Tuesday, December 15, 2020

TV: The tragedy in HBO's Bee Gees' documentary

"I'm beginning to recognize the fact that nothing is true.  Nothing.  It's all down to perception," Barry Gibb declares at the beginning of THE BEE GEES: HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART.  Consider it a warning as to just how untruthful the 'documentary' HBO premiered Saturday actually is.


The Bee Gees?  A pop group made up of three brothers: Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb.  They had popularity for many decades but not a great deal of critical success.  The 'documentary' skirts the reality of what that was.  It notes, for example, the sixties minor hit (major for the group but minor -- placing at number 11 in the US) "Massachusetts.'' It fails to note that the song, full title: "(The Lights Went Out in) Massachusetts," was seen by many as the blatant rip off of John Phillips' "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)" that it is.  John wrote the song for Scott McKenzie who had a hit with it.  Released May 13, 1967, the song went to number four in the US and number one in the UK.  It's a detail 'expert' Mykaell Riley leaves out of his 'commentary' for the special -- despite the fact that he qualifies for a state pension in the UK -- meaning he's old enough to remember both songs in real time.  Also despite the fact that, in numerous interviews, Barry Gibb publicly admitted that Robin, who came up with the 'idea' for the song, was trying to write a folk anthem like John Phillips' song and the Flower Pot Men's "Let's Go To San Francisco."

Why is it important?  It's factually important -- Barry Gibb's opening remarks aside, facts do matter.  It also goes to why the group was never granted the critical praise that other acts that made it big in the UK were.  The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces, the Kinks, the Who?  They all pioneered some form of an original vision.  The Bee Gees coasted through copying others.  Not included in the special?  Barry's many remarks about how they were "basically dead in 1975.  The Bee Gees sound was basically tired."  As happened over and over with the group, they immediately tried to transform into something else.  Their first hit, "New York Mining Disaster 1941," had been repeatedly mistaken for a Beatles track.  Time and again, they copied others and rode waves created by others.  Unlike Madonna, another magpie, they never offered the definitive song of any genre they jumped onto. 

This ability to constantly reinvent themselves is what led them to their disaster, the film SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.  Only a group who really didn't know themselves and had no concrete identity would ever think they could re-record a classic album by the Beatles and star in a film 'based' on it without being publicly rebuked and ridiculed. It's why John Rockwell wrote, in THE NEW YORK TIMES (March 19, 1978), "When the disco trend sputters out, the Bee Gees will probably rally and reappear a few years later purveying the next hot style."  It's why Barry says ,in the documentary, of their 1975 MAIN COURSE album,  "They were about to drop us.  We had to adopt a new sound.  We had to adopt a new attitude."

We could write a multi-volume book about all the lies and errors in the special.  We're going to instead move to the narrative regarding disco and zoom in on that.  The 'documentary' tries to tell you that (a) the Bee Gees were defeated as popular recording artists because of the death of disco and (b) that disco was killed off by racists and homophobes.  

Both narratives are simplistic and artificial.

Let's deal with the latter because this really enraged us.  


Where are the women?  Lulu, British pop star, appears but only because she was married to a Brother Gibb.  The men behind the 'documentary' -- Frank Miller (director and producer) and Mark Monroe (screenwriter and producer) can't find any women worth talking to.  This despite the fact that Olivia Newton-John was a friend of the Brothers Gibb, a star at the same time and recorded their music.  Also ignored?  Barbra Streisand -- who is spoken about in the film but does not go on camera.  (With Barbara, she knows truth and may not have wanted to lie.)  Diana Ross is shown  but not interviewed.  (We checked, Diana was not asked to go on camera.)  Dionne Warwick is noted but not interviewed.  Barbra, Diana and Dionne all worked with the brothers Gibb -- each for one album.  But they weren't brought on to talk.

A fat and wrinkled Justin Timberlake is brought on to giggle in that girlish and fey manner of his.  Nick Jonas wasn't even born when the Bee Gees were making hits but he's brought on as an expert as well.  What the Bee Gees and Chris Martin (Coldplay) have in common escapes us but there he is in front of the camera.  Male critics are brought on.

Where are the women?

Mr. Nicky Siano babbles on about "the gay and the Black community" in a way that reminds us of all those segments on MSNBC with Keith Olbermann and Michael Mustafo attacking women -- reminded us of how elderly gay White men can be some of the worst sexists.

Sexism.  The backlash against disco was about racism, homophobia and sexism.  It's amazing how so many are eager to drop women out of the storyline.  

Disco queens?  Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Thelma Houston, Anita Ward, Janice Marie Johnson and Hazel Payne (A Taste of Honey), Cheryl Lynn, Alicia Bridges, Andrea True Connection, . . . 

