THE BEE GEES STRAIGHT TALKIN'
(Paul Baratta, Songwriter Magazine, February 1978)

On September 1, 1946, a musical dynasty began.., son Barry was born to the Gibb Family in England. The trio was completed in a single stroke when on December 22, 1949, the twins... Robin and Maurice, came wailing into the world. Robin's first cry was probably slightly higher than Maurice's and with a bit more vibrato, but only God would remember if their voices, together with Barry's, formed perfect three part harmony right out of the starting gate. I would like to think so and suspect that that's the way it was.

When you listen to a record by the Bee Gees, their vocal expertise is very evident. Listen to the current record by Samatha Sang of a song written by Barry and Robin, Emotion, on which the Bee Gees make an enormous vocal contribution, and listen to their crisp attack, their beautiful harmony, and their complete believability, and you'll hear why the Brothers Gibb take back seats to no one as a vocal group.

But their talent as songwriters is, for me, what sets them apart. There was New York Mining Disaster 1941, Holiday and To Love Somebody in 1967, a year of psychedelia, and their sound seemed set apart and attracted me. At that point I was a fan of their sound. It was melodic relief from Blue Cheer and other groups who had relied on Marshall amps.

Then in 1968, along came Massachusetts and I've Gotta Get A Message To You, and I was further convinced. Then, also in 1968, they had a hit with I Started A Joke and it finally dawned on me: these guys were really excellent songwriters.

Everything that has happened since has confirmed that dawning - Lonely Days, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself, Run To Me, Jive Talkin', Nights On Broadway, Fanny (Be Tender With My Love), You Should Be Dancing, Love So Right, Boogie Child, How Deep Is Your Love, and the current Stayin Alive. The latter two selections are from the film "Saturday Night Fever" which stars John Travolta and features new songs written for the motion picture by Barry, Robin and Maurice.

Further evidence of their talent as songwriters is the list of artists who have recorded the brothers' compositions such as Tavares, (More Than A Woman from the above mentioned film), Samatha Sang, (the current smash, Emotion, previously discussed), brother Andy Gibb's number one record, I Just Want To Be Your Everything, as well as cover records by the likes of Roberta Flack, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Mathis, Rita Coolidge, Glen Campbell, Yvonne Elliman, Rufus, Richie Havens, Al Green, Olivia Newton-John, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Nina Simone and the immortal Elvis Presley.

No slouches these guys as you can see. And well you can understand my delight when in the summer of 1976, I noticed a subscription to Songwriter Magazine we received from Barry Gibb. A month later I received a call from Vivien Friedman who is Director of Public Relations for Chappel Music in New York. Chappel administers the Stigwood Publishing Group who publish the Bee Gees songs, and she wanted to know if I would be interested in getting a story on an English group which would be written by a writer in London.

"May I ask who the group is?"
"The Bee Gees," replied Vivien.
"Well I must confess, I'm very selfish,'' I said. "I enjoy putting this magazine together and I really get my creative goodie off doing these stories. I've been a fan of the Bee Gees for a long time and have great respect for their talent, and there's just no way I'm not going to get the pleasure of doing that story."
"I can understand that," Vivien replied, "but I don't know when the next time will be that the guys will be out on the west coast."
"That's alright" I replied. "I'll wait."

In the year and a half since that conversation, much coordination has gone down between Vivien and Anni Ivil, who is publicist for RSO records until finally, Barry, Robin and Maurice came to Los Angeles to film 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

A Friday afternoon in November of last year, I was sitting in my office when the phone rang. It was Anni Ivil.

"The boys were just called off the set of Sgt. Pepper," she said, "and they're at their home. Would you like to interview them now?"
"Absolutely!" It was four o'clock. "Tell them we'll be there by 4:30!"

We arrived at the home they were renting in Beverly Hills and were ushered into the living room to meet Barry and Robin. Maurice was held up on the set of "Sgt. Pepper" for a few more "takes," so we went ahead with Barry and Robin. Appropriately, they served a spot or tea and, as we were filling our cups, I commented about how delighted it made me when I saw Barry's subscription to Songwriter come in the office.

