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Barry Gibb: dancing out of the shadows

Barry Gibb’s mansion, in leafy Buckinghamshire, is at the end of a drive that’s at least a quarter of a mile long. It’s the kind of lavish, mock-Tudor pad that you may expect to be occupied by an England footballer, but it also feels like an apt home for the sole surviving Bee Gee and second most successful songwriter in history after Paul McCartney.
As well as rivalling his old friend Michael Jackson for the title of premier falsetto in pop, Gibb wrote or co-wrote some of the biggest songs of the 20th century, from his group’s Night Fever and How Deep is Your Love? to Barbra Streisand’s Woman in Love, Diana Ross’s Chain Reaction and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream. He shares John Lennon and McCartney’s record for penning the most consecutive US No 1s — six — and is worth an estimated $50 million.

Parked outside the house are a succession of dune buggies, golf carts and dirt bikes — toys for Gibb’s seven grandchildren. Inside are chandeliers of the kind that are swung on in movies, a balcony from which Linda, his wife of 46 years, waves, and photographs of him and his three brothers — Robin (the unbearded one) and Maurice (the balding one), who were in the Bee Gees with him, and Andy, who wasn’t — plus their sister, Lesley, and, randomly, Sylvester Stallone.

Gibb emerges from a side door and we settle down in armchairs. He is 70 and a bit fragile-looking in tinted glasses, V-neck T-shirt and jeans, but the disco era’s finest mane is luxuriant and only slightly greying. These days he spends most of his time at his house in Miami — he has a US passport and is a fan of Donald Trump — but his famous toothy lisp is still full of Manchester, where he lived until he was 12.

He is slowly getting used to being the only Gibb brother left, and an artist in his own right, with his first solo album in more than 30 years out this month. “Andy passed first, then Mo, then Rob, all in a 24-year period,” he says. “They were all too young.” Andy, who had a solo music career, died at age 30 in 1988 from an inflammation of the heart, Maurice at 53 in 2003 from complications due to a twisted intestine, Robin at 62 in 2012 of liver and kidney failure following cancer. Losing three of her five children was, he says, “pretty devastating” for his mother, Barbara, who died in August aged 95.

Robin once wondered if “the tragedies my family has suffered are a karmic price for all the fame and fortune the Bee Gees have had”. Does Barry agree? “You can be punished for being successful,” he says. “Michael Jackson was punished for being successful, to the point when he no longer wanted to make records. Barbra Streisand doesn’t like making records, which shocks me.”

What does he miss most about his brothers? “Camaraderie; coming up with the next song. The madness of it, because we were all different and we were all a bit crazy. Sharing failure as well as success: being really pissed off if a record didn’t go well. And the incredible sensation of a No 1 record. There’s nothing like it.”

As Maurice once said: “We weren’t on the charts. We were the charts.” Is it true that they once wrote three US No 1 singles in a matter of hours? “I think we were pretty high,” Gibb says. Amphetamines were their poison back then. “We wrote Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Shadow Dancing (sung by Andy Gibb) in one afternoon, but we were flying. Ha ha.”

Later in their career, tensions emerged between Barry and Robin, the main songwriters. While Barry was always “the ideas guy”, Robin sometimes struggled for inspiration. “He had a beautiful voice but he lacked self-esteem,” Gibb says. “He came up with some brilliant ideas in the late 60s and then he seemed to withdraw.” Whoever wrote a song generally sang lead vocals on it, so Barry “dominated by default”, he says. “I felt guilty about it because I didn’t want him to step back.” One of his regrets is that they weren’t getting on when Robin died.

“Everyone wanted to be a solo artist,” he says. “I can’t say that I didn’t feel the same way.” Familial loyalties always got in the way, but Gibb is now free to go it alone and pursue one of his loves: country music. “I wasn’t supposed to embrace country,” he says. “It was always in what we did but the others didn’t share that passion.” He’s drawn, he says, to “the pure honesty of emotion. It does something that goes right through me.”

Two months after Robin died, Barry made his debut at the home of country, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He’s getting comfortable as a solo performer, he says: at a recent show in New York there were five minutes of applause before he began.

