PURSUITS
Staying Alive
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, June 15, 2012

Why the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb will 
continue to play on

I was in Europe when Robin Gibb, one third of the pop group, the Bee Gees, died. And nearly everywhere 
I went there were tributes to Robin 
and to his band, who are among the 
few groups to have had number one singles in four decades: the 60s, the 70s, the 80s 
and the 90s.

We’ve been through this before, a decade ago, when Robin’s twin, Maurice Gibb, died suddenly. Perhaps because Maurice was musically, the least significant Bee Gee, the tributes were interspersed with cynicism and humour. For instance, when Maurice was fighting for his life in hospital, the British chat show host Graham Norton asked his studio audience “What sound does Maurice Gibb’s life support system make?” Norton then provided the answer, switching to a falsetto and singing “Staying alive, staying alive, staying alive...” (When Maurice died, Norton apologised for the joke.)

This time around, nobody is risking any jokes and the tributes to Robin have been heartfelt. The BBC has been especially active in honouring his musical legacy and one evening I watched several hours of non-stop Bee Gees programming on BBC 2, the terrestrial UK channel.

If you are a reader of a certain age, then you probably remember the Bee Gees from their disco phase (roughly 1975 to 1985) when they wrote the music for Saturday Night Fever and dominated the charts. (Total sales of Bee Gees records now exceed 110 million units!)

In that case, the Bee Gees sound you remember is a high-pitched falsetto vocal over a funky backing track. That is the sound on such hits as Night Fever, Jive Talking, Tragedy and, of course, Staying Alive.

It is a great sound 
and was the soundtrack 
to a whole decade of pop music. But it is not the original Bee Gees style. The band first came to prominence in the mid 60s. At that stage, The Beatles dominated the charts and regularly rebuffed the efforts of music manager Robert Stigwood to handle their careers. So, Stigwood promoted the Bee Gees as his answer to The Beatles.

While it was always 
clear that all three of the Bee Gees put together 
did not possess one-tenth of Paul McCartney’s 
musical talent, there is no doubt that the group wrote some memorable pop songs, most of them 
sung by Robin. If you remember the 60s, then you will recall the hits: New 
York Mining Disaster, Massachusetts, To Love Somebody, Lonely Days, How Can 
You Mend A Broken Heart, I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.

The hits dried up around 1973, the brothers quarrelled and the band was stuck in limbo. Then, Barry Gibb, the oldest brother, invented a new sound based on his own falsetto vocals. It was Barry’s voice that dominated the decade of disco and Robin was relegated to a lesser role.

Watching the tributes to Robin, I wondered about the musical legacy of the Bee Gees. By all rights they should be remembered for the disco hits of the Saturday Night Fever era. But whenever anybody plays Staying Alive these days, the only response it evokes is nostalgia.

Almost everything about the disco era is now seen as being slightly cringe-worthy from the white polyester flares to the notion that John Travolta was straight. The Bee Gees songs actually suffered from their association with that era.

On the other hand, the older songs still retain a certain innocence and charm. I suspect that the Bee Gees real legacy will not be as performers but as song-writers because of the strength of their early catalogue. Early Bee Gees material has taken such groups as Take That and Boyzone to the charts. And if you watch TV talent shows, you will be astonished by the number of young singers who choose early Bee Gees hits to cover. (There are over 200 recorded cover versions of To Love Somebody alone.)

One song in particular will be the epitome of the Bee Gees musical legacy. In the 60s when Robin sang all the hits, his brother Barry wrote a song for Cliff Richard to record. Cliff always had lousy taste in music so he passed up the song. Eventually, Barry recorded it himself without other members of the Bee Gees participating.

That song was Words and it will be to Barry Gibb’s legacy what Yesterday is to Paul McCartney. Within a year, over 20 cover versions had been recorded and even Elvis Presley made it a staple of his Las Vegas act. (If you want to see how a famous rock star can murder a great song, then you should listen to Elvis’s version of Words: it is almost a capital offence.)

Even if you are not a fan of the early Bee Gees hits, the chances are that you will know Words. You may not have heard the original recording but you will certainly have heard somebody else singing it: a soul diva, a lounge act, a boy band, or a drunken businessman at a karaoke bar.

All of which begs the question: what is it that stands the test of time? Is it records or is it songs? For years and years, musicians believed that a song was greater than any performance. The songs of George Gershwin are much greater than Frank Sinatra or any of the other famous singers who have recorded them.

The singers have died. But the songs live on.

The rock revolution made us believe that the performance was more important than the material. If you were a Bob Dylan fan, then you turned your nose up at softer cover versions. If you liked Satisfaction, then only the Rolling Stones’ original would do. And so on.

But as I listen to the 
tributes to Robin Gibb and the Bee Gees, I am beginning to think that the wheel has turned. The Bee Gees are one of the most successful recording acts in history. And yet, even in their case, I don’t think they will be remembered for their records. Their legacy lies in the songs that they have written.

 


(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow 
Vir’s other writings, visit 
www.virsanghvi.com)

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