LONDON — 67 Brook Street, Mayfair, is sometimes referred to as the house that Cream built. It predates Cream by quite a bit, actually, but that's not what they mean. What they mean is that this is the house that Cream bought. The man they bought it for is Robert Stigwood.
But Stigwood hasn't spent much time in London lately; the pressures of running an international entertainment empire keep taking him to New York and Los Angeles and Bermuda – places like that. His staff carries on bravely, but there's an emptiness they cannot fill, an emptiness which takes the form of a large rear office on the first floor – the office with the crystal chandelier, the fake fireplace and an inch-thick slab of glass, set atop four stone lions, which serves as a desk. It is Stigwood's office, and it has been mostly empty for about five years now.
At the moment, however, Al Coury, president of RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization, naturally) Records, and Robin Gibb, one of the Bee Gees, are sitting in two of Stiggy's leather chairs having what Robin would call a "chin-wag." This particular chin-wag is focused on the Bee Gees' studio work in progress at the Honky Chateau in France and on the lifestyle that prevails there.
Al Coury, inquisitive on his first visit to London since taking over RSO Records a year ago, stands up to sniff the air in Robert's office. "All those famous albums," he sighs. "All those deals . . . "
"You must find yourself spending a lot of time on the music," Coury observes. "Well," Robin retorts, "there's nothing else to do."
It is now early February; since the beginning of January the Bee Gees have been polishing their new album, Here at Last . . . Bee Gees . . . Live, and writing material for Saturday Night Fever, a film Stigwood is producing for Paramount. In July they will go to Toronto to record the soundtrack. In September, October and November they'll be on location for the filming of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an RSO musical extravaganza in which they'll costar with Peter Frampton.
The demand on the Bee Gees for recorded product has been strong. Children of the World, their last album, is very close to going double platinum, and to intensify the action RSO recently released two oldies albums – a greatest-hits package and a one-disc version of Odessa, their commercially unsuccessful concept album recorded in 1969. Bee Gees . . . Live, recorded in L.A. in December, is their only live LP, but it was required by their new five-year, eight-album contract with RSO – and besides, as Robin puts it, "These particular tapes warranted being brought out."
Clearly, these people are in business – show business. "Show business," says Robin Gibb, "is something you have to have in you when you're born." When Robin and his two brothers, Maurice and Barry, were born on the Isle of Man (their father was the bandleader on the IOM-Liverpool ferry) show business was a grand and glorious tradition. It isn't the Bee Gees' fault that in the late Fifties, when their act was just getting started in Australia, show business lay dead and pitiful like a fractured racehorse. But you can't fault them for never quite comprehending that. The Bee Gees, after all, were never conscious of what was going on around them; that was part of their appeal. Even in their heyday they were throwbacks, the last of the Sixties innocents.
Actually, it's a little unfair to call 67 Brook Street the house that Cream built. Cream and the Bee Gees together formed the foundation of the Stigwood Organization. The Bee Gees paid for these gracious Regency digs as much as anybody. The Bee Gees just weren't very – noticeable. And it's always been that way.
Robin Gibb is sitting behind Robert Stigwood's desk, looking dwarfed, happy, but also slightly nervous. After 20 years in show business and ten years of international stardom, it is still characteristic of him to be uncomfortable about interviews.
I mention songwriting and Robin breaks in indignantly: "No one has ever talked to us about our songwriting! That's always amazed me. I don't think people even realize that we write our own songs.
"It doesn't bother, me, but – you know that Playboy poll? It has a songwriting section, and this year we're not even in it. There's people in there who haven't had any success for the last two years. We've had two platinum albums, all our own music, and three hit singles practically at one time on the Hot 100. At this moment we stand to be given the, uh, whatever that award is for songwriting. It's just that they don't know their business. They don't make it their business to know how many records the Bee Gees have written. I call it just – musical ignorance!"
