(TG Magazine, September 1978)
"How does it feel being on top of the music business?" Maurice Gibb, one-third of the most successful act in the history of popular music, knows and answers. "Fabulous," he says, almost without thinking. But there's something hollow about the answer.
Maurice Gibb. The name - along with those of twin brother Robin and older brother Barry - is magic. Over the past two years, the Bee Gees have redefined the meaning of success. The soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever (sold exclusively on the strength of the Bee Gees' name, even though it contains only five tracks by the Gibbs) is selling so well in the United States that customers don't get a complete set of records and jacket - they get the records and a coupon which they can exchange for a jacket later when the printer is able to catch up with the demand.
In Canada, the Saturday Night Fever album has sold almost 1.5 million copies, making it the all-time best-seller in this country. Only Rumours comes anywhere close in sales - and the movie soundtrack is a double-record set selling at a much higher price.
Estimates of the Bee Gees' earnings last year alone came to something over $15 million - and that was just before the Saturday Night Fever music flung them out of the category of superstars and into a galaxy of their own.
So why shouldn't Maurice be turning cartwheels over glee? It's the same old story: success brings financial rewards on the one hand and takes away personal privacy on the other. Or, as Maurice puts it, "we're reached the point where we can't simply walk around unnoticed anymore."
There have been Bee Gees fans for years, of course. The brothers had their first major hit in 1967 and, particularly in Canada, have been stars ever since. But now, with their pictures on every magazine cover, television screen, movie poster and billboard in North America, the Gibbs can't even hide unrecognized in dark restaurants. "I can't even go out for dinner without a bodyguard," Maurice complains. "Not that I want to avoid our fans -they're great - but there are kooks who want to start a fight with someone well known just so they can brag to their friends later."
It's a summer afternoon in Miami Beach, adopted home of Maurice and Barry Gibb. (Robin has refused to leave England but spends so much time as a guest in Miami - the group records at Miami's Criterion Studios - that he may as well make it official.) The temperature is already in the high 80's (fahrenheit) and will go considerably higher before the day is over. Palm trees, a pool in the courtyard, American cars in the drive and a boat moored in the lagoon behind the house - it's a far cry from the England where the Bee Gees spent so many of their formative years.
"I need a wall and an iron gate around my house. We have to take a private plane when we travel. And there are special police patrols in this neighbourhood. I know it's hard to believe but life isn't necessarily as much fun anymore, even though our success has been fantastic."
"Practically speaking, we didn't have much alternative to moving to the States," Maurice points out. "We finally found a recording studio (Criterion) which we love. So much of our performing is done in the United States now. And there were tax reasons involved. Besides, we love the area."
For that matter, the Bee Gees always had reservations about life in England. For years, none of the important British music newspapers would say a good word about the Bee Gees. There were few honest-to-goodness Bee Gees fans in the country. Everyone there, it seemed, regarded the Bee Gees as second-string Beatles.
It wasn't a fair comment, as the more recent Bee Gees albums have proven. But, as Maurice admits, there were always similarities between the two groups. "I lived next door to Ringo. Our manager worked with the Beatles. And we both liked to use big orchestras, which wasn't like the rest of the music business. So people naturally started thinking of us and the Beatles together.
"In the rest of the world, it didn't hurt us. But, in England, there was always a wall between us and the public."
Ironically, the group which caused so many difficulties for the Gibbs back in England also wrote the music which forms the basis for the latest recording and first film appearance by the Bee Gees.
The Beatles wrote St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a collection of songs which would fit nicely onto one album. There. was no continuity of theme from one song to another - "Tell me the connection between Lovely Rita Meter Maid and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and She's Leaving Home," Maurice challenges - just a unique collection of musical and lyrical images. When The Bee Gees' manager decided that the time was ripe for a Beatles' musical revival, he simply acquired the rights to the Sgt. Pepper name and many Beatles' songs; a writer was then assigned to put the songs into a story form suitable for filming.
The movie title itself is misleading. The songs involved do come from the Sgt. Pepper album - along with songs from several other Beatles' collections. Anything that seemed to find a niche in the writer's background was slotted in. And, according to some viewers, the movie is one of the year's masterpieces. And then there are the other viewers who regard it as a piece of junk. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
"It was easy for us to work with all those Beatles songs," Maurice admits, "because we grew up with them. We'd sing them at parties with the Beatles. And the vocal parts closely resembled the way we arranged many of our songs. Certainly it wasn't hard for us to get in the mood.
"And we love the songs. There was never any thought on our parts that we shouldn't record anything that wasn't our own music. In fact, it proved to be a nice change from having to create all our own music."
Creating. The life - and death -of any musical entity depends on the creative forces. When the creative forces are strong, the musician thrives. But when the forces are weak, the career is in trouble.
The Bee Gees know what it's like to run out of creative energy. Between 1972 and 1975, the group couldn't beg a hit. They stuck closely to the ballad style which had built their reputation in the first place. But the ballad style wasn't contemporary anymore. They sounded dated.
In 1975, they made the most important decision of their career: to work with a producer named Arif Mardin, well-known for his work with soul acts like Aretha Franklin. Mardin taught the brothers how to work a dance beat into their music. ("I never knew I could play bass like I do now until Arif showed me," Maurice claims.) Then they went to work recording Main Course.
"There's a bridge that we have to cross on the way to the studio," Maurice remembers. "And every time we crossed it, the car would make a clickety-clack sound. After a few days of this, we realized that the clickety-clack rhythm was perfect for a song. And it turned into Jive Talking'." And a new career was born.
"People accuse us of being nothing more than a disco band now," Maurice says defensively. "But they don't know what they're talking about. If you listen to our records, you'll find that there's dance music. But there are also ballads like More Than A Woman. And there are some very beautiful, undanceable songs, too.
"But the key to our success, I think, is the lyrics. People can listen to our lyrics and relate to what's happening. Everyone has loved somebody. Everybody knows what it's like staying alive."
And the Bee Gees' beat is the freshest sound in years.
At one end of his house, Maurice has set up a small studio. It's full of instruments - from drums to keyboards to guitars. Maurice plays them all - and Maurice works out his musical ideas here. Right now, he's playing back some of the results from the Bee Gees' first normal recording in more than two years. Since Children of the World in 1976, the Bee Gees have released only the live album, the Saturday Night Fever recordings and now the Sgt. Pepper music. Everyone wants to know what the new album will sound like.
After a brief burst of static, the speakers roar into life. Robin is singing his heart out about "It's a tragedy" and the band is grooving more solidly than the Bee Gees have ever sounded before. The dance beat is there alright. And the bass is mixed stronger than the Bee Gees fans are accustomed to hearing. It is, in short, brilliant.
And the answer to the question everyone asks- can the Bee Gees survive? - becomes obvious. They'll survive. And the world hasn't heard anything yet; the Bee Gees are just finding their groove now.