INTERVIEW: Barry Gibb Chats Talks About Being Australian, Watching 'Grease' and Turning Brain Farts Into Songs
Do you understand and appreciate our need to claim you as one of our own?
Well, I’m Australian. As a family, we chose the new life. In 1958, we came to Brisbane on the Fairsea and we moved to Redcliffe and found paradise, it’s as simple as that. Our childhood was absolutely Huckleberry Finn. We learnt about our trade, we learnt about music in Australia. Now I have to go back to make it full circle and close that final chapter.
Rock n’ roll is all about mythology. What’s something about the Bee Gees that’s become myth that may not have been true?
That we weren’t really a rock n’ roll band. That we didn’t really fit in. Things like that. There are a lot of mistruths about this group and mistruths about our own opinions, our individual opinions. Our passion went to various kinds of music and that’s probably where we lost the idea of people thinking of us as rock n’ roll artists, which in our hearts we thought we were.
We know from our rock n’ roll history that brothers in bands…
It’s destined to be a rough ride. Lots of arguments, which happens in every family but some wonderful moments and wonderful times that I’ll never forget.
Of the early cover versions by everyone from Nina Simone to the Flying Burrito Brothers, what was the one that meant the most to you? As in, you felt validated as a songwriter?
The first American cover was Wayne Newton. He came to Australia in 1965, maybe, and I went to see him at the Chevron and I managed to convince him. Well, he didn’t need too much convincing but he really liked a song called “They’ll Never Know”. He put that on the Red Roses For a Blue Lady album. That was a real breakthrough for us. We’d never had an American artist cover one of our songs. That was the beginning of it and it went from there. I don’t know how many artists have covered our songs now but it’s pretty shocking. It’s not a statistic I know about.
Which cover is closest to your heart?
I love Andy Williams doing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”. Johnny Mathis doing our songs. Marty Stuart doing “Stayin’ Alive” in a Nashville style, I thought that was a fantastic compliment to us. Those people usually don’t cross that line.
“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is an incredible song.
I was living in Kensington and the three of us had split up; we’d split up in 1970, maybe a little earlier than that. It took us about 15 months to two years to come back together and during that time this song began to happen and Robin was visiting me. So I think it was Robin trying to make things happen again and me wanting that too. So we sat down and finished the song together and that became our little anthem about coming back together.
How does a 21-year-old write a song as deep as “To Love Somebody”?
That was Otis Redding visiting me at the Waldorf-Astoria when I went with Robert [Stigwood] on a promotion tour to America to visit the NEMS people, who we were signed to. Robert said, ‘I’d like you to write a song for Otis Redding’ and he actually came to the hotel. I was sitting there chatting to Otis Redding and after he left, Robert said, ‘Okay, write the song’. Once again, I had a verse and chorus and Robin helped me finish it. That was the way we worked. Robin, or Mo, would come to me with an idea and I’d help finish it or the other way ‘round.
Well, it started in the Isle of Man of all places. We were living in the Isle of Man to try and save money because we were thinking of going to America. We were born in the Isle of Man so it was a tax incentive for us to live there. We went back to the Isle of Man and during that time, I collected three titles. One was “Stayin’ Alive”, one was “More Than a Woman” and the other was “Night Fever”. “Stayin’ Alive” was just something that stayed in your head. I didn’t have the song but when we went to France to make those records together, in Château d'Hérouville, just outside of Paris, the song started to ferment. Once again, Robin had just got out of bed, came downstairs and I showed him what I’d come up with. We sat down with Mo and finished it together.
What about my favourite 60s number, “Kilburn Towers”?
“Kilburn Towers” came around when I was living in Eton Square with my girlfriend, who is now my wife of 43 years, and I was just thinking about what it would be like to be that kind of person, to be someone who sat in a field with a friend and got drunk. That’s really what the song is about. I can’t really remember the details of how it was written but I remember that thought and I remember where I was. Not everything is clear.
[Do you still feel a connection to these type of album tracks, the b-sides?]
Is there ever a time when you re-visit b-sides or album tracks live?
I like Willie Nelson’s comment about songs. They’re sort of, if you pardon the expression, brain farts. You have to get them out, it’s not something you want to do, it just happens and you’ve got to finish it. And your mind is always telling you, ‘get on with it, do it, don’t leave this lying in your head’. Whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, you have to get it out. Often you come up with something that’s not necessarily a hit but you have to keep the brain working.
Hypothetically, the show is going pear shaped, what’s the song that will galvanise the crowd and get them back on-side?
I’m really optimistic about everything. Things are pretty well sold-out. I’m a really happy camper right now. But, if there’s one song, “How Deep Is Your Love”, maybe. Or, “Morning of My Life”. It’s also nice to have curiosity and if I’m seeing an artist I don’t really want to know what that artist is going to do.
What compliment gets you big-headed?
[Laughing] I figured out long ago that big-headed just doesn’t work. We’ve had our moments but I’ve always felt that ego gets in the way of creativity. You’ve got to stay humble, you don’t let people convince you that you’re anything more than another person and you do the best you can. The three of us had a wonderful time, ego didn’t really come into it, we argued a lot but it really wasn’t because we thought we were any good. The key to having a career like we’ve had is low self-esteem. [Laughing]. ‘Cause you’re always trying.
What’s a criticism of your music that’s been levelled at you that you’ve accepted?
The backlash, that hurt, because we had six number one records in a row and then everyone says we shouldn’t have. We’ve never really had trouble with the public. People come up to me all the time and people are wonderful about our songs, those eras and those times. It’s the media that always liked to cut us down. That’s the nature of the media, you have to deal with that. You just have to keep laughing because that’s what’s good in life.
When I was a kid, the first I knew of The Bee Gees, consciously, was The Goodies send-up with the bath plugs around the neck. Were you offended or did you take that in good spirit?
Of course and I think you have to. My favourite is Kenny Everett. I think his send-up was fantastic. You’ve got to laugh. It’s pop music and if you take it all too seriously you can turn into some kind of depressed freak. I didn’t let anything like that happen, it was water off a duck’s back to me. What I enjoy most is we wrote some good songs and everyone knows them.
When was the last time you enjoyed watching Saturday Night Fever or Grease?
They pop up on television all the time. Fever comes on and I might sit down and watch it or I might see that Fever’s on and change channels. I’ve seen it so many times and with commercials, it’s so hard to watch those things. I love Grease and both those films were very good to us.
What’s the worst thing you’ve done to achieve your goals?
[Laughing] I don’t think there’s any way I can answer that, Chris, I really don’t know. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything bad to achieve our goals. We just kept trying. If we’re guilty of anything, it’s persistence. Even when people thought we shouldn’t, we did.
What do people shout at you in the street?
People don’t shout at me in the street. Sometimes I get people pointing at the sky but I think Travolta gets that too. I don’t mind sharing.
Interview: Christopher Hollow
Check out the classic Bee Gees video 'Night Fever' below!