You can tell by the way he wears his walk, Barry Gibb’s joints aren’t what they used to be. These days, the Bee Gee whose beardy smile beamed beatifically over John Travolta on the sleeve of Saturday Night Fever, is struck with arthritis. This might help account for his troubled air on this inclement Friday afternoon. As long as the wind and rain continues to attack his rural Beaconsfield mansion, Barry isn’t going anywhere. “Filthy day”, is my host’s accurate summation. “These days I’m based in Miami. The cold weather doesn’t do my bones any good. I mean, I can deal with it but I much prefer it when the sun is out.”
Barry Gibb will cheer up shortly, but don’t hold your breath. He’s just heard that the producers of this week’s Brit Awards ceremony aren’t happy with the Bee Gees’ planned performance. “They want us to do Stayin’ Alive, and I don’t like singing Stayin’ Alive. We’re delighted they’ve decided to give us the Lifetime Achievement award, but that’s another thing altogether. If you want to give us an award, then give us the award, but not with all this hassle.”
He does, of course, have a point. Barry Gibb didn’t get to where he is today in order to obey the instructions of some TV producer. But, by the same token, there’s promotion to be done. And by reminding their public of former glories, The Bee Gees will get to tack the current hit Alone on to the end of the medley. If the tension between past successes and the desire to re-establish themselves with their new Still Waters album can get a little tiresome, it’s also necessary. the Bee Gees wouldn’t get this kind of coverage if it weren’t for Jive Talkin’, Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love. You have, in other words, to take the rough with the smooth. Don’t you, Barry?
“Well, I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” he explains, “because it’s a huge privilege – but they’re saying they want to get this Jarvis guy to give us our award. And I’ve never heard of Jarvis Cockup! What’s Jarvis Cockup got to do with The Bee Gees? There’s no association between this guy and us.”
At this juncture, your correspondent deems it only fair to remind the 52 year-old legend of Pulp’s significance in Brits mythology. “He’s actually quite a big star,” I tell Barry, “Jarvis is the guy who ran on stage during Michael Jackson’s performance last year.”
Unfortunately, this turns out to be a bad move. Barry knows exactly who “Jarvis Cockup” is. And not only does he disapprove of Jarvis’s Jacko-baiting antics, but he fears Jarvis might attempt a similar stunt with him: “I don’t want to be associated with anyone who might have pushed small children over,” he concludes, showing unyielding loyalty to the Jackson version of events. And this journalist – not wanting to piss off a Living Pop God – decides to shut up. Michael may have changed colour since the photo of him and Barry on the hirsute Bee Gee’s nearby dressing-table was taken, but the mutual respect is still there. Chastened, I follow Barry and the newly-arrived Robin into the lounge. Robin would appear to be the most reserved Bee Gee. His face is mournful and gaunt, his clothes designer black. He’ll sit and watch us talk for at least five minutes before easing into conversation. And so until that point, Barry merely confirms what we may have already guessed: “We don’t feel the need to keep abreast of trends anymore.” His bluff Mancunian accent seems unaffected by periods in Miami and Australia. Indeed, it intensifies when I ask him to piece together the “forgotten” years which preceded The Bee Gees’ globe-straddling success. “I was born in the Isle Of Man, but by the time I reached five, my dad took us to Chorlton-Cum-Hardy in order to look for a job. Right across from the house, there was this bombed-out school. And I remember wondering why it wasn’t a proper building. That’s an image that remains very vivid to this day.”
Like many parents who never achieve their dreams, Hugh Hibb – a strugging bandleader – used fatherhood as a means to resurrect his dying aspirations. By the time Barry was nine and his twin brothers Robin and Maurice were six, Hugh had them miming along to Tommy Steele records as a pre-matinee attraction at the Manchester Gaumont. Not altogether surprisingly, this wasn’t quite enough to support the Gibbs in the absence of work for Hugh. So once again, the family dramatically pre-empted Norman Tebbit’s advice and spent five weeks on a ship bound for Sydney. Barry reckons this accounts for the world-weariness that pervades much of the Bee Gees’ early music: “Certainly, northern England can give off a sadness, particularly in the winters. And being at sea for so long was weird. Especially stopping off and seeing all these exotic places. It seemed harsh at the time, but looking back, the past 30 years wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for our father. He sort of became our manager, I suppose. Every year, when the Easter show would come along, we’d be sort of a side-show. Someone would point a stick at us and say, ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ and we’d do up to 20 short performances in a day. Then, when we did a similar thing at a speedway track, a driver recommended us t a local DJ.”
