Ever since Robin’s cancer was revealed (and particularly when he went into a coma) I’ve been thinking about the mother of the Bee Gees, Barbara Gibb. This is a lady who in her 92 years has outlived not only her husband (with Hugh passing away in 1992) but also three of her sons: Andy in 1988, Maurice in 2003 and now Robin in 2012. The sacrifices that this family have made to bring this music to the world are enormous. On the one hand Barbara Gibb can feel pride and gratitude in everything her sons achieved, but was it worth it for all the heartache?
But life isn’t meant to be lived thinking about things beyond our control. Robin recently said that maybe the tragedies his family have faced is some sort of karmic balance for all their incredible successes. Maybe. Though I don’t believe the universe operates that way. The rain falls on us all.
Indeed, it is the challenges that in many ways shaped the Gibbs in terms of songcraft and even their legacy. If they hadn’t fallen on tough financial times (and the boys weren’t getting into a few scrapes with the law), they would have probably never left the UK and moved to Australia in the 1950s. If the brothers hadn’t struggled to make friends in school, they wouldn’t have had the same singular and insular drive. If even though Barry was the most in demand songwriter in Australia in the mid-60s (despite still being in his teens), they initially could barely get hits themselves, they probably wouldn’t have gone back to England in 1967.
If infighting hadn’t driven the brothers apart in the late 60s, it wouldn’t have paved the way for the timeless emotion of songs like Lonely Days and How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. If their career hadn’t hit a brief stylistic rut in the early 70s, they wouldn’t have reinvented themselves as mid-late 70s R&B Gods. If American radio hadn’t turned their back on them in the 80s, they may not have written full albums for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Ruffin, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross.
Those challenges gave them the drive to never give up. In 1987 the had the biggest hit in all of Europe for the year with You Win Again, deciding it was time to be “The Bee Gees” again. They even returned to the US top 10 in 1989 with One – more than a decade after Fever. Their 1993 hit For Whom The Bell Tolls not only hit the UK top 5, but went number one across South America. And best of all, their 1997 album Still Waters sold millions around the world, including the States – the same year they won a Brit lifetime achievement award and were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Barry once said the Bee Gees were the “enigma with the stigma.” When you consider this is a band who sold over 200 million records, who wrote 21 different songs to make US or UK number one, who had massive hits in five consecutive decades, who’ve been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Richard Ashcroft, who could write ballads (Massachusettes), soul (To Love Somebody), country (Islands In The Stream), rock (Idea), gospel (Bury Me Down By The River), blues (When The Change Is Made), folk (Sun In My Morning), funk (Love You Inside Out), R&B (Stayin’ Alive), disco (Night Fever), Motown-pop (Chain Reaction), Euro-pop (Embrace), orchestral symphonies (Be Who You Are) and of course, pure, brilliant pop (Alone), it is ridiculous that this was ever true.
No other act has had to fight as hard for their legacy than the Bee Gees, but it was worth the fight and in my mind, informed some of the pathos (not to mention innovation) that is at the heart of the best Gibb songs. The statistics are staggering and you can read more here about their scarcely believable triumphs (like having five songs in the US top 10 in the same week), but for now, let’s focus on the music. Robin and Barry were the tension and the spark and Maurice was the glue. Their voices have a familial blend, though individually were remarkably different. Just as Barry’s falsetto is one of the most recognizable in music, Robin’s soulful vibrato is virtually without peer.
Here is the song which many Bee Gees fans feel is the finest work they released in the 90s. So much of what makes the Bee Gees great is to the fore: An unforgettable title; a massive chorus, with unusual verse and bridge structures; Barry singing in both falsetto and natural voice; three part background harmonies topped with a powerful Robin lead. And unlike the parody Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices, this song really does means something:
When the lonely heart breaks
It’s the one that forsakes
It’s the dream that we stole
And I’m missing you more
And the fire that will roar
There’s a hole in my soul
For you it’s goodbye
And for me it’s to cry
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Robin Gibb: 1949-2012