MOJO Magazine - May Issue - Pages 48 - 52
YOU LOOKIN ' AT ME? By Johnny Black
Ridiculed as disco has-beens, The Bee Gees have come through death, pills, booze, and the derision of bald barristers to become the ultimate pop survivors. Johnny Black documents their remarkable resurrection.
"What image?" asks Barry Gibb, "I haven't' got an image," What he does have, though, is a guitar. It's a second-hand customized hollow-bodied Epiphone, bought just half an hour ago, and he's showing it off proudly to sound engineer John Merchant in the Bee Gees' Miami Beach workplace, Middle Ear Studios. "The bloke in the shop didn't want to sell me it," says Barry, the pitch of his voice rising. "He said it didn't fit
my image. What does he think I am, a librarian? Right now I don't think I've got an image. I'm hoping this guitar will give me one. I said, I'm reinventing myself - just put the guitar in the box!"
Merchant eyes his boss, as if seeking a clue as to whether there's a trace of whimsy in the remarks. The body of the guitar is hand-painted with a striking, not to say lurid, flame design. Mother-of-pearl dice are inlaid at the points along the fretboard, and extravagantly large red-and-white translucent plastic dice have replaced the volume and tone controls.
Barry holds the guitar up and studies it in detail for a moment, before his mouth finally cracks into a tell-tale grin. "I think the big dice will have to go."
Few Artists can be quite so acutely aware of their image as Barry Gibb. In the mid-70's, when the Bee Gees were outselling every other act on the planet, their open-shirted, wind-blown disco dude look did more harm to their reputation than 'net porn did to Gary Glitter. Within a couple of years, it had rendered their craft naff and their multi-platinum achievements vulgar. Consigned to the darkest recesses of that rockin' remainder-bin marked 'disco oblivion', their reputation was not fully restored until two decades later when, suddenly, it
seemed as if every teen band in the world spent all its time poring over The Bee Gees' back catalogue in search of inspiration.
No, Barry Gibb knows exactly what his image is. Maybe that's why, for his MOJO interview, he's turned up in a crumpled blue shirt over a baggy blue V-neck and scruffy old blue jeans, the whole ensemble topped off with a denim baseball cap - blue, defiantly won the right way round. He appears every inch the working rock musician at ease. Then again, maybe he actually is just a working rock musician, albeit of the multi-millionaire persuasion, and he happens to be at ease. With an artist who has been in the public eye for over 40 years, it's impossible to know for sure.
His reading glasses and his shades dangle from the base of the V-neck, and he sips continually from a plastic bottle of Evian water. "Let's go upstairs and do it," he says. We amble out of the studio, past a small alcove housing a shrine to Andy, the youngest Gibb brother, the one who didn't survive the excesses of stardom. His guitar hangs on the wall, a single rose taped to the front, with other mementoes surrounding it. Later, Barry will tell me that the most stupid question anybody can ask him is, "What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?", because the answer is so obvious and still so painful.
In the stairwell, we pass more platinum discs than most people have discs. At the top, next to the office of their personal manager, Dick Ashby, a big, airy, wood-panelled room with an opulent leather suite has been set aside for the interview. Maurice, looking tanned and fit, shows up in an expensive black leather jacket and matching hat which stays on throughout the afternoon. As he speaks, he drags continually on Dunhills and peers over his pince-nez. His non-identical twin, Robin, is last to arrive. Almost worryingly stick-like and seeming the least relaxed of the trio, he's nonetheless amiable.
It all seems almost too laid-back because The Bee Gees are notoriously not an interviewer's dream. It's said that they're touchy about the disco years, that Barry has an inflated concept of his own status, and, famously,
this is the band who, on October 22, 1997, stalked off the Clive Anderson - All Talk TV show in mid-interview.
"We've lived through much worse than that," points out Maurice. The way he tells it, being well aware of the Anderson style they'd declined to appear on the show for two years. Eventually, on being assured that Anderson was a huge fan, they consented. "Then the three of us go out there and as soon as he opened his mouth."
It certainly wasn't long before Anderson said, "You're hit writers, aren't you? I think that's the word, anyway." Barry Gibb responded, "That's the nice word." And Anderson immediately quipped, "We're one letter short."
"People think it was the last thing he said - the remark about tossers - that made us walk off," says Barry. "It wasn't. It was the very first thing. We gave him a few more minutes out of professionalism."
"We could see our fans in the audience," confirms Maurice, "and they were stunned, like, 'How can they sit here and take that?' Before I knew it, Barry was up, and I could feel the heat from his body. He was really angry.
But some good has come out of it. Robin has changed since that night. He's mellowed down. It's like he got rid of all the garbage. People have been taking the piss for many years. Anderson was just the straw that broke the camel's back. That was a turning point for us."
Blood being thicker than hair spray, The Bee Gees have ridden out many difficult spells that would have finished off less determined spirits. Drink and drug problems caused them to split at the end of the '60's. Their 1974 album A Kick In The Pants Is Worth Eight In The Head was rejected by RSO, the label owned by their manager Robert Stigwood. Then came the ill-fated 1978 Sgt. Pepper movie, a critical and financial disaster followed two years later by a high-profile court case when songwriter Ron Selle sued them, claiming they'd stolen the song How Deep Is Your Love.
But as if they thrived on adversity, every time they were counted out, The Bee Gees came back stronger than before. The first great reinvention was in 1975. The previous year had seen them sink to trudging round the UK supper club circuit. "I remember us talking about it backstage at Batley Variety Club," recalls Barry. "I said, If this is the bottom, there's no further we can fall. Something's gotta happen for the positive."
What happened was Arif Mardin. After rejecting A Kick In The Pants, Stigwood put the band together with the revered Atlantic Records producer/arranger, who'd worked with Aretha Franklin, The Rascals, Dusty
Springfield and Hall & Oates. "The first album I did with them, Mr. Natural, didn't do well, and they were very
despondent about that," says Mardin. "But to me, it was just a beginning. I was learning how to work with them. It was the second album, Main Course, which we did at Criteria Studios in Miami, that turned everything around."
But even Main Course had started off badly, as the band simply rehashed their old big ballad formula that had now worn so thin. Stigwood flew out from England and delivered a pep talk. "I didn't like a lot of the tracks.
I told them I wanted to scrap a lot of the things they'd done, and I'd like them to start again. I'd swallow the costs, not to worry, but to open their ears and find out in contemporary terms what is going on."
Luckily, remembers Barry, what was going on in Miami was a thriving soul/R&B scene, which re-kindled the band's early love of black music. Mardin encouraged a move in that direction, suggesting they should bring in some of those new-fangled funky synthesizers, and the first result was Jive Talkin'. "I have to stress," he says, "that we were not trying to make a dance record. We were just trying to make some music we liked. It was only when we played it for Robert Stigwood, and for Ahmet Ertegun, my boss at Atlantic, that they both said it was a natural dance hit."
The next building block in the reinvention of The Bee Gees came when they were working on Nights On Broadway. Keyboardist Blue Weaver recalls: "We'd recorded the song in a key that Barry found difficult to sing in. He had to take his voice down very low, which was giving him problems." Mardin suggested taking it up an octave, which Barry could only achieve by going into falsetto. "Arif said to me, 'Can you scream?'
I said, Under certain circumstances. He said, 'Can you scream in tune?'
I said, Well, I'll try." Barry was not immediately convinced, but Mardin was adamant that it worked, giving the track the extra emotional impetus and energy it had lacked.
The dance grooves, funky synths and falsetto vocals became the new Bee Gees trademark, spawning an astonishing run of hits peaking in December 1977 when, fuelled by the success of the movie Saturday Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love became the first of six singles on RSO Records to consecutively hit the US Number 1 slot. By January 1979, the Bee Gees-dominated Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had notched up 25 million sales.
"People think we sat down and planned the whole thing, but it just happened that way," insists Maurice. "Robert asked us to do some songs for a little film he was producing. We just thought it would be a nice soundtrack to a nice little film about this guy who works in a paint shop, blows his wages every Saturday night and wins a dance competition. End of story. Then it blew everything else out of the water. Other record
companies were pressing it up for our record company because we couldn't keep up the supply."
It was, ironically, a rare case of success breeding failure. With disco perceived by the white rock media as manufactured teen pap, The Bee Gees were tarred as traitors, and their ongoing, ego-driven fraternal bickering
won them no friends. By the start of the '80's they were continually denying that the group was about to split again. "A lot of people thought we started with Saturday Night Fever, so it became our albatross," says Maurice. "Before the film, we were called blue-eyed soul, but after the film we were the kings of disco. How Deep Is Your Love was an R&B ballad, but when the film came out it was a disco ballad."
"I'll tell you something, though, I love those songs and, whatever went down, we had to go through there to get to here. A lot of people I know would have loved to have a Fever in their career. I've always been proud of
it, but we had to live with the pisstake through the negative '80's."
Barry is less phlegmatic. "Oh, it still haunts me like hell. Every time anyone asks me about it my mouth goes dry. It's almost become the kind of subject matter that to talk about actually will make you nauseous. We won't be playing too many of those songs on the next tour. But that's one side of my brain. The other side says wasn't that a wonderful time and it wasn't really about The Bee Gees, so don't worry about it. It was about a period of time where everybody was sort of going through a party mode. Maybe it was something else we were trying to get over."
Although most of the '80's, the decade in which Andy died, saw the group at a low ebb, Barry continued to shine as a songwriter/producer, helming Woman In Love for Barbra Streisand (US and UK Number1), ), Islands In The Stream for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (US Number 1), Chain Reaction for Diana Ross (UK Number1) and Dionne Warwick's comeback smash Heartbreaker. Then, in what was beginning to seem like a Pavlovian response to failure, the group reunited with Arif Mardin and bounced back yet again, hitting Number 1 in the UK with You Win Again in 1987. So what is it that keeps them going?
"One of the commonest misconceptions about The Bee Gees is that it's Barry's group," says Arif. "It isn't. Certainly Robin and Maurice look up to him because he's their big brother, but if you've ever watched them write a song, you'll know that they all contribute, and they're each prepared to fight for their ideas."
You Win Again is a perfect example. "When we get together and write it's not like three individuals, it's like one person in the room," says Maurice. "Usually we have a book of titles and we just pick one. I loved You Win Again as a title, but we had no idea how it might turn out as a song. It ended up as a big demo in my garage, and I recorded stomps and things. There was just one drum on there. The rest was just sounds. Then everybody tried to talk us out of the stomps at the start. They didn't want it. 'Take it off. Too loud! Can we have them on the intro, just when the music starts?' All this stuff. But as soon as you hear that 'jabba-doomba, jabba-doomba' on the radio, you know it's us. It's a signal. So that's one little secret, give people an automatic identification of who it is."
"We're all boss of this band at one time or another," confirms Barry. "If I get really dogged about something and I don't want to do it and everyone else does, my wife Linda will turn 'round and say, 'Get your pants on and go and bloody do it and shut up moaning.' In fact, all the Bee Gee wives are good like that. They have no time for our egos.
They'll say, 'This is that showbiz ego thing - get rid of it, act your age.' So we're like that with each other, as brothers. We drive each other."
Although the group didn't manage any Number 1s in the '90's, they weren't too unhappy with a UK Number 2 album (Still Waters, 1997) and a brace of top 20 singles, but the banner of their songwriting legacy was now taken up by a new generation of pop acts. N-Trance took Stayin' Alive to Number 1 in Canada, Take That ended their career with a UK Number 1 version of How Deep Is Your Love, Boyzone covered Words (UK Number 1) and Steps covered Tragedy (UK Number1).
"That was wonderful confirmation for us as songwriters, but everything really started to change in 1997," reflects Maurice. "We had four Lifetime Achievement Awards in three months, from the World Music Awards to our induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I mean, that's quite weird. It just started turning around, and people started listening. So when the One Night Only live shows came out in 1998, there was incredible interest."
Structured to give a bunch of middle-aged men an easier life on the road, the One Night Only concerts were a stroke of genius. Playing just one show in a string of major cities worldwide not only bestowed the cachet of rarity value to each Bee Gee event, but also gave them time to recharge their batteries between each show. None of them was getting any younger; in particular, Barry had been in the hospital during 1994 with heart problems.
"Playing Wembley Stadium had been a dream of ours for years," says Maurice. "But what I remember most about it was that we were all up in this room above the stadium watching the crowds stream in and Barry nudged me and said, 'Well, we got away with it. We fooled them again.' And we just laughed ourselves silly, because that's how it's always felt to us - like we're getting away with it and one day somebody will notice."
The new album, This Is Where I Came In, finds each individual Bee Gee making his presence felt more than on any previous effort. "We each approached this album in different ways," explains Robin. "So that each of us could have a little more of our own creative bursts, we decided to cut two tracks per brother and do the rest together, but we still ended up helping each other out on the individual tracks. I cut mine in England with Pete Vitesse, who worked with us on the One album. Maurice did his in the studio here pretty much as a solo effort. Then Barry came in with our touring band, which gave his tracks a different approach."