Now he is releasing a solo album, only the second of his career, that’s steeped in country. Called In the Now and written with his sons Stephen and Ashley, it’s a lovely, elegiac record on which his voice is hushed and melodious. There are excursions into windswept rock and Carpenters-style pop but the focus is on confessional country ballads such as The Long Goodbye, about losing his brothers (“There’s nothing I can say, to erase that final day”).

When I say I enjoyed the album, he claims surprise. “I expect the opposite. You’ve made my day.” Come off it, Barry! He must be aware that the Bee Gees’ harmonies, hooks and sophisticated songwriting have come back into fashion in recent years, with gushing endorsements from the likes of Noel Gallagher and Bono, who has said that their back catalogue makes him “ill with envy” and puts them “up there with the Beatles”.

In June, Gibb made his debut at Glastonbury, joining Coldplay for renditions of To Love Somebody and Stayin’ Alive, which Chris Martin introduced as “the greatest song of all time”.
He met Martin a few years ago in Australia, during a charity telethon, when they had breakfast with Olivia Newton-John and cricketer Shane Warne. Heaven knows what that foursome talked about but it led to Gibb’s appearance at Worthy Farm, during which he looked stunned by the reaction. “It was electrifying,” he says. “I don’t think I’d ever seen an audience of 120,000 people.”
If that kind of reception genuinely surprises him it could be because his memories are still raw from the 1980s and 90s, when the Bee Gees were as likely to be spoofed as feted. The teeth, the falsettos, the open-neck shirts: all were ripe for ribbing by comedians.

It came to a head in 1997 when Gibb, followed by his brothers, stormed off a chat show, snarling “You’re a tosser, pal” after the presenter repeatedly joked about the band’s high voices, drug problems and fraternal tensions.
“I thought, ‘I’ll give you five minutes to retrieve it’ but he didn’t so I thought, ‘F..k you.’ I think if he’d have spoken to me like that in life I might have hit him.” He insists he’s now more sanguine about mickey-taking. He can still bristle, though. “I heard Jim Carey say to Graham Norton that he had survived the Grinch movie by listening to our music. I felt that was a piss-take.”
Gibb was born in 1946 on the Isle of Man, but the family later moved to Manchester. He paints a nostalgic picture of the brothers’ salad years: “Kids in shorts, 10 years after the war. Our father (Hugh, a bandleader and drummer, who died in 1992) couldn’t get work. We were always wandering around bombed-out buildings, shoplifting, getting into trouble. It was always cold and if it wasn’t cold it was foggy. Everything around you was black and they had to run in front of buses with lanterns.”

In 1958, the Gibbs migrated to Australia, where the brothers first performed as the Bee Gees. Returning to Britain in 1967, they broke through with their first internationally released album, Bee Gees’ 1st.
In 1970, Gibb met Linda, a former Miss Edinburgh, during a recording of Top of the Pops at the BBC. Rather fabulously, they had their first romantic encounter in the Tardis. “Surrounded by Daleks. What can I say? Time stood still. Then we went for a cup of tea in the canteen and reality came back.”

He and Linda have a daughter and four sons, whose wives hail from as far afield as Israel, Sweden and Russia. “It’s a multicultural family,” he says. “To me it’s one of the most successful families in the record industry.” It’s a happy one too, he adds, although there’s something faintly unsettling about the way he says: “I won’t have arguments in my house. Nobody shouts in my house.”
His politics swing rightwards: “You’ve got to watch out for your family, protect your own territory. Go back to the Stone Age, you know!” He says he’ll probably vote for Trump in November. “I want to see a big character,” he says. “If it was some guy with spectacles and a side parting, that’s boring. During the war we had great characters that led us.” He met Trump at a charity event in the 90s and found him “very pleasant. Behind this big, rich guy is probably a really big heart.”
The Donald’s support for the second amendment is also a factor, you suspect. Gibb likes his guns, a passion that got him into trouble in the 60s when he was living with Linda in a flat opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. She had been having problems with a prowler and when the man rang on the intercom, Gibb confronted him with a blank pistol. “Big guy, about 6ft 6in. I pulled the gun from behind my back and said something like, ‘Freeze, motherf..ker!’ I chased him down the street and emptied the gun into the air. People hit the ground.”
He ended up being fined $50 for possession of handguns. “Besides possessing two pistols,” the judge said, “about the only thing I can see Mr Gibb has done wrong is wear a white suit to court.”
The Times
In the Now is released on October 7.


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