"What happened," Barry explained, "is I walked into a recording studio in Montreal and saw the magazine and thought, 'What a great idea!' Actually, I've very much enjoyed reading about how other writers go about writing their songs."

I also commented that I had read in Rolling Stone that Robin said, "Nobody ever asks us about our songwriting. Some people don't even know we write our own songs.""That's true," Robin stated. "BMI named us songwriters of the year in 1976 and yet the Playboy Magazine poll didn't even mention us."

"We've never been mentioned as songwriters in the Playboy poll," Barry adds, "which confuses me. They named an artist in that poll who hadn't released product in over two years and although I respect that artist enormously, how can you represent the past year of recordings if you haven't released product. Since Jive Talkin' on, we've had three platinum albums with all our own material, have had hits with our songs by other artists, but our songwriting has never been mentioned in that poll."

"It's the principle of the thing," Robin continued, "no matter how important or unimportant a poll may be to an individual.''

It was quite obvious that songwriting held a special place in the hearts of the Bee Gees and they were quite serious about it. In fact, during the course of the
interview, I found them to be quite serious and businesslike about their professional life. As far as the brothers as people, they have a natural flair for droll comedy which was amply evidenced during our time with them. And when Maurice joined us after finishing his chores on the film set, he proved to be quite a comic of a slightly broader variety than either his twin, or his older brother. I'll be anxious to see them in "Sgt. Pepper." I have a sneaking suspicion that their performances are going to be quite natural and very entertaining based on meeting them.

But how did it all start? How did they get started writing songs and performing?

"Well, when I was about ten," Barry begins, "and Robin and Maurice about seven, we started writing songs. Now that's a bit young for writing songs and we certainly didn't write anything that was worth anything. We wrote one song called Turtle Dove and another about a year after that called Let Me Love You. We were just little kids sitting at home thinking, 'Let's write songs.' We had a natural three part harmony when we were eight and five years old. No one knew how we got it, least of all us, but we had it without understanding anything we were doing. I was playing a cheese box with wires on it... that was my instrument. There was something there that said, 'You guys are going to be on stage the rest of your lives.' There wasn't any question
what we were going to do... we knew where we were going and what we wanted to do even as children."

"We were born in England on the Isle of Man," Robin explains, "and were taken to Australia where we lived for a few years before we got disgusted with it and got out."

Barry continues, "Australia keeps asking us to tour there...'You're our boys' and all that, and although the country did some good for us, it left a bad taste in our mouth. You'll find out why in a few minutes."

"What was your first hit down under?" we asked.

"The first hit we had in Sydney, Australia, was Wine and Women," Robin replied. "But we had to buy out the record shops ourselves to give it a chance. We had the wrong image to sell a record, we were too young. It wasn't like today when any age is no barrier if the record is a hit. Then, you had to be sort of near enough to 18 to have a hit record. We weren't even in our teens although Barry was just about creeping up there. So we assembled our fan club in Sydney Town Hall, just about ten people the Bee Gee fan club."
"We gave them all money," Barry confides.
"We got together 200 pounds, about $400, and sent our fan club into the most important city shops and department stores and had them buy our record. We told them to go into the record shops that the radio stations used as a guide. It was basic mathematics. How do you get on the charts? Answer: Sell records! How do the radio stations know what's selling? We figured the radio stations would call the biggest shops and the key department stores to see what was selling. So that's where we had our fan club do the buying."

"How many did you have to buy?" I asked.

"About 400, all on a weekend," Barry replied. "We found out from the record company when radio stations check the stores to compile the charts."

"Where did you get the money to buy 400 records?" I asked, admiring their youthful enterprise.

"We borrowed it," Barry stated simply.

Robin picks it up from there. "We found out what day TUE, which was the biggest Top-40 record station at that time in Sydney, made up their chart. It was done on Tuesday, printed on Tuesday night, and was in the stores on Wednesday. So we got together on Friday because we had to have a good sale on that weekend for them to pick up on Tuesday."

"No one was buying our record," Barry told us.

