Has anyone the area code for the Isle of Man? I urgently need to get hold of the mayor of the island’s capital. We need to discuss his town’s latest art installation, a statue of Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb directly inspired by the video of the Australian singing brothers’ fabulous hit, ‘Stayin’ Alive’.
Actually, as far as these things go, this bronze likeness now parked on the seafront of Douglas doesn’t look half bad. Sculptor Andy Edward rather marvellously gets the bedazzling smiles and ludicrously flared dress sense of the Bee Gees just about right, and I would absolutely be the last person to quibble with the choice of song he drew on to fashion their likeness.
Jon Joughin, the Douglas mayor who unveiled the new work, said the main point of the creation is to remind the world that the performers ‘never forgot the land of their birth’, and had always taken every opportunity to speak with ‘deep affection and pride’ of their cultural roots. Hmm.
By strange coincidence, I have been listening quite a bit to the song that inspired the statue of late. I suppose I never stopped listening to it, really, over the decades since it first appeared like a musical lightning bolt in a clear sky, its classic opening bass roll having been the first item of lavish musical business on the breakthrough soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.
The soundtrack eventually yielded five huge commercial hits for the brothers. Plenty more followed and yet more could have been still in process had the deaths of Maurice and Robin not left Barry as the only remaining Gee still with us today. For me, ‘Stayin’ Alive’ has always been the song that best insinuated itself as the signature tune of both the group and the era they represented.
Listening to ‘Stayin’ Alive’ also makes a certain sense at a moment when political leaders are forever talking about the possible end of restrictions on people going back into the nightclubs at such time as the pandemic eases. Nightclubs? Does anyone under 50 these days even know what such an establishment is, much less have the remotest desire to frequent one? As a friend on social media likes to point out, what passes for a ‘nightclub’ in 2021 might better be described as a bar with a dance floor the size of three handbags lain end to end.
No, the real answer to the nightclub question harks back to the metropolitan urban pads of the Seventies where the music of the Bee Gees flew out of high-powered speakers and beams of light stained the ceiling. Everybody on the floor now. Whether or not the disco era was the golden age of pop music, it was unique for the sense of community it engendered as the Western world’s foremost form of live entertainment and for the way the culture brought millions of young knights in white satin together in the belief that a few hours wriggling to the rhythm was the ultimate ticket to stayin’ alive.
No doubt, the good mayor from the Irish Sea might want to take some of the credit for that, too. This is why we need to chat. A slightly deeper geographical bow, I think, has to be taken in the direction of the South Pacific, to Sydney in particular, which is where the brothers lived when they first started out in the music business. Plus, Queensland, which is where they made some of their most important early work. Subtract either place from the biographical mix and there would have been no Bee Gees as the world came to know them and perhaps not a lot else to enshrine in bronze, either.
It was in the Australian town of Redcliffe, after all, where the brothers road-tested their first recorded compositions, incorrectly billed at the time as a kind of soft-core version of the Beatles. But if anything, the Fab Three Aussies were a far darker proposition than the loveable Fab Four, at least if one tallies the number of dead people strewn amid their lyrics.
‘I Just Gotta Get A Message to You’, one of their first hits, carried the story of a Death Row inmate who is about to join the ranks of the deceased, while ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’ also turned on the fate of the soon-to-be-shafted; another early hit, ‘I Started A Joke’, even had the singer singing from beyond the grave.
At the same time, some of their best songs — there were certainly a few duds along the way — also glowed with great life. Proof of this was often there to be heard when more established artists covered them.
Take the Very Reverend Al Green, whom I saw in concert one evening many years ago performing ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’ at the Wolf Trap, an amphitheatre set amid rolling farmland in northern Virginia. Zillions of fireflies, as fine and tiny as tissue paper, flitted against a long backdrop of trees not far from the stage, their waves of colour flickering waves of sound as America’s best-known musical preacher gave a reading from the Book of Gibb.
The drummer counted four, a rhythm section snapped into life and the pump-organ bubbled loudly, as Green sailed into the group’s 1971 hit, his voice ricocheting all over the place, down low one moment and then up high with silver falsettos and the occasional whoop.
Green, like the Gibbs, was always masterful at the push-and-pull vocal stratagem, and on this particular evening he gave it a decidedly gospel twist after falling to his knees halfway through, shouting and whispering, ‘Wait a minute now, wait a minute … I just want the band to bring it down, I just wanna say …’ — now it was the riff merchants in the rhythm section flickering in the night — ‘… I just wanna say Jeeeeeee-sus mended my broken heart …’.
This was all too much for the 7,000-strong, mainly black crowd, who appeared to make a snap decision at around this point to remain in the venue and listen to the music of the Bee Gees for the rest of their lives. Hundreds rose to their feet for a spot of call-and-response, singing back: ‘Hallelujah!’ ‘Hallelujah!’ ‘Hallelujah!’
It was all enough to almost give an unbeliever in their midst a cardiac arrest, which would have been no bad thing, since Al Green would have then had to come down from the stage and perform ‘Stayin’ Alive’ while the paramedics resuscitated me.
Music from the Isle of Man? Ask me another.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10