Barry Gibb: ‘You’re living in the now and you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow’ – Our Extended 2009 Interview

Bee Gees with their Saturday Night Fever Album Of The Year Grammy, 1979.

 

Barry Gibb once told me this was up there with the favourite interviews he’s ever done. Well Barry, it’s fair to say the feeling is mutual, though more to the point, the gratitude and the pleasure is mine. To mark the 71st birthday on September 1st of the sole surviving Bee Gee – a popular songwriter virtually without peer when it comes to success, longevity, prolificness and breadth of creativity – here is a transcript of that interview once again.

Taking place in July 2009, I was in England to watch an Ashes cricket test at Lord’s and to catch up with my sister, brother ‘n’ law and my three nephews who live in Oxford. Coincidentally, Barry was in London at the same time to record footage with brother Robin for the In Our Own Time documentary about the Bee Gees and their 50 years in showbiz. Through his longtime manager and friend Dick Ashby, Barry kindly agreed to sit down for a chat.

Over the course of 45 minutes at a London hotel, Barry and I discussed his new friendship with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, fascinating details of his decades-long friendship with Michael Jackson (who’d only recently died), insights into his relationships with his brothers, the then just-released Mythology box-set project, the wonders of a mystery tonic called “Zamu”, why he never watches himself on TV, the 40th anniversary of the acclaimed Odessa album, the origins of latter-day hits like For Whom The Bell Tolls, whether his children liked his music, if he was ever offended by Jimmy Fallon’s Barry Gibb Talk Show skit, plus some of the forgotten songs from the Bee Gees overlooked early-70s period.

He was in a relaxed, convivial mood having spent several hours that day with UK-based Robin. At the time it was six years on from the passing of Robin’s twin Maurice and just three years before the sadness of losing Robin too. All of us who have closely followed the Gibb brothers over the years knew to some extent the significance of that brief time of personal, in the flesh reunification for Barry and Robin, but with Robin’s death not long after, this has only gotten stronger.

It was clear to me Barry had cherished laughing with his brother again, saying, “If there’s one thing that’s always been magic about the three of us is the shared sense of humour; the ability to laugh at everything, to never see everything as a serious issue”. And as alluded to in the headline of this article, Barry foreshadowed the title of his 2016 solo album by referencing his desire to always live “in the now”.

Here are some of the highlights from that 2009 conversation with corresponding music videos for the following songs: Islands In The StreamFor Whom The Bell Tolls, Love You Inside Out, Spirits Having Flown, Paper Mache, Cabbages And Kings, Sun In My Morning, Wouldn’t I Be Someone, King And Country, Nights On Broadway, Lamplight, Marley Purt Drive.

BARRY GIBB & TIM ROXBOROGH EDITED HIGHLIGHTS, LONDON, JULY 2009:

TR: This year is 10 years since you played to 70,000 Kiwis at Western Springs as part of the One Night Only tour – what do you remember about that night?

BG: A wonderful outside place, it was almost like a valley. And the acoustics were wonderful. It was a great thrill, a great thrill.

TR: And 10 years on it’s still the highest grossing single concert in New Zealand history.

BG: Naw! (disbelieving) Well I can tell you we’ll be back, I can tell you that.*

TR: There’s a documentary where Maurice says, “they don’t make people like Robin anymore, they broke the mould with Robin.”

BG: Yes that’s true, they did break the mould with Robin, but they also broke the mould with Mo, you know, and I just think they broke a number of things with me! (laughs) But Mo was a very special person, a very outward going person, the most…um, what’s the word? Not internal…the most external, the most interactive with other people out of all of us.

Robin was probably the shyest and yet probably the wittiest and saw life from probably a more Peter Sellers’ sense of humour than any of us. We were The Goons, and the three of us all took those roles in all forms of life. Whether we were onstage or not, we were Spike Milligan, Peters Sellers and Harry Secombe.

TR: You wrote some incredible songs after Andy died as a tribute to him, songs like Wish You Were Here and Tears – was For Whom The Bell Tolls also about Andy?

