"THE ROGUE GENE"
(by Johnny Black, Mojo, June
one of the greatest songwriting teams of the 60's; but behind The Bee Gees' hits lurks a
tale of extradition, amphetamines, train crashes and sibling rivalry."We all wanted
to be leader," they tell Johnny Black. It was Easter 1965.The Stones were at Number 1
in the UK with The Last Time, The Beatles and The Supremes were battling it out in America
and, sandwiched somewhere between a herd of prime beef and a bearded lady, The Bee Gees
were knocking the farmhands dead at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney, Australia.
"You had the barker standing out front," remembers Barry Gibb, "shouting,
'Roll up, roll up, see the two-headed lady, the snake dancer and The Bee Gees.'It was like
Barnum Bailey, except it was the annual agricultural show.There were sheep, cows, tractors
and this long avenue of tents, a shanty Vegas, each with a different act inside."
Much as The Beatles honed their craft in the bars of Hamburg, so Antipodean teen hopefuls
The Bee Gees racked up an exhausting 20 performances a day, five songs a set, among the
hay bales at the Easter showpiece. It should have been just so much rustic grist to
the mill but, like The Beatles, Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb needed something extra to
keep going. "There were stimulants you could buy in chemist shops," says
Barry. "Our favourite was liquid methedrine, which is now a well-known
amphetamine. Perfectly legal, and we had no idea how dangerous it was."
Within five years, the Gibbs' need for speed would help tear them apart.
Eldest of the trio, Barry, had been born on September 1, 1946 in Douglas on the Isle Of
Man.The twins, Robin and Maurice followed three years later, on December 22.Their mother,
Barbara, was a singer, and their father, Hughie, ran a dance band playing on the ferries
between Liverpool and Douglas."All we heard around the house was 78's of the Glenn
Miller Orchestra and The Mills Brothers," says Maurice."Dad loved their close
harmony singing, and he taught us how to do it."
When the dance band fell on hard times, the family moved to Manchester and, although
Hughie's income hardly improved, his coaching of the boys paid off in 1957. As
Maurice remembers it,"We were living in Keppel Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and the
Gaumont cinema was our local. We used to go every Saturday for the Flash Gordon
serials.This kid would get up in the interval and mime to Elvis records.We thought, God,
we can do that. The next week, we set off with a Tommy Steele record, Butterfingers, to
mime to, but I dropped it and it broke."
With a cinema full of rowdy kids to entertain, the manager insisted that they do
something."Barry had his guitar, so we just went into what we did at home ; Lollipop,
Book Of Love, and Putting On The Style.And they all stood up and clapped."
As well as their close harmonies, another future trademark was already in
place."Barry had been given that guitar the previous Christmas," notes
Maurice."We'd been making our own guitars out of cheese boxes and fuse wire, so Dad
got him a cheap guitar.This soldier Dad knew taught Barry how to tune his guitar to an
open D, which is still how he plays today."
With the addition of a couple of friends, The Rattlesnakes were born and played their
first professional gig at The Gaumont on December 28.From that moment, there was no
turning back."We were walking down the street in Chorlton," says Maurice,
"and Barry said, 'One day we're all going to be famous.' And we just went, OK.And we
really believed it."
For a while, though, a life of crime looked like a profitable alternative. It started with
the boys and older sister Lesley playing truant, but quickly escalated."I was Mr.
Goody Two Shoes," explains Maurice, "because on my one and only crime spree,
lifting a bottle of orange juice off a doorstep, I was caught and three policemen walked
me home.But Barry and Robin were pilfering left, right and center from Woolies and getting
away with it." When pilfering progressed to house-breaking and meter-raiding, Barry
landed two years' probation, while an older accomplice went to jail.
"One day I was walking home," recounts Maurice, "and all the billboards on
the main street in Chorlton were blazing away, firemen and police running around
everywhere.That was Robin, the family arsonist.Another time he set the back of a shop on
Things came to a head when the local bobby rapped on the Gibbs' door."We'd been
truanting, so we pretended to be sick in bed," says Maurice."I head him saying,
'Lads home, are they?' and Dad said, 'Yes.'He said, 'I've been having a word with my
sergeant.They're thinking of emigrating people to Australia. Have you thought about that
Left in no doubt that his options consisted of seeing his boys in jail or moving to the
land down under, Hughie reluctantly packed up and relocated the family again, arriving in
Australia on September 1, 1958. Fortunately, given a fresh start the boys
concentrated on music, progressing from lounges and bars to a support slot with Chubby
Checker at Sydney Stadium and, in January 1963, a contract with Festival Records.
