Bee Gees over Saturday Night Fever; now in Sunshine State
The British are a fickle crew: their pop diet is promiscuous, consuming and disposing with relish. The Americans, to over-employ the broad brush analysis perhaps, are more loyal to their famous faces. Rock celebrity in the UK marks the beginning of the end; in the US it means that the road of opportunity—from Hollywood openings to the Hall of Fame—opens up in a clean, straight line. Not every act fits this over-simplified model, of course, but the transatlantic divide is reasonably clear: for complex reasons to do with national temperament, massive geographical disparities, media access and customer reception, the Anglo-American split is pretty plainly drawn. While the Rolling Stones retain a god-like aura in the States, for example, on the other side of the ocean the group have been regarded as little more than a rock ‘n’ roll parody for some 20 years.
The Brothers Gibb sustain the argument. While the Bee Gees’ history is almost as long as that of the Glimmer Twins, the lines on the graph dip and rise more dramatically than those on the Stones chart. If Jagger and Richards hit the heights in a supreme surge between 1964 and 1971 and then levelled out, the Gibb clan have experienced more of a roller-coaster, rising impressively, falling noticeably, then re-gaining ground though a career shift, an image re-launch.
Yet the Bee Gees benefit again from the US pop loyalty card. Now Florida-based, their mature balladeering has carved a niche in the American show biz psyche. In London and Birmingham they are best known now as the act who, a couple of years ago, walked out on a chat show of only moderate profile, fronted by Oxbridge-educated barrister turned quipster Clive Anderson, whose barbed mocking drove Barry, Robin and Maurice from their leather banquettes within minutes of their fanfared arrival, leaving the host with a large hole of TV time to fill. The story offers a useful illustration. In the US, would Letterman or Leno been so irreverent to these near-legends or would the smoothly-oiled American PR machine have ensured that stars are regarded as such?
Such observations are probably academic though. The Bee Gees are now sufficiently entrenched in the land of Miami nice—mansions, pools, limos and soft focus—to be barely dented by the quick witted cracks of an English satirist. They may have been roused by Anderson’s insolence but the balm of warm breezes, the long beaches and the sight of the Keys curling away towards Cuba are soothing enough for the even most fragile pop persona.
It’s been quite a journey. Born in the north of England, emigrees to Australia, returning to their homeland as stars, suffering decline, then reviving via the US and the disco boom as one of the top twenty acts of all time, principally on the wave that transformed their Saturday Night Fever soundtrack double album into one of the biggest sellers ever known.
Since then—despite the jibes about their time-capsule appearances, frozen in an era when nuclear-powered blow-dryers sculpted shoulder-wide hairstyles and white suits, bleached by something akin to Pepsodent, were the had-to-have wardrobe accessory of that season—their career has largely been bump free. The Bee Gees make expensively crafted albums, smoothly concocted AOP—adult oriented pop—which is both palatable and virtually charisma free. If the reputation of Chinese food to leave you hungry has substance, the group’s new CD This Is Where I Came In provides an acceptable analogy. Noodles lite without the spice, without the sauce, is your main dish if you order from their latest menu.
The album’s cover reveals a transformation: a monochrome shot of late Sixties Bee Gees juxtaposed with a moody, fuzzy, harshly cropped image of the guys today—clad in the hard, Armani-like minimalism of plain black casuals. But the mood shots inside the booklet are still locked in the Travolta years, an aviator frame here, a satin jacket there, hinting at the American summer of 1978.
As for the dozen self-penned songs, there is an inoffensive familiarity about most of them: the distinctive three-way harmonies are a trademark the boys will forever wear. The title tune is their stock in trade, while Barry’s breathy intonations on “Sacred Trust” almost enter the land of self-lampoon. “Technicolor Dreams” breaks the mould somewhat—a Thirties pastiche, actually reminiscent of a similar departure Eric Clapton made on his most recent collection—but its cloying arrangement doesn’t, thankfully, hang around too long. The strings of “The Extra Mile” are lush yet faintly vacuous, but “Voice in the Wilderness” switches mode, recalling the sort of song Prince may have test run during the brief Sheena Easton period but never actually allowed to see the light of day. Sheena also turned up in the TV cop fantasy version of Miami, with Don Johnson calling the shots; the Bee Gees with this sort of serviceable blandness can no doubt book their glamorous, and very real, homes in the city for life.