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The most misunderstood people in pop #6: The Bee Gees

There are two schools of misunderstanding The Bee Gees. The first, the classic version, long in the ascendancy and still extremely widespread today, is the Bee Gees pastiche: tight white trousers, medallions, high pitched voices.

A more recent misunderstanding is to recognise that while there was all that, underneath it all were some good songs. Rather like the journey that ABBA too have been on since their similar appreciation-nadir in mid-1980s. This view is closer to the truth, but still way off.

While they did at times wear (very) tight white trousers and medallions, sing falsetto, and wrote lots of great songs, The Bee Gees are way way more than any of that. After all, lots of other people also did those things.

Rather The Bee Gees have always been expert entertainers, incredible craftsmen, and true artists. Most people never even hit one of those and most of the top stars and performers today are blessed with being extremely good at one. Occasionally someone comes along with two, but all three? That’s the stuff of pure magic.

First the entertainers. Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb began performing in their adopted homeland of Australia when they were children. From as long as they could remember they wanted to entertain and be famous. They never knew anything else and so spent pretty much their entire lives learning and perfecting how to entertain. That’s a) why they were rather good at it, and b) why they went through all that white trouser/medallion stuff.

They didn’t invent that look. It may not have stood the test of time but that’s really not the point. At the time it was a highly fashionable look, and as entertainers they knew their job was to take their audience’s aspirations and dreams and do them better, shinier, more glamorous.

Disco and its accompanying fashions emerged out of the impossibly cool New York underground club scene via the impossibly hedonistic and glamorous Studio 54. Just like their audience (and most of the western world at the time) The Bee Gees just rode that wave of cool. It may not have made them cool, then or now, but it is without a doubt what their audience wanted and were also doing themselves at the time. Get over it.

Secondly the craft. The songs (and don’t forget the recordings). The Bee Gees have created an incredible body of work. In the 1960s they wrote beauties such as I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, Words, Massachusetts and the now soul staple To Love Somebody. The 1970s saw their imperial phase with the likes of Jive Talkin, You Should Be Dancing, Tragedy and the Saturday Night Fever monster trilogy of Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever and How Deep Is Your Love.

The 1980s were a more fallow period as the backlash against them hit hard, but they retreated and still wrote now seminal hits for other stars including Barbara Streisand (Woman in Love), Dionne Warwick (Heartbreaker), Kenny and Dolly (Islands In The Stream) and Diana Ross (Chain Reaction) before returning in triumph with their own outstanding number one You Win Again. Win again they certainly did.

Whether it was writing for themselves or other people, their songs and recordings are meticulously created. Time after time they manage the songwriting and recording equivalent of catching lighting in a bottle - creating something so simple and catchy that you hear it once and know it forever. That’s hard enough, but the true craft shines through on subsequent listens.

While the songs never lose their simplicity and catchiness, there are much deeper levels waiting to be found. Tragedy is one of the happiest pop hits in the canon. You can’t help but smile when you hear it. Dig into the lyrics though and it’s anything but happy (‘It’s hard to bear, With no one to love you, You’re goin' nowhere’. Sniff). Of course The Bee Gees didn’t invent this juxtaposition, but it doesn’t happen often because it’s so difficult to pull off and they do it wonderfully.

Thirdly the artistry. Some, indeed many, lyrics are jumbled together words that fit perfectly with the music but on paper make no sense at all. Bee Gee lyrics couldn’t be more different. Write them down and they are poetry. Every word has been carefully chosen and comes truly from the heart. The Bee Gees poured their souls into those words, even when those souls were still remarkably young. To Love Somebody has an incredible haunting quality, capturing a huge emotional depth, yet Barry Gibb was barely out of his teens when he wrote it.

And then there are the harmonies. Maybe there’s an extra genetic bonus that comes from siblings who can sing together that you just don’t get with unrelated harmonisers - as well as The Bee Gees you can see it with other family bands such as The Beach Boys or The Everly Brothers. (Sadly if true this genetic gift of harmony has not been granted to myself and my brother).

But however much their familial ties helped, watching them sing together you can’t help but be struck by how they are putting absolutely everything into those harmonies. The difference between someone who is technically great at something and an artistic genius is that the artist doesn’t hold anything back personally. They open themselves up completely and drop some of their very self into their work.

Musically and emotionally their intentions were always simple and pure - they wanted to entertain people everywhere by creating songs that would stay with them just as the music they loved so much did for them. And they did it. They became famous, learned how to be incredible songwriters and in the process showed us they had the one thing you really can’t fake, artistry. That hat trick is what makes the Bee Gees so special and yes, misunderstood.

And You Win Again is amazing pop. It doesn’t always get its due among Bee Gees aficionados in my view but it is AMAZING. That crash-bang monster drum track alone knocks your socks right off every time you hear it. Enjoy.

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