Their string of Festival releases failed to convincingly crack the Australian charts, but
they were now writing their own material and, more significantly, having their songs
covered by other artists, including Australia's biggest home-grown rock star, Col Joye.
It was 1966 before they encountered the man who was to provide them with their first
Australian Number 1."Ossie Byrne had a butcher's shop in Hurtsville, Sydney,
converted into a studio," recalls Maurice."It was all reel to reel:you'd do the
backtrack on one tape, put it on the bottom, put a blank tape on the top, do the vocals
and mix it as you go, and that was Spicks And Specks."
But their sights were set on broader horizons.Among their contemporaries was a band called
The Easybeats."We knew those guys," says Barry."They went to England and
had a hit and we thought, If they can, so can we. People didn't think we had a chance but,
against a lot of advice, we decided to go."Hughie sent a package containing their
Australian releases, other artists' covers of Gibb songs plus their latest acetates
straight to the top of the UK music scene:Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
Despite the fact that their 13th single, Spicks And Specks, was bulleting up the local
charts, and despite having heard not one word from Epstein, The Bee Gees sailed for
England on January 3, 1967.
"We stopped off in India, the Middle East, Cairo, the Pyramids," says
Barry. "And the things we discovered in back street bazaars!!You could buy
bottles of Dexedrine, every kind of stimulant, no questions asked.We were on a ship, but
we flew all the way."
By the time they reached England, Spicks And Specks was Australia's Number 1, but that
fact cut little ice in London. "We trudged around Denmark Street," says
Maurice, "saw the manager of The Seekers, the manager of Cliff Richard, and they all
told us we were wasting our time, groups were out.We were staying in a semi-detached in
Hendon wondering what to do when my mother said we'd had a call from Robert Stickweed.We
had no idea who that was."
Stickweed was, of course, Robert Stigwood, MD of Brian Epstein's NEMS empire.Impressed by
their Beatlish harmonies, he invited them to his office."He looked very
Edwardian," remembers Barry, "with sideburns and a velvet-lapel jacket, Oscar
Wilde-ish, with grayer hair. We went into his office, next to The Palladium in
Argyll Street, and he gave us 20 pounds each to buy clothes in Carnaby Street."
Demonstrating the sartorial élan for which they later became renowned, they returned with
capes and buckle-fronted hats. "I was dressed as a priest, with black shroud,
sword and tights," admits Barry, "and we got into the lift at NEMS to be
confronted by Eric Clapton dressed to the hilt as a cowboy.The lift cranked slowly up to
NEMS with these strangely dressed young men inside, eyeing each other up and down, but
none of us said a word."
On February 24, they signed a five-year contract with NEMS, on a salary of 25 pounds per
week each.Keen to see them perform live, Stigwood secured a support slot a month later at
the Epstein-owned Saville Theatre in London, on the opening night of Fats Domino's first
UK visit. "We'd formed the band one week earlier with Colin Petersen and Vince
Melouney, so we weren't well prepared, but we went on and opened the show.The whole
audience was leather-jacketed bikers and teds who only wanted one thing, and that was Fats
Domino, as soon as possible please!So missiles started flying and Robin got hit by an egg.
Nevertheless, Record Mirror described them as "an attractive Australian group with an
excellent lead singer" and, to the band's delight, Paul McCartney watched from his
box and later praised their performance.
Within weeks, thanks to Stigwood's patronage, The Bee Gees were hanging out at The
Speakeasy in the company of The Beatles, the Stones, and The Who. "The Speakeasy was
a fantastic place, underground with a coffin as the front door and a wall that swung
around to let you in," says Barry. "Pete Townshend introduced me to John Lennon,
who was sitting there in the full Sgt. Pepper outfit, deep in conversation."Lennon
also befriended Maurice, teaching him how to operate The Beatles' mellotron, and lending
it for use on The Bee Gees' first album.
most significant new talent of 1967", trumpeted the press blurb when Polydor Records
released The Bee Gees' UK debut single, New York Mining Disaster 1941, on April
14."It was written at four o'clock one morning, in the Polydor basement, off Oxford
Street," says Robin."The basement just made us think of a mineshaft, so we were
feeding off our surroundings to create this song about trapped miners."
"The opening chord doesn't sound like a conventional A minor," adds
Maurice. "Barry was using the open D tuning he'd been taught when he was nine,
and I was playing it in conventional tuning.It gives an unusual blend.People went crazy
trying to figure out why they couldn't copy it."
On May 11, with Mining Disaster heading for its peak position of Number 12, The Bee Gees
made their first Top Of The Pops appearance, and Maurice met his future wife. "Lulu
was doing The Boat That I Row.She was a bit pimply and chubby, but the attraction was
instantaneous.It was her personality. It wasn't so much, Oh, I'd love to give her one,
I'djust never seen anyone so bubbly and full of life."
