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Ten songs that tell the story of the Bee Gees

The Gibb brothers are often overlooked when we talk about great bands and songwriting. Here we recall the songs that define their extraordinary career

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Treasure chest: The Gibb brothers in their disco heyday in 1977

Treasure chest: The Gibb brothers in their disco heyday in 1977

Treasure chest: The Gibb brothers in their disco heyday in 1977

On the face of it, the Bee Gees were among the most important bands in pop history. They helped define the mainstream disco sound of the late 1970s and their songwriting gifts had been signalled in the 1960s, with such luminaries as Nina Simone, Al Green and Andy Williams happy to cover their songs.

And yet the Gibb brothers are rarely mentioned when the giants of music are lauded. They tend not to get the sort of constant exposure rightly enjoyed by, say, the Beatles, David Bowie or Prince. None of their albums is ever mentioned in the all-time best lists and few talk about the brilliance of their songs.

Maybe it’s Barry Gibb’s falsetto, or those awful cover versions by Boyzone and Steps, or the fact that they were beloved by the masses while the cool kids gravitated to punk. Whatever the reason, they haven’t been given their due.

A new album from Barry, the last surviving Gibb brother, called Greenfields — on which he reinterprets Bee Gees songs with a host of country music artists — offers a reminder that they wrote a glut of truly fantastic songs. And a recently released documentary — the absorbing How Can You Mend A Broken Heart — brings their talents into sharp relief.

Here are 10 key songs in the Bee Gees story.

New York Mining Disaster 1941 (1967)

The young Gibb brothers were obsessed with the Beatles and, on this first single, that love shines through. While the actual Beatles were deep into experimental territory by the time the Gibbs arrived in London from Australia, it was the early Fab Four that Barry, Robin and Maurice were channelling. Despite the title, the inspiration from the song came from a tragedy in the Welsh mining town of Aberfan in October 1966, where 116 children and 28 adults died in a freak accident. The song demonstrated an early willingness to draw from experiences far removed from their own lives.

To Love Somebody (1967)

Twins Robin and Maurice were still in their teens when they wrote this enduring three-minute masterpiece with Barry. He was then the princely age of 20. If some imagined that these fame-hungry siblings would be a flash in the pan, this was the song that dispelled that idea. It’s been covered more than any other Bee Gees composition — and the roll-call of artists who’ve offered their take shows just how highly regarded the song was, right from the off. Nina Simone, Gram Parsons, Roberta Flack all recorded versions. Years later, Barry said it was the song he was most proud of.

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Massachusetts (1967)

Over the years, the Bee Gees said that many of their best-known songs were written in a matter of hours — a claim corroborated by studio boffins and various collaborators. None of the brothers had been to the US state when they wrote the song on a boat in New York, but they were apparently drawn to the strangeness of the word. Robin took lead vocals — a reminder that each of the brothers wanted their moment in the limelight — and it would go on to be a staple of his live solo show.

I’ve Got to Get A Message to You (1968)

The band spent a lot of their early days in the US and one of Barry’s great vocal performances is to be found on a song that goes to the heart of America’s underbelly. In it, he imagines the final hours of a man on death row, who pleads with the warden for a final note to be sent to his wife. The lyrics were penned by Robin and the song was written with Percy Sledge in mind. It was a UK chart-topper and the first Bee Gees single to penetrate the US top 10. Sledge would release his own version in 1970.

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (1971)

There are several contenders for best Bee Gees song, but this might just be the one. The song was written shortly after the brothers took a 15-month hiatus. They had struggled to cope with instant fame, but time apart didn’t dampen their gifts at great songcraft. Written quickly — as was their style — by Barry and Robin, it’s so perfectly fashioned it could have come from the pen of Jimmy Webb. It was their first US number one and among several great cover versions, Al Green’s really stands out. It also provided the title for the illuminating feature-length documentary on the band that aired before Christmas.

Jive Talkin’ (1975)

With chart-topping hits on both sides of the Atlantic, the brothers might have imagined that their success would continue regardless. But pop is among the most fickle of trades. By the mid-1970s, the Bee Gees were burnt out and, increasingly, playing to half-full venues. Their exemplary balladry didn’t seem to chime with the times. They needed a reboot and they got one when they added new players to their studio band and hooked up with in-demand producer Arif Mardin in Florida. It marked a funk-heavy shift in the direction of disco — and their songs would soon be dance-floor staples.

You Should Be Dancing (1976)

Twelfth album Children of the World marked a full embrace of disco, which was fast becoming a sensation in clubs all over the world. It’s Barry who takes lead vocals and this was among the first times his falsetto would come to the fore. At the time, it was hard to believe that this was the same man who had earnestly sung ballads like How Can You Mend A Broken Heart just five years before. The song would be among several Bee Gees numbers to feature in the era-defining Saturday Night Fever the following year.

Stayin’ Alive (1977)

The Bee Gees’ music is so wrapped up in the success of Saturday Night Fever, it’s easy to forget that the songs were added in post-production, long after filming had concluded. When he was doing those famous moves, John Travolta was not actually dancing to the Bee Gees, but to artists such as Boz Scaggs. Stayin’ Alive was written and recorded specially for the movie and it’s an indelible reason why the film remains a touchstone from that era. It might just be the most emblematic song of disco — and right from those opening bars, the listener is transported to a time of mirrorball and flares.

Tragedy (1979)

If the Bee Gees had been a big deal at the end of the 1960s, they were stratospheric at the tail-end of the following decade. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack — overseen by composer David Shire and featuring no fewer than six Bee Gees songs — is among the top 10 biggest selling albums of all time. Adjusting to that sort of exposure took its toll on the band and their next album, Spirits Having Flown, was a bit of a dog’s dinner — although it did sell 20 million copies. Its best song, Tragedy, was a high-camp, tongue-in-cheek delight, however — even if it would spawn that ubiquitous Steps cover years later.

You Win Again (1987)

Some trivia for quiz fans: the Bee Gees became the first band to enjoy UK Number Ones in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s when this super-catchy effort — which saw them reunite with producer Arif Mardin after many years apart — topped the chart. There would be better songs to come — not least 1997’s underrated Alone — but You Win Again was the ear-worm that introduced the band to a new generation. Just as their early songs captured the sounds of the Swinging Sixties and their disco smashes caught the zeitgeist of the 70s, everything about this song, not least its glossy production, is redolent of the 1980s.

‘Barry Gibb and Friends: Greenfields’ is out now. ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’ is on Sky on Demand and Now TV


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