while the remaining brothers, along with Peterson, made an album-cum-film titled Cucumber Castle (1970). Legal threats were batted between all and sundry, perhaps the most ridiculous charge being drummer Peterson’s allegation that the Gibb brothers had no right to the name Bee Gees. The trio reformed late in 1970 to record Two Years On; then came Trafalgar (1971) and Life In A Tin Can (1973), both albums lacking the cohesiveness to pull the brothers out of their slump.

Between the single ‘Run To Me’, which reached Number 9 in the UK in 1972, and the disco success of 1975, the Bee Gees were to remain hitless. The depth of their fall from greatness came home to them during a season at Batley Variety Club in Yorkshire, where they were singing their greatest hits to an uninterested audience of dinner eaters. This indignity left them to engage veteran Atlantic producer Arif Mardin to oversee their next album. Mardin had his roots in R&B, had produced greats like Aretha Franklin and was destined to turn their career around. The initial result, Mr Natural (1974), wasn’t ground-breaking, but it was a necessary transitional step.

Now settled in America, the Bee Gees’ follow-up was to set them up for the international superstardom that had eluded them in the Sixties. What Mardin did the Main Course (1975) was to connect them with the R&B sources they had always admired from a distance but never investigated. He convinced them that now was the time to go for something different in their music.

In Florida, the Bee Gees began to soak up chart music and to learn to think rhythmically. The idea for ‘Jive Talkin’’, the hit taken from the album, came from the sound their car wheels running over a railroad track. They imitated the rhythm in the studio and then improvised lyrics.

It was on a track from this album ‘Night On Broadway’ (later a bit hit singe for Candi Staton), that Mardin first encouraged the falsetto vocals that would later become instantly recognizable. Barry had let the falsetto out spontaneously on a chorus and it was soon developed into an essential part of their new sound. Mardin also worked with Maurice, teaching him new bass runs.

Unknowingly, the Bee Gees had tapped into a dance music that was soon to be the staple diet of the night-club scene the world over. They thought of it as R&B, but it was the discotheques that were to provide the name – disco music. ‘Jive Talkin’’ with its bumpy railroad-track riff was perfect for the new indoor sport that was about to grant a reprieve to the ailing record industry.

Night Fever

Shortly after the success of Main Course, however, Stigwood negotiated a new distribution deal for RSO Records with Polydor and so could no longer use Arif Mardin, who was a staff producer for Atlantic. But, as fortune would have it, an engineer from Criteria Studios, Karl Richardson, was to prove an able successor. The new production combination also involved Albhy Galuten, another Criteria engineer and music-school graduate, who interpreted the Bee Gees’ musical imaginings to session musicians and to Richardson on the mixing desk.

Their next LP, Children Of The World (1976), went platinum and yielded three hit singles, including ‘You Should Be Dancing’. The second result was the Saturday Night Feversoundtrack, one of the best-selling albums of all time, that appeared in the following year.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Bee Gees’ contributions to the soundtrack of the film (starring John Travolta) were written before see the movie script. The request for music had come during sessions at the Chateau d’Herouville in France.

Their next film venture sounded a dream on paper; the top group (Bee Gees) backing the top solo artist of the day (Peter Frampton) in a musical based on what is arguably the best pop album of all time (Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). It was far from a dream on celluloid when it appeared in 1978, however – and it didn’t help the Bee Gees to be reverting to Beatles tunes when their own career was in the ascendant.

Younger brother Andy achieved considerable success in his musical career, scoring three successive Number 1 hits in the US with ‘I Just Want To Be Your Everything’, ‘(Love Is) Thicker Than Water’ (both 1977) and ‘Shadow Dancing’ (1978). In 1980, he teamed up with Olivia Newton-John for the single ‘I Can’t Help It’ which reached Number 12 in the US.

The years following Saturday Night Fever saw only two new Bee Gees albums – Spirit Having Flown in 1979 and Living Eyes in 1981 – but there was no lack of studio activity as they took to writing for and producing other artists. 1980 saw the Gibb-Galuten-Richardson production of Guilty for Barbra Streisand, following this two years later with Heartbreaker, an album written and produced for Dionne Warwick. Both projects topped the US album charts and yielded a number of successful singles.

In 1983 came Staying Alive, the long-awaited follow-up to Saturday Night Fever. Like its predecessor, it starred John Travolta and, as before, the Bee Gees were involved with the musical score. They contributed six songs (including the title track, which had also appeared on the Fever album), but the rest of the music was supplied by lesser-known artists including Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank.

From an unlikely bunch of Beatle imitators in the mid Sixties, the Bee Gees emerged in the Seventies and Eighties as the most consistent hit-writing team in pop. Their achievement of having written 28 US Top Ten singles is bettered only by Holland-Dozier-Holland and Lennon-McCartney. There was, after all, a germ of truth in Stigwood’s boast back in 1967.

© Steve Turner, 1984

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