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Musical biography delves into the intriguing world of Bee Gees

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The author and musician’s engaging biography of the Gibb brothers explores their idiosyncrasies as well as musical brilliance.

This book contains few new interviews about the “insanely productive” group who sold more than 220m records: it is author-led, meaning we are mainly given Bob Stanley’s opinions about the Bee Gees’ music. But there are few people whose opinions I would rather have. Stanley is a highly articulate proponent of pop rather than rock (his previous book was Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop) and a practitioner himself, with his group Saint Etienne. Pop has come in out of the cold in recent years, Blondie as likely to be pontificated about as Led Zeppelin, but the Bee Gees – who were certainly “pop”, despite evolving through quasi-psychedelia into R&B and disco – remain, as Stanley writes, “othered”, rarely accorded the respect they deserve. And he suggests that such praise as they do receive tends to be conditional: “It’s the Bee Gees… but it’s really good.”

In 1997, they walked off Clive Anderson’s chatshow when he said: “You’re hit writers… I think that’s the word… We’re one letter short.” A more subtle, and accurate, insinuation might have been that the Bee Gees were odd, and Stanley speaks of these three “strange brothers”.

They were born in the Isle of Man, Barry (the only surviving one) in 1946, the twins, Robin and Maurice, in 1949. Their father, an itinerant fading band leader, moved the family to Manchester, where in 1957 the three sang Wake Up Little Susie at the Gaumont picture house in Chorlton. The following year, the Gibbs moved to Australia, where the brothers became child stars and Barry started writing songs: “I like to make up the tunes I sing,” he told the Australian Women’s Weekly. “I get the words from romance magazines.”

“We were like the Brontë sisters,” said Robin, meaning they created their own world.

They were bound together by three-part harmony, much like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and his younger siblings, Carl and Dennis. But Stanley mentions that, whereas Brian Wilson was born on the cusp of the summer solstice, Robin and Maurice Gibb were born on the winter solstice, and it seems the Manchester rain, rather than Australian sun, persisted in the hits they scored on returning to Britain in the late 1960s. Their songs were “rainy”, “melancholic”, “death-haunted”. New York Mining Disaster 1941 is about being buried alive. I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You was from the perspective of a condemned prisoner.

The most melancholic and romantic – in a gloomy Victorian sort of way – was Robin, who was given to waistcoats and fob watches. Typical of his output was I Started a Joke, in which he sang, in his somehow compelling, bleating tones: “I finally died / Which started the whole world living”, a proposition that “raised questions among the heads”, writes Stanley, who suggests that the Bee Gees wrote English “as if it were a second language”, creating a dreamy, dislocated effect. (Think of Stayin’ Alive: “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk…”)

Robin resented Barry’s domination of the singing and songwriting, and in 1969 the Bee Gees split. Re-forming a year later, they began a run of “confusing” but “strangely fascinating” albums with songs in a variety of styles, but mainly slow. Their late 1970s shift towards R&B was encouraged by the producer Arif Mardin, who suggested about one song that they “kick it up an octave” – and so Barry’s falsetto was unleashed. Their “slew of classics” for the film Saturday Night Fever marked their high point as a band, but as songwriters they hadn’t yet peaked.

– The Guardian

Friday, June 30, 2023 – 01:00

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