I started a joke
Which started the whole world crying
But I didn’t see
That the joke was on me
— the Bee Gees, 1968
Ahh, yes, Saturday Night Fever. I remember it well.” Bee Gee Robin Gibb lifts a goblet of Perrier into the fiery sunset on Biscayne Bay. “We thought up the name,” he boasts, swaying in time with the yachts tied up at the edge of his patio as he sits in the glass-enclosed living room of his rented Miami home.
“Robert Stickweed, er Stigwood, rang us up and said, ‘Look, I need some music for this film I’m making with John Revolting and Olivia Neutron Bomb and — oh, no, that was Grease, wasn’t it? Okay, no harm done; I mean Saturday Night Fever with no Olivia. So anyway, Robert said, ‘I haven’t got any music!’
” ‘Hmm,’ I replied. ‘That’s a nice place to start.’ “
Gibb doubles over in nasal cackling, greatly pleased with his impersonation of a pompous, disdainful rock superstar. Gibb can afford a few guffaws at his own empire’s expense. He and fellow Bee Gees Barry and Maurice Gibb, working with the octopuslike entertainment network that is the Robert Stigwood Organisation, have risen, fallen and risen again over the course of their twelve-year partnership. And now, the trio is one of the wealthiest, most successful and certainly most pervasive musical forces in what group leader Barry solemnly calls “the pop wilderness.”
The Bee Gees first attracted national attention in the late Sixties with their mordant, adenoidal hymns to mining disasters, hapless lovers, self-delusion and broken hearts. They have released more than thirty runaway hit singles, their output since 1975 consisting mostly of the buoyant, uptempo toe-tappers that helped spawn the billion-dollar disco industry. “Tragedy,” the second Number One hit from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown LP (their twenty-first U.S. album), is the British group’s fifth chart-topper in a row, the longest such string since the Supremes had five in 1964-65 and the Beatles notched a streak of six in 1965-66. And when the Bee Gees themselves aren’t ruling the nation’s airwaves or commanding its cash registers, Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees’ producers, Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, are doing as much for such singers as Frankie Valli, Samantha Sang and especially baby brother Andy Gibb, all of whom have had Number One singles.
Whether it be through the Saturday Night Fever or Grease soundtracks, their own albums or those of their beneficiaries, the Bee Gees’ slick, bleating harmonies and rug-cutting rhythms have become an unignorable presence in our culture. All of which seems of only passing interest to Robin Gibb, 29, as he sips the wine brought to him by a sylphidine, red-headed secretary named Liz and surveys the golden sea lapping at the estates of his millionaire neighbors. Contrary to widespread assumptions, the Gibbs are not constantly obsessed with disco hooks, megadollar record sales and platinum certification. While a winning lyric and catchy commercial melody are never far from Robin’s mind, his interests are truly manifold. Attired in crisp aqua slacks, pure white patent-leather slip-on loafers and matching cotton sweater, he is a tanned picture of near-angelic deportment as he warms to his favorite topic—pornography.
“To me, Saturday Night Fever sounds like some sleazy little porno film showing on the corner, second billed to a film called Suspender Belts or something,” he says, going on to recount that the Bee Gees were holed up in Château D’Hérouville Studios outside Paris in 1977, mixing Here at Last…Bee Gees…Live and writing songs for a studio LP when Stigwood phoned with his immortal soundtrack assignment. As Robin tells it, the group had at that point already recorded “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love” and “More Than a Woman,” a revelation that contradicts the legend of the one-week marathon writing session that neatly filled Stigwood’s tall order. Robin has been known before to get chronologies muddled, however, and Barry later disputes his younger brother’s recollections with the calm assurance that he is “quite incorrect.” But it’s all neither here nor there as far as Robin’s concerned, since his most vivid memories of the famed interlude in France are slightly off beat.
“You know, years ago there were so many pornographic films made at the Château,” he says intently. “The staircase where we wrote ‘How Deep Is Your Love,’ ‘Stayin’ Alive,’ all those songs, was the same staircase where there’ve been six classic lesbian porno scenes filmed. I was watching a movie one day called Kinky Women of Bourbon Street, and all of a sudden there’s this château, and I said, ‘It’s the Château!’ These girls, these dodgy birds, are having a scene on the staircase that leads from the front door up to the studio. There were dildos hangin’ off the stairs and everything. I thought, ‘Gawd, we wrote “Night Fever” there!’ “
For the record, this unsettling discovery in no way precipitated Robin’s studio hobby of scribbling highly imaginative, smutty line drawings. That was honed long ago and currently runs to grotesque, elflike creatures who scurry about with enormous genitals and ravenous stares.
Somehow, the conversation segues into an appraisal of the recent Grammy Awards show, and Robin rolls his eyes as he reflects on John Denver’s stiff-hipped rendition of one of the winning songs.
“When he started singing the nominations, I thought, ‘Oh, no, he’s not gonna start singing “Stayin’ Alive”!’ He was all right singing the ballads, but Denver didn’t exactly have the same moves as John Revolting, did he? But he did go for two hours without saying, ‘Far-out.’ “
Speaking of awards, I note that “Last Dance,” Donna Summer’s scorching single from the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, has been nominated for an Oscar, and in the process I reopen an old wound.
