|Maurice, Robin & Barry Gibb – 1979.|
I can’t let this slide, I’m sorry. Half-way through David N. Meyer’s new and “definitive” biography on the Bee Gees I was thinking that despite the constant factual errors and the presumptions, it was gripping writing and unique analysis. I even contacted the author to point out several of the most glaring errors but wished him well.
I also said I wanted to inform him of the errors privately as a courtesy and explained I hoped they’d be corrected in the event of a second print run. I congratulated him on his readable writing style and the undoubted research he’d done. In my mind, his analysis of songs like To Love Somebody and Jive Talkin’ are, despite the obligatory wrong accompanying facts*, amongst the most substantial I’ve seen and I told him so. Then I read the second half of the book.
Looked at as a whole, Meyer has written the most error-riddled music biography I have ever read. Unquestionably a writer of some talent who (perhaps begrudgingly) admires the Gibbs – he frequently calls Barry a “genius,” heaps praise on Robin’s vibrato and admires Maurice’s “rich timbre and beautiful voice,” – it is inexcusable that he and his editor would be so inept at fact-checking. Here are just 21 of the mistakes which are literally (and only the most minuscule of hyperbole with “literally”) on every single page of this book:
- The cover photo for the book is a reversed image. Great start.
- Sir Tim Rice becomes “Tim Price,” while his colleague is misspelt as “Andrew Lloyd Weber.”
- Carl Richardson and Karl Richardson co-exist in the same paragraph.
- Motown founder Berry Gordy is reinvented as the less well known “Barry Gordy.”
- Massachusetts (UK #1, US #11) becomes the Bee Gees first US chart-topper.
- The recurring theme of the book that Barry Gibb is a “control freak” gets forgotten to assert without evidence that a trio of the Bee Gees most beloved 70s love songs (How Deep Is Your Love, More Than A Woman and Fanny Be Tender With My Love) were lyrically nothing more than Robin Gibb sexual in-jokes.
- Barry Gibb writes *To Love Somebody aged 22, instead of 20.
- *Jive Talkin’ is listed as one of the “great stutter songs” of pop music, alongside the likes of The Who’s My Generation, David Bowie’s Changes and Elton John’s Bennie And The Jets. High praise indeed but completely wrong. A quick check of the lyric sheet reveals the first line is not “J-j-j jive talking'” and is, “It’s just your jive talkin’.”
- Robin Gibb sings the entire lead on I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You, even though Barry sings lead on the second verse and they share the chorus.
- Maurice sings lead on Tomorrow Tomorrow’s verses. He does not.
- Robin sings lead on Dogs. He does not.
- Marley Purt Drive becomes Marley “Putt” Drive.
- The country sound of Give Your Best from 1969 is magically influenced by a country song from 1970.
- Stayin’ Alive spends the least amount of time at US#1 of any of the Saturday Night Fever chart-toppers, we are told. And yet in reality it spent four weeks at #1, How Deep Is Your Love three weeks, If I Can’t Have You one week. Only Night Fever’s eight weeks was longer.
- Celine Dion covers It’s My Neighbourhood in the late 90s. No, she sang (alongside the Bee Gees) a new song Immortality. Both songs were used in the Fever musical.
- Immortality becomes the more sinister sounding “Immorality.”
- Prior to releasing Still Waters, the record company rejected an album of ballads the Bee Gees had recorded. This never happened. There was a proposed Love Songs compilation (years before a different album of the same name) which would feature greatest hits, a couple of new songs and some new recordings of older hits written for other artists. This is where the Bee Gees own versions of Heartbreaker and Emotion originate from.
- Barry didn’t perform for two and half hours in front of 25,000 fans in Melbourne in February 2013 – the Rod Laver Arena only holds 14,000.
- The triumphant 1989 One For All tour (which was worldwide) gets mixed up with the much shorter European tour of 1991.
- Man On Fire (featured below) is the best song on Andy Gibb’s 1980 LP After Dark. No mean feat considering it wasn’t written until 1987.
- And perhaps taking the cake, Andy has “sparkling blue eyes.” His eyes were brown.
To the casual fan, you’d probably go, “so what?” But when you start coming to grips with the landslide of factual errors, it begins casting doubt on everything else in the book which includes a great deal of speculation on the individual character of the Gibbs, often presented as fact. And for all the borderline character assassination, the author seems unaware Barry Gibb has long had a reputation as a gentle, humble soul – something that has permeated throughout much of his songwriting.
Credit where credit is due, the first half of the book – despite the errors – is the work of somebody who studied the Bee Gees, listened to their music and read through dozens of old newspaper and magazine articles. Meyer’s writing occasionally has flair – “aching elegies to alienation, loss and heartache” – for example, is an appropriately lyrical assessment of the 60s Bee Gees music. And I don’t mind his opinions on music different to my own, provided he’s actually listened to the music.
