A few weeks ago I interviewed (alongside my co-host on Newstalk ZB’s The Two, Pam Corkery) the last remaining Gibb brother, Bee Gee Barry Gibb. A feature article based on this interview will be appearing in New Zealand’s number one current affairs magazine The Listener in January ahead of Barry’s concert at the Mission in Napier on February 23rd, but until then, below is the full transcript of the interview.
While the upcoming feature article focuses on the three themes of family, faith and the future, in this transcript you will also learn that it was the Hollies more than the Beatles who inspired the Bee Gees to leave Australia and return to England, plus the sometimes thankless role Barry played as the elder brother. This includes an epiphany he had as a child while sitting on the pier at Redcliffe in Brisbane with brothers Robin and Maurice about either a life of crime or music. Luckily for them and for fans like me (not to mention their main victim Woolworths), they chose the latter.
TIM & PAM: This is your first solo tour, but you’ve had a couple of warm-up gigs including a concert at the Hard Rock in Miami – what was that like?
BARRY: We did like an hour at the DRI which is the Diabetes Research Institute as a charity show two days before the Hard Rock and that kicked us up another level and we did like an hour and half at the Hard Rock and that pretty much beat the ol’ girl up. And this is a great band, Timmy it’s a great band. Forget about me, this is the most amazing band and we’ve got Maurice’s daughter Sammy, and we’ve my eldest son Stephen on lead singer who also sings fantastic. So it’s a show for all ages I’d say.
TIM & PAM: And this is an interview for all ages! For you is this about discovering the next part of the Gibb dynasty?
BARRY: I just want to know what the next episode is and I just want to be able to find out, as corny as it sounds, who I am. Am I a member of a group that no longer exists? Or am I the
songwriter and the singer that I can still be? And so I’m out there on an adventure, on a sentimental journey, a sojourn; I want to go and reflect, to go where we lived as kids, I want to see New Zealand again and I’ve heard about this winery and I’ve gotta’ go there! So that’s me in search of me.
TIM & PAM: Will that be an archeological dig!?
BARRY: Ha! I might find some old bones! All I can say is I’m hungry to play, the musicians who are with me are impeccable and it’s hard to really steer down the wrong track. I’m doing the songs I’ve loved and the songs we’ve written together all my life so I should think for me, it’s going to be an ultimate pleasure just to be on stage. And wherever I look and wherever I go on the stage, my brothers will be with me.
TIM & PAM: I just think it is the best idea that you have your family involved in this tour…
BARRY: There are going to be Gibbs in the wings, Gibbs involved in the technology and it’s just a whole mess of Gibbs!
TIM & PAM: You know that Australians make fun of New Zealanders! Is that true for you too!?
BARRY: No! I think New Zealand is magnificent. When we were children we worked with a lot of Maoris like the Maori Troubadours in Surfers’ Paradise and with Prince Tui at the Chevron across the road from the Beachcomber and we all hung out together and we learned an awful lot and it’s those days I harken back to. Let’s face, New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, it’s just that it’s far away so Americans don’t quite appreciate it, but it is.
TIM & PAM: Being that this tour is about going back to where it all began, let’s go back to your first number one hit in Australia and New Zealand, Spicks And Specks. What can you remember about the writing of that song?
BARRY: I remember that we were doing sessions in Hurstville with a gentleman called Ossie Byrne who sort of felt sorry for us because we couldn’t get any studio time. He had a little
studio behind a butcher shop. So we were peeling off songs and writing and working all night and playing all night and there are a whole bunch of songs from those sessions. One of those songs was Spicks And Specks and one thing lead to another and it just worked out. We didn’t know it was going to be a hit until Nat Kipner came along, who was the head of Spin Records. He took that whole bunch of songs and made that into an album and we sent those songs to NEMS and to England to see if anyone was interested. And Spicks And Specks did everything we dreamed it could do in Australia and New Zealand, but they were not interested in it in England or in Europe. They just thought that we’ve had enough of groups, they weren’t singing any more groups, so we thought, well, maybe that’s true. But it didn’t turn out to be so.