“Yes,” Robin rejoins, “and that film was just a copy of Saturday Night Fever, wasn’t it? Robert raised a helluva stink last year when they didn’t nominate any of our songs from the film but, well, they nominated Grease this year. They’re trying to make up for what they didn’t do last year, and you must remember that they are all very long in the tooth at the Academy and full of excuses. They said the album had only just come out back then; it was only twenty-three on the charts or something. But Saturday Night Fever, which sold 15 million copies in the U.S., was to change music the way the Beatles once did. Before the Beatles, Mitch Miller had three or four albums in the Top Ten!” He counts them off on his fingers. “Let’s see, there was Sing along with Mitch, Hum along with Mitch, Scratch My Balls with Mitch, Here’s My Ass, Mitch….”
Once again, Robin erupts into uproarious laughter, then dismisses the last half-hour’s talk with a gulp of water and clearing of the throat. As night falls and the housekeeper begins to set the dining-room table for dinner, Gibb’s mood turns somber and he details another of his nonmusical pastimes.
“I like to break boats up,” he says with an uncertain chuckle. “I take a boat out and smash it up, or so far that is all I’ve succeeded in doing.”
“I have boat accidents all the time. A couple of weeks ago I ran aground. Both my engines cut out. I just got to the front of the boat, jumped in and swam. The current took the boat to that breaker down there,” he says, pointing into the pitch blackness beyond the patio, “and smashed it up. I had a hard time getting in; me against the sea you know, battling the whitecaps. But I made it to the dock.
“And I got caught fifteen miles out at sea about three months ago — for seven and a half hours. It was awful, a nightmare, right in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle.”
It appears that Robin is repeatedly involved in harrowing incidents from which he somehow emerges unscathed. The most terrifying occurrence, he tells me, was the well-known Hither Green train wreck outside of London in 1967. At that time, the Bee Gees were working on their Horizontal LP. Robin and wife Molly were returning from a holiday weekend in Hastings when the train jumped the track at seventy miles per hour. Forty-nine passengers were killed and seventy-eight more seriously injured, but Robin and his wife survived without a scratch.
And then there was the day in 1966 when the boys and their father were speeding along an Australian highway and a tire blew out on their Ford Falcon. The car flew off the road into a pasture and turned over several times.
“The car looked like a concertina when it stopped rolling,” says Robin, “all smashed and squashed. But none of us were hurt. It’s very strange.”
That evening, we feast on broiled beef chops, string beans, squash and baked potatoes and I watch with polite curiosity as my spindly host eschews the meat and green vegetables in favor of the potatoes. Within fifteen minutes, he has devoured the insides of no less than five spuds and is reaching for another when he abruptly joins the sedate chat I am having with his secretary about the current state of the world.
Railing against the rising crime rate and rampant decadence, Robin denounces the “weak minds” of those drawn into cults and cites Charles Manson, now eligible for parole, as the embodiment of an unspeakable evil loose in the land. There is no argument at the table, yet Robin pursues the thought with great vehemence, ruling that Manson and his ilk “should have been hung in a sack and beaten bloody.”
Attempting to change the conversation to something less grim, I ask him about his earlier remarks concerning the Bee Gees’ poorly received Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He is very critical of both the film and soundtrack album, saying that the project was “too innocent for these times.” What did he mean by that?
“It should have been more like Superman,” he explains. “It should have had more excitement poured into it. As we were making it I was thinking, ‘I hope they are going to put some visual effects in here.’ When I saw it, it was exactly as we shot it, nothing was improved. On the set the camera is pointed at you and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘It’s gotta be more than just me sitting here in this room, ’cause nothing’s happening.’ But then you see the film and that’s all there is.”
What approach would he have preferred?
“Well, Saturday Night Fever had fucking in the back seat, you know,” he observes evenly. “I mean that is the kind of film people are seeing these days. Sgt. Pepper comes out and people sort of expect to see fucking every now and then. After Saturday Night Fever they expect to see a little bit of sex, but there were no fucks, you know? It was too goody-goody.
“I knew the film wasn’t going to be a big hit,” he concludes with a swallow, dropping another empty potato skin on his plate. “Well, better luck next time.”
If this exotic discourse seems a mite jarring coming from a clean-cut Bee Gee, well, that’s understandable. When they first emerged in England in the late Sixties, the then five-member group (with Australians Vince Melouney on lead guitar and Colin Peterson on drums) seemed more than a little bit precious. Toothy lead singer Robin warbled urgently in his drainpipe vibrato about some willowy girl who was “such a holiday,” while the rest of the band, clad in quasi-Edwardian garb, posed like footmen behind him. From the calliope harmonies to the index finger glued in Robin’s right ear, the Bee Gees’ image was one of unrelenting sweetness underscored by queer epic fare like “Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts,” “Lemons Never Forget,” “Seven Seas Symphony” and “Paper Mache, Cabbages & Kings.”
Bizarre settings and subject matter notwithstanding, the tone of each song was breathless wonderment, and the poor angst-ridden pups were so unswerving in their perspective that even the most devoted Bee Gees fan occasionally longed to give them a shot in the collective head. Jeeze, you had to mutter, what a sappy, humorless bunch of dinks.
