Disco group the Bee Gees pose for a portrait in gold outfits in 1977. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Are the Bee Gees Britain’s most underrated band?

The Bee Gees have always been a target for mockery, but by force of talent and ambition, they managed to define the age around them

Artillery Row

When it comes to the antics of the famous and their interlocutors, there is a short but jaw-dropping category that should be entitled “disastrous appearances on chat shows”. While the vast majority of celebrity interactions with their fawning interviewers pass by pleasantly and uncontroversially enough, there have been a few truly unforgettable moments which live long in the national memory. Whether it’s Jonathan Ross informing a surprised Gwyneth Paltrow that he “would fuck her” and that she was “clearly gagging for it”, an unsmiling Meg Ryan ending her career by behaving towards Michael Parkinson as if his asking her questions was somehow an impertinence or, more riotously, Parkinson being attacked by Rod Hull and his emu, they have all become famous for all the wrong reasons.

The Gibb brothers and their music have always been a target for mockery and scorn

To their number must be added another notorious encounter, between Clive Anderson and the Bee Gees in 1997. Over the years, various myths have grown up about their appearance on Anderson’s chat show Clive Anderson Talks Back, and it is salutary to watch the actual clip and be reminded of what really occurred. The interview with Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb starts off pleasantly enough, although Anderson is making some needling comments from the outset, alternating between sycophancy and snide jokes about tight trousers and decades that fashion forgot.

And then the mood changes as soon as Anderson makes an offhand but sneering remark, saying of their famous songs that “you’re hit writers… or you’re one letter short”. Barry Gibb, behaving as ever as the group’s frontman, begins to glower, and Anderson, in combative mood, decides to risk another inappropriate sally, seizing on the band’s original name of “Les Tosseurs” to say, “you’ll always be tossers to me”. The interview limps on for a minute or two, with Barry both monosyllabic and obviously angry, until he decides that he’s had enough, tells Anderson “you’re the tosser, pal” and walks off, his embarrassed-looking brothers trailing in his wake, as Anderson, clearly surprised and somewhat aghast at the turn of events, does a passable imitation of a guppy fish.

Clive Anderson Talks Back ran until 1999, but Anderson’s reputation as an offensive and abrasive interviewer – he famously asked Jeffrey Archer “is there no beginning to your talents” – meant that he has never had such a high-profile presenting role since. When his obituary is written, “being rude to the Bee Gees” will undeniably be one of the most prominent stories within it. Such will be his epitaph.

Today, the Bee Gees would probably be accused of cultural appropriation

Yet the brothers Gibb and their music have always been a target for mockery and scorn. For decades, every would-be comedian could score an easy laugh by trying to sing hits of theirs such as “Staying Alive” or “Tragedy” in an exaggeratedly high-pitched falsetto, signalling their contempt for this trio of white Englishmen producing some of the most popular disco songs. The not-so-subtle implication is that they should have stayed in their unchallenging MOR lane and not interfered in what became associated with black and gay music, let alone having made millions doing so. Today, they would probably be accused of cultural appropriation.

They even inspired an Eighties parody band, the Hee Bee Gee Bees, featuring songs written by Richard Curtis and sung by Angus Deayton, amongst others, whose debut single was called “Meaningless Songs (In Very High Voices)”. In contrast to the Rutles, a Beatles parody act whose obvious devotion to the Fab Four was clear from the good-natured mockery that the (excellent) songs engendered, it seemed as if the Bee Gees were little more than a punchline to an especially cruel joke. With the noble and consistent exception of The Guardian’s rock critic Alexis Petridis, who reveres the band, they have had few champions amongst the music press, who have consistently regarded them with a mixture of derision and suspicion. The word “naff” has been used, more than once.

It is therefore something of a surprise to realise that, far from being a band who produced a few novelty disco songs in the late Seventies and did little else of note, they are one of the most successful acts in recording history – by some accounts, the sixth highest selling of all time – with hits every decade between the Sixties and the Noughties. And it is even more revelatory to realise that, once one moves away from their most famous songs, all recorded in a relatively short period in the late Seventies, there is an absolute wealth of phenomenally rich, and often deeply strange, songwriting to enjoy, all of which should have rightfully established the Bee Gees as the spiritual heir to the Beatles. But we live in an unjust world, and the spectacle of a bearded man with a bouffant hairdo wearing a medallion and singing in a high-pitched voice can easily obscure the fact that he, along with his brothers, is one of the greatest British musicians of the twentieth century.