TIM & PAM: As children, how much did you plan for the future, like did you practice your acceptance speeches at the Grammys?
BARRY: Ha ha! Well, first of all we didn’t know about Grammys. People like Elvis, Johhny O’Keefe and Col Joye were just coming on the scene when we arrived in Australia, or they’d been around a couple of years, but we were hearing them for the first time, so it was nothing like that. It was how do we get some work? How do we sustain our family? And that was the reality of it. We didn’t have any money so finding work, any work, was the key. So working in hotels, in RSLs later in Sydney, at the rugby league clubs – places like that. But you got about $20 a show, sometimes less, but it put food on the table. If you fell in love with a shirt you saved up for it and life was just like that. As a child, it was the best years ever, for me I would want that on every child.
TIM & PAM: The older I get the more amazing I find it that you were able to convince your parents to move from Australia back to England when you were still teenagers. How did you convince them that it was the right thing to do?
BARRY: I think they got a sniff of it. We were watching the Easy Beats and the Seekers go back to England and having great success and it was really the Beatles yes, but the Hollies more. We loved the Hollies and the Four Tunes. Remember the Four Tunes? It’s terrible [that people don’t talk about them anymore] because they were probably the best vocal group I ever heard. They did that song You’ve Got Your Troubles. Anyway, it was the Hollies, the Four Tunes and the Beatles that convinced us we got do it. We could do the harmonies and we could go back there and take a shot and that was sort of what we did. And typical of the whole journey we were told along the way we couldn’t make it. “Don’t worry about it boys, you just need to get a job, don’t worry about it.” And we wanted to be discovered! We didn’t know what it meant, but we wanted to be discovered.
TIM & PAM: In a recent interview you mentioned how Robin and Maurice were always anxious to keep having hits and that you would try and tell them…
BARRY: …“It’s OK!” They were always in a panic. Robin was always in a panic about having yet one more hit record and we’d reached a stage in life when radio really wasn’t ready to play a new single by the Bee Gees – we’d passed that age-fit area where you could appeal to young kids. We’ve always had that trouble! We couldn’t appeal to adults when we were kids and we couldn’t appeal to kids when we were older.
TIM & PAM: That said, is all you’ve achieved really enough for you?
BARRY: It’s not enough for me because all I ever think about is music, apart from my family. I don’t even have a hobby – my whole life is music and my children. Music is always right there and I can’t think of anything else and I can’t stop writing songs. The music doesn’t stop. A group can evaporate and members can pass away, but the music mustn’t stop and that’s my job.
TIM & PAM: So even now, ideas could be popping into your head for songs?
BARRY: My nature of songwriting is you could say anything to me during this conversation and I’ll make a note of it as a title of a song. That’s how I function. People say things.
TIM & PAM: For die-hard fans, they would love for you to do a new album. There is even the suggestion for you to add your voice and production to unreleased Robin songs. What is next for you?
BARRY: What really can be done will be done, but this show is a celebration of my brothers and my family and the next real thing, what I’d really love to do is to put on the best possible tribute for my brothers that has ever been put on. And the only way I can do that is to reach out to the artists that I love the most and to get them to do it, to make it a bigger tribute than has ever been. And that will be the next stage.
TIM & PAM: For you, you are almost an example of how terrible it can be [to lose family members]. Do you think we can learn from it?
BARRY: The last 10 years have just been terrible. Losing Maurice was a real shock because we lost him in two days. From being perfectly fine, no sign of illness, nothing. And we lost Andy in England – he had a heart seizure and was in hospital near Robin’s house and he passed very quickly and then it became Robin. And when Robin became ill, OR when I found out Robin was ill which was along time in – it was about two and half years before I knew he was ill. And then he passed. And so I’ve lost all my brothers. And the hardest thing of all is for Mum, not for me. I can deal with it.