And the maudlin hits kept on coming through 1972: “Words,” “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You,” “I Started a Joke,” “Lonely Days,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Run to Me”—each a well-honed pop tool that slowly, surely turned the Bee Gees’ hyper romantic rut into a trench. Their quandary was uninterrupted by the sibling strife in 1969 that caused the group, now down to a foursome, to disintegrate, leaving Barry and Maurice in one camp, Robin in the other and the disenfranchised drummer making the screwy claim that he had a right to their name (“Bee Gees” is shorthand for “Brothers Gibb”). Amidst rumors of bitter battles, manic spending sprees, hard drinking and drug abuse, the estranged brothers released two undistinguished solo albums, Barry and Maurice’s effort (under the Bee Gees banner) being Cucumber Castle and Robin’s entitled Robin’s Reign.
A year and a half later the brothers reconciled, carrying on as a trio, and a subtle evolutionary process began. The lads started to loosen up, grow scruffy beards and trade their velvet morning coats for jeans and body shirts. Their album titles shifted from high-minded handles like Trafalgar to the lighthearted Life in a Tin Can. And whereas Robin had previously been the frail, quavery focal point, now Barry assumed center stage with a more aggressive, flamboyant vocal tack.
In late 1973, after years of producing themselves in conjunction with manager Robert Stigwood (and occasionally with one Ossie Byrne), the Bee Gees put themselves in the hands of Atlantic’s veteran R&B producer/arranger, Arif Mardin. The first collaboration, Mr. Natural, was a syrupy disaster, but the second, the funky, falsetto-driven Main Course, placed these most unlikely trend-setters on the cutting edge of the disco craze. Conveniently, Barry Gibb, with his chiseled bronze visage, snug-fitting leather and satin outfits and hairy, medallion-festooned chest, seemed the ultimate dance-floor dilettante. Flashing a smile as dazzling as a mirrored ballroom globe, his grace, canny charm and utter confidence became the hallmarks of the Bee Gees’ metamorphosis. And yet they were every bit as misleading as any of the earlier trappings, for the real Bee Gees, you see, are something else again.
There’s three of us and there’s always been three of us, and since school days it was us three against the world,” says Barry Gibb, 32, stretched out on a snowy white couch in his castlelike Miami Beach villa as he remembers the Gibbs’ earliest days in Manchester, England. Born on the British Isle of Man, the boys shuttled back and forth between their first home and England as their bandleader father, Hugh, bounced from job to job. “We were always foreigners in a foreign school, and in Australia [where the family lived from 1958 to 1967] the kids called us Yankees. It was always us three fighting somebody else in the school, or us three being picked on by a mob.”
Music was as much a refuge as an avocation, and the brothers were singing together and performing publicly before they reached their teens. Known first as the Rattlesnakes and then, for no apparent reason, as Wee Johnny Hays and the Bluecats, they performed Everly Brothers tunes and played ditties composed by Barry, such as “Turtle Dove,” “Let Me Love You” and “Twenty Miles to Blueland.” On the oceanliner to Australia they were Barry and the Twins, but by the return trip nine years later they had become the Bee Gees, with one big hit Down Under (“Spicks and Specks”) and two LPs on the Festival label, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs and Monday’s Rain.
En route back to England to expand on their success, the trio (then considering a name change to Rupert’s World) entertained on board and found they got the biggest reaction when they played Beatles songs. Galvanized by the response, Maurice even went so far as to purchase a sitar à la George Harrison during a stopover in Ceylon. From the start, the Bee Gees sound has been compared—usually unfavorably—to the Beatles’ early work, and it is only recently that the Gibbs feel comfortable enough to mention both groups in the same breath. But far more striking are the Bee Gees’ deep, across-the-board insecurities and regrets, feelings they have been masking with cutup comedy since their vaudeville days.
“We had to get to know each other again,” a somber Barry says of the brothers’ reconciliation. “We knew when we came back together that it would take us five or six years to become anything like what we were before we started on the drugs, and before we got fame and huge egos and all that. And six years is what it took. We had to become brothers again and forget those little things that aggravated us about each other. It was an awful lot to get rid of.
“Robin and I were the people who really fought, and Maurice was always on the outside getting the flak. We two were at loggerheads with each other ’cause he was a songwriter and I’m a songwriter, and his voice and my voice are different. We’re two different people but we’re both creative, and at that period it was too much for us: who was getting credit on the songs, who was getting voice credit, who should be singing what song. Nowadays we don’t care, we just discuss and then do. But our problems then were very destructive.
“It’s nice to see Robin in the shape he’s in now,” he confides. “If you’d have seen Rob six years ago you would have gotten a fright, and I’ve gotta say that about all of us. We got into pills—Dexedrine—and liquor too. The only thing that we never got involved with was LSD.”
(“I was the piss artist,” says Maurice later, “Barry was the pothead and Robin was the pillhead.”)
“We ended up in—have you ever heard of Batley’s, the variety club in England?” Barry asks. “It was a little club up north and if you ended up working there it can be safely said that you’re not required anywhere else. In those days  that was the place not to work in and we ended up working there.
“I remember us talking about it backstage at that place and I said, ‘If this is the bottom, there’s no further we can fall. Something’s gotta happen for the positive.’ I think it was positive thinking that got us back to where we are now, refusing to accept anything negative. Like, making a three-week album became a negative thing. It was time to start working on three-month albums and making the very best of them. It was a frightening time.”