BG: No, For Whom The Bell Tolls was one of those extra things that you could’ve put on an album but you didn’t until the last minute. And it was an idea that, (pauses to sing), “when the lonely heart breaks,” that chorus area, hit me in the head on the way to the studio. I sang it to Robin when we got to the studio and he said, well we haven’t finished the album, why don’t we finish this and put it on the album. And that’s where the falsetto verse came from and how we started to develop that I shouldn’t sing, “when the lonely heart breaks”, but that he should. Over the years, that’s been the way we’ve worked; we’ve very often shared the lead voice.

TR: Like Nights On Broadway

BG: Yeah, like Nights On Broadway and Run To Me and Broken Heart. We’ve very often shared the lead and for many reasons, and often confused the listener into thinking it was one person singing.

TR: What about the songs you wrote with Michael Jackson? Are there quite a few of these because Eaten Alive [from 1985] is the only one that’s ever been released?

BG: There’s other music that Michael and I have written but I’m unable to comment, because (searching for the words), because… the river flows. Things will become of that music but it’s too soon to make any particular comment or any particular event. But you know, watch this space.**

TR: The feeling I get is that Michael Jackson held you guys in the highest regard, that he was really inspired by the late 70s work and maybe took a bit of solace in coming to see you in Miami to escape everything. Is that how it was?

Maurice, MJ, Barry & Robin – circa 1985.

BG: Well not always, but most of the time he stayed at my home when he came to Miami. And most of the time he would have a hotel room, but he wouldn’t be there. So everyone thought he would be there and he’d be at my place and we’d have the most fun. And the fun that he had, the Michael I saw was happy, cheerful… I never saw a dark side of Michael. I never saw an unhappy Michael. He’d swim with the kids, he’d go water-skiing and it was all a very, very natural situation. Just a natural situation and he’d have a great time.

TR: I’ve been listening to some of his songs again, songs like Stranger In Moscow, incredible songs and you realise there’s a synergy between the Gibbs and what he was doing.

BG: Well he has said so and songs like Love You Inside Out in particular struck him as him, saying that that’s what he wanted to do. The Spirits Having Flown album, yeah…

TR: Well that title track is my all-time favourite Bee Gees song and you’ve chosen that title track for your Mythology CD, how did you choose your songs?

BG: For the Mythology project we all found out our own individual positions. It was arranged that between us and Warner / Rhino that each brother and Andy’s daughter and Mo’s wife Yvonne would choose 21 songs of their favourite individual lead singing. Not the group songs, the ones they thought was their own best songs. And each brother ended up with 21 songs, everybody got really happy – which is really strange (laughs) – and we suddenly have this album called Mythology. And what’s interesting about it is we suddenly have so much to talk about: what’s myth and what’s true? So that becomes the beginning of the next 50 years if you like. What was true and what wasn’t? And that’ll come, that’ll all come.

TR: So in terms of the mythology and the legacy, are you content with your place in music history?

BG: Well I am. I have a very large family and most of my life and my time is taken up with my daughter and taking her to school and bringing her home and much less time is spent on writing songs. Although I am still writing songs… I seem to have found a certain contentment.

TR: I remember I asked you a few years ago whether your kids were into your back catalogue and whether they knew stuff like, say, Paper Mache, Cabbages And Kings and you were adamant that they didn’t! Has this changed at all?***

BG: Not it’s not changed! (laughing) I’m fairly adamant that they don’t know those songs. I’m pretty sure there’s a number of songs they don’t know and they all have different tastes. My eldest son Stephen is very much heavy metal, a lead guitarist, and very good, but that’s his music you know. He’s not going to listen to a Bee Gees song per-se unless he’s taking part in writing it.

TR: But do they ever go, “wow, I just heard Sun In My Morning [from 1969], I can’t believe that’s such a great song!”

BG: Very rarely. Very rarely will any of them say that…

TR: I’m sorry about that… (laughs).

BG: No not at all! (laughs) It’s just the way it is. And so I guess, different times, different tastes. And you know the other thing is we don’t play, or I don’t play, hardly any Bee Gees music in the house… I’ve met a lot of people who don’t play their own music in their homes. I’ve met a lot of actors who’ve never watched their own films.

