May 2022 marks both the 25th anniversary of the release of the Bee Gees’ Still Waters album, as well as 10-years since Robin Gibb died aged just 62. To commemorate these anniversaries, I’ve done a deep dive as to why Still Waters became the Bee Gees’ biggest LP since 1979.
It’s hard to overstate just how big a comeback Still Waters was for the Bee Gees in 1997. After a decade of see-sawing fortunes where they’d score in either the US or the UK but never both at the same time, finally the stars aligned.
And it wasn’t just in the US and the UK as Still Waters scaled the upper reaches of charts the world over, producing three hit singles on its way to global sales in excess of five million copies. It was Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb’s best selling studio album in almost 20-years and it led to one of the biggest live LPs, One Night Only, in history. Within five years of its release the Bee Gees were prematurely and tragically no more, but because of Still Waters, their legacy was forever sealed. As such, it’s among the most important albums the brothers ever made.
Understanding the Bee Gees career in the years either side of their Saturday Night Fever commercial peak in the late 70s is crucial to grasping the story and significance of Still Waters. Only the Beatles in 1964 had ruled the American charts to the point of utter saturation like the brothers Gibb did in 1978, and yes, in the case of the Bee Gees, there was a backlash. Almost 45-years later it’s generally accepted by music historians that there’s never been a rise and fall in the annals of popular music quite like what the Gibbs experienced as the 70s gave way to the 80s. And yet a closer look paints a more nuanced and even quite radically different picture.
For a start, the Fever phenomenon was so huge that it appeared to cause a bizarre kind of collective amnesia in America regarding the Bee Gees’ previous decade of international hits. Starting in 1967, the brothers’ first wave of fame gave them a remarkable run of emotionally arresting, often lyrically unusual, exquisitely sung top 40 songs and albums.
Those early tracks like New York Mining Disaster 1941, To Love Somebody, Massachusetts, Words, World, I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You, I Started A Joke, Lonely Days, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart and Run To Me didn’t just showcase an act as prolific as any in pop music, but a band of brothers who seamlessly matched vivid storytelling with incomparable hooks and harmonies. And beyond that, they had two distinct lead singers who could somehow sound both nothing alike and yet instantly familial.
Unfortunately, those two lead singers – Barry and Robin – started to butt heads and a brief split in 1969 precipitated a commercial slump in the early 70s. Or did it?
Certainly US and UK sales had dried up by 1973, and yet retrospective data analysis from 1969 onwards (as published by Data Is Beautiful in 2019 – see video below) still places the brothers in the top 10 biggest selling international acts in the world for every single quarter of every single year for the entire first half of the 70s.
That’s right, the band who defined the second half of that decade with a revamped sound and image, the same band who by their own admission were in the doldrums in the early 70s, the band whose stocks had slipped to such an extent by 1973 that they were reduced to touring England’s notorious supper club circuit; that same band were still moving so much vinyl worldwide as to be in the top 10 biggest artists on the planet.
If this doesn’t really make sense it’s because the Bee Gees – a true international act who were born in the UK, came of age in Australia, relocated back to the UK where they instantly achieved global stardom, and ultimately all bought properties and settled in Florida – were always massive somewhere, just not always everywhere at the same time.
Yes, they may’ve been playing West Yorkshire’s Batley Variety Club in 1973, but that same period saw them rack up further number one hits in Asia and break sales attendance records across Australia. 1974’s Mr Natural album and title track may’ve missed the top 100 in both the US and UK, but in Australia it was such a smash that the following year’s US #1 comeback hit, Jive Talkin’, was actually a smaller Australian hit. These quirks would all come to have significance many years later.
In the immediate years following Saturday Night Fever’s 24 weeks at US #1 in 1978, its 4 US #1 hits and the small matter of it selling more copies than any album in history until Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1983, the Bee Gees followed things up with another blockbuster, the 20+ million selling Spirits Having Flown in 1979. Sure, it didn’t surpass Fever’s then 30+ million units (and as of 2022, upwards of 40-million), but it was still enough to place it as one of the most successful albums ever recorded.
Next came another 20+ million selling monster in the form of Guilty for Barbra Streisand in 1980 with every track written and produced by the Bee Gees as well as two full duets with Barry Gibb. Sure, this was during the growing backlash against the group, but Barry’s face was on the cover of that album, so how much did the backlash really impact sales? As of 1980, not at all.