But when it’s mentioned that the Bee Gees should now feel vindicated and secure in their success, the leader of the band is incredulous.
“In this position,” he argues, “we are constantly up against the wall with people saying, ‘Please us!’ It’s an invisible thing, but you can feel the wall behind you, and you can hear the whole industry saying, ‘Give us a surprise, we expect you to outdo yourselves.’
“Whatever this new album is, I can tell you the pressure was mountainous to follow up Saturday Night Fever. And we felt that there was great pressure to follow up Children of the World with Saturday Night Fever. And Children of the World followed Main Course, which everyone was talking about!
“It always goes on that way.” Barry nods to himself in exasperation, wringing out his sweaty palms. “I mean if Spirits is a monster—pray that it is—then once again we’ll be against the wall.”
Now it’s my turn to be incredulous. This seems like an unusually joyless attitude, especially considering that Spirits Having Flown has presently produced three hit singles and sold more than 4 million copies in the States alone.
“We spent ten months doing this new album,” he explains. “You’ve gotta believe that a lot of times we cut a track, then said, ‘No! No good!’ A lot of tracks we cut a dozen times. We just did not want to go wrong with this album. And a few critics say that we did. Our father always said, ‘Look, no one ever criticizes you when you’re down; you only get the criticism when you’re up, so shut up.’
“So we try and live like that, or at least live with it. But I’ve never gotten over harsh criticism. I can never pick up a review and finish it if the guy doesn’t like the album, ’cause the rest of my day is screwed up. It’s so painful. “Spirits is really a listener’s album—if you can stand the falsettos long enough,” he says with a sheepish laugh. “You have to listen to it four or five times, if you like it enough to listen to it that many times.
“You see, success like we have now was just a very distant dream in 1971. I mean, we thought it was all over for us then. And now we can’t really accept what we’ve done and where we are when we read magazines saying, ‘The Bee Gees are hot.’ But sooner or later these bubbles burst anyway, and I would like for the Bee Gees to stop before we wane. I don’t know if it’s easy or accurate to say that in the next two years the Bee Gees will decline or continue at this pace. None of us can say,” he frets with a bowed head. “But all bubbles have a way of bursting or being deflated in the end.”
This last soliloquy is punctuated by a blast from the horn of a tour boat surging past Barry’s seaside estate, a full load of tourists hanging over its railings as it moves extremely close to the grounds. Security is tight around the walled residence, a Moorish-like complex that includes gardens, bubbling fountains and a spectacular pool surrounded by cabanas. It would be an idyllic tropical retreat except that, as Barry puts it, “It’s like living in a bloody goldfish bowl.
“We’ve asked them if could they please keep the boat at least 200 yards out, but they don’t,” he explains, sinking low in the couch opposite mine as if afraid the shutterbugs can see through his veranda windows. “The boats come past every hour on a nice day, and the people all have cameras and binoculars.
“They have a Universal Tours-type bus that comes down this road every hour with loudspeakers. It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to get out of here. Seriously. The Miami Herald did us a real nice favor last year: they printed our address [actually, they just named the street], with a picture of the front gates. You can’t stop the press from doing these things. They can say, ‘Oh, who do they think they are? They’ve got everything they want. So let’s play a little game.’
“But they oughta try playing that game for a while. Imagine sitting in a house like this, nice as it is, and not being able to go outside because of all these people coming past. I’m very fortunate to live well, but on the other hand, if you’ve got a family, including kids [Barry is married with two small children], there’s just got to be a little bit of privacy.”
Much as Barry says he loves this home, it’s clear he regards it as one of a series of indiscretions—some more serious than others—that have plagued him and his brothers over the last five years.
Among the missteps that pain the eldest Bee Gee most was the group’s stubborn early-Seventies insistence (prior to hooking up with Arif Mardin) on recording album after album of gooey ballads. It was a wrongheaded direction in an era dominated by hard rock and finger-poppin’ roll.
“Wrongheaded is right,” he laments. “We had an album tentatively called A Kick in the Head Is Worth Eight in the Pants. Seriously. Ow! It’s easy to laugh about this, ’cause it was never released. One song on it was called ‘Harry’s Gate,’ which was about a gate we used to swing on when we were kids. It was definitely a wrong direction.”
When I ask Barry about the great contrast between Main Course and the preceding, ballad-burdened Mr. Natural, he is somewhat embarrassed, merely acknowledging that on the second, record producer Arif Mardin’s guiding input was “total,” and “he pulled the falsetto out of me.”
“The Mr. Natural album was done in London and New York, and the songs were in the old Bee Gees style,” Mardin recalls later. “When they arrived [at Criteria Studios] in Miami the following year, we started to record and some of the songs were still in their old ballad style. But the Bee Gees were listening to a lot of American groups, especially R&B groups, and since my background was R&B, I was well suited for the affair.
“They started writing different songs, like ‘Jive Talkin’,’ and we had a fantastic rapport. We spent fifteen or eighteen hours in the studio every day for two months and it became like something out of a movie, with everybody being incredibly creative and dynamic. We would try many things, like synthesizers, and probably because of my background with Aretha Franklin and all the R&B greats, I said, ‘Hey Barry, why don’t you sing a high note here?’ He said, ‘Okay, let me try it.’ And that was the first falsetto, which he sang on ‘Nights on Broadway.’
