Tragedy: ‘Staying Alive: The Disco Inferno Of The Bee Gees’ reviewed

­­ This one of the best, and saddest, rock books you’ll ever read.

“At the point that we meet them, the Gibbs are despondent, dysfunctional and what follows is like a black fairy tale as the Brothers Gibbs’ second, crashing wave of success meant they were pigeon-holed and left behind when the disco bubble popped. There were also other, more tragic side-effects of their success… Staying Alive rivetingly chronicles the extreme highs and lows of this imperial period, an epic family saga of egos, dysfunction, and heartbreak.

In Pop Culture Anniversary Land, very few things escape an anniversary birthday bash, especially if it’s deemed ‘Culturally Important’ (TM). Even the rapidly dismissed cocaine and ego folly that is Be Here Now by Oasis recently had a little bit of a 20th birthday, albeit to mass derision on Twitter (Author’s opinion: “A very long and stringy dog’s egg”, if you’re interested.) In the meantime something world-beatingly massive and potent document of its era, still hugely popular today, is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary largely ignored…

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Saturday Night Fever, the film that ate the ’70s. It’s remembered for its evergreen soundtrack of disco bangers, and John Travolta’s moves, and for its split legacy. On one hand, the kitsch trappings of the era – the medallions, flares, and open shirts that fancy dress shops will never, ever run out of. On the other hand, it’s an evergreen favourite with film critics for its sheer cojones. John Badham’s gritty, dark tale of working class Italian-American kids living for the weekend is often ugly, grimy, and all too real. So why is the film and its 15 time platinum monster hit soundtrack a mainstay of bargain bins throughout the land? Is disco really that disposable?

In truth, disco knocked the 1970s sideways in a way that beardy stadium rock, glam, and punk could only have dreamed of, so much so that it had to be ceremonially killed off by the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement. The backlash to this joyful, upbeat music left it labelled an embarrassment. Its success became a millstone, no more so than to the band that defined both Saturday Night Fever and the mainstream success of disco, the Bee Gees, who’d reinvented themselves from their original 1960s incarnation as purveyors of of eccentrically anthemic chamber pop into glimmering disco overlords. Always a fractious bunch, the Brothers Gibbs’ second, crashing wave of success didn’t just mean more money and fame than they knew what to do with. It meant even greater resentment and wider divisions between the brothers. It meant they were pigeon-holed and left behind when the disco bubble popped. There were also other, more tragic side-effects of their success.

Staying Alive – The Disco Inferno of the Bee Gees, by Simon Spence, rivetingly chronicles the extreme highs and lows of this imperial period, it’s equal parts rigorously-researched history of a cultural phenomenon, and epic family saga of egos, dysfunction, and heartbreak.

At the beginning, there is Nik Cohn, arguably the most influential man to wield a pen in the history of rock. The wunderkind that gave the world Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom and convinced Pete Townshend to get Tommy into pinball needs little introduction. It was his powerful (and as he’d later admit, fabricated) piece for New York Magazine that inspired Tony Manero’s story, and inspired Saturday Night Fever. Cohn politely declines Spence’s request for interviews for this book, and that’s probably for the best. Cohn’s own story is so big, that it threatens to shunt that of the Bee Gees off the page. We leave him as he finds himself invited, in the wake of the splash made by his story, to an audience with the Gibbs’ flamboyant manager, entertainment mogul Robert Stigwood, who’d recently branched out into movies with some success and was looking for his next project.

Spence then cuts to a couple of years earlier, and the Bee Gees, their career in the doldrums, fulfilling a miserable engagement on the ‘chicken in a basket’ circuit in Batley, Yorkshire. At this point, in 1974, they’re but months from the lightbulb moment at Criteria Studios that would spawn Jive Talkin’ and kickstart a meteoric rise that would only be staved off by American jock types destroying their records in a Chicago baseball stadium. At the point that we meet them though, the Gibbs are despondent, dysfunctional, and in the case of their best musician Maurice, too drunk to even stand up straight. This pen sketch of the Bee Gees, stoic, careerist Barry, edgy, nervous Robin, and kamikaze drinker Maurice sets the tone for Spence’s book, and the whistle stop tour of their early career that follows is like a black fairy tale.

Displaced from the Isle of Man to Manchester, then Australia before their return to England in 1967, they were already a showbiz family when they got off the boat, and come across like a precocious, more rancorous version of the Beach Boys, ultra-prolific, and all with their own egos. Under the wing of music biz heavy-hitter and father-figure Stigwood, the edited highlights of their first two years are a blistering account of big hits, excessive spending, PTSD from horrifying accidents, legal battles, and the vicious (and very public) jockeying for pole position between Barry and Robin, whilst Maurice propped up the bar at the Speakeasy and wrote off flash cars.

