How Can You Mend a Broken Group? The Bee Gees Did It With Disco

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Before they left, the Gibbs had sent some of their records to NEMS Enterprises – Brian Epstein's company, the one that managed the Beatles. The family arrived in London on a Tuesday, moved into a house on Friday, and the following Monday received a call from Robert Stigwood, managing director of NEMS. He wanted to see them immediately.

"I loved their composing," Stigwood recalls. "I also loved their harmony singing. It was unique, the sound they made; I suppose it was a sound only brothers could make." He gave them a five-year contract to sign, then took them to a studio to make some demos. When the power went off, they sat down on a staircase and wrote "New York Mining Disaster, 1941." Stigwood immediately booked time in a studio with juice.

"New York Mining Disaster" was released two months after the Bee Gees arrived in England. It became an instant hit – not only in Britain but in the States as well. In July – a month after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – they put out "To Love Somebody"; in September, "Holiday"; and in October, Bee Gees' First. By the end of the year, the Bee Gees, none of them yet 20, were major stars.

Stigwood calls this "round one" in the Bee Gees' career. It involved a lot of ballads, a lot of strings, a string of hits, too much speed and a long period of craziness at the end. The craziness was a predictable result of their short-order stardom, but it was also a pattern for late-Sixties rock groups. The Bee Gees simply did what everybody else was doing: they split up and started recording solo albums. Unlike everybody else, however, they were unable to get away with it. They were different. When they squabbled and put out lousy records, people simply forgot about them.

The breakup came early in 1969, just after the release of Odessa: Robin announced his plans to pull out and record a solo album, and Maurice, Barry and Stigwood announced their plans to sue him. All kinds of weird things happened after that. Their drummer left and claimed the right to their name. Barry and Maurice countered Robin's solo album with an album and a TV special. More than a year went by before Robin, at Stigwood's urging, called his brothers – and it was another six months before they all got together. "It was a pride thing," Robin says now.

With Robin, discussing the breakup can still be like poking about in an open wound. Maurice and Barry seem more objective. "It was basically immaturity," says Maurice. "We weren't cut out to be solo stars," Barry adds. "We were cut out to be the Bee Gees. Somebody in his almighty wisdom knew that, whether we did or not."

Round two of the Bee Gees' career looked fairly promising at first: there was a lot of bad press, especially in Britain, but there were also some hits – like "Lonely Days" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" Then their singles started dying, and round two began to stall.

The problem, they realize now, was simple: they'd gotten into a rut. Nobody wanted their ballads anymore. Their initial reaction, naturally, was to record more of them, in an album called Mr. Natural. When that didn't work, they tried it again. But when they sent the tapes for their next album to Stigwood, he became angry. "I got the feeling they weren't really listening to what was happening in the industry anymore," he says. "So I flew down and had a confrontation with them."

Stigwood's confrontation must have worked, because the next tapes they sent up were for Main Course. The Bee Gees credit producer Arif Mardin with the breakthrough. "He showed us the right track," says Maurice. "This was the track leading to R&B and hits, and that was the track leading to lush ballads and forget it, and he just shoved us off that track and right up this one."

The Bee Gees had first worked with Mardin on Mr. Natural, the stiff of '74, but it wasn't until Main Course that people noticed they were teamed with the man who'd made it work for the Average White Band. The brothers have easily accepted the sound he led them to: Maurice is delighted; to Barry it's "pleasant and energetic"; Robin sees it as a form they've helped inject with quality.

And, of course, it was a real smart marketing move. It gave them a completely new audience and it gave them a dynamic new tag for their old one.

The Bee Gees have this theory that the disco switch wasn't really a switch, just a refinement. "We were always writing the kind of music we do now," Robin says, "but we weren't putting it down right. We were writing R&B, but we weren't going in an R&B direction." Other times, however, they are more direct. "Who says you can't play different kinds of music?" Barry demands. "You just do what you want to do. We play different kinds of music because we put our hearts into different kinds of music."

The Bee Gees received a jolt last year when they returned to Miami to record the followup to Main Course. A day or two after they arrived at Criteria Studios, they got a call from Atlantic Records in New York. It was bad news: Mardin wouldn't be able to produce the record. "That really broke us up," says Maurice. Says personal manager Dick Ashby, "It struck us that Atlantic was trying to use us to get to Robert."

