Arguably the greatest underdog in the entire Bee Gees catalogue turns 40 this month. Never heard Living Eyes before? Released in October of 1981, it stands as one of the most fascinating major artist flops in popular music history. The reasons it missed are as intriguing as the songs themselves, and these are some of the most beloved ever Gibb songs by diehard fans of the group. And yet other fans don’t embrace Living Eyes at all. Have a read – and a listen – and discover an essential, overlooked chapter in the story of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb.
It’s an understatement to say that by 1981, the Bee Gees were at a crossroads. The most dominant force on the American charts for the preceding half a dozen years, they suddenly found themselves blacklisted by top 40 radio.
Just the previous year they’d completed the 15-million selling Guilty album for Barbra Streisand, while their last group studio album, 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, had shifted in the ballpark of 20-million. As songwriters and producers for hire they couldn’t have been hotter, but as performers, the radio industry seemingly overnight went cold on “the Bee Gees”. Just how frigid is jaw-dropping even today.
From the 30 million copies of Saturday Night Fever to the 20 million of Spirits Having Flown, to the 15-million of Guilty to the… wait for it… 750,000 of Living Eyes. Huh?
To explain the multiple why’s and how’s of Living Eyes being such a come down for Barry, Robin and Maurice can’t adequately be condensed into a couple of lines. The short version is that it involves everything from over-saturation to inter-band politics to record-company upheaval to headline-grabbing lawsuits to yes, the complicated sociological, racial and homophobic motivations for the so-called “disco backlash”. Now for the slightly longer version.
The scale of the backlash (as brilliantly explored in the recent Bee Gees doco from Frank Marshall How Can You Mend A Broken Heart) against the Bee Gees meant that the fact they were tunesmiths of the highest calibre who wrote in every imaginable pop sub-genre (country, blues, soul, rock, folk, adult-contemporary, R&B etc.) was lost on a generation of American music fans. The Bee Gees were “disco”, the 80s meant disco was dead and therefore so too were the Bee Gees.
A nonsense then and a nonsense now, but the reality was that Living Eyes would’ve had to have been both extraordinary – as well as extraordinarily on the pulse – if it was going to succeed.
And that’s without considering the small matter that the brothers were amidst the largest record company lawsuit the industry had ever seen (US $200 million – eventually settled out of court), nor that their record label was in the process of being absorbed and had shed huge numbers of staff in the process.
Then there’s also the situation that midway through the recording of Living Eyes that Barry, Robin and Maurice parted ways with the “Bee Gees Band” of Dennis Bryon (drums), Blue Weaver (keyboards) and Alan Kendall (guitar) – the same trio that that had been with them since the genesis of their mid-70s revival. So yeah, it’s little surprise the album was a flop.
Or was it? Commercially, yes. Artistically though, Living Eyes has long been a fan favourite. More than that, there are some Bee Gees diehards who swear it’s the best album the brothers ever made. Since the commercial return to form for the band from 1987 onward, Living Eyes has existed as arguably the most widely cherished underdog in the Gibb cannon, even more than other underdog contenders like Cucumber Castle, Mr Natural and High Civilization. As such, there’s many a Living Eyes advocate who’s love of the album extends to feeling protective over it.
Personally, I can look at every track on Living Eyes and irrespective of public backlash, radio blacklisting, record company upheaval, inter-band politics and personnel changes, there’s no track that in its entirety sounds like an out and out smash. Unlike the hit-packed Guilty album for Streisand from the previous year, and the hits that came in the following three years with the Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross albums, Living Eyes wasn’t ready-made for top 40 radio.
But even without hits, it’s an album that always deserved to find an audience. There are hooks, harmonies and emotion, but they’re sometimes battling a hard to pinpoint disconnect in the album’s production.
The drumming is a case in point because even with the presence of two of the greatest stickmen in history in Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd, the drumming on Living Eyes occasionally veers towards the listless. Maybe in the hands of a producer like David Foster (who in 1981 was about to start working his glossy platinum magic with Chicago), maybe, just maybe there was a hit buried in there.
Indeed, a rejected song from the Guilty album for Barbra Streisand the previous year, Carried Away, would’ve been the most radio-ready song from Living Eyes had the Bee Gees chosen to do it themselves. Olivia Newton-John would soon find a home for Carried Away as an album track, but when you listen to the more ear-wormy Gibb-demo, it’s not hard to imagine it as a kind of sequel to Too Much Heaven.