On such slender pivots to entire lifetimes spin. Radio performances led to a local deal, which in turn led the excitable Mr Gibb to give up his job as a bush photographer and take the entire clan back to Britain. Less than 24 hours after arriving on British shores, showbiz impresario Robert Stigwood offered the three teenagers a five-year deal, and not without good reason.
God only knows what anguish adolescence wreaked upon the fledgling Gibbs between the Tommy Steele years and their relocation, but by 1968, Barry, Robin and Maurice had become a production line of heart-stopping orchestral ballads and fraught baroque melancholia: To Love Somebody, a song they originally wrote for Otis Redding; the monumentally foreboding World; and perhaps best of all, And The Sun Will Shine – a breathtaking slice of pop melodrama improvised into existence in a Denmark Street rehearsal room. This is a period of the Bee Gees’ career that seems to have resisted the sort of hyperbolic critical re-evaluation subsequently conferred upon, say, Scott Walker – and yet the four albums released by the Gibb brothers from 1967’s Bee Gees’ 1st, up to and including the flock-sleeved soft-psych epic Odessa represent a period of extraordinary invention.
“I’m still very fond of those songs,” says Barry, “but that was a strange time for us, because Robert was good at keeping our feet on the ground. He’d keep telling us that you’re nothing unless you’ve had five hits. But, I think, by the time we wrote the first two hits Massachusetts and New York Mining Disaster, which was basically about [the] Aberfan [disaster], we knew we were pretty good.
Having remained silent until now, Robin elaborates: “For me, To Love Somebody was the watershed, because that had more of a soul base. So when that became a hit in America, that made us realise we could do more than we thought.”
Which, after a fashion, is the point where it all started to go pear-shaped. Having overseen those requisite five hits, Stigwood could no longer contain the egos of the newly-married Bee Gees. Nary a week would go by without the music press running a story about the Gibb Brothers’ latest shopping spree. In The Legend – an illustrated authorised 1983 biography in which all the characters are portrayed as the animals they most resemble (I’m not making this up) – the Gibb brothers’ up in 1969 is depicted as a huge fight. Barry the lion is chomping at Maurice the eager beaver’s ankle. Maurice, in turn, is attempting to strangle Robin the long-faced red setter. This was no great exaggeration. Affronted that Barry’s First Of May had been chosen as an A-side over his own Lamplight, Robin – still only 19 at this point – left the group. Almost two years passed before the pair even spoke, although – again, almost on a weekly basis – the two seemed happy to vent their enmity in the pages of the music press. Over 25 years later, Barry describes the whole miserable episode as “a teething process.”
“It’s hard,” interjects Robin, “to evaluate yourself as a young person because, in our eyes, you’re not really mature enough to be worthy of evaluation. It’s just that you’ve got a big ego. And if our records seemed mature, that’s because they were good. As people though, we had a lot to learn.” Following the commercial failure of his solo album Robin’s Reign, a humbled Robin finally phoned Barry at his home in Spain and asked him if he fancied meeting up on his return to London. Barry didn’t need much persuading. The Bee Gees’ Robin-less Cucumber Castle album had stalled at number 57, prompting Barry to formally announce the dissolution of the Bee Gees in December 1969. Both Robin and Barry recorded solo albums – Robin’s mournful masterpiece Sing Slowly Sisters and Barry’s country-coloured The Kid’s No Good – that would remain unreleased. Remembering the afternoon of their reconciliation, Robin admits, “I had to pluck up some courage, but not a lot, because we were all so excited about getting back together again. We were fed up with being on our own.”
Within hours of Robin’s arrival at Barry’s Kensington flat, the two had written their first American chart-topper, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. But the success of that song had the brothers trying to repeat the ballad formula with diminishing rewards over the next four years. Maurice however – yes, we’ve got all three of them here now – is suitably philosophical about the brothers’ freefall from transatlantic superstardom to oldies sets at Batley Working Men’s Club. But then, he would be: “I met my second wife when we played Batley!” chimes the cheeriest Bee Gee. Maurice, lest we forget, had divorced Lulu and developed a drink problem. “So I’ve always believed that we have to get through certain things to get to where we want to be. But if you want an honest answer as to why we played those places, it was because of the Labour government. We were charged income tax at 85 per cent in the pound. And working men’s clubs was where the money lay.”
