Following the phenomenon that was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the Bee Gees were white hot, their record company trumpeted that their new album Spirits Having Flown, was “The record the world has been waiting for”. The massive momentum that the band had already created ensured the album’s success and no less than three singles lifted from the album were #1 hits in the USA – Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Love You Inside Out, the latter song was not a big hit elsewhere (#77 in Aust. and #13 in UK
At this time Barry Gibb was heavily involved in several side projects having written the title song for the film Grease to be performed by Frankie Valli, and he also wrote Andy Gibb’s album Shadow Dancing and had written Ain’t Nothing Gonna Keep Me from You for Teri DeSario.
He now turned his attention to creating the Spirits Having Flown album, with much less direct contribution from his brothers – Maurice was drinking heavily and self-medicating for a ruptured disc in his back. Robin took a back seat to Barry, providing feedback but was not as centrally involved in the creative process as in the past, his marriage to Molly Hullis (below) was troubled and would result in a bitter estrangement and messy divorce in 1980. Below- Robin and Molly with baby in happier times.
The twins were also being marginalized throughout the recording process, Maurice’s bass guitar playing was either overdubbed or substituted by another player, Robin sang lead vocals on only one song, the twins were basically relegated to the role of backing harmony singers, and even then, Barry often overdubbed their work with his own vocals in the final mix. The album was commercially successful with sales in excess of 15 million copies, but creatively it lacked the cinematic subtext of the Bee Gees songs on SNF, as the screenplay had lent an authenticity to the songs and imbued them with a credible narrative quality which resonated with a massive international audience.
Spirits Having Flown tended to fly off in many different directions musically – disco dance, Europop, rhythm and blues, blue-eyed soul, and despite the faultless pitch of the brothers, there was a somewhat relentless and at times piercing falsetto which was become grating and mechanical. Tragedy was the second single lifted from the album and legend has it that the Bee Gees composed Tragedy, Too Much Heaven as well as Shadow Dancing for their little brother Andy in one day, when there was a break in the filming of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – that would make it three US #1 hits in one day!
Here I lie / in a lost and lonely part of town,” is how Tragedy begins and it’s yet another great opening line for a Gibb song, for 12 years – 1967-1979 – the Bee Gees had been honing the art of writing songs of gripping desperation set to irresistible melodies; fictitious mining disasters, love-struck men on death-row, rain-drenched worlds, and jokes that started the whole world crying. So Tragedy really had more in common with early period Bee Gees songs and was better for it, it was also bombastic, with an almost paranoid energy and an indelible hook that made it a hit, even though it was not especially easy to dance to and was arguably closer to rock than disco
Tragedy was the standout album track, the intro of a brooding bass guitar and percussion gave way to Barry’s emotional falsetto vocals and then rose to a faster disco tempo, which built dramatically through the first half of the song, until the thunderbolt of sound halfway through. This explosive sound effect was created by Barry cupping his hands over the microphone and simulating an exploding sound with his mouth, this was recorded several times, layered, and mixed together, in the final recorded version. Tragedy was an international smash hit, #1 in the US and UK and eight other countries, #2 in Aust, selling over 3 million copies internationally, it was successfully covered by the UK group Steps who took it back to a UK #1 again in 1999
Too Much Heaven is essentially How Deep Is Your Love revisited, that said, it is a beautiful Barry Gibb melody, replete with strings, a latin beat, sweet harmonies by the brothers behind Barry’s lead vocals, and featuring the band Chicago’s horn section – James Pankow, Walt Parazaider and Lee Loughnane, it was a world away from the sounds of disco. Lyrically it was a gorgeous ballad with the Gibbs recurring theme of unrequited love, and battling against the world “nobody gets too much heaven no more/ it’s much harder to come by/ I’m waiting in line”. The song was however excessively over-dubbed by perfectionist Barry, who used 27 separate vocal tracks of which 18 were his voice, the twins had been relegated to backing singers for Barry by the time they recorded this song. Too Much Heaven was the Bee Gees contribution to the UNICEF Save The Children Fund and the royalties from the song – over $7.0m. were contributed to charity, the record charted #1 in the US and twelve other countries, #3 in the UK and #5 in Aust, selling over 3 million copies worldwide.
When Love You Inside Out was released as a single and hit #1 in the US the Bee Gees had just taken six consecutive records to #1 there in the period 1977-79, surpassing the Beatles in this regard, it was also their ninth US #1 hit single tying them with Paul McCartney for fourth place on the list of artists with the most number ones, the top three at the time were The Beatles (20), Elvis Presley (17) and the Supremes (12). It seemed like the Bee Gees and their follow-up album to SNF, Spirits Having Flown, were an unstoppable force.
Love You Inside Out was another meticulously-crafted pop song, slower and more restrained than Tragedy, but equally funky and showcased the exquisite vocal harmonies of the brothers with Barry’s falsetto lead out front, and Robin’s high pitched vibrato resonating in support .The band’s triumphant tour of the US in 1979 featured sell-out concerts across the country, average nightly attendances exceeded 30,000, Andy joined his brothers on stage in guest spots, President Jimmy Carter invited them to the White House to honor their contribution to UNICEF via the royalties from Too Much Heaven, and the band were truly at the peak of their fame, which probably meant that they really only had one direction to go in the immediate future.