Two years after their arrival in England, the Bee Gees were in tatters, beset by grand ambitions of breaking the movies and solo tours with huge orchestras, not to mention their hefty use of amphetamines, pot, and booze.

Robin walked out to start a solo career, and the Gibbs’ father, Hugh, attempted to make him a ward of court. The band splintered shortly afterwards. They would regroup before long, but spent the early 1970s treading water. Their early songs may have become standards, recorded by Elvis, Glen Campbell, Nina Simone and the like, but they were yesterday’s news.

Spence’s book reveals how the stars aligned for the Gibbs, how Barry’s discovery of his falsetto voice, their increasing R&B leanings, the environment of Criteria Studios, the major contributions of their talented sidemen, and Stigwood’s ongoing encouragement led to their resurgence, and Barry well and truly asserting himself as the driving force of the band – an egomaniac in his own way, obsessed with lush, smooth, clean sounds, always surrounded by weed smoke and endless cups of milky tea.

Staying Alive is as much Stigwood’s story as the Gibbs’. He’s portrayed as every bit the Svengali, the shrewd operator behind the success of the Bee Gees, Cream, and Peter Frampton, as well as the force behind the screen success of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, and Grease, taking over the entertainment industry in the 70s one killer deal at a time. The Brothers Gibb are in awe of him, and jockey for his attention, as ‘favourite child’ Barry, aided and abetted by Producer Arif Marden and studio guru Albhy Galuten, forge an unstoppable hit machine.

By the time Saturday Night Fever came along, Stigwood couldn’t lose. Even with his lavish, debauched appetites, and the small matter of ditching Oscar-winning director John G. Avildsen weeks before shooting, the combined alchemy of John Travolta’s performance, the seed of Cohn’s story, Norman Wexler’s screenplay, and the steady stream of hits emanating from the Bee Gees under Barry’s watch created something greater than the sum of its parts.

Not even the universal panning and relative failure of his grand folly, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie (which was filming with Frampton and the Bee Gees at the same time as Fever) could stop him. The Gibbs emerged from the car crash of one Stigwood movie into the glow of a phenomenon. Their career went stratospheric, as the band became a true hit factory, a colossus that dominated the charts –  albeit with Barry firmly at the helm and the others increasingly sidelined.

Despite the now-chronic disharmony between the brothers, the only way was up, until the decree was made that Disco Sucked. Even the high life proved far from plain sailing for the Gibbs, what with Robin’s messy divorce, Maurice’s escalating alcoholism, and the ever-increasing acrimony between the brothers. Having made it about as big as he hoped to get, Stigwood then took a step back to enjoy the view, succeeding in alienating the Gibbs in the process, leaving Barry to lead, manage, produce, and steer them through their biggest ever tour.

To add to the sorry state of relations between the Gibbs themselves and with Stigwood, there’s also the tragic tale of youngest brother Andy to consider, a spoiled, but fairly innocent teenager pushed out into the limelight by Stigwood (and propped up by Barry, who he idolised), who would end up a paranoid, coke-addled wreck, dying in 1988 aged only 30. The decline and loss of Andy would come to embody the human cost of the Bee Gees and RSO’s huge success, a terrible human tragedy soundtracked by uplifting, upbeat music.

By this time the Bee Gees had tanked again, disappearing to the backroom to work as hit songwriters for Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, before making a second comeback, trading on the belated recognition of their by-now undisputed songbook. The fraternal squabbling would continue through their middle age, until the deaths of first Maurice, then Robin eventually left Barry the last man standing, a damned survivor, heartbreakingly admitting that he wasn’t on good terms with any of his younger brothers when they died. Despite him occasionally coming across as the villain of the piece through his alpha male dominance of his brothers, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Barry, the last Bee Gee and keeper of the legacy.

Staying Alive is a rattling chronicle of an unfashionable period rock history, punchily related by Spence with forensic detail. It’s one of the best, and saddest rock books you’ll ever read.

‘Staying Alive: The Disco Inferno Of The Bee Gees’ by Simon Spence is published by Jawbone Press on 19 September 2017, RRP £14.95 ISBN 978-1-911036-27-2

 Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

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  1. They’re one of those presences, the Bee Gees, that someone of my generation assumed to be enjoyable wallpaper but who proved surprisingly outre as chance encounter increased down the years. As you say, the rent between the narrative & the soundtrack. “How can you mend a broken heart?”

    Ta v-much for that review.

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