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The pure soul of Robin Gibb

The sound of infinity

PHOTO: AVRO’S TOPPOP, NETHERLANDS (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

In a bid to break from the BBC News app’s “scroll of doom”, I’ve discovered the lectures of Alan Watts. Drawing on various influences, Watts’ pantheist beliefs can be boiled down to one statement: we are the universe. As woo-woo as this may sound, it’s actually a very grounded, witty and soothing philosophy that doesn’t desperately seek a happy-ever-afterlife. I think it would have won the approval of Robin Gibb, iconic Bee Gees singer and brother to Maurice and Barry. Because as well as bathing in the sonorous tones of Alan Watts, I’ve fallen head over heels for Robin Gibb’s achingly soulful voice.

Robin always seemed the odd one out of the brothers. Barry, the group’s leonine leader, was older, with non-identical twins Maurice and Robin arriving three years later. Robin’s otherness may have stemmed from being born on the Isle of Man, although his siblings seem unaffected by the island’s dark magic.

A need for work led their Dad, Hugh, drummer and leader of a big band, to move the family to Manchester. But the mainland didn’t prove much more fruitful, and Hugh supplemented his income as a bread delivery man. The teenage Gibb boys started a band called The Rattlesnakes, influenced by clean-cut crooners Paula Anka, Cliff Richard and the Everly Brothers. When not writing and singing, you’d expect them to be making daisy chains, but actually the trio got stuck into petty burglary and arson. Maurice remembers coming home to see the field opposite their house ablaze, and knowing instantly it was Robin’s doing. The Gibb family soon emigrated to Queensland Australia, “encouraged” to do so by the local constabulary.

Robin’s powerful vibrato operates on a stratospheric level

Their timing could not have been more perfect, as the boys got a gig singing on newly-minted Brisbane TV. Word of the talented teens spread fast and by 1963 they had a recording contract. They changed their name to Bee Gees (from Barry’s initials, not “Brothers Gibb” as believed) and released a set of singles, none of which hit home until Spicks and Specks, released as the family set sail for the UK again. But it caught the ear of super-producer Robert Stigwood, who signed them on the spot. This partnership led to their first international hits, New York Mining Disaster 1941 and Massachusetts, both showcasing Robin’s unique plaintive vocals.

Which brings me to that voice, described by the New Yorker’s Scott Staton as “the emotional centerpiece of the band”. Robin’s natural singing style was high enough to be coupled with Barry’s falsetto. But when Robin hits his own upper register, it’s something else altogether. While Barry became synonymous with the “ee-hee” disco sound, Robin’s vulnerable-but-powerful vibrato operates on a stratospheric level. To me, it’s the sound of infinity, like he’s channelling the “Eternal I” spoken of by Alan Watts and other spiritual practitioners.

Robin’s ethereal fragility is bound to have been affected by his involvement in a horrific train crash in 1968. 49 people died, and teenage Robin helped pull bodies from the wrecked carriages. Fame, fraternal squabbles and lashings of drugs led to the Bee Gees splitting in 1969, reuniting a year later. Ironically, Barry and Maurice made the Cucumber Castle album as a duo, as its camp medieval theme is so Robin, the definition of Chaucer’s “parfit, gentil knyght”.

As the 1970s took shape, the band’s melodramatic chamber pop fell out of favour. Then, in a masterstroke, Robert Stigwood paired them with producer Arif Mardin, who introduced them to R&B. Backed by top session musicians, the Bee Gees released Mr Natural in 1974. The album wasn’t a huge success, but its blend of the Gibb’s songwriting with funky guitars, strings and syncopated rhythms would strike gold in Saturday Night Fever. Amazingly, the Bee Gees wrote the legendary tracks before knowing the film existed. They played the demos to Robert Stigwood who, says Barry, “flipped out”. As you would, if someone casually dropped Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever on you, followed by How Deep Is Your Love and If I Can’t Have You.

Few Gen-Xers can forget the Bee Gees’ late 1970s domination. If it wasn’t Saturday Night Fever it was Grease. When people finally tired of disco the Bee Gees fell from grace once more. But they never stopped writing hits: Islands in the Stream for Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers, Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick and the ecstatic Chain Reaction for Diana Ross. The band returned to the charts fitfully, giving us the glorious stomper You Win Again in 1987. I loved it then and now, Barry smashing the chorus as Robin’s mournful “ohhhh girl” floats airily above.

The obvious sentimentality of the Bee Gees, and particularly Robin’s vocals, may be an acquired taste. But if you want to experience real raw emotion, dive into the playlist and enjoy one of the greatest power ballads, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Barry sets the tone before Robin’s chorus soars into the heavens, “When the lonely heart breaks/It’s the one that forsakes/It’s the dream that we stole/And I’m missing you more than the fire that will roar/A hole in my soul/For you it’s goodbye, for me it’s to cry/For whom the bell tolls”. Barry is the last surviving Bee Gee but, for me, Robin was their heart and soul.

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

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Arts & Culture, March 2023, Music

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