Barry Gibb has a knighthood and I’m a happy man. I’m not much into numerology, but there is something about the Gibb family and the number 7. The Bee Gees had their first international hits in 1967, they released what became the biggest selling album of all time in 1977, they stormed back to the top of the charts in 1987, they had their most popular studio album since 1979 in 1997 and in the final days of 2017, 71-year old Barry Alan Crompton Gibb was announced as becoming a Sir.
Sure, 2007 was a quiet year in that six decade run of sevens, but five out of six ain’t bad. As for 2017, it also marked a headlining performance at Glastonbury, the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever, and a televised Grammy special featuring A-listers like Ed Sheeran, Celine Dion, Keith Urban, Stevie Wonder and many more paying tribute to the incredible body of work of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb as well as their younger brother Andy. Hosted by John Travolta, TV special was a ratings smash and here where I live in New Zealand it became the 8th most watched show of the entire year for all channels, time-slots and ages.
Once the albatross around the neck of the Bee Gees that they couldn’t escape from, the songs from the Fever soundtrack have stood the test of time for many reasons, but mainly because – allowing eloquence to escape me – they are fricken amazing pop songs.
I can still remember Burt Bacharach telling me those Fever tracks were “as good as it gets”. Coming from a man who knows a thing or two about good music, this wasn’t hyperbole. Bacharach was in town for a concert in Auckland and alongside my fanboy questions about his Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid soundtrack and how That’s What Friends Are For had originally been recorded by Rod Stewart years before Dionne Warwick and her famous pals, I found myself in the familiar territory of talking about the Bee Gees.
Bacharach and the Gibb brothers had common ground in that they were pop songwriters of the highest calibre who’d written hits for Dionne Warwick. In Bacharach’s case, he wrote the melodies (and Hal David the lyrics) for the majority of her best known songs. Think of tracks like I Say A Little Prayer, Walk On By, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, That’s What Friends Are For etc. etc. – all have the Bacharach songwriting credit next to them.
One that doesn’t, though, is the song Heartbreaker. Written by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb in 1982 at the height of the backlash against the Bee Gees when American radio effectively blacklisted them as performers, it gave Warwick a US #10 and UK #2 and with it her biggest hit in years. It was accompanied by an album of the same name (also written by the Bee Gees) that sold more than three million copies.
Asking Bacharach for his assessment of the Bee Gees as fellow creators of hits for Warwick, he mentioned how much he always wanted to write songs with Barry. Then turning his focus to Saturday Night Fever, that’s when the man behind so many of the most sophisticated works in 20th Century popular music said that the songs the Bee Gees contributed to that soundtrack blew him away.
“Those are killer songs that they wrote. I mean that soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever? That’s as good as it gets”.
It’s not just Burt Bacharach. Everyone from Dave Grohl to George Benson to Brian Wilson is effusive in praise for the Bee Gees and their now 40-year old, record-annihilating soundtrack. It’s no secret that Michael Jackson was also a massive fan and such was the Gibb-influence on his Off The Wall album (1979) that he was quoted as saying, “Wait until the Bee Gees hear this!”
Ultimately it would be Michael who’d surpass the Bee Gees sales records for Fever with his Off The Wall followup, Thriller (1982). Depending on who you listen to, Fever is still the highest selling soundtrack of all time internationally, though The Bodyguard has just pipped it in the States. What’s inarguable is that even in this day and age of inflated sales figures to make record company press releases sound more impressive (the worst offender being when Sony pretended Thriller had sold 100 million copies when most high estimates were around 60 million and conservative estimates around 50 million), Saturday Night Fever is still one of the 10 biggest selling releases in the history of music. Whether those sales are 40 million, 45 million or closer to 50 million, probably no-one really knows.
There’s been so much written about Saturday Night Fever over the years and I’ve thrown my hat into the ring several times in trying to analyse what it was about this music that made it such a phenomenon. And just as crucially, what specifically makes Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, More Than A Woman, If I Can’t Have You and How Deep Is Your Love just as famous 40 years after the fact. So in trying to come up with something new to say about the most famous clutch of songs by one of the planet’s most famous bands, I recently happened across something entirely by accident.
Listening to More Than A Woman for about the billionth occasion in my life, it occurred to me for the first time that some of the magic of this song might be in the subtly different repetition and emphasis of the title. As in, “More than a WOMan, more-than-a-woman-to-me”. Plenty of pop songs repeat words and phrases, but I started to wonder if repeating an entire title line with a different delivery of speed was unusual. The first “More than a woman” has the words sung faster and with slightly different notes than the second, immediate repetition.
This is not the same as songs that repeat the title or hook over and over. This – from my early, entirely unscientific research – is a far less common structural technique for a song and maybe it was just a happy accident that on More Than A Woman it sounded so good.
Except Night Fever does the exact same thing: “Night fever, night fe-verrrr”. Also a repetition and also a different emphasis the second time around.
Then onto If I Can’t Have You: “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody baby, if I can’t have you, ahhhh”. Not exactly the same in that additional words exist between the repeated title refrain, but there’s a similar idea of a twice recurring title phrase in a short space of time with change of notes.
