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.
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
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 there 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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