New York Mining Disaster repeated its success in America after several stations put it
onto heavy rotation a month before release on the assumption that it was actually The
Beatles."To be compared with The Beatles was not a problem," notes
Maurice."It was an honour, and it broke us in America."
The trio's love affair with Stigwood intensified during recording of their debut LP, with
the relationship moving from purely business to a deep friendship.As Robin recalls,
"Robert lived at De Walden Court, just off Portland Place, and he would walk to IBC
Studio at four in the morning to hear our stuff.Other nights, we'd finish at 3 am, walk to
his place and play what we'd done, while he sat in his dressing gown."
The relationship was set to music in the second Bee Gees single, To Love Somebody."It
was written with Otis Redding in mind as the singer," says Barry, "but it was
for Robert.I say that unabashedly.He asked me to write a song for him, personally.It was
written in New York and played to Otis but, personally, it was for Robert.He meant a great
deal to me.I don't think it was a homosexual affection but a tremendous admiration for
this man's abilities and gifts."
The various elements that would pull the group apart were in place.Barry notes:"Robin
and I were creatively hyper because we were taking speed and things like that.We were
young and we wanted to stay up all night so we could write more songs if we were high.On
top of that, my closeness to Robertcaused trouble because Maurice and Robin felt they were
not getting as much of his attention."
Superficially, all looked good.The debut album, Bee Gees First, entered the UK charts on
August 12, peaking at Number 8, but all three were living apart for the first time,
establishing relationships with women and developing their own circles of friends.Maurice,
in particular, was quickly drawn into the heavy-drinking Speakeasy clique.
On Friday, August 25, Robin was visiting secretary Molly Hullis (later to become his wife)
in the NEMS office when Brian Epstein arrived in tears and entered Stigwood's
office."He closed the door and there was a lot of shouting.When he came out he was
still crying.I said, What's the matter? He said, 'I can't talk,' And he went straight
out.Moments later, Stigwood told Robin The Bee Gees would be departing for Monte Carlo
that night."Brian had pleaded with Robert to go to Sussex with him that weekend
because he didn't want to be alone," says Robin."The Beatles were in Bangor with
the Maharishi.And Robert had said no."
Word reached Stigwood and The Bee Gees in Monte Carlo on Sunday that Epstein had
died."It was awful," remembers Robin."We had this terrible midnight cruise
to Nice so Robert could catch a plane back.He had nothing to do with Brian's death, but he
felt tremendously guilty, because if he'd stayed that might not have happened."
Stigwood's emotional turmoil can't have been eased by the knowledge that a deal he'd done
with Epstein, giving him the option to buy 51 percent of NEMS, was rendered void by his
friend's death. "Brian's brother Clive took over NEMS, and a few weeks later
Robert Stigwood Organization offices at 67 Brook Street.The catalyst was Brian's
The Bee Gees, naturally, moved out of NEMS with Stigwood, scoring their fist UK Number 1
on October 11 with Massachusetts. Epstein's death was fresh in their minds when
17-year-old Robin unexpectedly had his first brush with the Grim Reaper."It was Guy
Fawkes Night, Massachusetts was in the charts, and I was returning from Hastings with
Molly.As the train accelerated through Lewisham, I heard this noise like rocks hitting the
side carriage.I said, This train's going to crash."
Molly said, 'Don't be silly, we always speed up here.'At that moment the lights went out,
the train lurched, and a huge chunk of railway line shot up into the carriage right past
my face.Two inches more and I'd have been dead.My face was cut, and there were showers of
flying glass.The whole carriage flipped onto its side, and there was hissing and
Forty-nine passengers died in the Hither Green crash, but Robin and Molly dragged
themselves up through the shattered window and walked along the top of the side of the
train."We pulled some people out. Molly was bruised and battered.I had glass in my
mouth, in my eyes, in my hair, for weeks. It made me realize you could be dead at any
minute and you should seize every moment.It wasn't a spiritual experience.I was just very
The Gibbs' solidarity was increasingly giving way to the quibbling siblings scenario that
dogged them for years. "Robin and I were always competing to get the most
attention as lead singers," admits Barry. "And Maurice was already in trouble
with drink.Robin and I both enjoyed amphetamines and that's really what separated us.The
people around Maurice were all very heavy drinkers, so it was like three different
They should have slowed down and taken stock, but the schedule required that they now
conquer America, via a couple of select gigs and TV appearances. Robin recalls how, on the
afternoon of their March 1968 Ed Sullivan Show debut, "Maurice got locked in the
toilet of the St. Regis Hotel, and we only just got him out in time.Then, I think Ed had
some kind of dementia, because he introduced us with the words, 'And now, a great group
from England ; Cary Grant.'"