Next is How Deep Is Your Love. My music geekness was in overdrive when I realised the Gibb brothers were at it again: “How deep is your love, how – deep – is – your – love, I really mean to learn…” Just like More Than A Woman and Night Fever, this was a repeated title line with an alternate speed and emphasis the second time around.
So what of the soundtrack’s most iconic song? Stayin’ Alive also has same title repetition as the other tracks, though the first two instances of “Stayin’ Alive, stayin’ alive” have an identical weighting of syllables and speed. Then comes the long, “Stayin’ allllliiiiiiiivvvvveeeeee”. A slightly different technique from the previous tracks, but still the fifth out of five new Gibb songs for the Fever soundtrack that employs title repetition with three out of the five doing it side-by-side with the changing tempo and emphasis.
To which you could quite rightly be responding right now with an almighty yawn. “Who cares!?” Well, strange pop music enthusiasts like myself do! I care because the Bee Gees wrote literally dozens of hits over many decades and the above structural techniques don’t seem to appear in early hits like I Started A Joke or How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. They don’t appear in pre-Fever smashes like Jive Talkin’ or Nights On Broadway, nor in immediate post-Fever chart-toppers like Tragedy, Too Much Heaven or Love You Inside Out.
They also don’t seem to be in the countless hits for other artists the brothers wrote like Grease (Frankie Valli), Emotion (Samantha Sang), I Just Want To Be Your Everything (Andy Gibb), Woman In Love (Barbra Streisand), Heartbreaker (Diana Ross), Chain Reaction (Diana Ross), Islands In The Stream (Kenny & Dolly) etc. etc. etc.
Then there’s You Win Again, Alone, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Secret Love – all late period Bee Gees’ top 10s that don’t feature the immediate title repetition of the Fever songs. Which is not to say it absolutely doesn’t crop up elsewhere in a catalogue estimated at over 1000 completed works.
Where does it crop up? Oddly enough on what I’d argue is one of the three most internationally famous Gibb songs alongside Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love. The song in question is To Love Somebody from 1967 which has the exact title repetition and change in emphasis as the Fever songs would have ten years later. It’s also a bit of a double-whammy as the phrase, “You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t know what it’s like,” is used in the same way as How Deep Is Your Love, More Than A Woman and Night Fever. The repeated “you don’t know” rams home the emotion and it’s little surprise this has become one of the covered tracks by anyone of all time.
This is not to say these are the only Gibb songs that do this*, again, 1000+ songs and all. But five classics all from the one album? It seems like too much to be a coincidence. As to whether this kind of rapid repetition with differing notes and speed makes these songs uniquely ear-worm worthy, it’s hard to say. I’d love to know whether it has some kind of subconscious appeal.
Maybe one day I’ll ask Barry, but there are so many other questions I want to ask him, even with our six interviews together these past dozen years under our belts. What I do know for sure about the strange and wonderful song structures of so many Bee Gees songs is that they were always searching for ways to make them different from what everyone was doing. From the man himself, here is Sir Barry Gibb from our last interview in 2016. I asked him if the Bee Gees songs that deviated from the normal verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus format were by design or by accident:
Barry Gibb: Organic. I mean, for me it just came that way. You know, “what do we need here?” “We need a verse” “What do we need here?” “We need the chorus.” And you’ve gotta’ get back to the chorus but you don’t have to do another verse. You can take a left turn and go back to the chorus that way. And really, the centre of the song, the idea of the song, must always come back, but it doesn’t always have to come back the same way. And that was a concept.
You Win Again – listen to the structure of You Win Again – it’s quite unusual and we did that on purpose. How Deep Is Your Love is quite unusual. There are structures I hear that I’m delighted we came up with them. We didn’t know Night Fever was going to be a number one record and there it is right there. We just thought, how can we just make this a better song than it actually is and that is to go off the path. Go off the path and then come back. Build up to coming back. And I would have those conversations with Michael Jackson on a lot of quiet times and a lot of quiet evenings where we’d talk about that. And how important it was to be not so repetitive, but keep the listener interested.
And secondly, coming up with songs that everyone feels they lived through somehow. A great love song where everyone feels, “Oh we fell in love then.” Or, “That’s how we fell in love.” Or, “That’s how I got hurt.” Or, “That happened to me in my life.” That I think is what the songwriter tries to do and you know, that’s it. Structures, I can’t honestly tell you why they come about, but when they come about, you know it’s right, you just know it’s right.
*Only One Woman that the Bee Gees wrote for the Marbles in 1968 has the same repetition as mentioned throughout the article. You could also argue that Massachusetts (1967) employed a similar technique in that while the title word is never said back-to-back, it is said many times throughout the song and in three different stylings: the Massachusetts of the verse (“Feel I’m going back to Massachusetts”), the Massachusetts of the loudest part of the chorus (“And the lights all went out in Massachusetts”), followed by the third Massachusetts (“And Massachusetts is one place I have seen”).