And yet, 1981’s Bee Gees LP Living Eyes only just scraped its way to 1 million in sales, while its lead single, He’s A Liar, was the first Bee Gees single to miss the US top 10 in five years (it peaked at #30). The album itself peaked at US #41 and UK #73 – a spectacular fall for an act who – if you include their compilation Greatest in 1980 as well as Streisand’s Guilty – had landed four consecutive albums at the top of the US charts between 1977 and 1980.
It should be argued that the commercial failure of Living Eyes had as much to do with record company upheaval, history-making lawsuits and interpersonal politics as it did with any rejection of the Bee Gees. But as it stands, the miss that was Living Eyes led to a snowballing in terms of the Bee Gees public image: they were a 70s act and now that the 70s were over, so too were the band. Thankfully Barry, Robin and Maurice had other ideas.
They then spent most of the next six years on solo projects, as well as following on from Streisand’s Guilty by creating landmark works for Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross. When they decided to be “the Bee Gees” again in with the 3 million selling ESP in 1987, most of the world was ready. That is, except for the States, who inexplicably ignored brilliant lead single You Win Again despite it being a UK #1 and the biggest hit in Europe for the year.
It’s at this juncture in the story of the brothers Gibb that all that pre-Fever exposition takes particular relevance again. From 1975-1980 the Bee Gees weren’t just a contender as the biggest band on the planet, they were contenders for being as big as any band has ever been for any given five year run with the only obvious exception being the Beatles 1964-1969.
Yes, you’ve got the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Abba, who – in the case of Abba – reached Beatles-like levels of pandemonium during this same period in the UK, Europe and Australasia, but they were only ever a modest chart presence at best in North America, South America and Asia. As for the Bee Gees, their stratospheric 70s successes were virtually mirrored in every major market – not to mention minor market – from the US and UK, to Austria and Australia, to Canada and Chile, to France and the Phillipines, to Belgium and Brazil, to Malaysia and Mexico. In a career that spanned 35-years of international releases and more than 220-million in record sales, there’s no doubt these were the most halcyon of days.
However, the late 70s obscure the fact that to really understand the Bee Gees, you have to understand that they were always massive somewhere for the entirety of their career. So yes, 1981’s Living Eyes flopped in the US and the UK, but it was well received in parts of Europe and was a major Australian success. Likewise, the long-forgotten Fever sequel Staying Alive in 1983 sold over 4-million units and enjoyed particularly strong support in both North and South America.
Speaking of which, 1989’s One album was a major hit in Europe and South America, as was 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything with its power ballad For Whom The Bell Tolls. One’s title track had sensationally returned the Gibbs to the US top 10 for the first time in a decade, but for some reason didn’t find traction in the UK. But when the 90s rolled around, the Bee Gees never missed in the UK including when For Whom The Bell Tolls peaked at #4 on its way to being one of the 40 biggest hits of the year. It was even more popular across South America. But in the States? No-one’s heard of it.
In between all of that is 1991’s High Civilisation LP which sold less than 100,000 copies in the US despite being so huge in Europe that it shifted almost a million copies in Germany alone (and gave the brothers another UK top 5 with the Motown-recalling Secret Love). So by 1997 the Bee Gees were a decade into their comeback, but had never landed globally as performers like they had between 1967-1972 and again from 1975-1980.
That’s where Still Waters changed everything. Like with so many things in life, timing is essential. And part of that is understanding the cyclical nature of pop culture. Just as 90s fashion trends have returned in the past five years, in the late 90s there was renewed interest in all things 70s. Still Waters wasn’t necessarily a better album than any of the four excellent LPs the band released between 1987-1993, but it was the right album for the Bee Gees to get seriously big again.
That this also happened at the same time as the 30th anniversary of the band’s first international hits and the 20th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever didn’t hurt, as well as the launch of the wildly successful Fever stage play that included additional Bee Gees songs. Then there were the multiple cover versions of old Gibb songs becoming hits again for modern artists like Take That, Boyzone and N-Trance, not to mention the lifetime achievement gongs that piled up everywhere from the Brits to the Arias to the American Music Awards to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
And it started with a bang, or rather, a thwack.
Ever the masters of the intro, the Bee Gees even exceeded themselves with an album that literally begins with an almighty thwack of drums to announce the arrival of those soon-to-be instantly recognisable bagpipes of lead single Alone. More than that, that thwack heralded that the Bee Gees were back, even if – as Barry would state – they were “always making a comeback”. This comeback felt different, though.
With Alone a UK top 5, US top 30 and a top 10 entry in almost every significant territory the world over, it was as if it was finally OK to like the Bee Gees again, no matter where you came from. Barely a month passed between 1996 and 1999 where the brothers weren’t in the news.