Some months earlier, Al Coury, newly appointed to his post as president of RSO Records, had announced a worldwide distribution/marketing pact between RSO and Polygram, Inc., the giant German-based multinational record corporation. The announcement followed several months of negotiations between Stigwood and Polygram on the one hand and Stigwood and Warner Communications, Inc., on the other. It meant that Atlantic Records, a Warner subsidiary, would lose U.S. marketing rights to RSO product – rights it had enjoyed since 1974, when RSO Records had been created as an Atlantic custom label.

After an unsuccessful tryout with Richard Perry, the Bee Gees decided to return to Miami, where they could at least use the same studio and the same engineers they'd had on Main Course. It was a good idea; in fact, one of the engineers, Karl Richardson, and Albhy Galuten ended up as coproducers. The album they produced was Children of the World.

Mardin, meanwhile, was rooting from the sidelines. Says Maurice, "Everybody at Atlantic was telling him, 'They won't do anything without you,' and Arif was saying, 'Don't worry, these guys will do it.' He told us all this on the phone. We were saying, 'Can we send you the tapes to see what you think?' He said, 'Well, I have to hear them some time, but don't tell anybody.' So we sent him the tapes and he sent a note back saying, 'They're fantastic – don't do a thing to them.'"

The Bee Gees' next studio production is not likely to be as traumatic, since the Galuten-Richardson partnership proved so felicitous. Sgt. Pepper should make up for it, however. Stigwood has already fired its first director, Australian-born TV whiz kid Chris Beard, one of the creators of The Gong Show. "Actually, I'm having a spate of that," he says. "The other night I fired the Saturday Night director" – John G. Avildsen, who later won an Oscar for Rocky. "It was a terrible coincidence, too. When I was firing him, the message came through that he'd been nominated for an Academy Award – I had to break off and congratulate him in the middle and then carry on with the foul deed."

The problem was the same with both directors: they wanted to make something different from what Stigwood had in mind. The Sgt. Pepper envisioned by Stigwood and scriptwriter Henry Edwards is a Hollywood musical in the grand tradition, only with Lennon and McCartney where Cole Porter would have been. It's about Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and his band (the Bee Gees) and their search for the stolen magical instruments which belonged to Shears' grandfather – the legendary Sgt. Pepper, whose Lonely Hearts Club Band established the tradition of instant joy Shears' outfit strives to follow. "It's a fable," says Edwards, "about the redeeming power of music."

Sgt. Pepper is only one of four films Stigwood has slated for production this year, although its $6 million budget commands the biggest bucks. The others are Saturday Night ($3 million), starring John Travolta; Grease ($4 million), number two in Travolta's three-picture deal with Stigwood; and The Geller Effect – not yet budgeted – which will star key-bender Uri Geller in a dual role that's part autobiography, part fiction. This represents a sizable jump in film activity for Stigwood, whose previous productions consist of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Bugsy Malone and Survive!

"It was a combination of good things coming up," Stigwood explains. But many good things have been coming up for RSO lately, and not just in the film division. RSO Records has been following a "controlled expansion" policy which was not so controlled as to preclude its recent $7 million bid for the Rolling Stones. Major action also seems imminent on the television front, which has been quiet since the failure of Beacon Hill, and Stigwood also holds out the possibility of a leap onto the Broadway stage.

RSO's metamorphosis from rock management concern to multimedia entertainment empire began in 1968, when Stigwood saw Hair on Broadway and decided to produce it in London. What followed was a string of West End stage productions, two of which – Oh! Calcutta! and Jesus Christ Superstar – are still running after more than five years. In the early Seventies, as the fortunes of his two leading rock acts waned, Stigwood purchased a production company, Associated London Scripts – the people who subsequently developed All in the Family and Sanford & Son. (Producer Norman Lear pays RSO episode fees.) What Stigwood sees ahead is balanced expansion with all sectors interacting – but not expansion beyond the family-company stage.

"Family company" is a term you hear frequently at RSO. At times it seems quite literal: the Bee Gees' father still handles their lights. Everywhere you look an unusual camaraderie is evident. The people who work here share an enthusiasm that is less than a cause but more than just a well-paying job. It seems to be a cult of personality attached to Robert Stigwood himself.

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