By 1981 the Bee Gees were at a crossroads, they had been the most dominant force in popular music for the past half a dozen years but suddenly found themselves blacklisted by US radio. They’d just completed the 15-million selling Guilty album for Barbra Streisand and their previous studio album, 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, had sold a similar number of copies. As songwriters and producers, they were still very hot, but much of the radio industry had gone cold on the Bee Gees, though just how cold was very surprising. In addition their critically-panned acting debut in Seargent Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, the “helium falsetto” of most of the tracks on Living Eyes had become annoying, their career trajectory dipped, and the fickle fans moved onto the next big thing.
From the 25 million copies of Saturday Night Fever to the 15 million of Spirits Having Flown to the 15 million of Guilty to the abysmal 750,000 of their next album Living Eyes! Clearly the anti-disco movement had gathered momentum, certain DJs’ championed the cause, and staged Disco Demolition events in sports arenas. The most prominent of these was Steve Dahl (below) a Chicago shock jock and anti-disco campaigner, who became synonymous with the slogan “Disco Sucks”, and in July 1979 staged an infamous Disco Demolition event at Comiskey Stadium during a break between two Chicago White Sox baseball games. Dahl blew up thousands of disco records in the middle of the arena, fans invaded the pitch, the playing surface was extensively damaged, and the match had to be abandoned.
By the mid-1980’s the disco phenomenon was, amongst other things, blamed for promoting DJs rather than live music in clubs, undermining the market for albums, getting people to perform humiliating dances in public (the Hustle, the Bump, the Bus Stop, and others) and even precipitating the general downturn in the recording industry in 1979. It has also been suggested that because disco gave a strong voice to the gay community that the subsequent backlash was to a large degree homophobic
It was an overreaction, but the glitterball culture of disco which had lured dance-phobic white male heterosexuals onto the dance floor to boogie to music which they now considered to be the domain of blacks, gays, Hispanics and women, would ultimately be rejected; and the Bee Gees would have to wait three years for their ultimate redemption and a return to the charts as the most creative and successful siblings in popular music – but next time it would be without the relentless falsetto, tight satin suits, exposed chest hair and medallion bling The Bee Gees would not have another US #1 single again and it would be ten years before they would take another song into the US Cashbox top ten in 1989, similarly the band would lose traction here in Australia, with no #1 hits after Stayin’ Alive in 1978, and only one top ten single after 1979 with You Win Again, in 1987.
The Bee Gees were also dealing with some complex legal and financial issues at this time as well, they were engaged in a $200 million lawsuit with their recording company the Robert Stigwood Organisation (RSO), which was also being absorbed by another company at the same time. The dispute was further complicated by the fact that back in the late 60’s the brothers had entered into an unusual contract with Robert Stigwood to act as both their employer and their manager, a decision they would now later regret. Midway through the recording of Living Eyes, RSO released the Bee Gees trusted backing musicians – Blue Weaver (keyboards), Denis Bryon (drums), and Alan Kendall (guitar), from contract, severely disrupting the actual recording sessions, and eroding the creative aesthetic established with band since the early ’70’s. Above- The Gibb brothers with Robert Stigwood in happier times.
In 1980 the Bee Gees commissioned an independent audit of the Robert Stigwood Organisation (RSO), which turned up $16 million in unpaid royalties owed to the band, the brothers filed suit against Stigwood and Polygram, seeking $75 million from each, plus $50 million in punitive damages. Stigwood filed a countersuit a month later for $310 million for libel, extortion, corporate defamation and breach of contract, the matter was quickly degenerating into a legal stoush, one that only the lawyers would win. After much to and froing, and the issue of statements by RSO attributed to the Gibbs, but publicly denied by them, the dispute had by now degenerated into a public pissing contest between Barry Gibb and Robert Stigwood. But by August 1981 common sense would ultimately prevail, and Stigwood agreed to most of the original demands of the Gibbs, but more importantly they retrieved the publishing rights to all their songs dating back to 1967, and they didn’t have to pay RSO a cent. Below L-R in 1981 at the premiere of the movie Gallipoli – Stigwood, Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, and Rupert Murdoch.
Stigwood would wind up RSO and retreat to his “shack” in Bermuda, and then spend much of the rest of his life refurbishing Barton Manor on the Isle of Wight. Robert Stigwood had risen from humble origins in Port Pirie, South Australia, to become one of the most powerful impresarios in the entertainment world for over thirty years. He managed many top groups including the Bee Gees, the Who, Cream, Blind Faith and others, produced such iconic films as – Gallipoli, Tommy, Grease, Evita, and Saturday Night Fever, as well as West End/Broadway musicals including Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, he would quietly pass away on June 4th, 2016, at the age of 81, he never married.