The Manchester-laced voice of Barry Gibb – he of the tight pants and gold chains and the hairy third of the mega group the Bee Gees – says down the phone that he still calls Australia home. The toothily handsome Bee Gee is one of the top five most successful artists in pop-music history. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. His face has even appeared to a British carpenter on a toasted crumpet, who immediately interpreted the vision as a sign of the second coming of Christ. But that’s another story.
Let’s just say that for a legion of well-worn grooves who cut their adolescent teeth on ‘Spicks and Specks’ Barry Gibb is an all-round icon.
But something’s telling Gibb he must go home. And this time it’s not to Massachusetts.
On the eve of the Perth premiere of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ the musical which forever cemented him and his brothers Robin and Maurice in the annals of pop music history, he’s hankering after Brisbane’s Redcliffe racetrack, Bunnerong Road, Maroubra, the Palm Lounge on the Gold Coast, and the town hall at Cohuna in Victoria – all fond memories of a childhood spent penning heartfelt lyrics and putting them to upbeat tunes while dreaming of fame and fortune.
Gibb’s present home of 26 years is celebrity-studded Miami, a palatial testament to a realisation of those dreams – 110 million times over. That’s how many of his records – with names like ‘I’ve Gotta Get A Message to You’, “Don’t Forget to Remember”, “I Started a Joke”, “To Love Somebody” “Massachusetts”, ‘Nights on Broadway’ – have sold over four decades.
Miami’s nice, even with vice, but 39 years after Barry and his younger twin brothers sailed from Australia on the Fairsky hoping to make their mark on the international music scene, he wants to revisit his roots. “Leaving Australia was the hardest thing I have ever done,” he says. “They were probably the greatest years of our lives – larking around on the beach, going barefoot to school, fishing, playing on the mudflats.”
Gibb is remarkably charitable seeing that the Bee Gees left Australia under a cloud of legal activity with Festival Records trying to prevent them from going. And it was a less than enthusiastic public which saw the Gibb brothers, then aged 20 and 17, seeking new horizons despite having already written 60 songs that were recorded by others. “Spicks and Specks”, their first No. 1 single, had just taken off in November 1966.
Gibb, now 58, also reveals he will have to overcome his fear of flying – something which has plagued him since September 11 – to complete his planned Australian tour in which he will retrace the steps of the young Bee Gees who moved from Manchester to Queensland when Barry was just 11.
This, his first Australian tour since 1999, will be without Robin. While Barry was always seen as the leader of the group, it was Maurice, who died two years ago just before undergoing emergency surgery, who was the glue that bound them together.
“Robin and I won’t get together to do anything,” says Gibb. We are so different as people. It was great being together as a band, but much more difficult being brothers than it was being in a band. We have no plans to do anything at the moment, but who knows? “Right now I’m writing songs for me (as well as Sir Cliff Richard and Barbra Streisand) and I’ll keep doing it for as long as I stay balanced and I don’t fall over. Everything seems to be working OK at the moment. I don’t want to live on past records.”
It’s timely that Gibb plans to tour Australia when ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – nearly three decades after the Robert Stigwood film hit world screens and ended up defining an era – is once again sweeping the country, this time on stage.
After a successful Melbourne season the show opens in Perth on March 15, offering the Bee Gees’ disco beat for a whole new generation with hits such as “Jive Talkin”, “You Should Be Dancing”, “Stayin Alive”, ‘If I Can’t Have You’ and “How Deep is Your Love”.
No one, it seems, is more delighted than the man who made it all possible, Robert Stigwood, who produced both the 1978 movie and the musical which premiered in London in 1998.
Stigwood, now aged 70, has been a longtime friend of Gibb’s since he signed up the Bee Gees three weeks after they hit London. He saw the show recently in Melbourne and declared it the best production he’d seen.
So impressed was Stigwood with Melbourne boy Adam-Jon Fiorentino in the lead role of the disco king Tony Manero that he could be drafted for the West End production in London.
Though Gibb has seen the production half a dozen times in London and New York, he says he can easily resist the temptation to leap up and stab the air like John Travolta. Apart from the fact he was never really into disco dancing, he also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis which prohibits him from dancing.
“I never really did any disco dancing,” he laughs. “I would just move around on the stage. But even now, when people see me in the street, they point upwards to the sky. It’s just something I’ll always have to live with.” “But it’s the tennis I really miss. I didn’t start playing till I was about 35 and my joints are no good. I have had an operation on my back and apparently arthritis occurs with a lot of people who have had back surgery.”
Even when sitting in the audience and hearing the opening strains of “Staying Alive” – which sold 40 million copies – Gibb barely raises a goosebump.
“I think (hearing) it’s quite fun,” he says. “It’s great for people who love dancing. The only thing I miss on stage is the falsetto.”
After the huge success of “Saturday Night Fever”, which saw them become the biggest band in the world, there was shame, stigma and ridicule as the world left disco behind. The Bee Gees never shook the disco image despite such achievements as being the only pop group to have written, produced and recorded six consecutive No. 1 hits on the US charts. Only Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney have sold more records.
But their songs live on, having charmed three generations of children and they continue to be parodied in television programs from ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘The Office’.
Gibb is intrigued, like most people, at the resurgence of the ’70s – the fashion and the old bands touring.
“I think people are going back to it because it was an innocent era and they just want to live through it all again,” he says. “You got to dress up and wear those great big jeans and a lot of strange clothes.”
These days Gibb spends his days ferrying his daughter, 13-year-old Ali – “a Justin Timberlake fan, no less” – to and from school and writing songs with his son Stevie, who is in a heavy metal band, Crowbar.
“I still write in the same way that I always did,” he says. “I have a little dictaphone and if a sound takes my fancy or if a lyric comes to me in the middle of the night I’ll just record it there and then. Anything can inspire me – a conversation, something strikes you about words which can end up being a title.”
Gibb attributes his creativity to being a left-hander and also to being badly scalded as a two year old.
“I was given about 20 minutes to live and I can’t remember any of it,” he says. “I think sometimes when you feel so much pain it gets stored away in your mind somewhere and then it comes out later in some creative way.” It’s the same with the pain of his brother’s death, which he says will not go away. “We were sort of like the three musketeers,” he says. “We were all looking for the same thing. Suddenly one of you is not there. I have to get used to it, get on with life. Maybe the way to do it is through music – keeping the music alive.”
With ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soon to hit the Perth stage, GAIL WILLIAMS talks to Bee Gee Barry Gibb, whose music helped define an era of white satin suits, fabulous flares and strutting on the dance floor.