Whatever Happened To The Bee Gees In The 80s?

Bee Gees ESP album cover, 1987

For people in the Southern Hemisphere, last night was the longest night of the year. Never afraid of a slightly tenuous link if it means I can talk about the Bee Gees, I couldn’t resist sharing this beautiful song of the same name, The Longest Night. Where I live in Auckland, New Zealand, the winter solstice equates to a night of 14hrs and 22minutes which sounds fairly depressing. Except at least from here on in the nights will slowly get shorter, the days a little longer and spring is just around the corner. Sort of. Not really. Back to the Bee Gees.

In 1987 it was a full six years since the brothers Gibb had presented an entire studio album as “the Bee Gees”. So where had they gone? 1981’s pretty Living Eyes LP had been released at the height of the disco backlash and had not sold well in the US or the UK, though I’d argue that legal action* and massive record company upheaval had nearly as much influence on any momentum for the project. The lead single from Living EyesHe’s A Liar – was also not an especially accurate measure of an album that was dominated by ballads as attractive as Don’t Fall In Love Me and Paradise.

The brothers’ five-song contribution to the soundtrack for the underwhelming sequel to Saturday Night Fever entitled Staying Alive fared better in 1983, going platinum in many international markets and yielding the US top 30 hit The Woman In You. With their songs comprising half the soundtrack, this wasn’t considered a complete studio album.

None of which means that Barry, Robin and Maurice were slacking off as the 70s gave way to the 80s. Anything but, it’s just that the brothers emphasis from writing and performing had shifted to writing and producing. In the first half of the 80s the Gibbs wrote and produced entire albums for younger brother Andy, for Jimmy Ruffin, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross. There were also solo records for all three Bee Gees with Robin finding the most success, particularly in parts of Europe.

Robin, Maurice, Barry & Andy Gibb in Miami, late 70s.

In total, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb wrote no less than dozen studio albums in the first half of the 80s. That’s 12 albums in just five years, not bad for a group so inextricably linked with the 70s. Not only were they staggeringly prolific, their commercial sensibilities had far from deserted them. Any time somebody suggests the Bee Gees struggled after the stratospheric chart domination of Saturday Night Fever (1977), they’re overlooking the fact that the follow-up Spirits Having Flown (1979) has been estimated to have sold anywhere from 16-30 million copies. They’re also forgetting that the Gibb / Streisand collaboration Guilty (1980) became her biggest ever studio album at 15 million copies.

Dionne Warwick’s Heartbreaker (1982) contained her most substantial non-Bacharach / David hit in the title track and Kenny Roger’s Eyes That See In The Dark (1983) featured the the largest crossover country hit of all time with the Dolly Parton duet Islands In The Stream. As for Diana Ross and the Eaten Alive (1985) album, she scored the biggest solo hit of her career in the UK with the Motown-recalling Chain Reaction.

In today’s trend of songs being credited to “Artist ‘A’ featuring Artist ‘B'” as opposed to just the dominant performer, it’s highly likely songs like Heartbreaker, Islands In The Stream and Chain Reaction would’ve been listed as “Dionne Warwick feat. the Bee Gees” etc. They deserved to be credited, though perhaps the absurd (and yet deeply fascinating from a sociological point of view) backlash against the Bee Gees in the 80s would have prevented those songs getting played if their involvement had been better publicised.

I’ve written at length in previous Roxborogh Report articles about the complex set of circumstances that lead to the disco backlash and the direct backlash against the Bee Gees – a group who’d always recorded in a variety of styles. It’s my belief that much of the blacklisting was motivated by subtle racism, homophobia, over-saturation and a misunderstanding that whatever “disco” music was, the word represented more a description of an era than it did a genre. Click here for more.

The Bee Gees often said that in the 80s they couldn’t get a hit if it had their name on it, but if they wrote it for somebody else it would be a smash. Luckily by 1987 that idiocy was fading and Barry, Robin and Maurice felt it was time to be the Bee Gees again. Not for the first time in their career they launched a remarkable comeback. In virtually every corner of the globe the anthemic You Win Again dominated radio playlists, eventual hitting UK #1. Somehow the song stalled at US #75, reportedly due to stations refusing to listen to the song, let alone play it. Barry once told me that the toughest professional disappointment of his career was You Win Again failing to find an audience Stateside.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter when you’re in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and have won every major lifetime achievement gong going. As songwriters the Gibbs placed no-less than 16 songs at US #1 and more than 20 different songs at US or UK #1. And by 1989 they were even back in the US top 10 with the single One.

