North Sydney: Ebury Books, Random House, 2013, 319pp.
ISBN 978 1 74275 157 (pbk)
Reviewed by D L Lewis, March 2nd, 2014
The Bee Gees are one of the great enigmas of popular music – nothing seems to be consistent. Unfairly derided, they are among the world’s biggest selling acts: only the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Garth Brooks outsell them. Yet, they tend to remain forgotten, although the nostalgia plaguing modern culture currently (see Reynolds, S, Retromania: Pop Culture’s addiction to its own past, Faber and Faber, ebook, 2011), has seen them return several times. It is a story that is well-known though, as Meyer found, it is not terribly accurate. Like so many child performers, they were driven by a father who didn’t get the breaks he might have. Unlike Murry Wilson or Joe Jackson, though, Hugh Gibb was not physically or emotionally abusive: though he could drive them hard and be critical, he was a loving father. A wild childhood in England, and a penurious employment of Hugh, saw them emigrate as ‘ten pound poms’ to Australia. Here, they perfected their live performances. They were discovered by Brisbane radio personality Bill Gates (no relation) and racing identity Bill Good. Christening the young band the Bee Gees (after themselves, not after the Brothers Gibb), Barry and twins Maurice and Robin soon became fixtures on Brisbane radio and television.
The now inevitable hits followed, coupled with an ambition to leave Australia and go back to Britain. As they release their first Australian No. 1, Spicks and Specks, they sign with Robert Stigwood, manager of Cream, who becomes the strong father figure they need to guide them, mentor them and rebel from. They crack the British charts. Still young, they enter a life of excess. As Meyer points out, their idol’s music had either been forgotten or canonised. The Bee Gees’ influences were still on the charts.
The records are smashed: Barry Gibb is the only person to have four consecutive US #1s. Saturday Night Fever is the biggest selling soundtrack of all time. Barry has worked with Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Dolly Parton. At the age of 66, Barry, the eldest, is the surviving brother of four sons. His sister Lesley, who has sung on some of the tracks, is also still alive.
It’s a difficult biography to compile – the enigmas and contradictions pour on top of each other. Although it is honest, and critical, it doesn’t muckrake. The alpha, Barry, jostling for attention for the twins, quiet, humble Maurice and prickly showoff Robin all fight themselves, each other, and addictions. Most band biographies are most interesting in their early days – the struggle, the discovery of talent, the development of new sounds. The Bee Gees remain a fascinating study throughout their careers. Perhaps they are closest in history and style to the Beach Boys, as far as the Bee Gees fit anywhere. They are innovators, wildly successful, immensely talented. Yet they are perpetual outsiders. They lack street cred. Gorgeous harmonies, often great songs, well-marketed images abound. They aren’t really an English band, or an Australian band, or an American band. The only identifiable genre they play is disco and that only for two or three albums. The author states that they didn’t do covers on their albums in the introduction – perhaps he is forgetting, or discounting the debacle of the soundtrack to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with Peter Frampton.
The most affecting chapter is on the fourth brother Andy. Andy himself was a bright, talented interpreter of songs. He could write them, but they tended to be not as good as Barry’s – but then, whose are? Being significantly younger than the others, he gained opportunities denied to other young musicians. He himself holds some significant records – most notably, he holds the only single on the US charts to fall from no. 1 and return the week after. Yet, Andy, like his brothers, struggled with addictions and depression. At the age of 30, his heart gives out after years of cocaine and Quaalude abuse. Meyer points out that he was ahead of his time insofar as he’d have made for great reality TV. As much as I’d like to dismiss this, I can’t help but agree.
Saturday Night Live makes them superstars: the soundtrack is incredible. The movie itself was based on a Atlantic Monthly article, which, it turned out, was a complete fabrication. Nonetheless, it is the work for which the Bee Gees will always be most fondly remembered. Meyer states the most famous track, ‘Stayin’ Alive’, is both the best track on the album and later, after some analysis, ‘grating’. It has some historical interest outside being the defining track of the fourth biggest selling album of all time. Its drum pattern is a tape loop: the first of its kind. The Bee Gees are part of the development of electronic dance music. It is perhaps satisfying in a narrative sense that the next project they do after Saturday Night Fever is Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a film which fails in its intentions to take the crown from the Beatles by beating them at their own game. Triumph before hubris. They spend from 1980 to 1987 writing and producing for others.
The book ends not with the sad deaths of Robin and Maurice, but with the quiet triumphant return of Barry Gibb to performance. He launches his first solo tour at the age of 65. He sings at the Grand Ole Opry. He spends $150,000 on a show, which is felt to be an audition for himself. It is a nice place to end the book: triumph rising from adversity.
A book of this scope and subject will have errors: the young brothers sing My Old Man’s a Dustman, not My Father Is a Dustman. The linguistic distinction is important: it’s a Cockney song, and requires cockney language. Rock around the Clock is not ‘Dance in a post-jive style for many hours’ for a reason. Barry is described as having a ‘flare’ for songwriting. Meyer describes a video of Andy performing You should be dancing with Barry, Maurice and Robin using an overlong comparison of The Edge and Jack White going to Jimmy Page’s house and the joy they feel. The early years feel a bit rushed, but there is so much to say, that is probably the best choice. There are a few misplaced commas. But nothing that detracts from the quality of the work.
As a band, the Bee Gees are an incredible phenomenon. Young songwriters could do much, much worse than analyse and transcribe their songs. Another fact gleaned from this book: Barry plays guitar in an open tuning. Meyer points out this probably shapes the unusual and unique sound that his songs have. The other thing is their lack of musical knowledge: years of playing crappy clubs and parochial television taught them everything they needed to know.
Barry had nothing to do with the book, and several anonymous interviews from people who were worried about Barry’s reaction are used as sources. While it would have been nice, and may have tempered some of the harsher judgements, the distance this gave produces some very good conclusions and insights.
Meyer has written an entirely enjoyable and worthy book that should become a standard reference for all things Bee Gees.