|Maurice, Robin & Barry Gibb – 1975.|
It’s 40 years today since the Bee Gees returned to US #1 with Jive Talkin’ and kicked off one of the most exceptional comebacks in music history. After five years of international hits between 1967-72, the Gibb brothers popularity in the US and UK dipped to such an extent in 1973 and 1974 that they didn’t place a solitary top 40 hit nor album.
Their success in other parts of the world like Asia and Australasia held steady (if anything, it got bigger – click here to read more about this under-appreciated, highly prolific period in the Bee Gees career), but in the music world’s two most important markets they were dangerously close to being considered washed up.
The over-simplified stories of how Barry, Robin and Maurice reinvented themselves from struggling Beatles-esque balladeers to record-breaking, dancefloor-fillling medalion-men have been told a million times: the advice of Eric Clapton to relocate to Miami, the teaming up with famed Atlantic soul producer Arif Mardin, Barry discovering his falsetto voice on Nights On Broadway, a corrugated bridge in Miami providing the sonic inspiration for the funky Jive Talkin’ intro etc etc. A year later the brothers would be so at ease with their new style they felt comfortable commanding that You Should Be Dancing. Within three years they would have the biggest selling LP in history in Saturday Night Fever and in a mere five years (between 1975-80) they’d have placed no less than 14 songs at US #1 (eight as performers, a further six as writers).
With Mardin originally being the one to push the brothers in a more commercial, R&B direction on 1974’s fine but underbought Mr Natural, 1975 saw the Bee Gees release a hit-packed album entitled Main Course. For many music critics this was the LP that helped usher in the disco era and on this day in music history, that LP’s most famous song – Jive Talkin’ – went to US#1. It’s hard to overstate just how much of a departure from earlier Bee Gees hits like How Can You Mend A Broken Heart and Massachusetts this seemed*. The stylistic leap was such that Gibb manager / impresario Robert Stigwood was able to pull-off his plain white label stunt for the second time.
First was in 1967 when New York Mining Disaster was released to some radio stations without the name “Bee Gees” to trick radio programmers into thinking it was a new single by the Beatles. The marketing ploy worked, but so too the fact it was a haunting, unusual song with a killer melody. For Jive Talkin’, the white label was to overcome any prejudice that a new Bee Gees single was not going to be suitable for top 40 radio so why bother listening to it? This funky song with black slang in the title… it couldn’t really be by the Bee Gees could it??
And so like New York Mining Disaster, a bit of clever promotion combined with a great pop song resulted in a very big hit record. The song, and many others by the Gibbs during their incredible period of world chart domination from 1975-1980 would soon get labelled as “disco.” The word became so ubiquitous and synonymous with the era that people quickly stopped thinking about what it meant.In reality, it was just short for “discotheque”; innocuous in the same way that “pop” carries so much baggage (both good and bad) and yet it’s just short for “popular.” But by 1978 any song you could dance to that had vaguely black influences would get labelled “disco”, the Rolling Stones Miss You a case in point.
And yet, what are Miss You and Jive Talkin’ at heart if not just very accessible, brilliantly realised R&B songs? Most exasperatingly was not only 1977’s How Deep Is Your Love getting called a “disco ballad,” but 1980’s highly complex Barry / Barbra Streisand Grammy-winning duet Guilty receiving the same genre-classification from bemused critics who had a brick-wall associating the Gibbs with any other genre. Guilty a disco song!?
By the time of the late 70s, early 80s disco backlash, some fans of basic three-chord white rock and punk smugly asserted that whatever disco was, it was an inferior genre. So let’s remove the word and just analyse some of the Gibb songs most associated with the term. Stayin’ Alive is a masterclass in detailed song-craft and production with arguably the decade’s most recognisable riff, Night Fever has one of the more unusual song structures for a US#1 hit in history** (different melodies for different verses, truncated bridges etc) and You Should Be Dancing has a walking bass-line, a ripping lead guitar solo, more than a dozen tracks of percussion (some played by none other than Stephen Stills) and turns conventional R&B vocal arrangements on their head by making the natural voice the spice to the falsetto lead – “my woman keeps me warm” – rather than vice-versa.
As for the song that topped the US Billboard charts this day in 1975, Jive Talkin’ might be catchy ear confection, but the presence of Blue Weaver’s pioneering synth-basslines, a keyboard instrumental as the chorus, of the harmonies on the title refrain and the funk of the chord-less, strummed intro should suggest this is anything but some throwaway bit of “pop” or “disco” or “R&B” or whatever category we prefer.
The point of my intentionally misleading headline is to highlight the narrowing absurdity of forcing genre-bending songs into one category. “Going disco” was a much easier concept to praise or deride in an artist in the 70s than saying, “fleshing out their soul and R&B influences that have always been there if you listened closely enough.” And those soul and R&B influences had always been there for the Gibbs as late 60s / early 70s songs like To Love Somebody, I Can’t See Nobody, Bury Me Down By The River and Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights had long shown.
As Barry has said in recent years, ultimately who really cares what people call the music? What matters is that Jive Talkin’ – like the other nine songs on Main Course – has had staying power. Main Course may have contained those R&B-influenced hits Jive Talkin’, the urgent funk-ballad hybrid Nights On Broadway (US#7) and the remarkably modulating Fanny Be Tender (US#12). But there was also the soul of Songbird and Wind Of Change, the gorgeous balladry of Baby As You Turn Away and the quirky pop of Edge Of The Universe (a live version later became a US top 40 hit) and All This Making Love.
As far as my headline saying “when the Bee Gees went disco they also went country,” listen to Main Course’s Country Lanes and Come On Over (covered by Olivia Newton-John) to hear the brothers sincere appreciation of that musical territory. These songs weren’t a new deviation though so apologies again for headline inaccuracy – just go back and hear early period Gibb songs like Marley Purt Drive, Give Your Best, Don’t Forget To Remember, Sweetheart, South Dakota Morning etc.
To celebrate 40 years since Jive Talkin’ topped the charts, here is the studio version of the song plus my all-time favourite live version, as performed on 1979’s Sprits Having Flown tour. That stage with the floor that lights up! So cool and such a moment in time: the Bee Gees at their staggering commercial peak, as they should always be remembered. Enjoy.
*While Jive Talkin’ seemed a major stylistic shift from the tone of early-period Bee Gees, understanding the unifying strengths of melody, harmony and unexpected chord progressions and arrangements that songs like Jive Talkin’ share with early 70s works like Lonely Days, Run To Me, My World etc make it less incongruous.
**Click here to link to an article of mine that looks at the unusual song structure of Bee Gees songs like You Win Again and Night Fever. I argue that Gibb tracks like these are so catchy it’s easy to overlook that their structures are anything but traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge etc.