With album sales of more than 220 million and a top 10 international hit streak spanning roughly 35 years, they’re hardly hard done by. Both criticially and especially commercially, they’re one of the most dominant groups in the history of popular music. But given no act of vaguely comparable ilk has ever suffered such a turn against them as the Bee Gees did in the US in the 80s, their ceaseless drive to never give up is all the more remarkable. As Barry Gibb has said in recent years, “the dream came true”.

From 1987’s ESP, here is the quite stunning ballad The Longest Night. Written by all three brothers and featuring a Robin lead, the song was produced by the great Arif Mardin (Aretha Franklin, Hall & Oates, mid-70s Bee Gees etc) and is notable for its prominent Marcus Miller bassline. Miller has played bass on recordings by everyone from Michael Jackson to Luther Vandross to Mariah Carey to Miles Davis and his presence – alongside the vocals – gives The Longest Night a genuinely soulful feel.

The song’s highlight for me is the Robin and Barry vocal interplay between 2mins 52seconds and 3mins 24seconds. This is when Robin – at the higher end of his natural register – sings: “Nobody cries, cries for the pain I feel. Nobody knows, nobody knows, and it makes me want to die…” And just has he hits the word “die” and you realise he’s not saying “cry”, his vocals are overlapped by Barry’s staccato, non-verbal singing with the descending chords of the instrumental. The sound, the emotion, the production is all exquisite.

Enjoy the song and don’t forget that Barry Gibb will be releasing his first album project since the platinum 2005 Streisand reunion Guilty Pleasures later this year.

*At the time the Bee Gees were involved in the largest music industry lawsuit ever in a dispute with their former manager and mentor Robert Stigwood. It would later be settled amicably and he remained close with the brothers.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Longest Night is a great ballad, with wonderful vocals by Robin and both a classic and new sound incorporated. But unless this one and three other great songs; ESP, GIVING UP THE GHOST (also strong vocals by Robin, besides they did a wonderful live version in 1989 with different arrangement)and of course YOU WIN AGAIN, the songs are hurt by Barrys too strained falsetto.

    Some of the arrangements are also not up to the best standards, especially LIVE OR DIE and ANGELA, which are too repetive. The ANGELA demo has a another approach, with more athmosphere which works much better than the overproduced finished version.

    The Brothers mentioned in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone that they were not satisfied with all of Arif Mardins work on ESP, perhaps this would explain why seversal of the songs did not work out well.

    Maurice has only one lead vocal. There were some reports in 1986 that Maurice would be doing most ot the lead vocals on the new album, but this was sadly not to be. Then they missed the chance to create a new sound also on the vocal side, with the falsetto style left out.

    Finally; probably the best song from the ESP sessions were left out. It is beyond me that the very catchy and up-tempo YOUNG LOVE did not reach the final cut of album songs. It would have been a splendid follow-up single to YOU WIN AGAIN.

  2. MatheusFT says:

    As much as I love all three of the Bee Gees Warner Bros. albums, and One has got one of my favorite songs of theirs (Tears), I think E.S.P. is probably the most fun of them.

    Seeing the "comeback" and "going full circle" vibe in the lyrics of This is Your Life and Backtafunk, one can understand the disappointment the brothers had when the album didn't go as well as expected, but it probably sounds better now than when it was released.

    As for The Longest Night, it sure has wonderful Robin vocals, but my favorite bits are the subtle vocal interplay (for lack of a more precise term, as I'm musically illiterate) between the brothers, such as in the beginning of the bridge when Robin sings "Whoa whoa whoa…" and Barry and Maurice say "We don't talk about it…" at the same time. Or the final "Ah, ah, ah, ah" finishing the song.

    There are indeed some minor technical problems; there's sometimes too much echo on the E.S.P mix, and One, as reportedly the first digital recording of the group, seems to have had a problem with the sample rate or something, as to my ear the music sounds slightly tinny and boxy.

    I think One would probably had been a huge hit here in Brazil hadn't Warner Bros. been totally devoted to promoting A-ha at the time. The song with the most commercial appeal/replay value on it definitely is Bodyguard, but unfortunately it was abandoned by the group, I don't know why, but perhaps because of the alleged controversy around its "soft porn" music video that, as usual, has little to do with the spirit of the song.

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