“It all just happened in the course of a day’s work. So when people say, ‘How did you bring it about?’ I must say we all did it together. It shouldn’t sound like The Glenn Miller Story, or something where someone discovers a new sound overnight. The Bee Gees have always had an unmistakable sound. It’s their collective singing and beautiful vibrato and their unique solo vocal strengths. And what happened was that there was a happy marriage of their sound and the orchestral strings punctuated by a strong beat, which is part of my style.”
When RSO Records announced in 1976 that it had signed a worldwide distribution pact with the German Polygram Corporation, thus ending its relationship in the U.S. with Atlantic, the Bee Gees found to their distress that they could no longer have the services of Atlantic staff producer Mardin. The subsequent Children of the World LP, the work of the Bee Gees in tandem with Criteria producer/arrangers Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, proved successful. But earlier there had been a false start with Richard Perry.
“We were in the studio in L.A. for three days with Richard,” says Barry. “His constant position of sitting in this studio was this.” Gibb slumps over and narrows his eyes to sleepy slits. “And he had a phone on his console that he always talked on, so things were either constantly out of it or constantly disturbing. What he does, I’m told, is that he’s out of it most of the time, but when it comes time to cut the tracks and actually function, he gets it done. And then he goes back to being out of it again. It’s a system he’s worked out.”
(Richard Perry declined to be interviewed concerning his brief association with the Bee Gees.)
“I think they’re in extremely capable hands now—their own,” says Arif Mardin with the tone of a proud father. “They’re doing it now with Karl and Albhy, who are great musicians and engineers, and I’m very happy for all of them.”
Unfortunately, there’s no relief for the driven, and Barry Gibb feels that he had scarcely slipped out of one potential noose only to get strung up by another, namely the Stigwood-sponsored film and record productions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“It was a battle all the way for us,” says Barry of the film. “Robert had verbally promised us the starring roles, and then this red-hot young man named Peter Frampton came along and Robert wanted him to play Billy Shears.
“The film didn’t work for the Bee Gees. It worked for Peter but—and I think you’d have to be blind not to see it—the Bee Gees had no place in the story. We just weren’t consequential to the story line, and we tried to point that out along the way. I just wish they’d given people a chance to act.”
Whose idea was the absence of dialogue?
“Probably Robert’s,” he concedes. “But he’s suffered enough from the whole thing. All he hears is ‘Robert’s Folly!’ My main criticism of Sgt. Pepper is that the music shouldn’t have flowed consistently through the film, and they should have used only Sgt. Pepper music. It seemed like the idea was to shove as many Beatles songs in there as was humanly possible.”
As for the album: “I don’t think that George [Martin] should have produced Sgt. Pepper again, and I think George knows why. George was religious with the original arrangements; he didn’t want to change them. What the people were looking for was something totally new. ‘A Day in the Life’ I thought was a little bit insipid.”
(George Martin replies: “I didn’t want to do the project at first, but I was persuaded because Peter Frampton was riding so high back then and I admired the Bee Gees very much. The premise was that it was a film score and not a record album. I did the very best job I could, and I was faithful to the arrangements, but they were not mere copies. The music was right for the film but wrong for the Bee Gees—and their disco sound would have been unsuitable. I think that with all the different songs we used, it’s a pity the film wasn’t called Sgt. Pepper’s White Abbey Road. I have no regrets, though.”)
Throughout the conversation, Barry has been leaning forward at various intervals to turn up the volume discreetly on a large portable radio tucked under the coffee table. I am about to ask him what he’s up to when I realize that he’s been reacting to every faintly pumping bass tempo that catches his ear, checking to see if it’s “Tragedy.” Unfortunately, in the last three instances, the martial rhythms were those of Sister Sledge, Leif Garrett and Peaches and Herb, and right now it’s Rod Stewart asking “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Seeing that I’m on to him, Barry’s face turns a bright red and he nudges the radio to one side with a clipped chuckle.
He begins telling how he was startled to discover there was the thematic thread of reincarnation, which he fervently believes in, running through Spirits Having Flown. I am wondering whether he’d rather check out of this woeful world and take his chances in the next, when the gloomy mood is lifted by the appearance of a grinning Maurice, who comes bounding into the room, followed by a somewhat sullen Robin.
To understand the Bee Gees’ brotherly chemistry, it’s essential to observe them together on their own turf, Maurice making fun of his balding head and filling every moment of dead air with a quip, while Barry encourages him coyly; Robin all the while sitting off in a corner, appearing distracted but actually waiting for the precise moment to deliver a devastating barb.
Concerned about the prospect of a third world war now that China has invaded Vietnam, Maurice, 29, expresses the fear that he could be eligible for an emergency draft call since he is a U.S. resident. Barry tries to reassure “Moe,” but Robin kicks the legs out from under his counsel with a well-timed, “Oh, bollocks.” Unruffled, Maurice goes on to relate that his house on the Isle of Man is up for sale, adding that the Isle has the oldest parliament in the Western world. Barry supports this learned tidbit and Robin expands on it with the straight-faced assertion that the ancient ruling body is made up of “Saxons, body bandits and fuckin’ fairies.”
An infectious giddiness fills the room and Barry volunteers some anecdotes about the making of Spirits, most notably the detail that, as the result of two days of trial-and-error sound-effects experimentation, the “explosion” before the chorus of “Tragedy” is actually him belching into a microphone.