There has been something of a renaissance of interest in the band over the past few years. Barry Gibb, the last surviving member of the family, appeared at Glastonbury in the so-called “legends slot” in 2017, delighting the by no means partisan audience with wall-to-wall hits that drew on both the Bee Gees’ disco heyday and their previous incarnation as anguished balladeers, albeit with greater emphasis on the former than the latter. Last year, an incisive documentary appeared, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, which was directed by Frank Marshall and featured younger admirers of the band such as Mark Ronson, Justin Timberlake and Chris Martin, as well as the likes of Eric Clapton and Noel Gallagher, all queuing up to praise the band’s brilliance and their influence on their own work.

It seems strange to describe an act that has sold hundreds of millions of records as neglected

Marshall commented in a recent interview that he hoped that the documentary caused many to reappraise the band, saying “I think the incredible success of Saturday Night Fever made people think that they were kind of lightweight. But they weren’t, they were heavyweight.” And at the beginning of 2021, Barry Gibb released a new album, Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, a reinterpretation of many of the band’s best-known songs with guest singers ranging from the cultish (Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss) to the iconic (Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John). It was subtitled ‘volume 1’, raising the welcome idea that further instalments could be in the offing. Petridis wrote in a glowing Guardian review that “Saying they’re among the greatest songwriters of their era is factually accurate but still feels weirdly transgressive, as if you’re defying perceived wisdom. You never see Odessa or Main Course or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in lists of the 100 best albums ever, which is where they belong.”

He has a point. It seems strange to describe an act that has sold hundreds of millions of records as somewhat neglected, but that is exactly what the Bee Gees are. Everyone can, of course, sing and dance along to their disco classics, but if one delves slightly deeper into their formidable back catalogue, then an entirely different (and, for my money, more interesting) band emerges, one driven by both artistic brilliance and cool determination. Barry Gibb, who has always been the band’s de facto lead, used to cajole his younger brothers, the twins Robin and Maurice, along with the promise of success and fame. Accordingly, this was realised relatively early in their career, first in Australia and then in Britain, before they became stratospheric in America with Saturday Night Fever.

They were never entirely in step with contemporary trends, but by force of talent and ambition, they managed to define the age around them. Around the time that the Beatles were releasing Sgt Pepper and the Rolling Stones were putting out Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, the Bee Gees were best known either for strange, almost experimental songs such as “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (there was no New York mining disaster in 1941) or “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You”. These alternated with what became their early stock-in-trade, anguished orchestral ballads that featured the brothers singing in harmony to soaringly beautiful effect.

Dull of heart would be the person who could listen to the likes of “To Love Somebody”, “Run To Me” or “I’ve Got To Get A Message To You” and not find them incomparably moving: little wonder that they have become standards of popular music, covered by countless considerably hipper artists. And they were vastly influential in their own time, too. David Bowie’s first hit, “Space Oddity”, was an overt homage to the band, specifically “New York Mining Disaster 1941”. As his friend Marc Bolan said, “I remember David playing me ‘Space Oddity’ in his room and I loved it and he said he needed a sound like the Bee Gees, who were very big then.”

They were considered so uncool that they couldn’t be taken seriously as performers in their own right

And this remains the paradox with the brothers Gibb. The success of Saturday Night Fever became an albatross around their hirsute necks, and while they had spectacular hits throughout the Eighties with songs written for other artists, including “Islands In The Stream”, “Chain Reaction” and “You Win Again”, they were considered so terminally uncool that they could never be taken seriously as performers in their own right. Thus it was that Anderson could feel able to make the kind of jokes towards the Bee Gees that he would not have dared to utter in front of the Rolling Stones or The Who, and why they have continued to remain unfashionable, for all their talent.

Yet if the documentary and the album indicate the tentative green shoots of a reappraisal for this most underappreciated of acts, this is a long overdue renaissance. All I can recommend to the uninitiated is to return to the early albums and play the songs at some volume, and to be surprised and delighted at just how wonderful and timeless they sound. And then, finally, the Bee Gees might yet be enjoyed on their own considerable merits, rather than simply being “the has-been band that walked off the Clive Anderson chat show”. One imagines that when Barry Gibb finally leaves us, the incident will not take up nearly as much space in his obituary as it will in his erstwhile tormentor’s.

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