Barely Alive

Article excerpt

RICHARD COOK gets the heeBee-Geebees over the comeback of the Seventies siblings

There's nothing wrong with being a long-serving artiste. but it helps if you still have something useful to contribute. The blight on rock, as it enters its sixth decade. is that so many of its youthful butterflies have persisted into spidery middle age, refusing to take early retirement, in a way that would have shamed Methuselah.

Making full of the Rolling Stones, who have cheerfully betrayed Mick Jagger's once solemn promise to knock it on the head when he reached 30, is one thing, but at least the old Twickenham blues boys have a certain raddled majesty, a cloak to sling around their shoulders. Far worse are the performers whom the American rock critic Bob Christgau recently grouped under the canny rubric "Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies". There's no reason for these groups or individuals to carry on, beyond paying a few bills: in the words of the Four Tops, they just can't help themselves.

The Bee Gees don' t even have the excuse of needing a bob or two. As far back as 1969. they earned the incredible sum of [pound]3m for a year's work. Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb more or less split up at that point, fed up with each other and the peculiar world of Sixties pop, which involved a great deal of Machiavellian management and demanded a sustained conveyor belt of hit singles, as the pop album had hardly got off the ground in those days. Luckily for the Gibbs, hit singles were what they were best at. If you can remember that far back, you will recall the string of hanky-wringing tunes that seemed to be the Bee Gees' sole trick: "Massachusetts", "I've Got to Get a Message to You", "I Started a Joke" and so on. This hardly seemed like a band for the ages.

But that is what they have become (naturally, after they got back together). The Gibbs are often thought of as an Australian band, but in fact they were born on the Isle of Man, and the family only emigrated after a local bobby advised their father that the mildly delinquent Gibb boys might appreciate a bit of Antipodean sunshine. Barry, the eldest, was only just shy of his 12th birthday when they arrived in Brisbane in 1958.

They came back nine years later, a boy band searching for a hit. Amazingly, they got one. "New York Mining Disaster 1941" doesn't sound like the sort of title Boyzone would have shortlisted for their British debut, but this plaintive tale of trapped mineworkers became an improbable worldwide hit and established the Bee Gees as a force in the London pop world of the day. Under Robert Stigwood's ingenious management. they strung together a series of successes which, by the end of the decade, made them chart fixtures of a kind. It was never very easy to tell who, if anybody, was the creative force in the trio. Barry and Robin vied for the position of lead singer. and often it seemed they were in a contest as to who could come up with the reediest, most quavery delivery.

The Bee Gees were, at least, a proper band. They even played their own instruments. Besides the singles, there was a sequence of watery albums, the kind that singles bands made in the Sixties. That culminated, in 1969, in the double-LP Odessa, often fondly recalled as one of the final follies of the decade: it came packaged in a velvet-covered gatefold that got particularly scruffy when it had been on the record-shop racks for a while. By this point, family bickering had largely sundered the group spirit, and Robin went off to make a solo record.

The early Seventies weren't kind to the group. It is hard to remember anything they did in the first half of the decade. …