A little over a week since Barry Gibb’s triumphant Mission Estate Concert in Napier (in front of 20,000 fans, see article below about my backstage experience), the Gibb family are in the news again today, specifically Andy. If he was still alive, today would be his 55th birthday and in just five days time, it will be 25 years since his death.
Andy Gibb’s was a tragic life, as well as tragically short. I’m sure there are lessons for us all when you look at the picture of a young man, born into a loving family, who had looks, fame and money and still felt so dreadfully inferior. This was a guy whose first three singles all went to US #1, who had the biggest hit of an entire year in the States (1978’s Shadow Dancing), who sold 20 million records in just three years and who was once deemed pretty enough to have a doll made in his image.
But 10 years after his Shadow Dancing peak, Andy was gone. With the hits having dried up in the early 80s, he’d marked his 30th birthday on March 5th 1988 with just his Mum Barbara in a cottage on brother Robin’s estate in Thame, England. Barbara knew her youngest was desperately depressed and all the family knew he was drinking too much so she’d flown from Miami to be with him.
The myth still persists that Andy took his own life, when in actual fact he died on March 10 1988 of an inflamed heart. It was a condition undoubtedly exacerbated by years of drug and alcohol abuse by a man who’d somehow lost his passion for life. And yet as Barry has pointed out several times, Andy had in secret obtained a pilot’s license in the year before his death. There was talk he’d be joining the Bee Gees for their 1989 album, the followup to their 1987 comeback smash ESP and he’d also signed a new solo deal with Island Records.
Seemingly there was much to live for, but that last factor, the new solo album deal, may have been part of the downward slide. With serious writer’s block (despite three older brothers as prolific as any songwriting team in history), a desire to shed notions of only having been a teen-idol and possible doubts that he even still wanted a career in music, Andy was in trouble.
Everybody who knew him said he was a kind, gentle soul with a genuine love of people. Not surprisingly, his death broke a lot of hearts, namely his Dad Hugh who himself died in 1992. The brothers often said Hugh was never the same again after Andy’s death, speaking of a sense of relief that father and youngest son could be reunited again.
Fast-forward to the present with Barry now as the only surviving Gibb brother, but still with Mum Barbara (aged 93), sister Lesley and his wife and rock of more than 40 years Linda, it is rammed home just how much this family have been through to bring this music to the world.
So what of Andy’s music? As a teen-idol in the disco-era, people might be surprised to learn that a lot of his own songwriting was in the country / pop vein which is so popular today. Music fans may also be unaware that his three studio albums (produced by Barry with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson) featured crack musicians like Don Felder and Joe Walsh from the Eagles. The musicianship is excellent on all three LPs, Flowing Rivers, Shadow Dancing and After Dark.
For the trio of US #1s, I Just Want To Be Your Everything is a sunny piece of carefree pop while Love Is Thicker Than Water is just about as dark a horse of a late 70s #1 in existence. A slow-burner, the song took months to reach the pop summit, the sort of song you don’t quite know what to make of until several listens, by which point the majesty of the two minute instrumental fade-out has become so addictive as to upset you if you turned on the radio and realized the song was nearly over.
The third and biggest of the #1s has somehow disappeared off radio playlists and yet it topped the chart for seven weeks and in 1978, the year of the Bee Gees, Andy outdid even his brothers (with Billboard’s biggest hit of the year). That said, all four brothers wrote Shadow Dancing, whose lightly funky textures and expert craftsmanship (listen carefully to the lead guitar licks and the horn arrangements towards the song’s end) make a mockery of claims the disco-era was catchy but simple.
To mark both Andy’s birthday and the 25th anniversary of his death, I’ve chosen a song which snuck through in the period shortly before his life ended. Mired in writer’s block while in those final days living in England in 1988, Andy had teamed up with Barry and Maurice in the Miami summer of 1987 to come up with a remarkable ballad. The song remained unreleased until 1991, three years after his death. Like literally dozens and dozens of songs in the brothers Gibb catalogue, this is a largely unknown piece of work which is not just a strong song, but sounds like a potential hit. This is Man On Fire: