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Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

First among the Bee Gees, Barry Gibb is now the last man standing

The death of his brother, Robin Gibb, earlier this week brought to an end the story of the group's intense fraternal rivalry that had been crucial to their success.

In early 1975, Barry Gibb, songwriter extraordinaire for The Bee Gees, was worried. Though he could always look back on chart toppers such as Massachusetts and How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, the magic seemed to be running out. The Bee Gees hadn't had a top 20 album in six years, and just one single had tickled the higher reaches of the charts. "We were fairly dead in the water at that point ... we needed something new," he once told The New Yorker.

Even Barry could not have foreseen the sheer magnitude of what he and brothers Maurice and Robin would achieve with their change of direction. Barry began singing in his distinctive falsetto and, combining disco's funky, dance-floor-orientated sounds with the emotional poise of their classic pop songwriting, they produced the biggest-selling album of the time within just two years. Jive Talkin', How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin' Alive, Night Fever ... the hits kept coming.

But as Barry said himself in an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2009, none of this would have been possible without his little brother Robin, who died this week. "Other people can't get in there, it's our own little world," he said of their songwriting process. "We couldn't do a job when someone else was in the room. Robin and I love each other, we still love making music together."

All of which makes Barry Gibb's status as the last remaining Bee Gee - Robin's twin brother Maurice died in 2003 - all the more sad. Thankfully, the intense fraternal rivalry which characterised the power struggle in the band had dissipated by Robin's death but, in a way, it was crucial to their success: Robin believed it actually spurred Barry on in their glory years. It was somehow telling that, after their family - brothers Andy, Robin and Maurice and sister Lesley - emigrated from Manchester to Australia in the late 1950s, their first Australian record was somewhat pointedly called The Bee Gees Sing And Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. There was no doubt who was in charge here - not least because the band was then called Barry Gibb and The Bee Gees.

Robin was only 16 at the time - although it didn't take long for the rivalry to coalesce into something more troubling. As their first hits began to stack up in the mid-to-late 1960s, Barry was undoubtedly cast as the pin-up leader of the group, even though Robin was just as prolific a writer and often the lead singer.

It mattered little that Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of their first American distributor, Atlantic Records, was bowled away by their "most beautiful voices, unlike anything I had ever heard: beautiful clarity and a lot of feeling. It was the sound of brothers''. By 1969, when the choice had to be made between a Barry song and a Robin song for a new single release, Barry, in combination with Bee Gees' manager Robert Stigwood, won the day - enough to prompt Robin to temporarily leave the band.

"It was restricting writing for the Bee Gees but I enjoyed it until they began to judge what I was doing. I'm not going to be judged," he said at the time. The "they" in question was clear. Barry vision for The Bee Gees was determinedly singular.

The timing of Robin's exit was interesting. The 1960s incarnation of The Bee Gees produced Beatles-esque pop, string-drenched soul (the beautiful Massachusetts), and meaningful ballads (I've Gotta Get A Message To You). But Odessa, the 1969 album from which the arguments stemmed, was Barry Gibb's attempt at that most tricky of musical statements, the rock opera concept album.

Listen to it now, and it sounds as brilliantly bonkers as it did then. There are country and western songs, flamenco, bluegrass and a blast of Baa Baa Black Sheep. It's become a curio in their career - not least because it completely flopped. But with hindsight, it says more about Barry Gibb's never-ending quest for pop perfection than the disco numbers that would follow. It revealed an adaptable songwriter who wasn't constrained by genre.

As Barry said himself in The Guardian when Odessa was re-released in 2009: "Our music became so speckled because we had all these insane influences from growing up in Australia. Then we were five weeks at sea going to Australia, five weeks at sea coming back. We'd been inside the Pyramids, been to India, up the Suez Canal, in the Sahara Desert.

"I really think that has a lot to do with our songwriting, these strange songs, unusual lyrics and abstractions."

Perhaps this explains how comfortable Barry was writing disco songs after the fallow years of the early 1970s. Or perhaps the careerist in him noted the opportunity after the promptings of his manager. Certainly, "going disco" wasn't a wholly creative decision inspired by their love of the dance floor: Robin and Barry admitted that they'd never danced - essentially the whole point of disco.

So while some excitable commentators after Robin's death have rushed to say that Bee Gees invented disco, it's more accurate to say they unwittingly took it to the mainstream. And in doing so, they changed the face of pop music forever - the notion of club music being refined and repackaged for the charts began with The Bee Gees. Robin's admission that Barry hadn't heard of disco - "we thought we were just writing pop songs you could dance to" - probably makes a lot of sense.

And a lot of people danced to them. By the time of Saturday Night Fever, in which John Travolta memorably boogied to the likes of Stayin' Alive and MoreThan A Woman, The Bee Gees were massive. And they dived right into that success - for all their subsequent protests that they preferred wearing jeans and T-shirts, the enduring image of Barry Gibb is those sparkly disco jumpsuits, unbuttoned far too low for comfort. It was groundbreaking; Saturday Night Fever being the first real occasion where fashion, film and music all coalesced into one culture-hogging whole. From late December 1977 until mid-May 1978, Barry Gibb-penned songs were No. 1 in the US for all but three weeks. During that run of success, the Bee Gees beat Lennon and McCartney's record of three consecutive No. 1s in the US. Barry was riding a wave of acclaim and popularity - and if that meant wearing medallions and shiny polyester, so be it.

Naturally, such familiarity in the end bred contempt for disco. It came swiftly and harshly, radio stations promoting Bee Gee Free Weekends and a hugely oversubscribed "disco demolition night" in Chicago, where a huge crate of disco records was blown up in the middle of a baseball field. As disco's biggest stars, The Bee Gees were doomed.

And yet, ironically, Barry's subsequent decision to concentrate on collaborating with and writing for other pop acts meant that songs sounding like The Bee Gees were still successful. In the early 1980s, Barbra Streisand hit the top of the charts with Woman In Love, Dionne Warwick's comeback single Heartbreaker was a massive success and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers recorded Islands In The Stream. Chain Reaction, by Diana Ross, was one of the greatest hits of 1985.

Barry was, essentially, knocking out big songs for big stars. And though The Bee Gees themselves had some success with the Barry Gibb-penned You Win Again in 1987, One in 1989 and the Chain Reaction-aping Secret Love in 1991, the game was essentially up. Which is not to say their audience deserted them - the penultimate studio album, 1997's Still Waters, sold over 5 million copies worldwide. But old age was doing them no favours. Barry was suffering from back and arthritis problems, and the "pop songs you could dance to" were being written by young, cool hipsters, not 50 year-olds with beards. When Maurice died suddenly in 2003 (Andy, who had gone on to a solo career after moving back to England in 1967, died in 1988 at the age of 30), Barry withdrew from being a Bee Gee to such an extent that he barely spoke to Robin for five years. "A shock like that either brings everybody together or scatters everybody, and in our family it scattered everyone," he said.

Barry's attempts to connect with the "heritage" industry that has treated The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan so kindly have always been hamstrung somewhat by the suggestion that, via those jumpsuits and the cheesy image of disco, The Bee Gees were somehow not a serious concern. Barry has ended up doing bits and pieces of television work and tested out a first US solo gig this February.

Still, he can always comfort himself with the knowledge that The Guinness Book of Records states there is only one more successful songwriter in history - and he's a Beatle. And, just maybe, a comforting by-product of Robin's death will be the reappraisal of the Bee Gees' pre-disco work, too. As Elton John said to his Caesar's Palace crowd just this week: "The Bee Gees were part of my life when I was growing up; they were a huge influence on me as a songwriter". Elton John, and many, many more.

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