A close encounter at their “Saturday Night Fever” peak.
by Greg Mitchell
With a surprising number of people (myself included) watching and enjoying the new Bee Gees documentary airing this month over HBO, I thought I would depart from my usual obsessions to take a lighter look back at my encounter with the group — at the height of their “Stayin’ Alive” popularity back in 1978….
After serving as the number two editor at the legendary rock/culture magazine Crawdaddy starting in early 1971, I had left in the summer of 1977 to work at another New York-based publication(which failed), and then turned to freelancing for my old home, among other outlets. Soon I would return to Crawdaddy full-time but for now, in June 1978, they needed someone to write a quickie cover story on the hottest group of the moment — maybe of the decade — The Bee Gees. They were riding the crest of the mega-selling Saturday Night Live soundtrack — perhaps the biggest-selling album ever — and hit singles “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.”
Like seemingly everyone else in America, I’d seen the Travolta movie but, unlike many others, hated disco (yes, I’d made the pilgrimage to Studio 54, once), even though the Bee Gees’ version of it was not half-bad. I knew the group’s recordings and life story since the 1960s, so I figured I could carry off the interviews without a lot of trouble. It wouldn’t be like interviewing Noam Chomsky or anything.
So I spent a very long day and evening with the guys — certainly the biggest musical stars in the world at that moment — starting with a press conference at the United Nations in New York (their first public appearance in two years, backing a UNICEF project). A UN official from France earnestly referred to the pleasure of somehow getting “all of the Beatles” in one place at one time. The Gibbs, who were unfairly compared to the Beatles more than a decade earlier, chuckled at the gaffe, and shared sidelong glances which seem to say, They are gone and we’re still here. Then we left for a taping of the David Frost show, with wild crowds everywhere they went. It was the closest I’d ever come to Beatlemania. For some reason, they merely talked, did not warble, during the taping, but then stuck around after the cameras were turned off to sing two old tunes for the fans in the audience: My first Bee Gees concert after all of these years.
It was obvious that Barry Gibb, who was once a lesser Bee Gee (despite being the eldest), was now the leader, at age 31. He had the heart-throb looks, produced their records and was the key songwriter, and his late-emerging falsetto was now their lead instrument. He got most of the screams. Robin, who used to be the focus, seemed to take it in stride but Maurice (he’d survived a bad drinking problem) was now little more than comic foil, mugging even while they sang, even looking at his watch, a la George H.W. Bush in his infamous 1992 debate with Bill Clinton, or pretending to fall asleep. He did get off a good line, with a tinge of truth, referring to their childhood: “We were born at the age of 12 so we could start singing and make money for our parents right away.”
An interview for my cover story? No time on the ground for that, as they were hurrying back to wives, children and homes in Miami. Solution: I’d book a ticket on their evening flight and chat with them on board, turn around and come back the next day, track down a few of their business associates, and write the damn piece.
Robin skipped the trip. He still lived in England, despite the harsh tax laws, while Barry and Maurice set up camp at Biscayne Bay in a kind of Gibb Compound with their parents and younger brother Andy (now a star in his own right), who was about to embark on his sad path to self-destruction. Maurice, who used to get all the girls and had married the appealing singer Lulu, was now often referred to as “the balding Bee Gee.” He didn’t really want to talk — something about an aching back — so I stayed in his seating reading a Wizard of Id paperback. I got to hang out with Barry after he generously left first-class to join me at mid-ship. Up-close, dressed in a Shetland wraparound sweater, he wasn’t quite so good-looking as one assumed (his tired face betrayed too many hours in the studio). But Barry proved to be fairly self-effacing, as he noted the group’s many ups-and-downs, right up to their current comeback.
Yes, he admitted, many of their lyrics were pretty dumb but the era of “message” songs was over, he boasted, so silly love songs did not represent some kind of “sell-out.” Less sincere was his reaction to Chevy Chase’s recent crack, on a Paul Simon TV special, comparing the boys to “singing dolphins.” Barry called it “great. How wonderful that Chevy Chase should make up a joke about the Bee Gees.” Well, now he could laugh about it, all the way to the bank.
As for other critics? Barry recalled (true story?) once hitting a cow grazing in the middle of a road with his car. The animal proceeded to relieve herself all over his fancy automobile. “You see,” Barry quipped, “we’ve been shat on by the best.”
It’s amusing to look back at the Barry quotes in my published piece, as he declared that — of course — the brothers would not perform after they reached the tender old age of 50. What rock group would? Perish the thought. In fact, Barry told me, “You can’t go past 40.” Tell that today to Mick and Keith and Dylan, Elton and Billy Joel, even Bruce Springsteen, now in his early 70s. (Sadly, Robin and Maurice — and Andy Gibb — are all long gone.) Barry also disclosed that being away for so much of his marriage had tested relationships with his wife and his kids, promoting this question in his own life: How deep was his love?
Soon we were on the ground in Miami. Here’s how I would close the cover story for the August 1978 issue: “The plane arrives in Miami well after midnight. A platoon of family and band members is on hand to greet the brothers Gibb. They wave and shout greetings from the end of an otherwise silent corridor. Someone releases a huge German shepherd, which tears up the carpet and leaps into Barry’s arms. Barry acts like he’s been away, not two days, but two months. He beams, takes off his sweater, clutches his wife, and salutes the welcoming committee, an insecure workaholic, multi-millionaire happy to be home but very soon, back at the office.”
Greg Mitchell has written a dozen books, the latest The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood — and America — Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His book on Upton Sinclair’s race for governor of California in 1934 was recently picked as one of the five greatest on any election by the Wall Street Journal. More on: The Campaign of the Century.