Eager to stress that there’s no shame in playing to “good, honest people going for a night out”, Barry adds that “working clubs were our childhood. We knew how to play those places.”
And, as it turns out, were it not for Harold Wilson, the Bee Gees might still be playing those places. Indeed, but for our pipe-smoking premier, disco may have petered into insignificance by 1977. Confused? Allow Maurice to explain: “Well, eventually, the tax situation in America got so bad that we had to move to Miami, where we recorded the Main Course album. Every night, we’d drive over this bridge to where the studio was, and the sound the tyres made on the tracks was like a ‘chukka, chukka, chukka’ sound. It was at this point that Barry’s wife Linda said ‘It’s our drive talking!’”
And, believe it or not, it was this crap reverse-pun that helped the Bee Gees become the biggest band in the world. These days, the brothers don’t recoil when talk turns to Saturday Night Fever. The jokes about white flares and medallions have subsided somewhat, and its influence on all the dance music subgenres that evolved after disco has been acknowledge by all but the most obstinate musical halfwits. Even so, it’s worth lingering a moment on the miraculous nature of the groups return from the cabaret abyss. A modern day equivalent of the Bee Gees’ resurrection might be, say, if – following from their fall from favour – A-ha had returned as The Prodigy. As Robin is keen to remind me, “you can still go to any nightclub in the world at Stayin’ Alive will still fill the dancefloor, so obviously, that’s something we’re very proud of.”
Drawing on a cigarette, Maurice recalls that Stayin’ Alive hadn’t always answered to that title. “When Robert Stigwood phoned us about the idea for this film, he told us it was about this guy from New York who works all week in order to go out dancing on a Saturday night. We were just supposed to write four songs for it, but we didn’t have a script or anything.”
Barry: “In those days, you see, you’d write the song and they’d come up with a scene to build around it. Which, I think, is a more creative way of working. Anyway, we were working on this song, which Robert wanted us to call Saturday Night, Saturday Night. And finally when we sent him the song, having changed it to Stayin’ Alive, he wanted us to change it back. But we said there are loads of songs called Saturday Night.”
The pulsating atmosphere of a Manhattan disco couldn’t be further from the surroundings which saw the creation of those songs. Tax exile once again forced the Gibbs to record Saturday Night Fever in a French chateau, 40 miles south of Paris – a crucial factor, says Barry, in the eventual quality of those songs: “Well, there was nothing for us to do there. The TV only showed French programmes and there was nowhere to go. It was so boring that you had to write something good!”
Robin breaks into a rare smile: “I remember when we finally mixed Stayin’ Alive at five in the morning, the only thing you could see was all these cows in the field just outside the window. So the first time we acutally played the finished mix back Stayin’ Alive was wafting over this meadow as the sun was coming up. Those cows were the first recipients of Stayin’ Alive”.
If you weren’t there at the time, it’s almost impossible to convey the extent of the ubiquity that Saturday Night Fever conferred upon the Bee Gees, but at the height of Bee Gees-mania on the first week of March 1978, the brothers had either written and/or performed four of the American top five singles. Little wonder everyone, including the faltering Osmonds, wanted a slice of the action.
“I ended up producing an Osmond brothers album,” sighs Maurice, with a newly-acquired air of gravity. “And I just became...embroiled.”
“It was horrible, wasn’t it?” winces Barry. “I remember we had a brief summit meeting at the Beverley Hills Hotel – our family in one corner and all these Osmonds in the other corner. It really deteriorated from there.”
That must have been a dental hygienist’s nightmare, I offer...
“I know!” smiles Barry, turning to his brothers. “It was the years of the teeth! We all had huge teeth in that Bee Gees sketch that Kenny Everett did on his show. Do you remember?”
Maurice’s gruff laugh suggests that he does. This is, of course, the famous sketch from The Kenny Everett Video Show, in which the late DJ-turned-madcap comedian asks the Bee Gees a number of questions and the brothers – all played by him, of course – answer in lines from their famous hits. “It was brilliantly done,” recalls Maurice, “Kenny did it out of respect, because he was a great mate of ours.”