But it is this, even more than the factual errors and perplexing assessments on character, that is the most disappointing aspect of the book. I would put money on the fact Meyer has had a vague appreciation for the Gibbs, but until deciding to do the book owned none of their back catalogue. The book reads as someone who went from having maybe one Bee Gees compilation to instantly owning 30 studio albums and who kind of gave up on listening to anything beyond 1979’s Sprits Having Flown.
Ironically, this shows both the strength and weakness of the book. In the first half, Meyer chastises other music critics who wrote reviews of Bee Gees albums without listening to the music and with a preconceived narrative they couldn’t deviate from. That’s what makes the first half refreshing. Even if I disagree with his thoughts on songs, I can tell he’s listened. “Finally!” I thought, and was looking forward to his analysis of post disco-era Bee Gees albums.
Only problem, Meyer stopped listening. In a more than 300 page book, the underbought Living Eyes album from 1981 gets one solitary paragraph where we are told there was, “not one memorable song.” Really? Tell me it’s bad, but tell me why – though being he didn’t listen to the album, that might prove difficult. Don’t Fall In Love With Me is a good place to start:
The Arif Mardin produced 1987 comeback album ESP (with their first UK #1 in eight years as a group You Win Again – isn’t that worth exploring properly?) gets similar treatment: one paragraph explaining it was “shockingly weak.” Does this sound shockingly weak to you? It’s one of my picks for being the finest song production-wise the Bee Gees did in the 80s and the prominent Marcus Miller bass-line is sublime and virtually a lead instrument. The Longest Night:
1989’s One gets smothered in three paragraphs but it’s back to one paragraph for High Civilisation from 1991 which Meyer says is, “by any reasonable standard, terrible.” What about the “reasonable standard” expected of a critic to have listened to the album before reviewing it? Here’s Wish You Were Here from One and Happy Ever After from High Civilisation:
By 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything – for 20 years now regarded as arguably the finest post disco-era Bee Gees album – Meyer has so given up on listening to the music he doesn’t even mention it. And yet it produced three UK top 30 hits, including the smash top 5 For Whom The Bell Tolls – also a #1 hit across South America:
The irony is, Meyer has resorted to letting the lazy narrative of the Bee Gees – the same one he criticized in other writers – determine his thoughts on their later material. The narrative for many US rock writers is that the latter-day Bee Gees albums were bad. Deviating from that would require listening to the music and it doesn’t matter whether its the Bee Gees, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Marvin Gaye or indeed any music great with a big back catalogue, listening to all their albums for the first time in one go would be tiring.
Easier just to say the earlier albums were interesting, the middle ones were the biggest and the later ones were awful with the last one being the minor saving grace. And I would argue that this banal career arc has been applied with only minor variation by many a lazy music writer to almost every major artist in history. For whatever reason, hours spent picking through old microfiche takes precedence over sitting down in front of the stereo. Only it doesn’t. Good music biographies require both. How pesky to have done strong albums in the late part of your career? That mucks up the narrative.
All of this is frustrating because the Bee Gees deserve better. As Meyer says on numerous occasions, they are songwriting geniuses. I’d love a writer to listen to the Living Eyes album and discover Don’t Fall In Love With Me with its hook, “Gonna’ be a lonely night, nothing but a lonely night,” and realise these were perhaps the most chilling three-part harmonies the brothers had done since Morning Of My Life a decade before. Or to find Barry’s adult-contemporary how-to ballad Nothing Could Be Good and know the relative uniqueness (for a Gibb song) of an explicit spiritual reference, “sing to the Almighty, if that’s what you need to do, love what is true.” Nothing Could Be Good:
If Meyer had listened to ESP, he might’ve heard the beauty in the ballads The Longest Night and Angela. High Civilisation produced a UK top 5, the Motown-recalling Secret Love. More than that, it was the Chain Reaction-recalling Secret Love. Chain Reaction (written by the brothers in 1985) gets a passing mention in the book, only Meyer doesn’t include that it was Diana Ross’ biggest ever UK solo hit, a 1986 UK#1. Perhaps he didn’t know. Secret Love:
The same author who spent several pages poring over Robin’s 1969 solo album Robin’s Reign neglects to mention any of the brothers solo albums in the 80s, nor Barry’s million-selling reunion with Barbra Streisand from 2005 Guilty Pleasures.
Once again, the shame of all of this is two-fold. Meyer is a talented enough writer to be capable of pulling the wool over the eyes of those who know little about the Gibbs. Secondly and far more importantly, the Bee Gees deserved so much better.In closing, here are two more songs from two of the finest Bee Gees albums of any era, one from 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything and another from the five million selling Still Waters (1997). First is the spiritual guitar and harmonica ballad Blue Island which the brothers dedicated to the children of Bosnia. And second is the most internationally famous Bee Gees song of the 90s, Alone. Meyer neglects to inform readers Alone was a UK top 5 hit, not to mention top 10 in many other countries including my own (New Zealand #2, 1997). If like the author you may be hearing some of these remarkable songs for the first time, enjoy.