ALIVE & KICKING
(Entertainment Weekly, May 23, 1997)

Disco Darlings the Bee Gees have seen some lonely days, but a nod from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has made the Brothers Gibb feel like dancing again

Barry Gibb stands in the Bunker, tapping his foot.

The Bunker is Gibb's nickname for Middle Ear Studio, a stuffy, windowless recording compound in Miami Beach. Here on a March afternoon, Gibb is sifting through a medley of Bee Gees songs -an instrumental marathon of hits that Gibb and his younger brothers, Maurice and Robin, will croon along to at an awards show in Monaco.

As he leans toward the mixing console, a rubbery, serpentine rhythm suddenly overtakes the room. Gibb smiles and begins to mouth the words -quietly, almost ruefully. The song is "Stayin'Alive."

Then it's over. The epochal groove that once sent John Travolta strutting into history with a can of paint segues into a ballad called "Alone," the first single from the Bee Gees' new album, Still Waters. But... huh? Seconds later, the room starts quaking all over again to the feverish pulse of "Stayin' Alive."

"Wait," Gibb says to engineer John Merchant. "You had 'Stayin' Alive' in there already!"

Merchant looks up with a grin. "And what's the problem with that?"

The world, apparently, couldn't agree more. Two decades after Saturday Night Fever lured the heartland into the spangled, thumping debauchery of dance music -and 17 years after a rallying cry of "Disco sucks!" turned the Brothers Gibb into pop pariahs- people are ready to give the Bee Gees another chance. All the telltale signs of rehabilitation have fallen into place: VH1 has honored the trio with a one-hour hootenanny on its Storytellers series. Wyclef Jean of the Fugees has cut "We Trying to Stay Alive," a hip-hop riff on the Fever anthem. Paramount Pictures is gearing up for a Star Wars-style re-release of Fever this fall. And, in a gesture the rock elite might've considered heresy a few years ago, the erstwhile patriarchs of polyester have just secured a berth in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"It's like the pinnacle of everything you've worked for," says Maurice Gibb, 48, the brother who's fond of wearing hats. (He's sporting a gray fedora during the interview.) "It vindicates everything you've believed in."

Most Rock veterans affect a stony detachment when they talk about the Hall of Fame, but the Bee Gees act as giddy as preteens prepping for a class trip. Even though they really don't need to justify their impact on pop culture, they still seem desperate to prove that they're down with the cool crowd.

It's been that way for almost 40 years. Born in England but raised in Brisbane, Australia, the Bee Gees broke into the Sydney club circuit when the twins, Robin and Maurice, had barely hit puberty. By 1966, they were stars at home, but nobodies north of the equator. "The Beatles came to Australia, and it was like 'WOW!'" says Maurice. "We wanted to be like them. We didn't know what they earned or anything - we just wanted to get to know them.

Early in 1967 the trio caught a boat to England, met up with Robert Stigwood, and began to lace the charts with sweet, baroque, post-Mersey beat singles like "Massachusetts" and "Holiday." Pretty soon, the wide-eyed Aussies were the toast of swingin' London, hanging out at the Speakeasy with the likes of Cream, the Who, and yep - the Fab Four. John Lennon himself bought Maurice his first Scotch and Coke on the night after the cover shoot for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "We ended up in his big Rolls Royce," Maurice recalls, "with [Lennon] throwing up on the carpet."

Likewise, the Bee Gees' magical mystery tour soon came to a sour end - thanks to fraternal spats, glam rock and a rash of high living (Maurice joined AA 13 years after downing that first cocktail). The breakup didn't last long: A 1971 family reunion yielded "Lonely Days," though another dry spell soon followed. By 1975, however, the Bee Gees found a new groove with Main Course. It was around this time that Stigwood asked to borrow some tunes for a movie soundtrack. "My first meeting with Robert Stigwood, he hands me this demo and says, 'Three number ones are on this tape,'" says SNF director John Badham. "It seems like one of the most arrogant statements that somebody could possibly make."

It wasn't. Fever's funky arias - delivered in falsettos so steep they'd induce a hernia in a weaker man - set off a chemical reaction. For a year, the charts were Gibb-locked. There were hits from Fever Hits the Bee Gees wrote for others (Frankie Valli's "Grease"). Even hits by baby brother, Andy.

Naturally, the Bee Gees were just begging for backlash - and they got it. "It was easy to write them off and listen to more underground stuff," says Joe McGinty, a New York session musician-songwriter (he recently put together a Bee Gees tribute at a hip Manhattan club.) In the 80's disco skidded off the charts, and the Bee Gees were treated "as if we had leprosy," says Robin.

"To have the music loved so much and then rejected out of hand within a decade...," sighs Barry, now 50. "Your family thinks it's over for you. You're no longer going to be a pop star. 'What are you going to do now, Dad?'"

What they did was retreat into the Bunker. Living within a stone's throw of one another in Miami Beach, the three brothers locked themselves in the studio, producing tracks for Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick. Things reached a nadir in 1988, when Andy Gibb died of a heart ailment, perhaps aggravated by years of cocaine abuse, just after his 30th birthday. Their father, bandleader Hughie Gibb, died soon after. "[It] was a big soul-growth time for us," Barry says. "Once your own blood passes on, that has a devastating effect."

Barry's son Steve, 23, swings through the Bunker to say goodbye; he's flying to New York this afternoon to cut a demo with a band called the Underbellies. (A number of third-generation Gibbs have gone into the family business: Robin's son Spencer, 24, plays guitar, while Maurice's children Adam, 21, and Samantha, 16, are shopping around for a record deal.

Like any father and son, Barry and Steve are a study in contrasts, Barry wears a cardigan sweater and pair of wingtips; Steve sports a punkish black T-shirt and arms slathered in tattoos.

"Keep in touch," Barry says, opening his arms for a hug.

"Okay, Dad," says Steve. "I'll call you, let you know what's going on."

You don't have to be a Gibb to see that a lot has changed since the days of mirror balls and platform shoes. Even the surliest disco detractors have come to embrace what nobody had the guts to admit in the mid-80's: The Bee Gees wrote some killer tunes. At the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony on May 6, the trio whipped through a medley of seven of them (from "To Love Somebody" through "You Should Be Dancing") that had industry execs boogying in their tuxes. Dress in dour black, the Gibbs used an oft-quoted slogan to describe their decline: "We're the enigma with the stigma," said Barry. But they seem flush with their newfound creed; a stream of well-wishers dropped by their table for autographs and hugs.

Still, the Bee Gees have not enjoyed the kind of career resurrection that compatriot John Travolta saw with Pulp Fiction. Their last album Size Isn't Everything petered out at 124,000 copies. And, Still Waters, with it's bevy of languid ballads, isn't exactly a funky relapse of the Fever. "Our biggest battle right now is to focus people on the new Bee Gees, because it's so tempting to instantly go into flashback," concedes Polydor president Nich Gatfield.

But Barry Gibb has been written off before. After all, this is a man who's faced outright ridicule. "That creates hunger," says Gibb, calm as a Tibetan monk. "You're determined to show it's not over." "Stayin' Alive," it turns out is now the Bee Gees' manifesto.

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