"It went in on the Tuesday after that weekend at 30 on the charts just as we figured it would do." A note of amused triumph crosses Robin's face as he tells us this. "So what happens then is they stepped up the airplay, the airplay got the people to buy the record, and that was it. I guess that was a cheat, but you always spend a bit of money on PR don't you?"

"It isn't cheating," Barry argued,"because you'd pay for a full page ad in the newspapers to get people to buy things, so we spent it in the record shops."

"Alright, paying for an ad in the newspapers to get people to buy your record is a cheat," Robin rebutted, "but buying your own record in the shops is a cheat cheat!"

"How did you get to the point of recording for a record label? Had you been performing?" we asked.

"Before the recording began," Barry explained, "we were working in the middle of a speedway in Brisbane. In between each race, we would sing. This is a gig we conned our way into getting. They told us we could have whatever the crowd threw in the way of cash. So we would stand in the middle of the speedway and sing, and people would throw money onto the sawdust track, and we would run out on the track and pick it up. This was ...what year was that Rob? 1959.Eighteen years ago. There was a race driver who knew a disc jockey named Bill Gates. His initials were B.G ... the Brothers Gibb, B.G,  ... my initials are BG, and Bill Gates suggested that that's what we should call ourselves: the Bee Gees. So Bill Gates, and Bill Goode (BG), the racing driver, got together and came to our house, bought us a new guitar and said, 'Hey boys, we want to manage you. We want to promote you.' Bill was the stronger of the two as a manager. He was leading disc jockey on a radio station in Brisbane and he made tapes of us and played them on the air. That's how we first got radio play in Australia."

"But the entire time we lived there," Robin explains, "we only had two hits and we had thirteen flops including The Three Kisses Of Love, Claustrophobia, and I Was A Lover, A Leader Of Men, which was subsequently released on an Atco album in 1970."

"We were at a point where we threw the towel in in Australia and were going to try for England," Barry relates.

"There was no choice," Robin remembers. "The manager of our record company called me one day and said, 'Look, you're out, get out! We don't want to make another record with you!' The most recording time they gave us in their studio was an hour to make a two-sided record. In those days, a record company had its top artists and its nobody artists. We were the nobody artists. The top artist would get all the time in the studio.

"Everybody said at that point, 'Get out, you're useless!' Everytime we released a record they said, (spoken in a weary voice for emphasis), 'Here they go ...trying again.' Those were our reviews! That was all our reviews consisted of 'Another Bee Gees record. Phew!!' That's what they'd write, an exasperated 'phew,' like why didn't the Bee Gees give up the ghost?"

"Did you learn a lot from that experience?'' we asked.

"Well, that was all part of the education, wasn't it?" Robin replied.

"The memories I have of Australia were that they were very unfair to us right to the end," Barry stated. "Even when we were on the boat, we'd keep getting reports from friends about the record we released before we left which was Spicks and Specks. The record became a hit there while we were on the boat to England, and the local papers had stories like: 'Bee Gees Abandon Australia.' I thought that was unfair.

"So we reach England and what happens when we arrive? The first people we meet coming off the ship is another rock group who advised us to go back. We talked with them awhile and they told us the Walker Brothers were fading and Eric Clapton was rising and they really tried to convince us not to try to make it in England. But that gave us the added incentive to give it a go. We had sent tapes ahead before we left Australia and had hopes that someone who heard them would contact us."

"A couple of days after we arrived," Robin continues, "I was home alone and the phone rang. It was a young lady who said she was calling on behalf of Robert Stigwood. (e.g. Stigwood was, at the time, an associate of Brian Epstein who managed the Beatles.) We got together and signed a management deal with Stigwood who became our manager and has been our manager ever since. And, to make that moment more memorable still, the girl who made the call for Stigwood became my wife."

"Two months after that," Barry adds, "we had a hit record with New York Mining Disaster 1941 both in England and America."

"You guys seem to have total respect for Stigwood," we observed.

"Well," Robin comments, "He's been our manager for ten years now.  There's been big ups and big downs and big fights. But the fights are good. I think the closer you are to somebody, the more likely it is that you fight. In fact it's not healthy that you not fight. A good fight clears the air."