TR: Well, you’ve lived it…

BG: Yeah, well for me yesterday’s yesterday and today’s today. If I did something yesterday that was great, I have a really tough time going back. I have a really tough time reliving those things. It’s like doing a television show, and I get home and everyone says, “we taped it, come and see it.” No! (laughs) I don’t want to see it! “Why not?” ‘Cos I just did it!

TR: So you didn’t watch Sound Relief back? I watched Sound Relief and thought it was great being in Australia and with Olivia Newton-John.****

BG: No we didn’t see it back, not Olivia nor I. She was off to Japan the next day, we were gone the next day too. We had the most incredible experience – feet didn’t touch the ground – it was straight from Miami, straight from Florida. No staying overnight in LA, straight from one plane to another, straight to Australia. I had two days rehearsal with the band who were amazing and she had one day’s rehearsal. So I got them ready for when she got there. She arrived the day before the show, but her husband is responsible for a lot of these herbal, Amazonian herbal drinks and herbal homeopathic type of medicines.

TR: Does that help with the arthritis?

BG: (laughs) Doesn’t matter about the arthritis! He has this liquid called Zamu and it’s the greatest thing. It’s like legal Red Bull. I mean not that’s it’s illegal, but it’s good for you.

TR: So a bit of sake with the Zamu, have you experimented with that?

BG: I have! Though I haven’t mixed them together, but I’ll have a sake and then maybe an hour later I’ll have a Zamu. Zamu you only want like that much (gestures with hands), you know? And that’s what got us both through Australia…

TR: Zamu! (laughs)

BG: Yeah! (laughs)

With Olivia Newton-John, Sound Relief 2009.

TR: Now you guys are so modest and that’s a very endearing quality, but you talk about Sound Relief and Chris Martin from Coldplay came to New Zealand just after Australia and he was telling everyone, “Oh my gosh, I was having breakfast and Barry Gibb was there and he’s written like a million hits! And I didn’t know what to say to him!”

BG: Well we struck off the most incredible relationship that I hope will last all our lives. Also Shane [Warne] the cricket player, he was there with us too. So there was Olivia and I and Linda my wife and Shane and Chris. He was there at the sound-check for the Sound Relief show the afternoon before… and what a pleasure, what a nice guy, and that’s what struck me you know? He said, “I just want to write songs like you guys wrote and I’m still [only] coming up with a good song every 20 songs.” And I thought that was a very nice thing to say and we became really good friends.

TR: That’s great, because even your modesty when you look back on your career, you guys often talk about the Batley Variety Club [England, 1974] as being this low point, but you don’t mention that at that point you were still very popular in Australasia, in South East-Asia, you were having number ones in Hong Kong at that stage, but you often don’t mention that.*****

BG: Well I don’t know why, I just think that we reached a point – I think you’re talking about 71, 72…

TR: Well even in 73 Wouldn’t I Be Someone and Saw A New Morning were number ones in Asia…

BG: I didn’t know that, I honestly didn’t know that.

TR: See, I need to fill you in! (laughs)

BG: I did not know that. See we had reached a point…, you know this is 45, 50 years [of our career]… and there were a few points in our lives where we wore each other out; where it became very thin on the ground for all three of us, because you’re brothers and you’re more than brothers, you’re a pop group. And if you’re not a pop group, you’re a family. We started out as one family with two parents and became three families with two parents, you know, so life just expanded.

By the time 72 came around we couldn’t get arrested, in England or America. We were not aware of what was going on in Asia and so we ended up in Sheffield and doing Batley’s Variety Club and all these places… I was pretty steady with the wife and we were pretty happy [though] we weren’t necessarily blown away that we might’ve taken a step back and that we were working back in clubs again. And so I was worried about that, [but] that’s just life as it was.

TR: Looking back now, because I know you’re so modest – I keep saying it – but songs like King And Country [1973] a lot of fans will tell you are great songs. And yet this is considered to be at a low point in the career, but King And Country and Come Home Johnny Bride, I Can Bring Love etc, those are very strong songs.

BG: (laughing)

TR: Just say thanks! (laughs)

BG: Thanks! (laughs) King And Country was always one of my favourites, but I never understood nor knew [that songs like that] had been successful anywhere. So that’s very interesting, so thank you!

