The extraordinary career of Robin Gibb and the Bee Gees.
These are sad days for disco. The deaths of Donna Summer and now Robin Gibb has resounded so powerfully around the world perhaps because they were so intimately associated with something utterly life-affirming. When pop stars pass away, they take with them a part of our collective memory, the sense of the moment when they were the soundtrack to our times. But at least they leave behind the thing that matters most: the music itself.
In its celebration of the groove, its veneration of movement, its extravagant colourfulness and upbeat spirit, disco has a reputation for frivolousness and escapism, but really it is all about humanity and our irrepressible optimism no matter what the circumstances. Its powerful purpose is made explicit in the Bee Gees signature tune, a silky urban strut compressing the pressurised buzz of city life into an urgent desire for release, building to glorious defiance with a falsetto that paradoxically merges feminine sensitivity and macho bluster: “Feel the city breaking and everybody shaking, we’re staying alive, staying alive!” The “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” harmonic punctuation is the comically proud response to the reality of the day-to-day grind. Disco was the gaudy silk scarf around the neck of the dreary Seventies.
The Bee Gees had an extraordinary career, with two distinct periods of world beating stardom, as Beatles-influenced soft rockers in the Sixties and blue-eyed disco singers in the Seventies, with a twilight period as hitmakers for other artists, including Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Dionne Warwick. Of the legendary trio, only one now survives, 65-year-old elder brother Barry Gibb. Maurice Gibb died suddenly, in January 2003, aged 53, of complications from a twisted intestine. Younger sibling Andy, who they composed and produced many hits for, died aged 30 of heart failure probably brought on by his drug addiction. Now Robin has passed on, of cancer, at 62. But for a group whose songs often embraced struggle and tragedy (from New York Mining Disaster 1941 to the great Tragedy itself) it is hard to think of the Bee Gees without smiling. In the confluence of rich melody, perfect harmony and syncopated rhythm, even their heaviest lyrics were born aloft.
I met Robin a few times, on TV panels and interviews, and, in truth, I found him hard to warm to. For someone who had achieved so much success, acclaim, fame and fortune, he seemed oddly chippy, with a dour, aloof manner, oversensitive to slight and always a bit too keen to remind you of his achievements. I ascribed this to something in the family dynamic with his more relaxed and personable brother Barry, who was frequently credited with being the leader of the band (although Barry was at pains to stress his brothers contributions). In fact, Barry and Robin were creative equals, writing and producing together. The Bee Gees may be venerated as the ultimate disco band but actually they came to the genre quite late (it was mid 70s before they got their groove on with Jive Talkin’). Their pre-eminence was based in large part on the elegance, craft and emotional heft of their songwriting, which was several cuts above almost everything else in the genre. “We were never consciously writing dance music,” Robin told me. “I don’t think we’d even heard of disco. We thought we were just writing pop songs you could dance to.”
Indeed, these kings of disco told me you would never find them on a dance floor. “We don’t dance,” said Barry. “Never have.” But the dance floor is where the spirit of the Bee Gees rises now and where, I think, you will hear them for a long, long time to come. Whatever you might be feeling as you face the many pressures and tribulations of ordinary life, you can listen to the thrilling, sensuous, mesh of guitar, bass, horns, percussion and harmony and shrug off your woes by taking the Bee Gees best advice: You Should Be Dancing. Yeah.