Barry Gibb is the last surviving Bee Gee – and he’s given up retirement to go back on tour. He talks about the backlash to Saturday Night Fever, his troubled relationships with his brothers and how drugs helped shape their distinctive sound
Alexis Petridis The Guardian 07/18/13
In 1979, the Bees Gees authorised an illustrated biography. It was called The Greatest, which was both slightly immodest and a pretty accurate representation of their commercial standing. In the preceding four years, they had had eight US No 1 singles; helmed the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – at the time, the biggest-selling soundtrack album in history – and written a succession of global hits for other artists: Samantha Sang’s Emotion, Tavares’s More Than a Woman, Yvonne Elliman’s If I Can’t Have You, Frankie Valli’s Grease, not to mention three No 1s for younger brother Andy Gibb. Perhaps unexpectedly, and in evidence of a self-mocking sense of humour they would later be accused of lacking when they came into contact with irreverent interviewers, the illustrations in the biography depicted the Gibb brothers as cartoon animals. Robin was a red setter, while Maurice was a badger. Barry, the eldest and most hirsute of the three, was a lion.
As he walks into the lobby of a London hotel 34 years later, Barry Gibb still looks suitably leonine. His hair is grey and thinning at the front, but, at 67, he would still definitely be described as a man in possession of a mane: he’s also in possession of a pair of sunglasses that no one except an enormously rich and successful rock star would wear indoors. Everything else, however, has changed. The Bee Gees no longer exist, because all his brothers have died: Andy – who Barry had suggested join the band after his solo career began to fade – died in 1988, aged 30, after years of drink and drug addiction; Maurice in 2003 of a heart attack; and Robin last year from colorectal cancer, an illness Barry claims Robin tried to hide from him. “Nobody was telling me anything, so I showed a picture of Robin in the papers to my doctor, because he didn’t look well. My doctor said: ‘Go and see him, he’s got maybe six months.’ I thought, Jesus. That’s all my brothers.”
Barry currently finds himself in the middle of a world tour and discussing the possibility of a new solo album, his first since 2005’s Guilty Too (a follow-up to his and Barbra Streisand’s 12m-selling 1980 album Guilty). He is, he concedes, remarkably busy for a man who decided to retire a year ago. “I thought, That’s enough now. My bones were creaking, my knees were hurting and with everything that had happened, I thought, maybe it’s just time to be Grandad and not worry about it any more. But music has to be played and I wanted to keep the music alive.”
Barry Gibb in 2013 Barry Gibb performing at Sydney Entertainment Centre in February 2013. Photograph: Don Arnold/WireImage
He was, he says, shattered not merely by Robin’s death, but the nagging thought that he wasn’t on particularly close terms with any of his brothers when they died: “That’s the one biggest regret, that we didn’t speak, we weren’t really speaking very much to each other. We weren’t being intimate in those last days of each of their lives.”
He and Robin, in particular, had always had a fractious relationship. After Maurice died, they made vague plans to work together – they appeared at a couple of gigs and on Strictly Come Dancing – but the plans never really came to anything. “Robin would ring me up and say: ‘We’ve got to do this tribute to Queen show’ or whatever, we’ve got to do this and that and I could tell by talking to him that it wasn’t him that had had the idea we should do this. I knew it was someone else, because I know Robin better than anyone else does. I knew he wasn’t up to it. I’d noticed that when he was doing live shows, he’d started lowering all the keys he sang in, so that was another sign for me: there’s something wrong, Rob, even if you’re not telling me what it is.” He sighs. “I just wanted to say to him: ‘Why can’t we let the Bee Gees … why can’t we sit down and enjoy what’s happened? Why can’t the dream have come true? Why do we still have to chase this dream when it’s really come true?’ But him and Mo, they were just too restless.”
The Bee Gees’ total record sales are estimated at 220m. It seems odd that anybody that successful could feel that their dreams hadn’t come true, but in his last years, Robin certainly gave that impression: storming out of an appearance on, of all things, Radio 4’s Front Row; complaining at length in touchy interviews about the lack of respect afforded him and his brothers. The issue was, fairly obviously, the glaring disparity between the Bee Gees’ commercial success and their critical standing. The music they made for themselves and others seems utterly indelible: as if to prove the point, a few days before I meet Gibb, Kenny Rogers’s performance of his 1983 Bee Gees-penned hit Islands in the Stream goes down such a storm at Glastonbury that he has to sing it twice. But there’s still a tendency to regard the Bee Gees with a certain knowing smirk, to view them as a joke or an embarrassing guilty pleasure. You could see how this would begin to wear on your nerves over time: 220m records sold and people are still less inclined to discuss your music than they were to snigger about the size of your teeth and how you dressed in the mid-70s.
Perhaps if you had come up with the songs the Bee Gees came up with for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – the dizzying perfection of Stayin’ Alive, the gorgeous elision of lyrical misery and musical elation that is If I Can’t Have You – sold 40m copies of the resulting soundtrack and then spent the next 20 years being called upon to defend yourself, as if you had done something terribly wrong instead of releasing an era-defining, hugely successful album packed with consummate pop songwriting, then probably you would get a bit chippy too.
“I’ve got to a point in life where you’ve got to be philosophical about everything,” says Barry, who, in fairness, has given every impression of being a bit chippy about the Bee Gees’ reputation in the past: it was him that led the group’s infamous mid-interview departure from Clive Anderson’s chatshow in 1996. “So I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you love the songs you did, you love them yourself.”