TR: What makes this the 50th anniversary? Is it the breaking of the record, you know, when Maurice dropped the record and you had to sing onstage instead of lip-sync? What actually happened 50 years ago?

BG: What exactly happened 50 years ago? I think 50 years ago we probably went into the studio for the first time with Bill Gates, the gentleman who helped us name the group.

TR: So you’re in Australia…

BG: Yeah. So it’s about 1959, 1960 and he helped us name the group and we were playing in a speedway. We talked our way into singing in an oval and he said, “I’d like to come over and talk to you at your house and I’d like to become…” – in those days it was not your manager, it was your promoter. We said, “wow, OK, you know, we’re three kids!” And he came over and he said to mum, “I really like these kids and they’ve got potential and I’ve got a radio show called Platter Chatter with Swinging Gates on radio 4BH in Brisbane and would the boys come down and talk to me on the radio?” And of course we would, you know? And on the same day we cut an acetate of about five songs in a separate studio in the same building and that was the first time we’d ever recorded our voices. That’s basically how it started.

TR: You were writing a lot of hits for some of Australia’s biggest artists when you were a teenager, were you aware that you were so young and punching so much higher than your weight?

Robin, Barry & Maurice as children in Australia.

BG: No, because I don’t think you ever think you’re so young. I just think that you’re living in the now and you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Somebody says, “will you write a song for so ‘n’ so?” and you think, “OK, write a song for Bryan Davies. Write a song for Bryan Davies?” ‘Cos he was going to England and trying to get a hit record at that point. For Col Joye, the first song that any artist recorded that we wrote was Starlight Of Love which was just after we met Col and Kevin [Jacobsen] doing a show in Surfers Paradise. They asked us to come to Sydney and they got us our first record contract. But Starlight Of Love was the first song. The first international song was Wayne Newton, They’ll Never Know.

TR: In that last year in Australia did you know that you were working towards getting back to England, in that final year 1966?

BG: In the final six months because we realised the Easybeats had done it, the Seekers had done it and that people like this had left Australia and had had success. We began to smell the idea that international success could occur, that we could have it, that we could get it, you know? We just had to have the audacity to… go back to England and take a shot.

The response to us going back to England was, “you’re a bit late boys, groups are out and it’s going to be very difficult to sign up another group.” And it wasn’t until we heard from Robert Stigwood that he heard not just the songs, but the potential of more songs and what that might lead to. He told me that story only about two days ago, that he had not been with Brian (Epstein) as I had previously believed. Brian was away and he had listened to the songs on his own and decided that this was going to be his group. And Brian said, “well I’ve got the Beatles, I don’t need another group thanks.” And Robert took us on, became our manager, we signed a five year contract with him and he became our mentor and I think to this day still is.

TR: The Barry Gibb Talk Show, what do you think of that now? That’s some pretty serious back-handed flattery from Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon…******

 

BG: Well it’s pretty funny! (laughs) For Jimmy’s sake I’d like Jimmy to know that’s not me. I have melted down many occasions and perhaps he has too, but I’ve only ever melted down over my brothers and myself. I’ve never melted down over [just] myself and I think that’s the misinterpretation…

TR: (laughing)

BG: My wife doesn’t like it! I think it’s funny, my daughter thinks it’s hysterical, but my wife, she gets very angry about it. She says, “that’s not you and that’s not fair,” and I go, “oh well, it’s television you know?” Once they start taking the piss out of you it means you’ve reached a certain point…

TR: I think it’s been good for you actually in the States. You go to YouTube and type in, “Barry Gibb”, and you get “Barry Gibb Talk Show” everywhere.

BG: I’ve been thinking it through and I just might have a Barry Gibb Talk Show! (laughs)

TR: And everyone now has a new appreciation of Nights On Broadway which was the theme…

BG: …what Justin doesn’t realise and what Jimmy doesn’t realise is that they’ve got the characters the wrong way round! (laughs) Robin is the one who’s liable to explode. I’m the one who’s liable to go, “what’s everyone getting angry about?”

TR: On Jimmy Fallon’s own talk show he got a signed picture of you and this is what you’ve got to tell Linda, because Jimmy Fallon was so blown away to get a signed picture from you.