Barry confirms, "He really didn't seem to know who we were.He would say things that
made no sense, these strange statements, as if there was something wrong with him."
Back home, Stigwood was plotting a coup to leapfrog The Bee Gees ahead of the
pack."We had the London Symphony Orchestra, the 40-piece Royal Air Force Band and a
60-piece choir," remembers Maurice. This vast army of musicians was brought
together at the Royal Albert Hall to provide a spectacular opening to a month-long UK
tour, on March 27, 1968."I was blown away to see all those fantastic musicians, the
cream of the crop, waiting to play for us.It's the first time I ever had my bass amp on
one, in order to keep the balance right with the orchestra.Halfway through, we did Holiday
and the choir stood up in the middle of the audience and started singing.It was an amazing
But with insufficient rehearsal time, Barry reckons, "it was almost like an
improvisation".Adverse reviews suggested that the band had over-reached. "It was
a positive experience because we learned a valuable lesson ; never do that again."The
tour that followed was also less than a sell-out.At its end, Robin collapsed from 'nervous
exhaustion' and was hospitalized, meaning US dates were postponed to the following August.
Ticket sales on the rest of the US tour were a wash-out of such gigantic proportions that
Robin was talked into faking a relapse so most of the dates could be cancelled.They
bounced back in the UK when I've Gotta Get A Message To You reached Number 1 in September,
but the extent of their internal discontent became public when Barry announced his
imminent departure for a career in movies.But before Barry could pack his tucker bag,
Robin walked out in March '69. "All three of us wanted to be leader," explains
Barry. "We each had our own advisors telling us we were the most important
member, and we were young and impressionable."
Maurice's drink-enhanced slide seemed confirmed on May 28 when, the worse for wear after
lunch in Belgravia, he crashed his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. Then on August 6 he fell
downstairs at Stigwood's office.
The making of the concept double Odessa spanned the worst months of the band's
disintegration."By the end we weren't on speaking terms, we'd go in the studio one at
a time.But at least we finished it," says Barry. Although Odessa's genesis holds bad
memories and sales were poor, it has acquired an enhanced critical status ; not least due
to being featured in MOJO's Buried Treasure (February 2000)."The point has been well
taken," adds Barry."We're going to re-master it, do some additional work and
present it live as an entire production at the Albert Hall in the round, with hanging
mikes, a 50-piece orchestra and the nice mahogany floor."
Back in '69, the choice of a single from Odessa was the final straw.The main contenders
were Lamplight, sung by Robin, and First Of May, sung by Barry.When First Of May was
picked, Robin jumped ship. Despite his drinking problems, Maurice was never the catalyst
for trouble and continued to work on the feuding duo's separate projects."Maurice has
always taken the role of peacemaker or go-between," agrees Barry."With brothers
as emotional as me and Robin, that's an absolutely vital function."
The following August, Barry and Maurice started filming their attempt at Magical Mystery
Tour, the doomed medieval spoof Cucumber Castle, "just to have a bit of fun,"
according to Maurice."But we had this very camp director who destroyed the whole
thing.The tights were very good, though." That month also saw The Bee Gees hit
Number 2 with Don't Forget to Remember, while Robin's solo release, Saved By The Bell,
achieved the same position."We turned up at Top Of The Pops," recalls Robin,
"and each had separate dressing rooms, and we solemnly didn't talk to each other.It
was completely ridiculous."
The Bee Gees reported earnings for 1969 were 3 million pounds ; a staggering sum in those
days.The compilation, Best Of The Bee Gees, was certified gold in November but, at the
start of the last month of the '60s, Barry finally threw in the towel, declaring himself,
"fed up, miserable and completely disillusioned".Maurice was left as the sole
surviving Bee Gee.
Ahead, despite reuniting and scoring a US Number 1 in 1971 with How Can You Mend A Broken
Heart, lay divorces, legal wrangles, drink and drug problems and the ignominy of playing
the Northern supper club circuit to pay off tax debts, before The Bee Gees finally turned
the corner to become the '70s disco kings.
As Maurice philosophically observes: "Robert Stigwood told us right at the
beginning that anyone can have one hit, even two or three hits, but it's not until you get
at least 10 hits that you can consider yourself great.That was good advice.We should have
listened. Ultimately, there's something that always brings us back together.We're
songwriters, and we're brothers, and we're much stronger together than we are apart."
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