TIM & PAM: Well I hope that your Mum can take solace from the fact her boys have had the most astonishing successes. I’ve got a list of some scarcely believable stats, like the second most successful songwriter of all time after Paul McCartney, 21 different songs as songwriters to hit US or UK #1, 220 million records sold, only songwriters to have five songs in the US top 10 at the same time and I know those are only numbers and people are people, but that said, you’ve got five wonderful children a lovely lady in Linda as your wife…(Barry interjects during this list of achievements, humbly saying “Oh thank you Tim, thank you.”).
BARRY: We’ve been married now for I’d say 46 years if you count the three years we stayed together before we got married. We were married in 1970 and I guess you can do the math from there. We lived together before that and so Linda’s seen everything. Linda, along with me, has seen everything you can see if you’re a pop group on the rise. She never missed anything and that’s something to take great comfort from. We can talk to each other about any single instance in our lives and what happened to the group and she was there. We share all that and we’ve got five wonderful children and we’ve got six wonderful grandchildren so what can you ask for.
TIM & PAM: How has Linda provided solace for you?
BARRY: She is a tower of strength. And she’s always right behind me and she’s either going to give me a tap on the head or a kick up the ass. And both of those things work! Because she will say, “You know you’ve gotta’ get yourself together, you’ve gotta’ pull yourself out of this and you’ve gotta’ get into your music and you’ve gotta’ get back into what you were doing, NO MATTER WHAT. And so she’s always been that tower of strength and I love her and I love all my family. And we’ve really flowered. This family has grown. We’ve got a Swedish arm, a Jewish arm of the family, a Latvian arm of the family and another Jewish arm of the family, it’s absolutely crazy! But the family has grown and grown and we all know each other and love each other and I’ve got some of the most beautiful women in the world in my family. And so someone was smiling on me.
TIM & PAM: Your utterances on family are lovely and seem almost old-fashioned…
BARRY: I understand that my thoughts on family are not the norm, but they’re the norm for us. When we all came together as a family you’d have to say that would be about 1967 and we’ve
been together ever since and enjoyed the trip ever since. Yes, it’s old fashioned, but I am old fashioned and so is Linda. We’re very happy with the way things were before the computer came along!
TIM & PAM: As for being old-fashioned?
BARRY: You can be old fashioned, it’s not a crime. You can love very, very old songs and I love all kinds of old songs. I love immigrant songs that the Irish and the Scottish people brought to America before bluegrass. Just lately I got to work with Ricky Skaggs at the Grand Ole Opry.
TIM & PAM: I was just going to mention him. It really seemed like he took you under his wing and that performance of How Can You Mend A Broken Heart was probably the most emotional version of that song I’ve ever heard…
BARRY: Oh thank you Tim, thank you. He was helping me through that darkest period. He is by nature a devout Christian and he took me there and made me understand. Letting me do those shows, knowing how much I love that music….You know they’re very pure, they don’t let people play there if they don’t think it’s right, but there I am at the Grand Ole Opry and he just put me under his wing and we had a ball. But when I finished doing that, my love for that kind of music is in deep, it’s in deep. And if you hear an album out of me in the future it will be a great mixture of that kind of music and Mr. Skaggs will be on that album. I wrote him the song Soldier’s Son and I think it will be on TV soon – I’m waiting for that commitment and it needs to happen before we go to Australia so that we can get it in the can, but I think they want a Letterman show.
TIM & PAM: In that recent Australian TV interview you told a story about being on the pier at Redcliffe in Brisbane as kids and telling your brothers that the three of you would never steal again. How serious were you?
BARRY: Dead serious. Don’t forget they’re three years younger than me and we were three kids and I was getting more and more worried that we were going to get in trouble with the police because we were always shoplifting. Especially at Woolworths because it’s easy, but Woolworths is gone now, but it was very easy. We used to shoplift all kinds of things and one day it hit me real hard that we could do this and go to jail, or we could make up our minds to really make that attempt to become famous. I gave them that lecture half way down the pier at Redcliffe and I said whatever we’ve got in our pockets that we’ve stolen, throw it into the sea now. And we did that so there’s a number of pen knives, false rings, things that you wouldn’t bother stealing anyway and I can point to exactly where we threw them and they’re probably still there.