I tell the assembled Gibbs that I thought the pun on Massachusetts was a moment of genius – but Barry can’t quite remember it. I explain to him that it’s the bit where Kenny asks them what they would attribute their success to – and, of course, the “Bee Gees” all sing, “Massachusetts” You know... mass-a-chew-sets...
A communal groan fills the room. Slightly less well-received, however, was Meaningless Songs (In Very High Voices) by Angus Deayton and his Heebeegeebees.
“Actually,” claims Barry, “we never heard it.”
“I heard it,” admits Robin, “but then, when you have phenomenal success, you’re always going to have people taking the piss.”
A huge pause ensues. Barry is clearly Having A Think. “Was Paul Merton in the Heebeegeebees?”
No, I tell him. You’re thinking of Angus Deayton.
“Is he Baldrick?”
Ah, no. That’s someone else.
Finally, Robin wades in: “I don’t think Merton was one of them. If nothing else, this improbably Pinteresque exchange confirms that since the 1979’s Spirits Having Flown – a masterful synergy of songwriting brilliance and studio savvy – the Bee Gees have since struggled to locate the throbbing pulse of the zeitgeist. But then, following Barry’s Brits outburst, you probably knew that already. Nevertheless, the 80s and 90s have still provided the brothers Gibb with a smattering of smashes: Barbra Streisand’s Woman In Love; Diana Ross’s Chain Reaction and their own You Win Again and For Whom The Bell Tolls all stand up to the glories of previous decades. It’s just that these days, the desire to push back the boundaries isn’t quite as prevalent: “We’re reaching an age,” says Barry, “where there’s more time behind us than in front of us. And that comes through in the music.”
Indeed it does. From a title track which takes stock of relationships past and present to the airbrushed yet pensive soul of Smoke And Mirrors, the new album Still Waters plays itself out in a fine mist of ambivalent sentiments. It’s not innovative, but then, as Robin points out, innovation is no criterion upon which to judge the worth of a record: “It’s not like we have to prove ourselves all the time,” he reasons, “These days, there’s such a massive turnover of legends who have one massive album and then they’re gone, that we can’t measure ourselves against them. Last time we were doing interviews, people would ask us about Take That and going on about how they were becoming bigger than The Beatles, and now no-one mentions them. Who’s to say it won’t be the same with Oasis and the Spice Girls?”
This sort of reasoning would be a great rationalisation, of course, if Still Waters stiffs when it comes out, but with Alone enjoying playlist ubiquity as it scales the singles chart, rationalisation won’t be necessary. Alone may also be the first record about the unavoidable solitude of the human condition ever to be premiered on the Des O’Connor show: “If I’m in pain,” explains Barry, “you can never really know how I feel, simply because you’re not me. That’s really the idea behind Alone.”
A sentiment with which we can all identify, perhaps – but wouldn’t Barry’s twin brothers, who have claim to have a psychic bond, beg to differ?
“Well,” avers Maurice, “I think that when we write together, there’s a chemistry that goes on which is quite unexplainable. Some things happen which you could never explain. But that goes right back to when Robin and I were children. I remember one time when Robin got bruised in a bicycle accident and I ended up with the same bruises, even though I was in the bath at the time – too much wanking probably! That’s what our E.S.P. album was about.”
“No, it was about our fascination with the paranormal. Barry’s seen UFO’s and I had a ghostly dog turn up at the end of my bed once.”
Robin, who since 1985 has been married to Dwina, a practicing druid, has also experienced his share of inexplicable goings-on: “I live in an 800 year-old monastery and there was a font adjoining on of the bedroom walls which used to periodically fill up with water, and no-one could work out why.”
Maurice: “We’re all fascinated by the unexplained: record company executives, the Labour Party... Hahahah!”
If the mood is brighter than when you first joined us, that’s possibly because the afternoon is too. Robin sands up and points at the window. “Look! What’s that yellow ball coming over the trees?”
“Where?” squints Barry, rising to join him. “Oh, that!”
And in an oddly touching moment, the world’s greatest vocal group converges by the window which faces out onto Barry’s huge garden. Age may be catching up with them, but when, in the words of Jarvis Cockup, we “all meet up in the year 2000”, there’s every chance it’s their records we’ll be dancing to.