It’s hard to grasp how famous the Bee Gees really were. They remain the third most successful band of all time after the Beatles and the Supremes. In the late 1970s there were weeks when they had four or five hits in the charts simultaneously. Their soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever was number one album on the Billboard Charts for the entire first half of 1978 and broke all sorts of records, selling 15 million copies in the United States alone.
No wonder there was a violent reaction as music fans rose up against disco domination. That reaction was so drastic it casts a shadow on Frank Marshall’s absorbing biographical documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. Marshall may not be a familiar name – his previous directorial efforts being features such as Alive and Arachnophobia, but he does a proficient job with this non-fictional material. We don’t get into the nitty gritty of the band’s personal relations but neither do we get a hagiography. The emphasis is on the music and the fickle nature of celebrity.
In the first chapters we watch the rise of the Gibb brothers – Barry (b.1946), and twins, Robin (1949-2012) and Maurice (1949-2003). The boys were born on the Isle of Man and moved with their family to Manchester in 1955, where they were joined by a fourth brother, Andy (1958-88).
After the Gibbs migrated to Queensland in 1958 the three elder brothers began to perform under the name, the Bee Gees. By 1966 they had a number one hit with Spicks and Specks. In the following year they returned to Britain, where they struggled to get a foothold until they met the Australian-born record company executive, Robert Stigwood, the Svengali that propelled them into stardom.
The reasons for the Bee Gees’ success are reiterated time and again by interviewees in this documentary. As members of the same family the Gibbs had an exceptional chemistry. They instinctively knew each other’s thoughts and could sing harmonies that sounded like a single voice. This ‘shared brain’ approach influenced the way the brothers wrote songs, which would come together by osmosis as they sat around sharing musical ideas. But there were also tensions and rivalries, chiefly between Barry and Robin, with Maurice playing go-between and peacemaker.
Their initial number one hit in Britain was written when they were plunged into darkness at a recording studio, after a power failure. First came the line “In the event of something happening to me…” With a little more work they had New York Mining Disaster 1941 (1967) a song that owed some of its success to its offbeat title, but most to Robin’s plaintive vocals and the singalong harmonies of the chorus.
Their second big hit, To Love Somebody (1967) was originally written for Otis Redding but the singer died before it could be recorded. The Bee Gees did the job themselves and found the US charts opening up. It was the beginning of a purple patch and the hits continued to flow, among them: Massachusetts (1967), Words(1968), I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You (1968) and I Started a Joke (1968).
Throughout this period Robin had begun to feel that Barry’s vocals were being unduly favoured by Stigwood, and in late 1969 he left to pursue a solo career. At this point it looked as if the Bee Gees were finished but the bust-up would last no more than a year
The reformed Bee Gees launched into a new round of touring and recording, but their golden run was over. While still producing songs of the quality of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (1970), they had lost their fan base. By 1974 the Gibbs were reduced to playing dates at dead-end clubs in the north of England.
The Bee Gees revival began when they took Eric Clapton’s advice to record in Miami. New country, new climate, new studios and new producers brought the group back into the charts, with the single, Jive Talkin’ (1975) going to number one in the US. At this time they discovered Barry’s ability to sing falsetto. It would become a trademark of the sound that made them into the world’s biggest stars in the late 1970s.
Stigwood saw potential in a disco craze that was already beginning to flag by 1977, when he acted as producer for the film, Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gees, who were responsible for the music, knocked off a succession of songs at lightning speed. The LP would break all sales records for a soundtrack, and win a Grammy as album of the year. They had successive US number ones with How Deep is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever.
Within the space of 3-4 years, the Bee Gees had gone from being has-beens to the point where they saturated the airwaves. The documentary argues the brothers were never hard-core disco types, being always chiefly concerned with melody and harmony. It’s also claimed they suffered vicariously from the commercial debasement of disco – illustrated by a truly blood-curdling video clip of Rick Dees’s Disco Duck.
Yet it’s not easy to make a case for disco as anything but a nakedly commercial exercise. Essentially dance and party music it didn’t trade in political protest or make heartfelt statements about people’s lives. It was superficial and hedonistic, and as such, a dream for the big record companies.
The Bee Gees may have created a superior brand of disco but the entire movement was always going to rankle with those who looked for a different set of values in popular music. By the late 1970s the bloated empires of the record companies and the artifical excesses of the music they promoted had inspired the Punk revolution.
In Chicago, a DJ named Steve Dahl, who wore a US Army helmet, waged a one-man war on disco, culminating in a stunt at a baseball game in 1979, whereby fans who turned up with a disco record to be ritually exploded on-field would get in for 98c. The evening turned into a riot, with records by all kinds of black artists being destroyed. Dahl’s Disco Demolition is now generally viewed as a thinly-veiled orgy of racial hatred.
The Bee Gees were taken aback by the vehemence of the anti-disco reaction and the hostility they encountered. Moving into the 1980s they adopted a lower profile, writing songs for other performers. This decade also saw the death of younger brother, Andy, who had enjoyed three number one hits but fell victim to heart failure at the age of 30, brought about by drug abuse.
In the 1990s the aging Bee Gees began to tour again, playing to massive audiences. By this stage all the battles of the disco era and all the sibling rivalries had been laid aside. It came as a shock when Maurice died of a heart attack in 2003, aged only 53. Robin would follow in 2012, after a protracted battle with cancer. Today, Barry, the oldest of the brothers, is the sole survivor. At the end of the film, looking back on a lifetime of seismic highs and lows, crowned by extraordinary achievements, he says he’d give it all to have his brothers back.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
Directed by Frank Marshall
Written by Mark Monroe
Starring Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Andy Gibb, Vince Melouney, Colin Peterson, Blue Weaver, Terry Cox
USA, rated M, 107 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 December, 2020