The result is probably the most diverse bunch of tracks The Bee Gees have ever recorded. "In a way, it's a retrospective," concedes Barry. "It's a look at four, five, maybe six decades. There's influences in all those decades for us. Technicolor Dreams, for example, is more of a Noel Coward song than a Bee Gee song, but to make an album of one kind of music, at this point in our lives, is a little bit boring. We're just recording based on all of our influences right from being children, and we don't really mind which era they come from."
"I have to tell you," says Maurice, barely able to contain his delight, "I did this song, Walking On Air - very summery and Beach Boys, that wonderful type of thing - Brian Wilson called me last night and said, 'I'm blown away with Walking On Air.' Which just validated it for me, because it was like a tribute to him because of all the harmonies they've done over the years which influenced so many people, particularly us."
Apart form the potential dents in their egos, whether or not the new album goes multi-platinum is hardly an issue. The Bee Gees, who claim to have made nothing out of their '60's successes, are now in clover. "We've been able to renegotiate everything," explains Barry. "We went back to '67, when we had our first financial conflicts, and we demanded everything that we owned back and we got that. We now own all of our work, we own all our publishing, we own all of our record masters. Today, times are extremely good and we're in control of ourselves. As far as having hits is concerned, we never know if we're going to do it again. We're
just driven to do it, and if it doesn't work we're despondent, and if it does it's like a five-year-old getting an ice cream cone. There's nothing to beat it."
Although they had disputes with 'fourth Bee Gee' Robert Stigwood over the years, Barry now says there's nothing he would change. "I don't ever remember Robert making a bad move. I don't even think Sgt. Pepper was a bad move. It looks bad in retrospect, but it was a great idea for a film. Robert's instinct was right."
A figure of enormous power and influence, Stigwood had remained remote from the media. The Gibbs, however, insist that rather than being a power-crazed Svengali, his was a paternal presence in the Brian Epstein mould. "We were always fortunate to have Robert looking after us, because there were a lot of sharks around. With us and Robert, from the start, it was an absolute collaboration. We could get together over dinner with the president of the record company and our manager and play our tracks and everybody would discuss what would be the best things to do."
As the years have passed, though, the Gibbs have watched the industry become increasingly fragmented and clandestine. "There's a dark side to the top end of the business which the artist never sees. There are country houses where powerful people meet to plan careers or to help each other out in different ways. All the record company presidents do the same thing. As a result, the artist becomes very isolated. The manager speaks to the record company president. The company president calls the manager back, and the manager lets the group know what's been decided. But that's the business now. It's conglomerate, it's not localised."
As an example, he cites the case of a song he recently composed with the Backstreet Boys in mind. "Of all the boy bands, I think they're the best," he says. "I wrote this song for them, got it to them and had word back that they loved it. The next message is from their manager: the Backstreet Boys only record the songs he gives them. What's that all about?"
It's a blow to his pride rather than his wallet, but he has no time to dwell on it. As we finish, he returns to the studio where he and John Merchant go over details of the arrangements, musicians and equipment they'll need for an upcoming BBC TV special. To promote the new album they're planning One Night Only concerts, in Japan, Brazil and ("Hopefully," says Maurice) the UK. Beyond that, at least partly inspired by MOJO's recent Buried Treasure feature, there's a proposal to stage Robin's finest moment, their concept album Odessa, in a series of special shows.
Despite their exceptionally daft name, their oft-checkered career, their sibling bickerings, their improbable teeth, and more, The Bee Gees now rank in the top 5 most successful recording artists ever, alongside The Beatles, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Barry is rated the all-time Number 3 record producer, with the most Number 1 records (14). The adoration of the '90's teeny bands is easy to understand, but it's when you hear Britpop overlord Noel Gallagher stating, "I wish I'd written a song like To Love Somebody" or goth godfather Alice Cooper declaring, "They're great songwriters. I love their music", that you know The Bee Gees have moved beyond image, cool, and fashion, even beyond sales graphs. It's hard to imagine what they can do next to screw it all up and plunge them back into despair. But hey, they'll think of something.
Look out for part two of The Bee Gees story, the '60's, in next month's MOJO. (If anyone has Part Two of this could they please scan it and email it to me, thanks).