The Bee Gees' songwriting talent is quite extraordinary. They write hits the way most people write postcards. They write them on demand – any time, anyplace, on any subject. They've written a lot of them while sitting on staircases. "Jive Talkin'," one of their latest hits, was written on a causeway between Miami and Miami Beach. "I Can't See Nobody," one of their early hits, was written in the dressing room of a club. The Bee Gees were in their midteens at the time, sharing the dressing room with a stripper.
When they were all at the Honky Chateau, Stigwood rang up with instructions for the theme song he wanted written for Saturday Night Fever. According to Barry Gibb, the instructions went like this: "Give me eight minutes – eight minutes, three moods. I want frenzy at the beginning. Then I want some passion. And then I want some w-i-i-i-ld frenzy!" They wrote the song "Stayin' Alive" in two hours; it fills the bill. A disco tune, it has real jive precision, like a sleek black Mercedes with an ashtray full of coke. Saturday Night Fever is about the night life of some Italian disco dudes in Brooklyn, but the Bee Gees didn't know that when they wrote "Stayin' Alive." They say it was just an accident that the song they came, up with is as well-tailored lyrically as it is musically: Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother/You're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
They've written four other tunes for the film – "quite staggering," says Stigwood, "particularly as they did it all in a week." Robin is nonchalant. "It's obviously easy," he says. "We did it." They did it the way they always do: sitting down together, throwing out lines, not writing anything down – none of them read or write music – storing it in their heads until they're ready to record. "We've all got the same kind of brain wave," Robin explains.
Stigwood has that kind of brain wave too, although his seems to be tuned to a slightly finer signal. After the band sent him demo tapes of "Stayin' Alive," for example, he wanted to know if they could stick a brief, slow piece in the middle of the wild frenzy. "Robert has this thing about songs that break up in the middle with a slow piece," says Robin. "He did the same thing with 'Nights on Broadway.'" Stigwood is as modest as the brothers themselves. "I can't claim any contribution to their songwriting," he smiles. "I wish I could. I'd be taking their royalties, I assure you."
Stiggy is right to be modest. The Bee Gees have been writing songs that way since Robin was seven years old. They were living in Manchester then – twin brothers Robin and Maurice, older brother Barry, older sister Lesley and baby brother Andy, all living with their mother and dad, the bandleader. They were part of a little singing troupe that came on in a Manchester cinema before the queen – before the picture of the queen they show between movies, that is.
They picked their name in 1958. Gibb père had moved his family to Brisbane earlier that year in an attempt to escape the grim lot of a working-class bandleader in postwar England. The brothers moved on to bigger Australian venues – places like army clubs, where they performed as a novelty act.
Their father, Robin says, didn't push them into show business – but once he saw they had it in their blood, he threw himself behind them. Barry and the twins quit school; their father abandoned his career; and the Bee Gees got serious about what they were doing.
Harmonies they already had. Their father taught them how to work the audience. He was good at reading people, too; he could tell if somebody was up to no good. He took care of them. "If he would've had his opportunity in his own life," says Barry, "he would have been a big star. But he didn't, so it was through us that he was going to make it."
In August 1962 the brothers signed with Festival Records, one of Australia's major labels. A few months later the family moved to Sydney, the center of the record industry. Over the next four years Festival released a dozen Bee Gees singles and one greatest-hits album. They all flopped. Finally, the label boss told them they'd have to go. But then they met a fan named Ozzie Byrne who owned a recording studio. Ozzie gave them unlimited studio time – unlike Festival, which typically whisked them in and out in 30 minutes – and the band came up with "Spicks and Specks," their first Number One single in Australia.
"It doesn't matter if you become the biggest thing in Australia," Maurice says now, "because the furthest away you're known is New Guinea and Tasmania." "Spicks and Specks" was released in November 1966; in January, the Bee Gees booked passage with Ozzie Byrne to England. Their parents went along as well. "They wanted to stay in Australia," Robin says, "but we said no."
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