If it’s the 70s, this must be disco. And if it’s disco, we have to talk about The Bee Gees.
Some people probably stopped reading after those first two sentences. Likely, these people are easily intimidated by aggressive chest hair and super-tight gold pants. Disco elicited very strong feelings when it glitter-balled its way into the 70s (and it probably still does). For many, those are feelings of hate (well, except for the millions of people who bought the records).
The disco wave lasted for so many years and was so omnipresent on the radio that by the end of the decade an actual anti-disco movement existed. Chicago went so far as to hold a Disco Demolition Night in between baseball games on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park. They blew up a crate of disco records on the field as enthusiastic fans spilled out of the stands and nearly caused a riot. (That never happened with grunge, for instance, or any other musical genre I can think of—I mean, people eventually grew tired of flannel and depression but they didn’t actively hate them.)
Disco never died, though. It simply went underground, back to the dance clubs where it started. At its height, however, it was inescapable. And The Bee Gees, more than anyone else, became forever synonymous with disco (to their crippling detriment in the following decade), even though they themselves believed they were simply making R & B music.
Brothers Robin, Maurice, and Barry Gibb formed The Bee Gees as young kids growing up in Australia in the late 50s. Unlike most other groups of the time, the bulk of their material was self-penned, but by 1966 their somewhat limited success forced a move back to England, the land of their birth. Their music proceeded to make a quantum leap and they released a string of Beatlesque pop songs, consistently hitting the charts all over the world.
As the 70s began, however, they had difficulty settling on a musical direction, resulting in declining sales and erratic songwriting. The nadir arrived when their record label rejected their 1973 album, A Kick in the Head Is Worth Eight in the Pants. (It sounds like I’m making up a joke title here. But, no. That’s what they wanted to call it.) At this point, like so many bands before them, the brothers decided to reinvent themselves. Unlike so many bands before them, they succeeded. Spectacularly.
Based on the first half of their career, no one could have predicted The Bee Gees would emerge as a soul-influenced R & B band. Not only that, they morphed into the biggest band in the world, a veritable juggernaut with an endless supply of #1 hits, not only for themselves, but also for other artists like Frankie Valli and Yvonne Elliman. During one 18-month stretch from late 1977 to mid 1979, a song written by the Brothers Gibb held the top spot for a combined total of 6 of those months. (And if you throw in their brother Andy, it’s another 2 months.) That’s just crazy chart domination. But with over-saturation came the inevitable backlash. And The Bee Gees were lashed—hard.
The group’s last #1 song in the US, “Love You Inside Out,” hit the top of the charts for one week in June of 1979, one month before the aforementioned Disco Demolition Night. They wouldn’t have another Top 10 hit in America until 1989 when their song “One” reached #7, due in part to a surprising amount of play on MTV. During most of the 80s, The Bee Gees were looked upon with disdain. Disco was loathed, and The Bee Gees suffered from guilt by association. (Ironic actually, considering the number of disco-influenced artists who had great success in the 80s, including Duran Duran and Madonna.)
Love ’em or hate ’em, you still need to be familiar with their music. Here’s the least you need to know:
Unlike most massive bands who have been around for decades, The Bee Gees never really produced any classic albums—stop yelling at me Bee Gees fans—there’s nothing along the lines of Dark Side Of The Moon or Rumours. Their singles stand as their best testament.
The Ultimate Bee Gees / Their Greatest Hits: The Record Basically, what you need is a 2-disc set consisting of roughly 45% 60s and early 70s songs, 45% disco, and 10% everything else. Either of these collections will suffice for most people, providing all they’ll ever need to know in case The Bee Gees come up in conversation. (I, personally, dislike compilations where the tracks are in non-chronological order so I would recommend the second set if you can find it.) Check: New York Mining Disaster 1941 & You Should Be Dancing
Saturday Night Fever [The Original Movie Soundtrack] Rev up the blow dryer and start feathering your hair, this is the defining popular culture album of the 70s. This soundtrack captures a moment in time the way that only a handful of other albums can match. If someone wants to know about disco, this is all they need as an introduction. The cover even provides a picture of the iconic white suit and classic disco pose. Along with the Bee Gees, contains classics from KC & The Sunshine Band, The Trammps, and Kool & The Gang (to name a few). Check: Stayin’ Alive & How Deep Is Your Love
For those who want to delve deeper, here’s the second level of what you might need to know:
Mythology / Tales From The Brothers Gibb If you decide you like The Bee Gees and want to go beyond the greatest hits, these 4-disc box sets are an excellent option. Mythology assigns one disc to each of the brothers (the fourth gives itself over to Andy Gibb, although he was never a member of the group). It’s a decent—though by no means comprehensive—set, but Tales From The Brothers Gibb (if you can find it) is one of the greatest box sets ever compiled, a textbook example of how to mix hits, album tracks, B-sides, rarities, and demos in a way that tells a story and shows the development of the band over the years. Check: To Love Somebody & You Win Again
Odessa The best album from their orchestrated pop years. Often referred to as their “Sgt. Pepper” (this reference will come up repeatedly as we move through music history). You really don’t need to know this album, though, unless you’re a huge Bee Gees fan or you really like late 60s British pop with a Beatlesque influence. Check: First Of May & Marley Purt Drive
Main Course The best album from their disco years. A strong collection of hits and album tracks, dance beats and ballads. The dramatic falsetto of Barry Gibb makes its first appearance here. Again, however, mostly for dedicated fans and serious devotees of mid-70s R & B and disco. The best songs here appear on greatest hits compilations. Check: Nights On Broadway & Jive Talkin’
Also, of you like Love You Inside Out, check out Fiest’s cover version. It’s pretty great. 🙂
I adored the Bee Gees from the first songs I heard by them, the Saturday Night Fever bunch and went on to like them even more for their non-disco music. One of my all-time favourite groups, so thank you for this post. The New York Mining Disaster 1941 still stirs me from the first note.
I found them the opposite way — started with “NY Mining Disaster” and “Holiday” and such. Came to the disco stuff a year or two later. I never get tired of hearing their songs.
“Tragedy” on repeat for 13 hours definitely got me through an intense grad school database analytics project.
Loving you . . . Loving youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuTRAGEDY!!!