By Hans Ebert
It was when in my first school band that my best friend and band mate Steve had us learn a song called “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” Steve was always one step ahead of anyone else around us when it came to discovering new bands. And at a time when when it was considered “cool” to write songs with somewhat pretentious song titles, there we were learning this song about a mining disaster that wasn’t exactly your straight forward pop song which started with a minor chord and needed some Everley Brothers type harmonies. This, for the rest of us in the band, was our introduction to the Bee Gees- actually brothers Barry and the strangest looking twins in Robin and Maurice backed by two musicians who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
The song was fine, but at a very image conscious time, the Bee Gees didn’t look cool enough. Too much teeth and really bad hair. One was even losing his hair.
The album cover to their first record was drab, and they weren’t from Swinging London. They were from Australia. And though a few hits by Australian bands passed the test- the Easybeats being one of them- their origins didn’t really help them being accepted by the cool kids.
In Hong Kong, however, and when the music of the Beatles was becoming way too cerebral plus they had grown moustaches and beards which had some radio disc jockeys like His Hipness “Uncle” Ray Cordeiro mentioning to “you and you and especially to you” made them look “dirty” and like “beggars”, the melodic pop songs of the Bee Gees with their simple lyrics about love was that rainbow connection local music fans could accept and understand.
As a school band and going through first time schoolboy crushes, we embraced the unrequited love of “To Love Somebody”. While Hong Kong never understood the Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out culture, Woodstock, Cocker Power, psychedelia and all the music from those weird and wild times, whether not accepted in the UK or especially if going to San Francisco with some flowers in your hair, the very “clean” songs of the Bee Gees were reaching many out here. They were tuning in and singing along with them-these simple, pretty love songs, mostly ballads, which were probably instrumental in shaping local musical tastes and what came to be known as Canto Pop.
When Australian pop promoter Paul Dainty brought the Bee Gees out to Hong Kong in the late Sixties, it competed with the Beatles’ performance at the Princess Theatre for popularity. Plus they performed at a bigger venue- the Hong Kong Stadium.
BeeGeemania was happening and when their music made up the soundtrack to the coming of age film “Melody”, everything exploded into another stratosphere.
“Melody” became one of the biggest grossing movies in Hong Kong ever, and the songs are still sung today at karaoke gatherings. In fact, the entire Bee Gees catalogue is still sung at local karaoke sessions.
Many had no idea what and where Massachusetts was and is, but they knew how to sing the song. It was a way of learning English through music, something which we knew was a huge USP when at PolyGram much later in life and where the marketing of the Bee Gees was a priority.
Before this, former local pop columnist Pato Leung, below, one of the most uncool people we knew, had formed a very strong bond with the Brothers Gibb, and had somehow become their exclusive concert promoter for Hong Kong and also held the keys- and the Rights- to the Bee Gees catalogue Kingdom.
By this time, powerful Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood was managing Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb and whose career had taken a complete detour. This was when they became the voice of the Disco Generation, thanks to the movie “Saturday Night Fever.”
Not exactly a deep movie with any strong message, the story of a narcissistic and somewhat androgynous American Italian guy who simply wanted to dance made a star out of John Travolta.
It made white suits somewhat of a uniform, saw the rise of fitness centres and discotheques, which went hand in hand with this new religion of well toned bodies staying alive and showing off on that dance floor of life.
The songs of the Bee Gees were the heartbeat of this movement led by legendary record producer Arif Mardin cajoling Barry Gibb to try using his falsetto voice. It might have been a weird move, but it worked.
Though this falsetto is still being spoofed with the funniest of these being the one by the quite mad Kenny Everett, the Bee Gees had the last laugh. They were the biggest act in the world. Suddenly, they were cool. They were fashionable and every MOR artist wanted to record a song written by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb.
Their follow up project- Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band- also starring Peter Frampton, was an unmitigated disaster. It was one of Robert Stigwood’s worst projects- wrong artists, a hokey storyline and messing with the music of the Beatles most groundbreaking album. Not smart.
However, what really derailed the brothers was Robin Gibb leaving to go solo, Maurice Gibb wanting to be taken seriously as a musician and wanting to hang with people like the Beatles and whose drinking had reached that point of no return where he needed help. There was also the end of his fairly tale marriage to popular singer Lulu.
There was then the drug overdose death of younger brother Andy. The brothers were falling apart.
It was only Barry Gibb who seemed to be travelling down that straight road without running into any crooked men who would make him lose focus and take him down a crooked path. With his brothers trying to find themselves, the very handsome Barry Gibb with that full head of hair and face of the Bee Gees, was in demand by artists like Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers and others to write songs for them and also produce their records which became huge successes.
Though the brothers got together again after Robin and Maurice having exorcised their demons, it was never the same. It wasn’t long before Maurice and Robin, below shortly before his death, succumbed to various illnesses and left this world.
And so when it was announced recently that Barry Gibb was to receive a knighthood, and though personally not putting any great importance to these titles, it’s still a Thank You to an extremely good songwriter and singer whose brilliant musical legacy will live on.
It will finally be seen as being far more important than being part of a fad called Disco. It’s about a truly prolific songwriter who’s written and sung some of the greatest songs of all time, been married forever to his former Miss Scotland wife Linda, and has kept alive the legacy of the Bee Gees even when there were no Bee Gees.
Though closer to Maurice, we all knew that the elder brother was the soul of this musical union. Here’s hoping to hear some new music from this wonderful songwriter.
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