As for what did make the album, Living Eyes’ title track has complex vocal lines and attractive chord progressions that with the right arrangement could’ve put it on a par with Spirits Having Flown. Even better is the gentle, pretty Paradise – a song whose wordless scat-sung intro has long reminded me of The Lion King soundtrack, though 14-years before the fact.
Then there’s the Robin-led Don’t Fall In Love With Me, which minus the distracting intro, has one of the most whopping, harmony-laden hooks the brothers ever sung: “Gonna’ be a lonely night / nothing but a lonely night / gonna’ be a lonely night…” Now there’s a hit.
If Pnau could switch from cutting and splicing up the Elton John catalogue and turn their attention to the collected works of the brothers Gibb, I suggest they begin by building a song from the Don’t Fall In Love With Me chorus up. Call it Gonna’ Be A Lonely Night, bring in Dua Lipa again for some additional leads and thank me once it hits number one.
I Still Love You is pleasant if non-essential, while lead single He’s A Liar – a US #30 and the song that broke the Bee Gees history-making streak of six consecutive US #1 singles – is a song I’m desperate to hear with new ears. It has the details and the riffs and and even one of the brothers best ever videos, but production-wise, it doesn’t quite gel.
Perhaps rather than a Foster-type of character at the desk for this one, He’s A Liar could’ve benefitted from Quincy Jones handling the production, ramping up the song’s paranoia in the same way he’d soon do on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Or retrospectively, a Pnau-style reimagining beginning with the synth riff that’s first heard at 1:04 mark. I love that synth line and there should be a version of He’s A Liar based on that. Once more Pnau, thank me later!
Elsewhere, Soldiers is a frantic, acoustic-based deviation back to falsetto, Maurice’s Don Felder-assisted Wildflower has an easy charm and Barry’s excellent Nothing Could Be Good has a hairs on the back of the neck moment with the layered vocals of “sing to the Almighty / if that’s what you need to do / love what is true”.
Other standouts are Barry’s multi-faceted orchestral closer Be Who You Are and the New Wave dance-pop of Cryin’ Every Day – the album’s most current (for 1981) track. Other than some quietly sensational lyrics (“your love is a cathedral and I came down here to pray”), Cryin’ Every Day is also worthy of close listening for the use of Robin in natural voice lead backed by Barry in falsetto.
40-years on, Living Eyes is a chapter worth revisiting in the gloried story of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb. After the whirlwind of the Bee Gees’ late-70s achievements – biggest selling album of all time, five songs simultaneously in the US top 10, six straight US #1 hits etc. – there was always going to be a fall.
That the fall is centred around an album as beautiful as Living Eyes is a blessing in disguise. Better for the hidden gems to be just that. And it is, indeed, a gem. It marked a departure from the near exclusive Barry falsetto-leads of recent releases and brought Robin and Maurice more to the fore.
It was a trade-off that didn’t yield commercial rewards, but both at the time of release and in the years since, it’s led dedicated Bee Gees fans who are especially drawn to either Robin and Maurice to have a unique warmth towards Living Eyes.
The recording sessions were reportedly fraught, but when I recently reminded Barry of that enormous “gonna’ be a lonely night” chorus on Don’t Fall In Love With Me, he told me he was getting chills just thinking about it. He said he hadn’t listened to the album in 40-years and that maybe it was time to go back. He’s right. It is.
Living Eyes didn’t end the Bee Gees, far from it, but its failure reinforced that it was time to concentrate on outside projects. As such, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross would get the Streisand-treatment with full Gibb-written and produced studio albums between 1982-1985, all with career-defining songs.
By 1987 it was time to be “the Bee Gees” again and when You Win Again made them the first act to score British #1s in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the comeback was on. The group then returned to the US top 10 in 1989 for the first time in a decade with the single One, the High Civilization album in 1991 was a million-plus European seller, 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything became the brothers’ first LP since 1979 to have three UK top 30 hits, while Still Waters in 1997 sold upwards of five-million copies off the back of the international smash Alone.
With that, the One Night Only tour packed stadiums across the globe between 1997-1999 and the attached LP became one of the biggest live albums in history. When Maurice’s death in 2003 at the age of 53 put a premature halt to the Bee Gees, they’d already won every imaginable life-time achievement award and been inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
Sandwiched between their empirical period in the 70s and their huge late 80s comeback; obscured at the time by their chart-topping efforts as songwriters-for-hire for Streisand and co, Living Eyes was for many years lost. 40-years on, it’s time for casual fans to find it, and for the diehards to debate once again where it ranks.
Barry Gibb With Tim Roxborogh, January 2021 – Living Eyes 40th Anniversary Interview:
Living Eyes At 40 – Gibbology Podcast, September 2021: