The headline on the 14 July 1977 cover of Rolling Stone read, “Bee Gees: The Saga of a Not-So-Average White Band”. There Robin, Barry, and Maurice Gibb stood smiling and tanned from the Floridian sun, and with good reason: though Saturday Night Fever was still months from release the Brothers Gibb already found themselves in the middle of a remarkable career resurgence.
Only three years earlier, they’d been declared has-beens, relics of paisley-painted pop and tunes about mining disasters and Massachusetts. Arif Mardin changed all that. He helped reinvent the band on Main Course (1975), an album that steered their seraphic harmonies towards R&B. The singles from the album, “Jive Talkin’” (almost immediately covered by Rufus and Chaka Khan) and “Nights On Broadway”, announced an enervated musical style that caught fire across the airwaves; even the ballad “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” had some bite lacking in their earlier compositions. The follow-up, Children of the World (1976), featured another batch of radio and dance floor hits, including “You Should Be Dancing” and “Love So Right”.
The Saturday Night Fever (1977) soundtrack catapulted the Bee Gees to unprecedented commercial success, spending 24 weeks at the summit of the charts while their extracted singles spent a collective 15 weeks at number one. Despite the saturation of the Bee Gees’ sound, Spirits Having Flown (1979) dispelled any notions of a backlash when it lodged three singles at the top spot. Originally released as a two-record set on RSO (you do remember that bemused bull, don’t you?), Bee Gees Greatest neatly tied up the Brothers’ Gibb monumental achievements just in time for the 1979 holiday shopping season. Including their work with brother Andy Gibb and songs written for Yvonne Elliman, Frankie Valli, and Samantha Sang, The Bee Gees amassed such an unprecedented amount of success over the course of five years, that nearly three decades later, “greatest” seems far too modest an adjective to describe this music.
Tracing the gold embossed Bee Gees logo on the cover of Bee Gees Greatest with one’s fingertips, it’s hard not to wonder, “Is a re-release of a 28-year-old Bee Gees ‘greatest hits’, that was already released on CD, even necessary?” Absolutely. Greatest remains the first and only set to couple the Gibb brothers’ mid-‘70s run of eight number one hits with key album cuts from that era. Greatest is perfect simply for the reason that it doesn’t overreach its grasp or sacrifice continuity for the sake of cramming together the band’s chronology: there are no ‘60s or early ‘70s cuts to be found, nor anything released after 1979. (It’s always been a bit jarring, in my opinion, to have “To Love Somebody” and “You Should Be Dancing” on the same disc. They’re like songs from two different bands.) Created by pop music geniuses at work in the prime of their power, the tracks on Greatest pass the litmus test for durability.
It’s not only the selection of the tracks but also how they sound. Since Greatest is part of a catalog-wide restoration that began with the four-CD set The Complete Studio Albums 1967-1968, the re-mastering is superb and gives these songs a long overdue fidelity boost in the digital age. (In terms of sound, Greatest even bests the For the Record compilation from 2002.) Part of this set’s reappearance stems from a deal announced in 2006 when the Bee Gees’ catalog was removed from the clutches of Universal and returned to the Brothers Gibb, who have subsequently sublicensed titles to Warner Music Group for re-mastered releases on the Reprise subsidiary. Ironically, it brings the Bee Gees home to Warner Music Group, since RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) was originally distributed through Atlantic Records—hence Arif Mardin’s production on Main Course—and Atlantic was bought by Warner Communications. Because PolyGram owned a percentage of RSO after it usurped the label from Atlantic, the Bee Gees’ albums were released on its Polydor imprint, which was later swallowed up by Universal when it acquired PolyGram in 1998.
Since the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is home to at least 15 million pairs of hands, the non-Fever tracks demand a little more attention. “Nights on Broadway” is, arguably, the Bee Gees’ single greatest pop moment (it hit #7 in 1975). For one, their falsettos didn’t dominate as much, reflecting a wider range among the Brothers’ vocal performances than is commonly remembered. The tune’s funky groove is fronted by sumptuous vocal interplay, leading to a bridge of understated beauty when eldest brother Barry sings, “I will wait even if it takes forever” with an earnest vulnerability. The emotional charge is mesmerizing when Robin and Maurice join in on the line, “Somehow I feel inside / You never ever left my side”, and the song builds back up to the chorus. It’s an exquisitely constructed composition.
“Wind of Change”, another track from Main Course, features a more revved-up R&B rhythm section topped off by soaring string arrangements. The Bee Gees’ singing begins whisper-like over incessant bass, drum, and keyboards. At the arrival of the chorus, the tune shifts to a melody that sends the song to stratospheric heights. Flight—in the metaphorical sense—consumes the title track to Spirits Having Flown. Recorded during the Fever hysteria, the tune has a widescreen cinematic quality, stirring excitement much in the way “Wind of Change” does from its verse-to-chorus transitions but at a less galloping pace.
Greatest also features a trio of songs most associated with Andy Gibb, the youngest Gibb brother, who passed away in 1988 at 30 years-old. The versions by his older brothers don’t necessarily replace his own but offer slightly different vocal inflections and phrasing. The most poplar of the bunch, “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away”, which was recently covered by Barbra Streisand on Guilty Pleasures (2005), stands with “How Deep Is Your Love” as one of the best love songs the Gibb brothers ever wrote. With only a shift down in Barry’s vocal register, the tune floats along as buoyantly as Andy Gibb’s hit version, buoyed by keyboards that evoke twinkling stars and moonlight.
“Rest Your Love on Me”, which Andy recorded with Olivia Newton-John on After Dark (1980), reflects Barry Gibb’s deftness for composing country melodies. No less an icon than Conway Twitty actually brought the tune to the top spot on the Country Singles Chart in 1981. In a more dance-oriented vein, the Bee Gees’ version of “Warm Ride” makes its debut on the Greatest re-release. Unlike Andy’s rendition on After Dark, this sounds like a Saturday Night Fever outtake and indeed, it was originally recorded for the film. It’s a fairly straightforward pop-disco tune that should be welcomed by fans, even if the song’s structure is slightly repetitive.
In fact, the only elements on Greatest that should have wholly been re-considered are the 2007 remixes of “You Should Be Dancing”, “If I Can’t Have You”, “Night Fever”, “How Deep is Your Love”, and “Stayin’ Alive”. There’s simply no need to remix pop perfection.
Otherwise, Bee Gees Greatest is an indispensable entree to one of popular music’s most valuable songwriting forces. Even the Bee Gees’ detractors—who I think secretly like at least one or two songs—cannot deny the quality of the band’s songwriting underneath all of the adenoidal colorizations. It’s not an easy undertaking to write a pop song. It’s less easy to write a song that makes an impression and stands the test of time. That the Bee Gees have written two hour’s worth (at the very least) of such songs demands your complete attention.
// Notes from the Road
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