"And we have to fight," Barry states, "because the Bee Gees view is that management doesn't have ownership of an artist and doesn't make an artist successful. The artist must be in control of what's happening to him. You must have the discussion level where you all sit down and decide what you're going to do next. And when differences of opinion arise, an artist must fight for what he thinks is right."

"You see, we know the record business," Robin says, "and we're just not going to have somebody tell us what record we're going to release if we don't feel it's the right choice."

"Why was Jive Talkin' released as the first single off the 'Main Course' album instead of Nights on Broadway?" we asked.

"Because it was a departure," Barry replied. "It was a departure from the ballad style we were most often associated with. When it became a hit, people started saying that we had stepped down to be a disco group which was sort of a put down to disco music as well. We don't think disco is bad music; we think it's happy and has a wide appeal. It's for people to dance to; that's what it's all about. And we had been writing about politics, and saving the world for so many years, we decided to try something lighthearted, and we did. We didn't cunningly go into disco music to gain greater strength in the record market as some people implied. We simply try to embrace all kinds of music, whatever music there is."

"Also," Robin adds, "it should be stated that when Jive Talkin' came out, disco music wasn't very big, so how could we have been capitalizing? If anything, we contributed to todays' disco music entity by doing Jive Talkin'."

"When we did the 'Main Course' album," Barry explains, "what we had decided to do was come out with an album that was framed in an R & B vein. We weren't thinking of disco music when we wrote Jive Talkin'."

"How do you guys go about writing? How do you approach it? Do you write alone... do you write with your voices...?"

"We write together more than anything else," Barry responds. "We find that bashing it between each other is the best way for us. And we do use our voices a lot in our writing."

"Let's give them an idea how we wrote Emotion," Robin suggests and then explains. "We wrote that song outside on the porch in about an hour' time one night. What we do is just sit and strum until something happens. We don't plan songs. We'll take the idea as far as we can until we reach a point, where we seem to be blocked, and then we go back again and try to work through it."

"Sometimes, after we've reached our first block," Barry offers, "we come up with a title and suddenly, that gives us another place to go. A title can always inspire a songwriter. We write a lot of titles down and give them a lot of thought."

"We also write to rhythms," Robin interjects. "We might be sitting outside and we must look weird tapping out a beat hitting our hands against our legs and working out a song with no instruments. People who aren't into songwriting look at us and think we're ready for the rubber room."

Barry continues: "And we don't write it down until we've got the structure pretty well set. We get the song to the point where we can more or less hear the finished record in our heads. We can hear what we want on it, so the matter of production becomes easy. And when we go into the studio, we know what we want because we wrote the song and can hear all the things we want on the record."

"Do you go into the studio with complete charts, or is it just head arrangements?"

"We can't write music for starters," Robin informed us. "Semi-quavers and all that stuff. I wouldn't know a semiquaver from a black hollow!"

"When reading music is necessary," Barry says, "our co-producer, Albhy Galuten has read music all his life so he can cover us. At this point in our lives, learning to read music might take away from something that has been natural to us all our lives."

"As an example," Robin relates, "there was this pianist in Australia who was backing us and he hit a chord that we asked him to play and we liked it and shouted, 'Good!' But he said, 'That's wrong!' We said, 'It may be wrong, but it sounds good!' He said, 'Yes, but technically it's wrong so I cannot play it.' He was sticking to rules and wouldn't play what he had learned to be wrong, even though it sounded good.

"Barry explains, "It was Will you still love me tomorrow. Instead of A minor, we told him to play a C, it's a warmer chord and it worked real nice. But he wouldn't have it. He said, 'It's got to be A minor!'"

"What's the word Australians use?" Robin asked Barry.

"Oh, you mean cobber," he replied.

"Right," Robin confirmed. "What he said was, 'Sorry cobber, it's wrong!' Real huffy."

"On How Deep Is Your Love," we commented, "one can't help but be impressed with the melodic content. There are really some lovely chords and beautiful melody lines in that song. And the interplay between the background voices is really admirable. How do you guys get the background voices out like that and have so much presence on them?"