Really? Because, if I were him, I think I’d be bloody furious.
“Well,” he says, “there’s part of me, a little part of me that goes: Jesus, man, you fucking write something like that, I’ll sit back and listen. But the greater part of me is … I just don’t care any more. I don’t feel I’ve got to say: ‘Dammit, this was good.’ People are entitled to their opinion.”
The popular view is that Saturday Night Fever’s vast success did for the Bee Gees’ credibility: you just can’t be that popular and remain cool. But the truth is the Bee Gees were never really cool as such, possibly because, from the moment in 1966 when they arrived back in Britain from Australia (where their family had emigrated in 1958 at the suggestion of a Manchester policeman, who feared that 12-year-old Barry’s arrest for shoplifting and Robin’s burgeoning interest in arson were merely the opening acts of a lengthy criminal career), they were simply too weird to be cool.
They had served a weird musical apprenticeship in Australia, three adolescent brothers singing in hotels and Returned Servicemen’s Clubs between dog acts and jugglers: “We saw things. People sitting at tables having fights without standing up. We’d be singing and water would be pouring in through the galvanised steel roof. It was like Crocodile Dundee.”
They sounded weird, particularly Robin: he sang in a bizarre, strangulated quaver that gave the disconcerting impression he was about to burst into tears. And their songwriting was weird. Despite this, while still in their teens, they were writing modern-day standards, big ballads that got covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Al Green: To Love Somebody alone has been covered by such a vast and peculiar array of artists the list seems faintly comical. It’s probably the only song in history to have found its way into the oeuvres of both Ronan Keating and Joe Strummer, via Tom Jones, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Dusty Springfield.
On the other, however, their first three albums are packed with majestically skewed baroque pop songs that didn’t really fit with the prevalent trend for psychedelia, but did sound like the products of off-kilter imaginations being allowed to run riot: Lemons Never Forget, I Have Decided to Join the Airforce, The Earnest of Being George. Listening to the latter, you might have come to the conclusion that the Bee Gees were enthusiastic consumers of acid, but Barry says not, or at least not exactly: “We never saw LSD, heroin, any of those things. Discovered grass, though. Fantastic. I loved it. It opened up your mind. Magic mushrooms will do that too. But you go through magic mushrooms. You don’t do them all the time. It opens your brain up and I know what I need to know now. So that didn’t become a habit; it was experience. There were plenty of amphetamines around, Dexedrine and things like that, which all three of us loved, although I think Maurice was more inclined towards a scotch. When he married Lulu, he got to drink with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton and all these people that she knew. His world opened up completely; he was for ever the extrovert.”
Despite their success, by the time of 1969’s Odessa, a double album on which their unique vision of pop music reached ever-more rococo heights, the tensions between Barry and Robin had reached “critical mass” and the band broke up. “There was this deep, emotional competition between three brothers that had found themselves to be famous and didn’t understand it. The Dexedrine and the various habits, we’d all met the women we were going to marry, our personal lives had become very, very different. At that point, Robin was fairly uncontrollable. I can’t get into any detail, but uncontrollable. Maurice was already at the bad end of drinking. The fighting got worse and worse. Robin and I were arguing through the press. You can only look back on it right now and go, wow, we were so naive.”
The brothers reformed a year later, although without much enthusiasm – their manager Robert Stigwood wanted to float his company on the stock market and thought its value would be inflated if the Gibbs were working together again – and limped through the early 70s before moving to Miami at Eric Clapton’s suggestion: they rented 461 Ocean Boulevard, the house after which the guitarist had named his 1974 album. For all his apparent equanimity about the band’s critical reputation, Barry clearly has a complicated relationship with the songs that made them more famous than ever: when I mention Stayin’ Alive, he brings up the advertising campaign that suggested singing the song while administering CPR to keep the correct rhythm and mutters: “Something good comes out of everything.”
The backlash after Saturday Night Fever was almost as dramatic as its success. “None of us really knew how to deal with it – wow, this is so unfair, all of those emotions. Having an ego was out of the window. Christ, if everyone else was calling you crap, how could you think of yourself as any good? It was devastating. But my son had just been born, I had so many things to fall back on. OK, if everyone’s going to tear us apart, then I’ll focus inward on my family.”
That said, if the backlash temporarily stalled the Bee Gees’ own career, it had no impact whatsoever on their ability to write hits, albeit for other people: Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton, Dionne Warwick’s Heartbreaker, Diana Ross’s Chain Reaction (he says he has “never even heard” Take That’s Back For Good, a song that a longstanding industry rumour insisted he was secretly responsible for). “Well, you’re always throwing shit at the wall,” he shrugs. “That’s your mentality. You just write a bunch of songs and hope that people like them.”
He says he thinks he’s going to start making records again. He’s enjoying being on tour: being a solo artist never really appealed to him. “I just didn’t enjoy it, because of my brothers, because I loved being with them, we were a unit, we were glued together.” But now he doesn’t really have a choice. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he says, a little unexpectedly. “I’ve got seven grandchildren. I get to re-live watching Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I spend a lot of hours being happy about what happened to us, because it may never have happened, any of those hits. We could still have been playing clubs in Queensland. So I’ve always managed to feel, somehow, that we ought to appreciate what’s happened. The dream came true,” he smiles. “And it’s OK.”