❉ James Collingwood on Bob Stanley’s history of the Gibb brothers’ extraordinary career.
After taking on the whole of popular music in his last two books Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop and Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, pop historian Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne chronicles the fascinating, tumultuous life and career of the Brothers Gibb in his new biography, Bee Gees: Children of the World.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Bee Gees. Whether it comes from memories of emerging into Yorkshire sunlight after watching a matinee U-rated version of Saturday Night Fever at the cinema as a kid, the music still resonating in my ears, or listening to the mustard-coloured Polydor “best of” LP mentioned at the beginning of this book (and visually echoed by the book’s cover design), they’ve always had a place in my heart.
Like most people I was aware of the ups and downs of the Bee Gees’ extraordinary career over the years, such as their falling prey to the problematic anti-disco backlash, walking out of a Clive Anderson interview after one too many digs from the host… The fact that one of them was once married to Lulu also stuck in my mind for some reason. However, Bob’s book opens up the full extent of “Gibb World.”
Born on the Isle of Man (to band leader Hugh and singer Barbara), Barry and his non-identical twin brothers Maurice and Robin were performing from a young age. With elder sister Lesley, and later joined by younger brother Andy whose tragic life is also detailed in the book, the Gibbs were a musical family from the very start.
It was performing at a speedway track in Australia as teens that gave them their big break. Disruptive and living in poverty in Manchester, the whole Gibb family had been persuaded to emigrate as ‘ten-pound poms’ largely as a result of the low-level criminal behaviour of the three brothers. Interestingly, as Bob Stanley points out, although the group’s name could later refer to an abbreviated form of the ‘Brothers Gibb’, the fact it was the initials of their first managers and backers Bill Goode, Bill Gates (no not that one!) and Barry Gibb himself that may have been the inspiration for the Bee Gees (BG) name.
After carving out a career on Australian radio and television the Gibbs returned from sunny Australia to a damp but ‘happening’ England. It was the mid- to late- sixties and, managed by phenomenally successful pop mogul Robert Stigwood, the band started producing fascinating and ground-breaking albums such as Bee Gees First, Odessa and Horizontal.
The albums were quirky, the standard of the songwriting was exceptionally high, and Bob argues that the Mellotron and string arrangements on these early albums was influential on prog rock. With these albums, Bob writes, “The Bee Gees had inadvertently founded the string-driven wing of progressive rock – they were ancestors of the Moody Blues, but Yes even more so, and also Queen – only to be quite left out of the histories.”
They may also have been an influence on Bowie’s Space Oddity. Bowie’s late sixties collaborator John Hutchinson has mentioned this in interviews, and Stanley writes: “Space Oddity in the summer of 1969, would be so indebted to early Bee Gees that it’s opening line may as well have been ‘in the event of something happening to me in outer space.’”
Throughout the book the chapters are set out and named after the place where the group were based at the time: Isle of Man, Miami, Sydney etc. One chapter is even hilariously titled Batley and describes the unsuccessful early seventies years where they were forced to play “chicken in the basket” variety nightclubs such as the Batley Frontier and the Wythenshawe Golden Garter. Each chapter also includes a top ten chart taken from Billboard, Record Mirror or NME that puts the Bee Gees hits in context with the music around them at the time.
There’s an excellent couple of chapters on the transitional, pre-Saturday Night Fever albums Main Course and Children of the World not to mention the extremely fertile period the likes of Staying Alive, Tragedy and How Deep is Your Love etc were conceived and recorded. There’s also a brilliant description of how the falsetto singing style developed and why it was so powerful. Those hits were written over a short period of time but the amount of sustained creativity over five decades is also astonishing.
The individual personalities of the three brothers themselves is also fascinating. Despite being a quite insular “us against the world” gang since youth, there was always friction and a couple of break-ups over the years but these always seem to result in reconciliation. Robin, a brilliant songwriter in his own right, appeared to be the most melancholic of the three – not surprisingly as he survived the Hither Green rail disaster, an avalanche and many other tragedies. Barry seems to be a music genius but more controlling, and Maurice despite his alcoholism seemed to be the calm one in the middle who contributed more to the music but less to the songwriting.
As always with Bob Stanley’s pop histories, Children of the World makes you want to go back to the music and revisit the albums in their entirety (Surprisingly, most of the albums are difficult to get hold of now except on streaming). Bob goes into their strengths and weaknesses, writing brilliantly about their production back-stories and the music itself. He’s clearly a fan and his intention to write the definitive Bee Gees book is a triumph.
❉ ‘Bee Gees: Children of the World’ by Bob Stanley published by Nine Eight Books Ltd., 8 June 2023. RRP £15.99. ISBN: 9781788705424.
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre. His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1