"Experiment and failure, experiment and failure, and experiment and success,'' Barry answered. "If you spend enough time doing vocals, you can get what you want. I don't agree with the process where an artist goes in the studio, sings one vocal and it feels right so everyone says, 'Wow!' That's alright, but let's have a vocal that feels right and is an impeccable vocal at the same time. Why not? You just do it till it's right. You can accomplish that without doing it so often that it becomes bland."

"How long did it take you to write How Deep Is Your Love?"

"About the same as Emotion," Robin responded. "About an hour. But a lot of the textures you hear in the song were added on later. We didn't change any lyrics, mind you, but the way we recorded it was a little different than the way we wrote it in terms of construction. A little different for the better, I think."

"When you collaborate on a song, do you collaborate on words and music? Is it basically one person's idea?"

"It can start out as one person's idea and then we both sit down and develop it, or all three develop it if we're all writing together," answers Barry.

Robin adds, "We don't sit down and say 'Alright, you think of the words and I'll think of the music,' We don't do it like that. But if the original concept for the song started out as an idea that one of us thought of independently, there's no ego involved to the point where one would say, 'It's my idea, I'm going to finish the song.' There's none of that. It we get an idea, we bring it up and work on each other...bounce off each other."

"We've been doing this for twenty years now," Barry says, "and after all that time we've learned a lot about writing songs. And I think we all have a good instinct for where to have a song rise and where to take it down again. You do it often enough and you just get to know, it becomes an instinct."

We remarked to Barry that we were knocked out with the fact that he had made "I" a long note in I Just Want To Be Your Everything. "Most people would naturally say I just want to be your everything all in one line," we remarked, "and to break the line up was...."

"The word 'just' was vital," Barry stated. "It came about because I was looking for a way to sing it and place the emphasis on that word. When it first went on the charts and was listed only as I Want To Be Your Everything, I could have screamed. The whole idea of that title was the word 'Just'... I JUST Want To Be Your Everything, 'just' meaning, 'That's all I want'. That was the sentiment. So I had to figure out a way to put that line into a chorus where it would lay on a nice melody line and emphasize just."

"How do you guys characterize yourselves professionally? What do you see yourselves as writers, performers, singers?"

"As songwriters," Barry responded. "Songwriters and recorders of our music before performers," Robin amplifies. "Performers is the last thing. We don't claim to have the world's greatest stage act, you know. We don't rely on stage gadgetry or the like. We simply go on stage and, to the best of our ability, perform the music we write and have had success with."

"Actually," Barry adds, "we sing much better in the studio than we do on stage. We're a good recording group and we're able to do a lot of things with our voices in terms of range which allows us to experiment quite a bit.

"When we record, we use our range to our advantage by establishing a solid foundation. First we place a block of voices in a low range and then go in and sing the same thing an octave higher, and then harmonize on top of that. There are various ways we work out our voices on record. As I said earlier, experiment and failure, experiment and failure, experiment and success.

"Do you think you might get involved in producing other artists? Or writing for other artists?"

"Yes," replied Barry. "We would like to spread our music as far as it will go. If we can write for some more films, we'd love to do that, too."

"We want to do what we're doing right now until we drop," Robin adds. "There's no age limit, you don't put an age limit on writing songs. I mean, God, there were people writing in the last century way into their 60's and 70's and it was the popular music of the day. Writing lasts forever. Beethoven wrote until he died. I mean no one came up to him and said, 'Hey Ludwig, you're in your thirties!! You gotta quit!!'"

"What do you tell songwriters who come up to you asking for advice?"

"It's hard to say something meaningful," Barry replies, "because we just don't know if they are songwriters. We didn't know where to begin when we started. I guess if you're a songwriter and you're writing songs that have enough depth and meaning to be hits, then you've got to start figuring out how to get them made into records. Everybody's approach to getting that accomplished is a matter of knowing how to apply who they are in the most positive fashion. And being ready for the step."