How do you leave women out of the story of disco?  

Maybe you leave women out of the story by refusing to interview them?  Or acknowledge them even?

Disco was about liberation.  It was about sexual liberation, it was about liberation period.  Diana Ross' "Love Hangover," "Once In The Morning," "Lovin' Livin' and Givin'," "Top of the World," "What You Gave Me," "The Boss," "No One Gets The Prize," "It's My House," "Upside Down," "I'm Coming Out" . . .  These are songs where women are making real statements.  Because they were disco queens, some of these statements were adopted by gay men who loved the music and loved the divas.  Cher became a disco queen with "Take Me Home."  That was a song where she picks up a man and she takes him home.  Women were strong in disco songs.  They had power.

Please note, also, that, as Cher admitted, a lot of people tried to talk her out of doing disco.  No one ever tried to talk Mick Jagger and Keith Richards out of disco ("Miss You"), no one tried to talk Rod Stewart out of it ("Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," "Passion").   But when Cher is going to do disco, a number of people freak out and tell her not to do it.  

The genre produced one true artist.  Donna Summer didn't come from pop or soul or rock.  She was a music star who came up through disco.  More than a star, she was an artist.  At a time when few disco acts were taken seriously, ROLLING STONE was noting that Donna was the Bob Dylan of her genre.  And she was.

"Love To Love You Baby," "I Feel Love," "Last Dance," "MacArthur Park," "Enough Is Enough (No More Tears)" (duet with Barbra Streisand), "Hot Stuff," "Dim All The Lights," "The Wanderer," "Bad Girls," "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It," "Spring Affair," "I Remember Yesterday," "Heaven Knows" . . . 28 number one dance hits -- 19 of those from 1975 to 1979.  

Donna Summer, not the Bee Gees, is the artist of the genre.  The Bee Gees had some hits.  A lot of people did.  But Donna was an artist.  

"The death of disco killed the Bee Gees" narrative doesn't work if you include women.  The Bee Gees career may have ended in October 1981 with LYING EYES but that wasn't the case for others. 1982 to 1989?  Donna Summer racked up five top forty hits.  1982 to 1984, Irene Care had four top forty hits including the number one "Flashdance (What A Feeling)."  Madonna?  Her early work was pure disco -- even before disco morphed into dance.  


The 'documentary' blames the 'death of disco' on things like people cashing in with "Disco Duck."  You start to wonder if the idiots behind this 'special' know that Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" appears in the film SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER?  Or that the Bee Gees' label (RSO) released it?  Or that Rick Dees was upset because the song didn't appear on the vinyl soundtrack (he would have made millions, he's often noted).  

Disco didn't die.  It morphed into dance and could be found in the music of artists like Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Irene Cara, Shannon, Donna Summer, Rick Astley, etc.

Before it morphed, many were taken out of the running.  Much is made of the lack of hits for the Bee Gees.  But the same could be said of Barbra Streisand.  From 1970 to 1983, she had 17 top forty hits. The top ten ends for her with the three  hits from 1980 and 1981 produced by the Bee Gees -- "A Woman In Love," "Guilty" and "What Kind Of Fool" all from GUILTY.  She will return in 1996 to the top ten for the last time so far with "I Finally Found Someone" -- a duet with Bryan Adams.

The 'documentary' tells you that a disco backlash set in and that it took down the Bee Gees, that Barry Gibb would plead for airplay and that the now hitless band was lucky that Barbra Streisand would call them up at this time to work on GUILTY.  

There are so many lies in that.  Including -- and especially -- that Barbra would work with a failure.  

First off, the group was walking away from disco well before 1981.  "We're trying to avoid disco," Barry told Greg Mitchell (CRAWDADDY, August, 1978)  And there are a lot of other public remarks that we'll be kind and not repeat but, let's be honest, were homophobic -- statements by the group.  

But the 'documentary' tells you that after their chart hits were over, the band went "on the backburner for a bit."  Barry tells the camera that "everyone began to look for other things to do." Instead, they focused on writing for other artists.  

The band's last album came out in October of 1981.  So it's dishonest when Barry states, "We were scattered all over the place for a little while.  Robin was either in New York or Maurice was in England. I was alone at the time and I got a phone call from Barbra.  She asked me about writing songs and that terrified me."

Lie and liar.

First off, Barry wishes that had happened after 1981.  He drools over that wish.  Why?  Because, as we'll explain in a moment, he would have made more money if Barbra had approached him after 1981.