“Deep down we are songwriters first and foremost,” Maurice interjects. “We can write a beautiful ballad and then turn around and write…”
“…A load of crap!” Barry finishes gleefully.
“Right!” Robin concurs with a snort. “Absolute bloody rubbish!”
As the Gibbs slap their knees in hysterics, I ask if they’ve ever recorded any jocular compositions that never appeared on record.
“We did one called ‘Mr. Waller’s Wailing Wall,’ ” says Barry, singing a snippet whose melody vaguely resembles “Penny Lane.”
“And we did a song called ‘Baby You Can Break My Back,'” adds Maurice with an oblique wink.
“We did this limited edition record for the fan club about Prince Wally, a mad Scottish nobleman,” Barry continues. “Our sense of humor is very influenced by the old Goon Show and Monty Python. We had to cut out sections of ‘Wally’ where we shit all over the castle floors, and that kind of behavior.” Are these sorts of outbursts unique?
“Oh, no,” says Barry. “We have a serialization called The Adventures of Sunny Jim. It only happens at recording sessions and no one else ever hears them. We do them to relax ourselves when we’re singing. So we do them first, have a bit of a laugh, and then we’re ready. We start the stories off the tops of our heads and call them [booming voice] ‘The Continuing Adventures of Sunny Jim’—and there’s always an echo-chamber effect there. Then we go off into ‘Sunny Jim in Brazil.’ ‘Sunny Jim Joins the Army’ and strange stuff like ‘Sunny Jim Steals Surgical Instruments.’ “
What sort of a guy is Sunny?
“A lunatic I suppose,” Barry mulls. “He’s just an imaginary character.”
“Hey,” says Maurice, “do we have a tape of Sunny Jims here?”
“Ahh,” says Barry warily. “Somewhere, somewhere. But I don’t know where….”
“I think Karl [Richardson] made a cassette of a bunch of them,” Maurice exults. “I think I know where it is!” He jumps up excitedly and scurries into the next room.
“Er, Moe,” Barry calls out with some trepidation, “I don’t think it’s around here. I don’t know if Tim has the time, really!”
Maurice reappears a moment later brandishing a cassette. “Sunny Jim!” he crows, laughing evilly. Barry suddenly looks pale.
“They’re sick!” Maurice says triumphantly. “Wonderfully dirty and sick!”
He places the cassette on Barry’s tape deck and cues it up as Barry shrugs helplessly with a frozen grin.
” ‘Sunny Jim on Safari’!” says the announcer, whose voice I recognize as Barry’s. There are rustling sounds, as if some souls are moving through dense jungle foliage, and then:
Barry: I say, Sunny Jim! Would you like to borrow a pair of my cotton shorts? I see you’re so ill-equipped!
Robin: [Vacant, high-pitched whine similar to that of the hapless clay tot on the Mr. Bill segments of Saturday Night Live] Oh, I really hadn’t noticed.
Barry: [Voiceover] Yes, next week more encouraging adventures with [echo chamber] Sunny Jim!
Barry: [Voiceover] This week, “Sunny Jim Discovers Incest and Has Love with His Older Sister”! A sister examines his dong with a tape measure. Then calls for their mother to appraise it.
Robin: [Squeaky female voice] Ummm. Not like your father’s. Father! Come here! Get out your dong and show Sunny Jim how big it is!
Barry: [Voiceover] Next week, “Sunny Jim Goes to a Male Gynecologist”!
The tape continues in this vein for about fifteen minutes, each episode lasting no more than sixty seconds and running the gamut from “Sunny Jim Goes Down into the Mines” and “Sunny Jim Goes to the Himalayas” to “Sunny Jim Goes to a Massage Parlor,” “Sunny Jim Gets Jock Itch,” “Sunny Jim Gets Hemorrhoids” and the showstopping “Sunny Jim Develops a Third Tit”:
Robin: Doctor! What’ll I do?!
Barry: Aww, I don’t know. I don’t want to cure it; it looks too good.
Robin: And what about my hemorrhoids!
Barry: Aw, fuck yer hemorrhoids!
The tape ends with three familiar voices crooning: “Please give it a chance/It’s almost like Christmas/ Dishonest romance/All those discharges at midnight/All over the bed/Send me outta my head.”
By this time, the boys are whooping so convulsively that tears are rolling down their cheeks. How long have they been doing these routines?
“For years,” says Barry, gagging with laughter. “It started around the time of Main Course!”
The Gibbs have scarcely caught their breaths when Maurice slips away again, returning with a videotape he calls the “Collected Items.” He inserts it in the Betamax and stands back expectantly. What ensues is about an hour of blackout stunts coordinated to simulate an evening of television programming. Obviously taped at Criteria Studios, the skits include a cinéma vérité minidocumentary about an inept band cutting its debut record, entitled “Wankers by the Moonlight”; a Don Kirshner-style conversation-at-the-piano with an effeminate pop-schlock songwriter; a current events talk show called The Eugene Shitass [pronounced “Sheit-arse”] Report; and 80 Minutes, a TV news-magazine that features an interview with a noted surgeon (Robin) after the first successful penis transplant. Wearing a blood-smeared white smock, the good doctor is pressed for information by the hard-nosed host (Barry):
Barry: [Surveying the surgeon] It wasn’t a neat operation today, eh?