"Being ready is an important consideration," Robin offers. "Sometimes a writer will approach me and say, 'Can I talk to you? I've written this fantastic song. I'm a songwriter.' Well, are you a songwriter because you've written one song? As the old saw goes, 'One swallow does not a summer make.'"

In terms of writing songs, do you guys think you'll ever run dry?

"I used to, but not anymore," Barry answered. "Now I believe what I started to believe in four or five years ago... positive thinking. There was a period when we weren't having success, and a characteristic I noticed about us at that time was we were very negative in our thinking. I think that changed the Bee Gees and we got ourselves in a rut. The worst part about that was we refused to come out of it. We shut the door on everybody and said, 'We like what we're doing...go away!' That did us a lot of damage. When we realized that negative thinking was the element that was destroying us, we came out of it. Positive thinking means success; people have proven it over and over again. It isn't just a statement. If you really hold a positive thought in your head, and you really believe in what you're doing, and you say to yourself when you're doing it, 'This is going to be successful,' when you tell that to other people, they'll believe you. If you tell them, 'I'm worried about this record, I don't think it's going to make it,' they'll believe that too. And the more you pass that on, the more destructive it is. That thought transfers to someone else's head and that person transports it one step further and ultimately, you have a flop. The only people who succeed in anything they do, are the people who are positive about what they're doing."

As there is a relationship between success being connected with a mental attitude, do you feel there is a certain mystical quality about songwriting that adds to your own conscious and instinctive abilities?

"Yes, quite often," Barry replied. "Sometimes we're sitting there writing a song, and you know, Robin, how we can't think of something and it just comes? We just leave it to the open spaces, we just play along and when it's time to do that line, sometimes both of us sing the same line. But it's not just a good line, it's an amazing line, and we both look at each other and say, 'Well, geez, where did that come from?' And we'll sit there looking at each other numbly, especially when we find out that that line connects with the lines before it, which wasn't planned at all."

"It just comes," confirms Robin. "And sometimes we surprise ourselves as if somebody had said, 'Put that line there.' It's like we're picking it up from somewhere, as if somebody is trying to get hold of us and tell us that that's the line to use."

"No line looked so right to me," offered Barry, "as, 'I thought you came forever, but you came to break my heart'. But we didn't think of it. We sat there singing along and there it was. Maybe we did think of it, but not on a conscious level."

We commented that the Bee Gees have had an amazing career...twenty years in the business and they seem to be getting better. So often you see careers in this contemporary world of music that last for five or six years and then burn out and smoke into yesterday.

"There's no room for being just a part of yesterday," Robin offered. "We want to be part of now, y'know, contemporary. We want to have some relation to music as it is today. We never want people to say, 'Ah, they were the late sixties, or they were the late seventies.' People are so decade oriented. As soon as the decade is over, it's time for all the new artists to come in. We want to override all that."

Barry concludes, "It's a matter of whether you want to be established over a long period of time, or whether you just want to make it while you can. We've always maintained ever since we went in this business, that we always want to become...we always want to be...we must always try to improve. Once you believe you're there, you've had it. You sit down and think, 'Oh great, I'm successful!' That leaves you nowhere to go mentally and you go stale. And when you go stale, that's the end of the line, cobber."

The end of the line is nowhere in sight for the Brothers Gibb. Maurice came in at that point and you could see the genuine friendship that exists amongst the three. He related his escapades on the "Sgt. Pepper" set to his brothers and they interacted like a comedy trio, a joke here, a droll line there, and always someone willing to play straight man in the gang.

And before we left, they played us a cassette demo of a song that they had just written. It's called Where Do I Go, and I'd make book that it will be a hit when they eventually get around to recording and releasing it. The demo was real rough, and the song wasn't quite completed yet, but it's a winner. As Barry said about it, "The lyrics aren't finished yet, but when they are they'll mean something. And it has a nice melody. But there's a good feeling about it. The song isn't there yet, but it's going to be there."

Based on overcoming the obstacles presented them in their youth in Australia, based on their past performance, based on their potential, based on their positive attitude, and based on having met them, if the Bee Gees tell me straight that, It's going be there," you can rest assured I'm bloody well going to believe the cobbers.

Back to List of Articles

1