Just how popular were the Bee Gees at the height of their fame? This popular: over a 32-week period in 1977 and 1978, a song written or performed by the Gibb brothers was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for 25 of these weeks.
The Bee Gees will forever be identified with the disco era, but the Saturday Night Fever years were just one part of a career that spanned five decades and hundreds of millions of albums sold. And yet, for a group that’s done this much, there have been surprisingly few books published about their astonishing career.
David N. Meyer’s The Bee Gees: A Biography attempts to comprehensively cover the group’s life, discography and continuing impact on popular music. Born in England, Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb moved to Australia as children, and we’re hardly off the boat before they started singing and performing professionally. The young prodigies started to make waves in Australia,but that was a relatively small and isolated market in the 1960s. A move back to England — at the height of the British Invasion — followed.
Groomed for superstardom by manager Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees were denounced by many as Beatles clones by lazy music critics. In fact, songs like “Words” and “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You” didn’t sound like the Beatles — or anyone else, really — and the brothers became popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
With popularity came all the usual pressures, of course. The Gibbs partook of as many illegal drugs as any other sixties group, and tension between “alpha” brother Barry — primarily responsible for songwriting and lead-vocal duties — and Robin quickly arose, setting the tone for the often tumultuous years to follow. Meanwhile, Robin’s twin Maurice, usually content to stay in the background, made headlines all over Britain with his ill-fated marriage to “To Sir, With Love” singer Lulu.
The Bee Gees fractured in the early 1970s — the low point came when their album A Kick in the Head is Worth Eight in the Pants wasn’t even released — but regrouped and rocketed to a whole new level with the advent of disco. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack only featured six tracks (two previously released) performed by the Bee Gees, but they’re the ones everyone remembers almost forty years later.
Their own acting debut — Stigwood’s misbegotten Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie musical — didn’t go so well. (Maurice later spoke of crew members tossing him bags of cocaine at 7AM, which will sound plausible to anyone who’s actually seen that mess of a film.) Still, unlike their unfortunate co-star Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees survived to release another wildly successful album, Spirits Having Flown — and to launch youngest brother Andy’s own briefly successful music career.
The eighties were not so kind — the disco backlash badly wounded the Bee Gees as a commercial enterprise, and the brothers spent most of that decade writing and producing for other artists. (Kenny and Dolly’s “Islands in the Stream” is a Barry Gibb composition.). Andy, sadly, crumbled under the pressure of being the Bee Gees’ youngest brother, and after years of drug abuse and bankruptcy, succumbed to heart failure at age thirty. His story, which would make an engrossing book in its own right, gets its own chapter.
And yet, the Bee Gees weren’t done. Still wildly successful in Europe, they scored the occasional top-40 hit in America (“One” in 1989 and “Alone” in 1997) and their seventies hits remained all over the movies, television and classic-hits radio. Maurice’s death in 2002 shocked the world, and his twin Robin passed away seven years later — leaving Barry to ponder the possibility of continuing on his own. The Bee Gees: A Biography ends with the eldest Gibb performing his first ever solo concert, at a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida, in front of a sold-out crowd.
That chapter, unfortunately, features the only original reporting in Meyer’s book. Most of The Bee Gees: A Biography is put together from previously published interviews, articles and news reports, plus the author’s own commentary of the group’s singles and albums.
To his credit, Meyer doesn’t sugar-coat the group’s output, or downplay their less successful releases. If anything, he’s a too critical, even dismissing the immortal “How Deep Is Your Love” as “pablum.”
Many episodes in the Bee Gees’ lives get relatively short shrift in Meyer’s book, though. Robin’s early-80s solo career (which earned him a top-40 hit, “Boys Do Fall In Love”) is completely ignored, and later Bee Gees albums like High Civilization are dismissed in a sentence or two.
In particular, the years following Maurice’s death go by in a blur — it turns out that Robin and Barry had been estranged for some time, but Meyer doesn’t really explain why. At Robin’s funeral, Barry’s eulogy was particularly haunting, though: “Even right up to the end we found conflict with each other, which now means nothing. It just means nothing. If there’s conflict in your lives — get rid of it.”
Once dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan disco act, The Bee Gees and their music remain wildly popular today, and will remain popular long into the future. The Bee Gees: A Biography effectively explains the importance and appeal of the group’s music, but as a biography, the group deserves better.Powered by Sidelines