Spotlight on the Bee Gees
The disco darlings have seen some lonely days, but a nod from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has made the Brothers Gibb feel like dancing again
Barry Gibb stands in the Bunker, tapping his foot. The Bunker is Gibb’s nickname for Middle Ear Studio, a stuffy, windowless recording compound in Miami Beach. Here on a March afternoon, Gibb is sifting through a medley of Bee Gees songs — an instrumental marathon of hits that Gibb and his younger brothers, Maurice and Robin, will croon along to at an awards show in Monaco. As he leans toward the mixing console, a rubbery, serpentine rhythm suddenly overtakes the room. Gibb smiles and begins to mouth the words — quietly, almost ruefully. The song is ”Stayin’ Alive.” Then it’s over. The epochal groove that once sent John Travolta strutting into history with a can of paint segues into a ballad called ”Alone,” the first single from the Bee Gees’ new album, Still Waters. But…huh? Seconds later, the room starts quaking all over again to the feverish pulse of ”Stayin’ Alive.” ”Wait,” Gibb says to engineer John Merchant. ”You had ‘Stayin’ Alive’ in there already!” Merchant looks up with a grin. ”And what’s the problem with that?” The world, apparently, couldn’t agree more. Two decades after Saturday Night Fever lured the heartland into the spangled, thumping debauchery of dance music — and 17 years after a rallying cry of ”Disco sucks!” turned the Brothers Gibb into pop pariahs — people are ready to give the Bee Gees another chance. All the telltale signs of rehabilitation have fallen into place: VH1 has honored the trio with a one-hour hootenanny on its Storytellers series. Wyclef Jean of the Fugees has cut ”We Trying to Stay Alive,” a hip-hop riff on the Fever anthem. Paramount Pictures is gearing up for a Star Wars-style rerelease of Fever this fall. And, in a gesture the rock elite might’ve considered heresy a few years ago, the erstwhile patriarchs of polyester have just secured a berth in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ”It’s like the pinnacle of everything you’ve worked for,” says Maurice Gibb, 48, the brother who’s fond of wearing hats. (He’s sporting a gray fedora during the interview.) ”It vindicates everything you’ve believed in.”
Most rock veterans affect a stony detachment when they talk about the Hall of Fame, but the Bee Gees act as giddy as pre-teens prepping for a class trip. Even though they really don’t need to justify their impact on pop culture, they still seem desperate to prove that they’re down with the cool crowd.
It’s been that way for almost 40 years. Born in England but raised in Brisbane, Australia, the Bee Gees broke into the Sydney club circuit when the twins, Robin and Maurice, had barely hit puberty. By 1966, they were stars at home, but nobodies north of the equator. ”The Beatles came to Australia, and it was like, ‘Wow!”’ says Maurice. ”We wanted to be like them. We didn’t know what they earned or anything — we just wanted to get to know them.”
Early in 1967 the trio caught a boat to England, met up with Svengali Robert Stigwood, and began to lace the charts with sweet, baroque, post-Merseybeat singles like ”Massachusetts” and ”Holiday.” Pretty soon, the wide-eyed Aussies were the toast of swingin’ London, hanging out at the Speakeasy with the likes of Cream, the Who, and — yep — the Fab Four. John Lennon himself bought Maurice his first Scotch and Coke on the night after the cover shoot for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. ”We ended up in his big Rolls Royce,” Maurice recalls, ”with [Lennon] throwing up on the carpet.”