The Bee Gees have spent decades as pop culture whipping boys. It’s time to admit we were wrong about those feather-haired angels.
Forty years after the Bee Gees’ record breaking runs of chart topping singles, the brothers Gibb need to be seen for what they are; geniuses whose music made the world a far better place.
Four decades ago, “Night Fever” was the number one song in America for the entire month of April. It topped the charts at a time when you couldn’t avoid the number one song in America. People didn’t yet have Spotify, iTunes or Pandora. Most cars didn’t even have cassette players. If it played in your car, you had little choice but to listen. It was news, The Bee Gees or silence.
“Night Fever” was the sixth single released from the the soundtrack to the movie Saturday Night Fever. The album had been out for months and three of the five previous singles were Gibbs brothers’ compositions: “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love” and “If I Can’t Have You.” The album, which also included previously released Bee Gees hits like “Jive talkin” and “You Should be Dancing,” was the number one album in America for a staggering 24 weeks. It must have been spun at almost every house party, school dance, pep rally, cocktail hour, bar and restaurant in America throughout the year. There was music in the air in 1978, and it was the music of the Bee Gees.
Except for ballads like “How Deep is Your Love,” the Bee Gees’ unescapable hits of 1978 were pop disco songs. Disco was mature by 1978 and gestated in urban gay and black nightclubs and metastasized after finding mainstream (read: white) audiences. Early disco singers were POC performers like Barry White and Donna Summer and the sound trended closer to funk and R&B. By the late ‘70s, Legacy caucasian rock acts like Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones and KISS were playing disco. The disco parody song “Disco Duck” and disco renditions of music from Star Wars had become number one hits.
Disco overall developed into a sound less rooted in Motown/Stax style R&B than its earlier form. With ABBA, The Bee Gees and producer Giorgio Moroder, disco strayed further from its American funk and soul roots. Disco took on more European characteristics, growing poppier, lighter and more electronic while retaining disco’s four on the floor drum beat.
By 1978, The Bee Gees had become the face of disco. They’d attained Beatles-levels of fame and success that ironically crumbled after they starred in a movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that became an artistic, critical and popular disaster. Even for Bee Gees fans, the movie’s a tough watch. After spending $12 million on the soundtrack, their record company RSO ended up accepting millions of unsold copies of the album, making it the first album to ever go negative platinum.
After spending a year atop the charts holding the banner of disco, the Bee Gees were the face of the music white people from middle America now hated the most.
The Bee Gees wrote and produced hit songs deep into the ‘80s for artists like Barbra Streisand and Dolly Parton. They largely kept out of the public eye. They had too much baggage to reinvent themselves. Everybody agreed that the Bee Gees were talentless lightweights. And that was the consensus for over a decade—in 1993, Denis Leary reacted to the death of non-Bee Gee Andy Gibb with the sour punchline “one down, three to go.”
The Bee Gees’ music deserves none of this scorn. Particularly their disco songs.
The characteristics that made songs like “Night Fever” intolerable in the monoculture of the late ‘70s make them invaluable today. The Bee Gees have an instantly recognizable and distinct sound. From the cushiony rhythm section to the soaring vocals and orchestration, their songs are instantly recognizable.
Rock fans who dismiss the brothers Gibb as lightweight musicians are judging the music with flawed metrics. Since Bee Gees songs don’t stop and let individual performers show off, rock fans used to half hour-long guitar solos found it easy to underestimate.
But the Bee Gees’ musicianship is obvious if you judge it correctly. Bee Gees songs have impeccable grooves that support complex and meticulous arrangements of instruments and vocals.
When you hear the vocals of “Stayin’ Alive and “Night Fever” in isolation, their precision and rich musicality quickly comes into sharp focus.
The vocal melodies keep snaking into new places with every chorus and verse. The bouncy disco tunes only feel floaty and effortless—these are incredibly ambitious, complicated compositions with dozens of moving, interlocking parts. But the clockwork complexity of “Night Fever” doesn’t get in the way tunefulness or danceability. It’s music that practically begs to be paired with movement.
It wants to be danced to.
It’s easy to see how the Bee Gees’ lush orchestration and easy breezy beats would have felt suffocating when it was inescapable. But today, when you can stream any kind of music from any era on demand, The Bee Gees become a refreshing escape.