Let's do a slow walk through down the street of reality.  Barbra (with Jon Peters) attends the July 7, 1979 Bee Gees concert at Dodgers Stadium.  She meets with them.  She asks them to write some songs for her.  They begin writing these songs on their 1979 SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN tour.  While they're writing, she is in negotiations with Robert Stigwood who is their manager, their publisher and the head of the label they are signed to (RSO).  She and Charles Koppelman want part of the publishing.  Stigwood says no.  He also demanded that the Bee Gees get a quarter of the advance for the album and the royalties for the album because there are three Bee Gees and only one Streisand.  These negotiations are why only Barry sings on the album.  Barbra counters that "they all sound alike" and so she will just pay for one (Barry).  

The album was written on the road during the SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN tour (with the exception of "The Love Inside" which was written in 1978 and not written for Barbra)..  That tour -- a massive success -- ended October 6, 1979 in Miami.  That same month, BEE GEES GREATEST would be released.  It would hit number one on the US charts on January 12, 1980.  By February, the instrumental tracks for Barbra's GUILTY album had been recorded. February and March saw Barbra recording her vocals (yes, after the tracks had already been recorded) and the album was released September 23, 1980.

When the album was released, the Bee Gees were still chart hitmakers.  They had completed a successful tour (1979's SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN), had a hit studio album with SPIRITS HAVE FLOWN (over a million copies sold in the US alone -- three number one hits "Tragedy," "Too Much Heaven" and "Love You Inside Out") and a greatest hits collection that topped the charts in January of 1980.  They were at the height of their fame and selling power.  

"That's how the GUILTY album came about," Barry lies.  "We could not get on the radio so the whole idea was to write for other people. Let's be songwriters. Let's try to graduate from being a group that's beginning to fade."

Lies.  It's all lies.  

But we hear "A Woman In Love" play right after and see photos of Barbra with Barry (including one from the 90s though no one seems to notice that it's not from the GUILTY days -- Barbra's hair will always tip you off to the decade).  We see it go to number one on the charts. We watch Barry, Robin and Maurice be interviewed about writing "Woman In Love."

Then we're told that Dionne Warwick's manager called up to ask the Bee Gees to write for her.  Lie.  Clive Davis met with Barry Gibb while both were in Florida.  Clive had a list of ARISTA artists.  Barry was looking for someone to produce.  He saw Dionne's name on the list and that was the one.  Clive was the president of ARISTA, he was not Dionne's manager.  Diana Ross had RTC Management -- she did not have a manager call up the Gibbs, she was managing her own career.  Dolly Parton did not call the Bee Gees to write or produce for her.  Barry was producing Kenny Rogers.  "Islands In The Stream" was not working as a solo song sung by Kenny and Kenny said it needed Dolly -- at which point, Dolly was asked to sing on it.


These are truths.

Lies and lies and more lies is what the 'documentary' offers.

The Bee Gees did not go under because of 'the death of disco.'  They destroyed themselves.  They made homophobic comments and did so in interviews -- not a smart way to help your career.  They were a little too proud of themselves which had a lot of people wanting them to fail.  They barely survived the release of the film SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.  That film killed a lot of careers.  But SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, the soundtrack, saved them.  They followed that massive success with SPIRITS HAVE FLOWN -- the album, the tour, then BEE GEES GREATEST and then Barbra's GUILTY (which included two hit duets with Barry).  

Their career as a group comes to a close in October 1981 with the release of  their album LIVING EYES.  The album itself was a problem.  They had their biggest success working with their band.  For this album, they fired the band and used session players (Barry was pleased with how session players had worked on GUILTY).  That was one major change.  Another was that Barry was sharing lead vocals -- now Robin and Maurice were singing solo leads -- something that they hadn't done in years.  They'd been walking away from disco in public remarks since 1978.  

There was also the RSO issue.  The label had been falling apart throughout the year and did not have the staff to handle a major release by October.  Worse, Barry had led his brothers in picking a fight with RSO and its head Robert Stigwood.  This led to many legal allegations.  In the end, they all reached a settlement in the summer of 1981.  It was supposed to be private but the brothers felt Stigwood and RSO lied about them in a press release so the brothers took out ads in VARIETY and ROLLING STONE explaining that they now had all their publishing -- and would be creating their own publishing house -- and RSO no longer could determine whether the brothers could (or could not) produce an artist's record and RSO forked over millions in unpaid royalties.

So you had a group that had bashed disco, that had put out a so-so album and that was crowing about the millions they now had from RSO.  It all worked to harm the band and to send them packing.  It was a time when albums weren't selling.  And angry consumers well remembered the cost of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER -- a double album and of BEE GEES GREATEST -- also a double album.

Disco didn't kill the Bee Gees career, they killed it themselves.  It's a shame that story couldn't be told because it's much more interesting -- and truthful -- than anything HBO offered Saturday night.

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