The momentum was with the brothers in a way not seen since the 70s, something further entrenched by new high-profile documentaries and interviews with people like the Southbank Show and Oprah. To celebrate there was the record-breaking, stadium-filling One Night Only tour (and subsequent chart-topping live album) that stretched 18-months from 1997 into 1999. But crucially and indispensably behind it all, a genuinely outstanding pop album.
Peaking at UK #2 and US #11, Still Waters’ US chart position would’ve been even higher had the record label correctly understood how much demand there would be. Music stores across America would report being sold out of CDs early in the album’s first week, completely underestimating how much the Bee Gees were back in vogue. Stock was eventually replenished, but the Gibbs were robbed of a top 10 Stateside placing.
As for the music itself, there’s a confidence as well as a lushness and continuity of sound to Still Waters that belies the reality it was the work of several different producers, namely Russ Titleman, Arif Mardin, Hugh Padgham, David Foster and Rafael Saadiq. And yes, there’s no question that Alone – a superior, structurally unusual pop song with duelling Barry and Robin leads – is the album’s alpha cut, but this is a thoroughly consistent album.
Indeed, it could have been even better had two of its most gripping songs not been relegated to B-sides: the ethereal, stripped back Rings Around Moon, and the excellent, mid-tempo Love Never Dies. Again utilising the Gibb Ace-card of alternating leads, Love Never Dies is a rarity in that it’s Maurice sharing the spotlight with Robin as opposed to Barry.
I’d go so far to say those tracks would’ve been the second and third most vital songs on Still Waters after Alone. If they’d been added to the album, there’s a case to be made that Still Waters would only be bettered in the Gibb cannon by the likes of Odessa (1969), Main Course (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Spirits Having Flown (1979) and Size Isn’t Everything (1993). As it stands, it’s pretty damn close.
An even more radical take is that if that album had to stay at 12 songs, I’d have dropped the somewhat airbrushed title track as well as closer Smoke And Mirrors and renamed the album Rings Around The Moon. What a title! And title-aside, while Rings Around The Moon may be a typically romantic Gibb song, its sparse arrangement makes it unique for the era and a musical cousin to preceding album Size Isn’t Everything’s gorgeous Blue Island.
“Haunting” is music journalism cliche, but the switch from the vulnerability of Robin’s soaring verse lead to Barry’s gently reassuring chorus is just that. So much so that Rings Around The Moon may have been a more valuable contribution to the album’s overall feel and variety than the song that gave the Bee Gees’ their biggest album since 1979 its title.
Ah, the fun of what ifs. Still, an album as smooth and meticulously crafted as Still Waters was hardly lacking. The vocally complex I Will and Miracles Happen are two of the finest ballads the Bee Gees did post their 1987 return, while the steadily building Obsessions is a reminder of just how good the Gibbs were when they teamed with Arif Mardin (Mr Natural, Jive Talkin’, Nights On Broadway, Fanny (Be Tender With My Love), You Win Again etc.).
One final Still Waters what if: I’ve always believed the uptempo, verrrrry 90s R&B number I Surrender would’ve been a better fit for top-40 radio than the followup single to Alone, I Could Not Love You More. Co-producer for the track, pop maestro David Foster, said it sounded like an out and out smash, but for some reason it was overlooked.
Ultimately it didn’t matter because the impetus was such for the Bee Gees in the late 90s that one exceptional global hit in Alone (plus two other UK top 20s in I Could Not Love You More and Still Waters Run Deep) was enough to sell the album. And sell, it did. In many ways, Still Waters was the most fully realised group effort of a Bee Gees album since 1981’s Living Eyes, itself a partial throwback to the band’s earliest LPs.
Where Barry was unquestionably the driving force – especially vocally with his iconic falsetto – in those most defining years from 1975-1980, 90s Bee Gees, much like 60s Bee Gees, were a more even affair. Sharing the load worked in the band’s favour during their 90s period, hooking in new fans while reminding original fans why they first fell for the group. Or more specifically, Barry’s falsetto verse leads on Alone made the track immediately identifiable as the Bee Gees to casual followers of the band, while Robin’s soulful chorus leads pricked the ears for early-period purists. And as for those three-part harmonies with Maurice, that’s where the magic so often was just as it had always been.
Still Waters wasn’t the final Bee Gees album, but it was the one that brought them full circle. By the time Maurice died in 2003, the respect was back, the global commercial fortunes were restored, and Still Waters was as good a cap on their astonishing career as was ever conceivably possible.