BG: They were very kind, both him and Justin Timberlake were very kind. I saw that night, and it made me realise that they were having fun and they’d been having fun with us and that’s OK. I don’t mind any of that. What was funny was watching Robert De Niro sitting next to the pair of them, wondering what the hell they were talking about, ‘cos I don’t think he knew. So he was sort of like this – (pulls a comically a bemused face) – “what am I doing here!?” you know?

And the last thing you want to do, if you’re Robert De Niro, is stay on a show if you’ve already been on, you know? The biggest stars in the world, if they’ve already been on, that’s it! Get off the show! Don’t sit there and listen to someone else. And so I think Robert realised that, “um, maybe I shouldn’t be here now.”

TR: So 50 years since it began, 40 years since Odessa, and at various times you guys have kind of downplayed that album. Is it possible that fans like that album more than you? Or have you changed your thoughts to it?

BG: Odessa was just a huge mish-mash you know? It was just a huge pile of songs.

TR: Mojo magazine says it’s one of the great albums of the 60s…

BG: Everyone’s got a positive opinion about that album. Everyone thinks that in certain ways it’s a piece of artwork. But for us it was, “I know! Let’s do a rock opera!” You know, because of Tommy and things like that – “I know! Let’s do a rock opera!” So it was more that kind of attitude and we started bringing abstract feelings and thoughts like [the title track] Odessa which Robin brought in and Lamplight and songs like that. Songs that didn’t necessarily relate to love songs or relationships and all of it of course influenced by the Beatles and the fact that they had moved away from the “you and me” type of songs into the Yellow Submarine abstraction.

TR: So that’s where, “15 kids and a family on the skids,” – Marley Purt Drive – comes from? Which also sounds like a song from The Band…

BG: …Yes and very much influenced by The Band, no question about that. So you know, it was, “why are we doing these songs?” and “why wasn’t it a rock opera?” I’ll never be able to answer that. We never got to the end of that album because we all fell out about two songs before the end of the album and that was the end of that. We were apart for about two years.

TR: But 40 years later it’s been repackaged and some fans say it’s the best work you ever did.

BG: Well that’s very nice! We’ve all got opinions about what may be our best work but I’m starting to see it myself, I’m starting to hear it myself; that this was a good piece of work. When you’re in such turmoil… you don’t look at the music as close as we look now. Now we look at it in retrospect; we didn’t then.

TR: Well Barry I should let you move on. Could you give a little word for New Zealand fans where for some years you’ve been selling more per capita than anywhere else in the world?

BG: Well, we love you, we thank you for caring about our music over the years, we can’t wait to see you all again… And so all our love from Robin and I to all of you.

Afterword:

*Barry returned to New Zealand as part of the Australasian leg of the Mythology tour in Februrary 2013.

**In 2011 on the second anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death Barry released a duet with Michael entitled All In Your Name. 

***The Gibb brothers were often partial to some wonderfully eccentric songwriting, though this 1972 song – complete with the repeated line “Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere,” – is probably as odd as things got. Stephen Gibb reassured me in 2013 that he does indeed know this song! It’s also clear that with Stephen’s participation as guitarist in the Mythology Tour of 2013/2014, not to mention Barry’s daughter Ali as the tour teleprompter-operater and Maurice’s daughter Samantha on vocals, that the Gibb offspring are both proud and knowledgable of their fathers’ and uncles’ catalogue.

****Barry performed a nine-song set at the Sound Relief charity concert in Sydney on March 14, 2009. Funds were raised for Australians who’d suffered from recent storms, floods and fires. 

*****Barry has now formed a genuine friendship with Jimmy Fallon and has appeared several times on his shows. Most notably, Barry appeared as himself on an episode of The Barry Gibb Talk Show during the Saturday Night Live 2013 Christmas special.

******The Bee Gees also sustained huge success in Japan in the early 70s through songs like Morning Of My Life and Melody Fair. In Australia and New Zealand they continued sellout tours during this period including breaking attendance records in Australian cities like Canberra. Of surprise is that 1974’s Mr Natural (song) was a bigger hit in Australia than the following year’s Jive Talkin’.

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