TIM & PAM: Do you think that if it had been you who’d gone and they who’d lived, they would’ve said, “If it hadn’t been for him…..”
BARRY: I don’t know.
TIM & PAM: Well it seems like you’ve been a terrific older brother…
BARRY: Well, I’ve been the older brother and I’ve lived the role of the older brother so whilst that’s not always appreciated, that’s the way it was. Keeping us all out of trouble, sometimes not helping when we got in trouble, but always trying to keep us out of trouble. As time went on I sort of took over the oversight of the business because nobody else wanted to do it. That way I learnt all about publishing, all about the business and so everything seemed to happen for the right reason, but you’re not supposed to be the eldest brother, you’re just supposed to be a brother. So over the years Maurice and Robin didn’t like that very much, no. But someone’s got to do it and I was left holding the can if that’s the word.
TIM & PAM: The arguments that you had…it seems like you have tremendous regret…
BARRY: The conflicts for us came much later on and mainly because of advisors. Mainly because in the early days we were just one family, just one family. You know, Mum and Dad, the three of us, Andy, my oldest sister Lesley who still lives in Australia. But that was one family. And since we all got married, you’re suddenly faced with four families because Andy got married too. And that changed a lot of things because all the wives have an opinion about their husband and so we had to deal with that kind of conflict, like “Why isn’t my husband heard more?” “Why isn’t my husband getting to sing more songs than say either Robin or Barry does?” We had a lot of that kind of thing and we had to deal with that. It was very difficult because we were actually quite complex people. And these issues came easy. Four families will do it.
TIM & PAM: Back to something you said about Ricky Skaggs and also something the late Billboard magazine editor Timothy White said about the Bee Gees, saying that even if it was implicit rather than explicit, that the spirituality that ran through a number of your songs was a large part of your appeal. I think of songs like Too Much Heaven, Spirits Having Flown and even a song called Nothing Could Be Good where you directly mention the Almighty. Was that just a temporary thing that was important for you at that time or something that has carried through?
BARRY: Religion in and of itself and spirituality are the absolute pure tools of a songwriter. For instance, if you listen to mountain music or immigrant music or bluegrass music, religion was the only subject. So when you listen to that kind of music you realise they didn’t have anything else but religion. So religion over the years and through rock ‘n’ roll and through people like Elvis Presley….listen to him singing gospel music, c’mon….it never went away, it never will and the idea of true faith is behind every artist that ever gets to the place they want to be.
TIM & PAM: I was listening to some of your music yesterday and I cried. What’s it like having that effect on people?
BARRY: Well it affects me. That’s the x-factor, if there is an x-factor, it’s the song that makes you cry or the song that makes you laugh, or the song that goes down deep inside you and never leaves. That to me is the x-factor or the hidden element that makes everybody love a song.
When we wrote How Can You Mend A Broken Heart in 1970, it was a number one record in America, but it was number one nowhere else. It was never a hit anywhere else and since 1970, in it’s own way and on it’s own it became one of the biggest songs we’d ever written. So it’s not about radio, it’s not about whether you’re getting played or not. A song will live in the ether, it will just live there and people will get to know it. You know the song You Are My Sunshine? You can’t tell me what number it ever made in the charts – it didn’t! But the whole world knows that song. So there’s that side of it.
TIM & PAM: (General thank yous and a mention of previous interviews Tim and Barry have done together (this being the fifth since 2005) with Barry saying his favourite was in London in 2009).
BARRY: I dearly hope to see both of you. Thank you for always being there for me and thank you for caring, both of you. It’s a wonderful thing – that’s what makes it work.
Afterword: There are literally dozens upon dozens of lesser known Bee Gees songs which fans argue have as much artistic merit as those from their long list of hits. Here is a song from 1981’s beautiful Living Eyes album called Don’t Fall In Love Me which features a stunning Robin lead plus a Barry, Robin and Maurice sung chorus to rank with the best harmonies they ever recorded. Enjoy.