Robin: [Shaking his head gravely] No, no. In an operation like this we need to know what the patient’s thinking, his every move.
Barry: [Outraged] As far as I can tell, this doesn’t sound like something that’s normal. What it sounds like to me is that you performed some horrible act on another human being.
Robin: On the contrary, the man wanted some new private parts, so we helped him.
Barry: But what about the private parts he already had?!
Robin: They were very small.
Barry: [Seriously concerned] What state is the patient in right now?
Robin: Well, when I left him he was unconscious.
Barry: Do you think he’ll have a longer future because of this?
Robin: [Nodding sagely] Much longer.
As the host signs off, the surgeon leaps onto a couch and begins singing at the top of his lungs in an unintelligible falsetto.
Before I can react to this tour de farce, I am ushered out to make way for a script meeting the group has scheduled with the crew filming the Bee Gees’ forthcoming TV special. As I say my goodbyes, Barry is back fiddling with his portable radio, trying in vain to locate a Bee Gees song.
“Damnit,” he hisses to himself, shutting it off.
Arriving the next day at Maurice’s palatial spread (some six blocks down from Barry’s house), I am admitted inside to find his pretty blond wife, Yvonne, and his in-laws sunning themselves by the pool. Moe escorts me indoors and, at my request, puts Spirits Having Flown on the stereo. (He’s the only one of the three brothers to have a copy of the LP in his house.)
Maurice is bopping back and forth in shorts and a terry-cloth windbreaker, straightening the family photos on the walls, when “Love You Inside Out” bursts from the speakers: “I ain’t no vision/I’m the man who loves you/Inside and out/Backwards and forwards with my heart hanging out.”
He joins in by the second chorus, singing, “Inside and out, backwards and forwards with my cock hanging out!
“That’s the version we sent to Robert,” he says with an impish laugh.
When I ask him about the great disparity between the Bee Gees’ wholesome image and their raunchy sensibilities, he eyes me quizzically and replies defensively: “We are just normal people.”
Does he share Barry’s belief in reincarnation?
“In a way I do believe in it,” he says cautiously, saying that he and his brothers are particularly prone to strong feelings of déjà vu. The Bee Gees are also known to share a slight telepathy, but Maurice maintains that the psychic bounds between them are much greater than people suppose.
“Robin and I are twin brothers,” he reminds, “and I definitely have a kind of ESP with him. One time when he was a boy, he was riding a bicycle and he had a crash. I didn’t; I was at home, but I ended up aching and I wondered what the hell I was aching for. Robin came back and he had bruises in exactly the same places I had mine.
“When Robin was in the Hither Green train disaster, he was late for a press conference and I said, ‘There is something wrong. Something has happened to Robin.’ And Barry said, ‘What do you mean?’ And then we found out. We watched the news, saw the train disaster and I went, ‘Robin was on it!’ We went to Hither Green Hospital and there was Robin—his wife was in having x-rays—sitting there going, ‘I didn’t think I was going to see you guys again.’
“He pulled six people out of a carriage, and he said, ‘I never knew I had that much strength.’ He laid them on the lawn, and they were all dead. I knew he had been through a strenuous thing—my arms were aching.”
Though the Gibbs have uniformly skittish gazes, each has a wholly distinctive spark in his eyes. Robin’s are hard and self-absorbed; Barry’s are open, inquiring and vulnerable; and Maurice’s are kindly but pained, melancholy. As he hurries around his house, showing me his new outdoor Jacuzzi, his video projector, the specification sheets for the jets he’s purchased, the photos of boats he covets and the brochures for the English manor house he is interested in buying, I get the eerie feeling that I am more comfortable as a brief visitor to his world than he is living in it. There are rumors that Maurice’s involvement with the Bee Gees in recent years has been minimal, but before I can ask about it, he tells me he hurt his back just as work on Spirits was getting under way. “I had to sit there and tell the bass player [Alan Kendall] what to play,” he says, averting his gaze. “It was a bitch.”
He explains that most recently his time has been taken up coproducing the new Osmonds album, Steppin’ Out, and puts on a test pressing of the record that he received in the mail just this morning. A bright, sinuous funk sound oozes forth, with arrangements every bit as inventive as the very best Gibb/Galuten/Richardson efforts.
“Congratulations,” I say. “It sounds superb—but absolutely nothing like the Osmonds.” He laughs so heartily that I later question sources close to the project; they allege that only Wayne and Merrill Osmond sing on the record and that the tracks were almost entirely reworked in Miami. As for future production challenges, Maurice says he would like to take a crack at Gerry Rafferty or Emitt Rhodes.
As I depart, Maurice is standing out by the dock, wondering aloud when his new speedboat is going to be delivered.
As both a musical force and a family unit, the Bee Gees and their close-knit relatives seem to stand well apart from the rest of the world, playing an isolated waiting game in which they are forever on the lookout for the one sign of success or approval that will convince them to drop their bunker mentality. The Gibb brothers give no firm indications that they themselves know what the sign might be, but it certainly hasn’t come yet.
