Musician, singer and songwriter with the Bee Gees. Born Isle of Man, December 22, 1949; died Miami, January 12, 2003.
Before the death of Maurice Gibb this week, the last time the Bee Gees had made real news was in 1997 when his brothers Barry and Robin walked out on the jive talkin’ TV host Clive Anderson. The interview started badly and went down hill fast. With his grin fixed, Maurice sat there alone for a moment then said, “Oh well, I suppose I’d better join them.”
Both parties began on the back foot – the Bee Gees were quick to take offence, Anderson just as quick at giving it – but the brothers were left looking as if they didn’t have a sense of humour. It seemed to fit with their early hit ‘I Started a Joke’, a timeless gem dripping with pathos. Robin took the lead, with his characteristic warble: “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying. / But I didn’t see, that the joke was on me.”
This was unfortunate, as right from the start – when as pubescent teenagers they had their own TV show in Australia – the Bee Gees came across as Marx Brothers from Manchester. Their harmonies, influenced by 1930s vocal quartet the Mills Brothers, were only part of the appeal. And, as an act compared to and over-shadowed by the Beatles for so long, Maurice was said to be the Ringo of the group: a practical joker, self-deprecating, affable and approachable.
The excellent documentary tribute to the Bee Gees repeated on television this week showed the sensitivity of the group. They were hurt that nobody took them seriously, particularly music critics; with their falsettos, big hair, furry chests and satin jumpsuits, they were a laughing stock to the in crowd (who took themselves too seriously). So massive was the Bee Gees’ success in 1977 – over 20 years after their first appearance, as squeaky boys at the Manchester Gaumont – that a parody act called the Hebegeebees toured the world singing a novelty hit ‘Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices’. More sinister in this period of over-exposure was the burning of their records at a “disco sucks” rally that also targeted blacks and gays.
The brothers had a legitimate beef. It wasn’t the dismissal of their success, which gave them nine US number one singles, 110 million record sales, and places them alongside Elvis, the Beatles, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson as one of the top five recording acts ever.
It was the dismissal of their music. As Maurice said after the Clive Anderson debacle: “We don’t mind being ripped apart, but don’t rip the songs apart. That’s something, because they’re like our kids.”
Despite their sound or their look (and let’s face it, with those falsettos, flare and gold-chains hidden in the undergrowth, the Bee Gees had to have a sense of humour) the group produced a catalogue of songs that can stand alongside any of the great tunesmiths. Before ‘Staying Alive’ – surely the anthem of the 1970s – and the other many hits from Saturday Night Fever era – came the early, eccentric lush pop of ‘New York Mining Disaster’ and ‘Massachusetts’, the weepie ballads ‘Words’ and ‘I Started a Joke’, the soul standards ‘To Love Somebody’ and ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’, all kicked off by the hit they left behind in Australia, ‘Spicks and Specks’.
It had taken the Bee Gees 10 years to get their first number one in their adopted home; when they heard the news, the family was on the boat home to Britain. So focused on success were the Gibbs that by their early teens, the brothers were the breadwinners of the family; by their late teens their songs were being covered by Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, the Animals and John Rowles.
Maurice was the one who was least in the limelight. Robin had the weird vibrato (and the teeth), Barry the even weirder falsetto (and the looks). “Mo” was off to one side, with the tough job of squeezing in the second harmony, while playing bass or keyboards. Barry may have been the lynchpin of their songwriting, but that simple, repeated piano note that drives ‘Spicks and Specks’ was Maurice; he also had a hand in co-writing ‘Night Fever’, ‘Nights on Broadway’, ‘Jive Talkin’, ‘Too Much Heaven’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’, ‘Heartbreaker’ and more than 500 others. When radio had “burnt out” the Bee Gees, Maurice helped Barry write ‘Islands in the Stream’ for Kenny & Dolly, and ‘Shadow Dancing’ for Andy Gibb, their younger brother by 10 years. More toothsome and more handsome than his brothers, Andy burnt out faster than their records, dying of heart failure aged 30.
Andy’s death revived the alcoholism that had dogged Maurice since his early 20s. At the age of 18, he was offered his first whiskey and coke by his idol John Lennon. “If he’d given me cyanide I would have drunk it,” he recalled. In an NME fanzine fact-file the same year, Robin’s preferred tipple is milk, Barry’s is Coke; Maurice already insists on Bacardi with his. Always the best for a quote, Maurice said later, “Barry was the pothead. Robin was the pillhead. And I was a real alky.” Alcohol-fuelled arguments destroyed his first marriage, his “Posh’n’Becks” liaison with ’60s pop starlet Lulu. In 1980 he was thrown off a Concorde flight, and after a four-week brandy binge in 1991 he pulled a gun on his second wife Yvonne.
Maurice pulled through and his marriage survived; he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and always wore an AA badge on his lapel. The Bee Gees’ career reached new heights well into their fourth decade, with their triumphant One Night Only concerts, which visited New Zealand in 1999.
The music business is now dominated by manufactured, shortlived pop groups; beats-per-minute rather than soul is what matters in discos. The Bee Gees were grafters of the old school, never short of a melody, a groove or a sentiment. What matters is their songs transcend fashions. Covering the Bee Gees is the easy way for young groups such as Steps and Destiny’s Child to have a hit; even Celine Dion and Robbie Williams have had a go.
Robbie chose ‘I Started a Joke’. The last laugh was on Maurice, who said: “it was the kind of thing you’d hear in a lunatic asylum”.