“We didn’t know we were defining the culture,” the late Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees recounted in an interview. “We were just Barry, Robin and me. What the hell was going on?”
That observation made in a new HBO documentary, The Bee Gees: How To Mend a Broken Heart, is a pivotal moment chronicling the near sixty-year odyssey of a band that had twenty number one songs but were vilified at the height of their fame.
As the documentary explores, following the enormous success resulting from the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees had FBI agents and police escorts on the scene when they landed in major cities. The band received bomb threats that were the result of something darker and scarier than just the backlash of anti-disco nationwide fervor.
In chilling archival news footage that provides eerie resemblances to present times, director Frank Marshall recounts the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago when baseball fans brought disco records that were blown up between games. The largely white crowd that rampaged onto the field was observed by an usher to notice they were largely black artists and likening it to a racist, homophobic book burning.
Forty years later the mob crowd footage bears an eerie resemblance to the fervor of Trump rallies.
Steve Dahl, the Chicago radio personality and promoter behind the event, is shown in a scene inhaling helium before imitating a Bee Gees song in Barry Gibb’s high-pitched voice. Flash forward to 2021, he might have been one of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol.
While the Gibb brothers filled stadiums, how they became public enemy number one is a bit of a mystery. At their heart they were progenitors of r & b, a genre that fueled a mid-career renaissance. There’s a scene of Barry Gibb discovering his famous falsetto during a recording session in their adopted hometown of Miami. It was Eric Clapton who casually suggested they record in the city and Barry Gibb never left. “If I did anything,” “Clapton reflects, “it was to bring them to Miami.”
By then the band’s early successes were in the rear view mirror. Gibb, the only surviving brother, is like an ancient wiseman recounting stories of the great knights of the pop roundtable. Gibb is left knowing they accomplished all of their goals but lives with the sadness of being alone. ”I’d give it all up if I could have my brothers back.”
Of late, Gibb has been drinking from the fountain of youth. He recently joined with producer Dave Cobb to create Greenfields, The Gibb Brothers Songbook Volume 1, a record that pairs him with Nashville contemporaries Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlisle, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch and Dolly Parton, among others.
Gibb’s son played him Chris Stapleton’s album to which the elder Gibb had an immediate reaction. “Maybe you could talk to him and figure out if there’s any way he’d work with me.”
At a virtual album release party hosted by SiriusXM Outlaw Country host Shooter Jennings, Gibb seemed rejuvenated and elated. “I spent most of my life cutting the track and then having to do the vocal,” Gibb said of Cobb’s approach to having him sing live with his duet partners. “it wasn’t my job this time to tell anyone what to play or really dictate how the track would be cut. I left that to Dave. I spent so many years deciding what everyone wanted and I didn’t have to make those decisions. The adventure took over on its own.”
Cobb had to overcome a bout of nerves when Dolly Parton and Gibb came to the studio ready to work on Gibb’s favorite song, “Words.” . To add to the sense of history, Parton pointed to the spots where she stood singing “I Will Always love You” and “Jolene.” Gibb, whose early songs like “South Dakota Morning” and “Give Your Best” are rooted in country, admitted he caught the country bug playing with Ricky Skaggs at the Grand Ole Opry.
Gibb himself was a bit star struck by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch who he had once approached as they were eating in a Nashville restaurant, tellinghow much he loved them. Rawlings and Welch are responsible for the glistening harmonies and guitars of “Butterfly,” a song Gibb wrote in 1966 espousing the beauty of his youth, growing up around mountains and streams and summing up a carefree time of never having to lock your door.
Gibb resurrected an unreleased song he used to play at soundcheck called “Words of a Fool.” Jason Isbell’s soulful tour de force is one of the album’s highlights. For Cobb, the sound represents the southern landscape he, Jennings and Isbell grew up in. Isbell learned the ropes in the studios of Muscle Shoals and credits Gibb for inventing many of the studio innovations he was schooled on.
Isbell was born around the height of the Bee Gees popularity in the late Seventies when the band got its star on Hollywood Boulevard. Gibb shared something that wasn’t in the documentary but fits with the film’s storyline. Just after midnight, someone poured oil all over their Hollywood star. To this day, Gibb is still trying to sort out its greater significance.
“It wasn’t just about us,” he reasons. “It was a backlash against that kind of music and I don’t know why because it was a really happy time. There was no conflict, no politics and everyone was really happy. Everybody wanted to dance and that’s why John Travolta made that movie. We were just trying to make records. We didn’t know we were going to be in white suits on the cover of the album.”
Isbell then offered his own historical assessment: “From what I can tell studying American music, the backlash to disco was to alternative lifestyles and Hispanic people and you guys ended up being a part of that backlash. It was bigotry.”
Gibb responded that it reminded him of a time when people burned books. “I thought ‘This Is not right. Whether you like us or not, this is censorship.’ I always thought it wasn’t about us. I think it was really about that form of music.”
For Gibb, who recently celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary, it’s like looking to a distant mirror.
But right now he’s locked into the present and the panoramic harmonies that pervade Greenfields and make it so uplifting and compelling. Putting aside the enormity of his past successes, Gibb seems to have locked into a late life mission. He wants to make sure the songs are remembered.
When Shooter Jennings asked if there would be a Volume 2. Both Gibb and Cobb didn’t answer it directly.
“If Dave’s up for it, so am I,” Gibb offered enthusiastically.
Cobb added he hopes there is a second volume.
Both seemed to dance around the question. But maybe they were just being coy since everyone already knew the answer.