5 Years On From The Deaths Of Donna Summer & Robin Gibb – Why They Were So Much More Than The 70s

It’s five years ago this week since two icons of the 70s disco era, Donna Summer and Robin Gibb, both passed away. It was May 17, 2012 that a 63-year old Summer died of lung cancer. Just three days later the headlines shifted to Gibb’s death from colorectal cancer aged 62. People talk about 2016 as being the annus horribilis for pop star deaths, but that week in May 2012 was significantly dark too.

For two artists so inextricably linked to the 70s, it’s important to look at their stats outside of their most prominent decade. For Summer, she placed a full 15 of her 33 different US or UK top 40 hits outside of the 70s (18 in the 70s, 14 in the 80s, 1 in the 90s).

As for Gibb, the stats may be even more surprising to casual music fans. Looking only at the output of the “Bee Gees” and not solo work, nor the Gibb brothers extensive hit songwriting for other artists, the Bee Gees had 44 different US or UK top 40 hits between 1967-2001. Of those 44, a full 23 were outside of the 70s, the decade for which they’re easily the most associated (12 in the 60s, 19 in the 70s, 4 in the 80s, eight in the 90s, one in the 00s).

When both these stars died, the headlines were dominated with mentions of the 70s and disco. Which is fine in the sense that the music both acts made that came to be known as “disco” is nothing short of brilliant. Whether it’s I Feel Love or You Should Be Dancing, whether it’s Bad Girls or Night Fever, those records still stand up. And they still fill dance floors.

But for the sake of opening minds and expanding the breadth of how both these acts are perceived, here are a couple of remarkable songs that weren’t from the 70s and can’t be considered disco. Starting with Summer, here’s what I wrote about the spiritual, reggae-tinged track State Of Independence (1982) shortly after she died:

She was the Queen of Disco, but my favourite Donna Summer song, just beating out the likes of Bad Girls and Sunset People, is her early 80s We Are The World pre-cursor State of Independence. Originally by Jon & Vangelis, Summer’s version of this ode to a utopia really becomes something truly special in the final 90 seconds when she’s joined by an all-star choir featuring the likes of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Michael McDonald, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins and others. It wasn’t the biggest hit she ever recorded (though still a UK top 20), but it makes a strong case for being the finest ballad of her career.

Like the song it undoubtedly led to – We Are The World – State Of Independence was also produced by Quincy Jones. Here it is:

For Robin Gibb, I’ve written dozens of articles over the years about the vast reserves of “buried treasure” in the Bee Gees back catalogue. From a feature I did looking at five of the best lesser-known Robin songs, here’s what I wrote in 2014 about The Longest Night:

The standout ballad from ESP (1987), the Bee Gees first full studio album in six years, The Longest Night is a good argument for why the brothers were stronger together than apart. Ostensibly a Robin song, the power is still in the brotherly harmonies. A prominent Marcus Miller bass, lush Arif Mardin production and sad, direct lyrics add up to ESP‘s second most vital song after the chart-toppingYou Win Again.

Essential Moment: “Nobody cries / nobody cries / for the pain I feel / nobody knows / nobody knows / and it makes me want to die.” Pop music doesn’t get much bleaker lyrically, but as just as the listener realises the gravity of Robin’s trailing vocal being “die” rather than “cry,” they’re distracted by Barry’s beautiful, non-lyric, syncopated vocals. It’s undeniably forlorn, but altogether far too pretty to be depressing.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Robin L. says:

    Great article.. Robin was *my* Bee Gee, and I miss him so much. Thank you for reminding me what a fantastic album ESP was. I remember the first time i came home with it and put it on the stereo with my headphones on and was just blown away by every single track, at the end all i could say was just WOW…

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