Do rock stars buy life insurance? If so, there must have been payouts aplenty this summer, as several more breathed their last. Levon Helm of The Band croaked in April, followed in May by Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch of the Beastie Boys, the famed session bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, and Donna Summer, no longer feeling love, or indeed anything very much. Then, a couple of weeks ago, it was the turn of Jon Lord of Deep Purple, whose terrifying white ponytail I once spotted at a River Café quiz. Although his team didn’t do very well, you could see that he was the sort of person you would want to have on your side. Not only was he large and physically intimidating, but any question you got about British heavy metal, the Hammond organ or orchestral rock of the late 1960s would be a gimme.
The death that spoke to me personally, though, was that of Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, on 20 May, aged 62. Of the four brothers, only the eldest, Barry, is still alive, as is their mother, well into her nineties. So we will hear little more music from that source, although it’s fair to say that we have heard quite a lot already. In their 45 years together, the Bee Gees sold 220 million records, an astounding figure. Only Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney solo and, bizarrely, the American country-and-western hack Garth Brooks have outsold them. Yet they clearly felt underappreciated. Much parodied and mocked in this land of parody and mockery, they were always telling interviewers that they had sold 220 million records and expecting them to be impressed. But we in the UK like our pop stars to wear their commercial success lightly. We like them to make records because they have to, for their souls and for their art. Whereas the Bee Gees just loved having hits. To the ends of their lives they never stopped trying to write them, and if this meant bending to the prevailing musical winds, they were happy to flip over backwards and stick their legs behind their ears. In truth, almost all pop stars will do anything for a hit, but they know to pretend otherwise. The Bee Gees predated this rockist pose. At heart they were children of showbiz, more Cliff Richard than Keith Richards. The only thing that set them apart from their contemporaries was their immense talent.
Is that a shocking thing to write? I think it might still be. We remember the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, its extraordinary sales figures and, for a year or so, its ubiquity, which set the Bee Gees’ image in stone and generated so much loathing that their reputation never recovered. But ‘Stayin’ Alive’, I believe, is one of the greatest pop singles of all time. It is perfect in concept and execution, and nothing else sounds quite like it. Someone plays it at a wedding 35 years later and you leap up to dance. (You are, in essence, Pavlov’s disco dog.) I also have a sneaking admiration for ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ — highest quality mush — and a wonderfully clever song Barry wrote for younger brother Andy, ‘An Everlasting Love’. And there’s ‘Nights On Broadway’, and the title track to Spirits Having Flown, and many, many others. Even on their last album, 2001’s patchy This Is Where I Came In, there is an absolute beauty, ‘Sacred Trust’, which they had originally written for the Backstreet Boys (why?). Idiots to the last, the Backstreet Boys turned it down, so the Gibbs gave it to the boy band on Popstars: The Rivals (why?). Their own version, as you would expect, is infinitely superior: the harmonies gel, the melody lies in wait, and they use every pop trick they know to reel you in. You know you’re being manipulated, but why resist?
I have to admit, I did resist for a long time. But in the past couple of years I have been stealthily adding to my Bee Gees CD collection. Of the half-dozen I now seem to have, there is only one out-and-out shocker, 1987’s E.S.P., in which they experimented with 1980s big drum sounds, hip-hop and heavy funk, none of which was a good idea. Indeed, Barry’s brief rap on ‘This Is Your Life’ takes you to a far-distant land beyond embarrassment, where pop careers go to die. And yet even this album had ‘You Win Again’, which is terrific. Yes it is, don’t argue.
So rest in peace, Robin Gibb, lead singer on the early, overwrought hits and occasionally on the later ones when Barry let you anywhere near the microphone. The spirits have flown, but the tunes remain.