Their isolation breeds a unique brand of creative innocence, which in the past has both benefited and betrayed them. When discussing their records, the Gibbs have individual perspectives that are quite discrete, yet they share a bewilderment about their overall worth and impact. If you congratulate them for their well-crafted disco hits, they confess rather contritely that they were unmindful of the genre in which they were working. Such an admission seems suspect until one realizes, for example, that not once in any conversation about their craft do the brothers mention the terms “rock & roll” or “rock.” The Bee Gees recognize only one outlet for their efforts, and they refer to it, with a mixture of awe and ruefulness, as the “Pop Business.” They view this business as murky, treacherous and cruel. The best strategy they have devised to survive it is one in which their own artistic impulses are consistently supplanted by the desire to “please other people.”
“We never completely do a song just to please ourselves,” says Barry solemnly. “We bring everybody we can into the studio, even the receptionist, so that we can get their opinions. We put about thirty percent of what we consider to be our art into our records and about seventy percent of it is us writing for the public. You’ve got to include both, and that’s how we do it. And we don’t dwell too much on deep stories, because today people want to hear songs about love. Each song in the Top Twenty is about love. Every album in the Top Ten is based on love.”
As for the division of labor, Maurice Gibb bristles when confronted with the hearsay regarding his diminished contributions.
“I’d like to clear this point up,” he says firmly. “I know there are rumors that Barry does more on our records than Robin and I. I don’t know how that rot got started, but I hate and resent it. It’s a load of shit. People get that impression because Barry’s out front a lot and gets quite a bit of attention for his work with Karl and Albhy on other people’s songs, and for his work with Andy. But as far as our records are concerned, we all contribute equally and all produce equally.”
(“I think everybody knows that Barry is the idea man and leading light of the three,” says George Martin. “And when he is too overt about that they tend to rebel a bit.”)
But Barry considers it paramount that the trio never be divided again along any lines, adding that “the Gibb family is not a family that is all pointed toward business and success. We’re a family that’s rediscovered ourselves. Being a family means so much to us now because we lost it all, threw it all away.”
The next two years are going to be the busiest for the Bee Gees since the period following the fateful day in 1967 when they auditioned for Robert Stigwood in the same Saville theater where the Beatles’ concert sequences for A Hard Day’s Night were shot. The group’s David Frost-hosted TV special is slated to be a semidocumentary of the last year’s activities, possibly including re-creations of the songwriting sessions that led up to Spirits Having Flown. And the last part of the show will be live concert footage from the forthcoming summer tour. Next will come the preproduction for a non-Bee Gees film about drug smuggling in Miami that Barry Gibb has written with British screenwriter David English.
Being A Family means so much to us now because we lost it all.’ If there are no Sgt. Pepper-like snafus, Barry himself has been promised the role of Che Guevara in the Stigwood film version of Evita, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera about Eva Peron. Barry says little brother Andy Gibb may portray “Olivia Newton-John’s Australian brother” in Grease II, and there’s also an outside chance that Andy may play an active role in the next Bee Gees LP. But not before he has completed his own followup to Shadow Dancing and his older brothers have issued a Greatest Hits package. In addition, Barry seems likely to coproduce the next Barbra Streisand LP with Richardson and Galuten this winter.
For all the hard knocks, trials and disappointments they must endure, it’s still a good time to be a Bee Gee. But there is much uncertainty ahead. Chief theorist/strategist Barry Gibb is acutely conscious of maintaining the Bee Gees’ well-scrubbed “image” as he maps out future merchandising ventures with the sober, detached air of a Madison Avenue advertising executive. The Bee Gees frequently draw comparisons between themselves and other “family” groups like the Beach Boys and the Osmonds, and they are determined to avoid the public infighting that has marred the former band, while eschewing the religious (Mormon) proselytizing that colors the latter group’s approach.
“People have come up to us and said, ‘Do you realize how much power you have now?'” Barry says. “You could change the world with some of the things you say.’ And I say to them [bitterly], ‘Leave me alone.’
“Power is fleeting; so is ego,” he cautions. “When you start putting religion or whatever into it and tell the world how it can be saved, it just rubs against people. Politicians have no idea how to save the world, so why should pop stars? Instead you can do things like the UNICEF thing [the Bee Gees donated the potential multimillion-dollar publishing revenue from the song “Too Much Heaven” to UNICEF], which is just a positive move to help children.”
And there are a few other commercial pitfalls that the Bee Gees are intent on avoiding.
“If you’re an innovator, you’ve gotta be real careful not to get involved with all the spinoffs, because they’re highly dangerous,” says Barry. “We have our own merchandising company and it’s done with taste, I hope.
“We’re doing things like nice T-shirts. We deal in jewelry but only real gold plate. We’re doing a little electronic piano with Mattel Toys that’ll be available soon. And we don’t deal in wristwatches because if watches break, children tend to blame the artist who’s on the face of the watch.”
Sounds as if Barry has thought of everything, and so long as Sunny Jim retains his low profile, the Bee Gees are assured of maintaining their “G” rating. Following in the footsteps of Donny and Marie Osmond, the go-ahead has been given for the manufacture of a cute Andy Gibb doll, but Barry wisely rules that Bee Gees dolls are out of the question.
“I don’t think I would want some little girl to have a Bee Gees doll in bed with her,” he says with a crooked grin. “With Osmond dolls, the clothes are the skin—there’s nothing under there. With a Bee Gees doll, let me tell you, you’re asking for trouble.”