WHEN BARRY GIBB, the sole surviving member of the Bee Gees, performed at Glastonbury in 2017, he played in what is known as the “legends slot”. The veteran stars who take to the festival stage on a Sunday afternoon are invariably greeted with enormous affection. Yet it is implicitly understood that while the set is not a joke, exactly, it is a bit of a laugh—something comforting, unchallenging, cheesy and familiar to cheer the revellers before a more current superstar brings the event to a close. Typically, the musicians are considered pop entertainers rather than “serious” artists.
If any act underlines how false that division is, it is the Bee Gees. Like Dolly Parton, his predecessor in the slot, Mr Gibb has the humility and shrewdness to deliver what a crowd wants. And like Ms Parton, he can draw upon a musical oeuvre that merits comparison with any of the more solemnly regarded giants. The Bee Gees share with ABBA the attribute of having been, for a long time, at once hugely popular and critically disdained—deemed frivolous by the gatekeepers of the popular-music canon; simply, too much fun.
The Bee Gees will forever be remembered as they appear on the cover of the soundtrack for “Saturday Night Fever” (1977)—all white jumpsuits, gleaming teeth, tans, medallions and long locks—and for the disco sound it exemplified. The double LP set included only four new Bee Gees recordings, but it swiftly became the best-selling album in history, surpassed eventually by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. A set of newly reissued Bee Gees records (“Best Of Bee Gees”, “Main Course”, “Children Of the World”, “Here at Last… Bee Gees… Live”, “Spirits Having Flown”) casts a different light on the band. It shows how a group associated with a series of cherished dancefloor-friendly singles made rich, cohesive albums; it also attests to one of the most extraordinary, and unlikely, second acts in pop history.
As a baroque pop act in the late 1960s, the three Gibb brothers were serial hitmakers in Britain, their birthplace—to which they had returned after growing up in Australia—and in America. Their songs were characterised by inventive melody, high-register harmony and a deep, pervasive strain of melancholy, whether it concerned familiar love themes or the often esoteric subjects they chose (such as the final hours of a man condemned for a crime of passion or miners trapped in a collapsed pit). The earliest of the reissued albums is a compilation from 1969, “Best Of Bee Gees”, collecting two years’ worth of these odd, enchanting tunes. Even its lesser-known numbers, such as the desolate “I Can’t See Nobody”, are exquisite.
The albums the group made around this time, including the ambitious double set “Odessa” (1969) and “Trafalgar” (1971), were less popular commercially, although those two records have over the years become cult favourites. There it might have ended in disappointment, with the band dwindling into a curio of a bygone era, had they not taken two bold steps with “Main Course” in 1975. The first was to embrace R’n’B just as it was evolving into disco. The second was to let loose Barry Gibb’s falsetto, which would become the trio’s signature.
“Main Course” scotches a pair of myths about the Bee Gees: that “Saturday Night Fever” brought them back from nowhere, and that in making it, they jumped on an already rolling disco bandwagon. When they recorded the classic “Jive Talkin’”, their first four-to-the-floor disco number, for “Main Course”, disco had yet to dominate the charts. “Main Course” refreshed the band creatively, and “Jive Talkin’” gave them their first major hit in four years.
Emboldened by the album’s success, they went all-in on the follow-up, “Children Of The World” (1976), a record which echoed Earth, Wind & Fire, The Commodores and Ohio Players. Their first official live release, from the same year, “Here at Last… Bee Gees… Live”, found them in terrific form, yet still eager to acknowledge their older songs.
Then came “Saturday Night Fever”. Robert Stigwood, the producer of the film and the Bee Gees’ manager, enlisted the band for the soundtrack in post-production, and only after the original choices had fallen through. Having found a way to recover from failure, it now fell to the Bee Gees to contend with unexpected, overwhelming success. They did so impressively, with “Spirits Having Flown” (1979), a strong album that would be a blueprint for slick pop-soul of the 1980s. They would also, inadvertently, become the go-to source for many boy bands, who both copied their vocal style and covered their songs. The Bee Gees were one of the outstanding acts of the late 20th century; venturing beyond their hits confirms it.