The Bee Gees were always popular, but for a while, it was hard to tell if they were good. Placed right in the middle of the pop world just as disco blasted into the collective consciousness, the brothers Gibb had white suits, gold medallions, and extremely high voices. They were ripe for parody, but also success: The Bee Gees notched nine number one hits in America, making them the second most successful group on the Hot 100 after The Beatles and The Supremes — no mean feat.
While their initial success was massive, the stiff backlash against disco, and a swift change in popular music, led The Bee Gees to a sort of terminal unhipness. They shifted over to a more adult contemporary sound, but their time in the sun had passed by the mid-1980s. What most casual fans didn’t know was that The Bee Gees had a long and storied history even before the days of Saturday Night Fever, including a previous lineup, breakup, and reformation that made them resilient at their core. It wasn’t until Maurice Gibb’s passing in 2003 did Robin and Barry decide to finally retire the name, and it wouldn’t take long for the world to fully embrace the Australian trio.
Today, The Bee Gees have everything that an ultra-respected act could ever want, including critical acclaim, massive sales, an HBO documentary, constant reference in pop culture, and unlikely tributes by everyone from Tame Impala to the Foo Fighters. Whereas they might once have been viewed only as the band behind ‘Stayin Alive’, The Bee Gees are now a universal act, even if Barry is the only one around to see it.
In honour of Barry Gibb’s birthday, we’re looking back at the ten songs that put The Bee Gees there in the first place. And if you feel like you’re going to scream if you hear ‘Stayin’ Alive’ one more time, these are ten songs that prove that The Bee Gees are more than their biggest hit, and more than just disco (although, of course, we’ve got to talk about some disco too).
Here are ten songs that prove The Bee Gees don’t suck.
10 best Bee Gees songs of all time
‘To Love Somebody’
The initial Bee Gees sound is a bizarre amalgamation of psychedelic rock, folk, baroque pop, blue-eyed soul, mixed in with Beatlesesque harmonies and studio experimentation. They landed somewhere between a teeny bopper sensibility and a true embrace of the counterculture, but it was with ‘To Love Somebody’ that The Bee Gees found their true love: the massive hook.
Everything in ‘To Love Somebody‘ works to build up to the chorus, and that chorus is pure earworm material. Just look at the variety of artists who covered it: Nina Simone, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Janis Joplin, Michael Bolton. The transcendent power of a killer hook imprinted itself on the Gibb Brothers, and they would spend the rest of their careers using it as a blueprint for building songs.
The Bee Gees weren’t always just the Brothers Gibb. Guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Peterson were full-time band members during the group’s initial psychedelic success. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1973 that the band was reduced to its core threesome when drummer Geoff Bridgford left the lineup. The Bee Gees were a band first and foremost, and their cohesion as a group can easily be heard on ‘Massachusetts’, their first UK number one.
‘Masachusettes’ reminds me a lot of when I try to make references to England in my articles, to which my editors take great glee revelling in how little I actually know about the country. Similarly, the Gibbs had clearly never been to the Bay State, but that gives the song a sort of naive adorableness as the brothers channel a sense of regret and longing for home. The song also acts as a slight rebuke of the San Francisco hippie scene, showing an early discontent for the band being pigeonholed into a single style.
‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’
The Bee Gees had attempted to go big in 1969 with a piece of work that was sure to place them among the most ambitious and important acts of the time. The result, a concept album called Odessa that basically broke the band, and Robin departed later that year. It didn’t take long for the brothers to reform the group with a renewed sense of purpose, and in 1971 the band scored their first American number one, ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’.
Once again the brothers honed in on a hook, this time in the form of a delicate and heartbreaking melody. How much you like the song likely depends on how much mileage you get out of Robin as the band’s lead singer, his official position for the band’s first decade. I much prefer the Al Greene version, which feels much more soulful and emotional, but the core of a great song is still there in the original performance.
The Bee Gees had seen their future as straight-ahead hitmakers, but it took them a while to get there. After ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’, the band released a myriad of singles that failed to capitalise on its success. When the band decided to uproot to Miami, they were exposed to the newest in dance and funk music and adopted the sound for themselves.
With the change in style came a switch in lead singers as Barry began to take greater control over the band’s direction. The result was ‘Jive Talkin’, a loose and electronic R&B jam that saw the band embracing the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Philadelphia soul acts like The O’Jays.
When blended with their pop sensibilities, it created a new signature sound that would help bring a new phenomenon to music: disco.
‘You Should Be Dancing’
The Bee Gees, as they exist within the greater public imagination, are born on ‘You Should Be Dancing’. After experimenting with R&B and funk, the band dove in headfirst and created a club-focused pop sound that included Barry adopting a falsetto lead vocal style. Hearing the direction that groups like KC and the Sunshine Band were heading in, they wanted a piece of that glory.
‘You Should Be Dancing’ is the moment where all bets are off: you’re either on board with the ridiculous falsetto yelps, blaring cowbells, and synthesised string arrangements or you’re repulsed by the very notion of it. To be in the latter camp is to live a sad existence, because once the cheesiness of the track is embraced, the song reveals itself as both an earworm and an impressive arrangement of groove.
Simply put, ‘You Should Be Dancing’ is too much fun to inspire any hatred.
Whether you’re a fan of a particular musical style or not, you have to appreciate when a certain artist has perfected it and turned it into an art form. The Bee Gees, rivalled perhaps only by Chic, made disco music that was timeless.
When they were given what was essentially a homework assignment, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, the band turned out some of the most memorable songs of all time. They were in the zone, cranking out number ones like they had an assembly line.
‘Night Fever’ is the darkest and moodiest of all the band’s disco hits, which is to say it’s still bright and shiny and silly. But ‘Night Fever’ moves with a seductive momentum, which makes it tailor-made for a dark and mysterious dance club like the one Tony Manero inhabits. There are so many hooks and memorable production touches, from the wah-wah guitar to the perfect amount of reverb on the track, but it’s the group’s tight falsetto harmonies in the chorus that make the biggest impact.
‘How Deep Is Your Love’
Ballads are the “make or break” scenario for most people to fully embrace The Bee Gees as truly important artists. The disco songs are cheesy but undeniably catchy; the ballads can boil your blood if you’re not careful. They have a lot of them, and the trio certainly favoured them as they got further and further away from their hitmaking era.
‘How Deep Is Your Love’ is nestled right between ‘Stayin Alive’ and ‘Night Fever’ on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, providing a necessary break in the intense hip-thrusting going down both on-screen and, likely, in person. The electric piano-driven number combines the falsetto harmonies of their disco era and the sappy slow-dance quality of their early work. That should make it insufferable, but it all comes back to another massive hook.
That’s how the Gibbs kept themselves from devolving into saccharine cheese or cringe-inducing trend-chasing.
After Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees reached an unparalleled level of global success. Their sound was both cutting edge and popular within the mainstream. They had riches, gigantic sales, and numerous number ones. So why change when you’ve got a good thing going?
That was the thinking with 1979’s Spirits Having Flown. While it mostly plays like a lesser version of Saturday Night Fever, the band knew they had a killer first single. ‘Tragedy’ channels a level of heartbreak that can only be described as biblical. Or apocalyptic. It’s intensely dramatic, and it will easily get stuck in your head for days if you’re not careful. Once again, the Brothers Gibb found a way to weaponise their hooks.
‘You Win Again’
When the afterglow of Saturday Night Fever faded away, The Bee Gees were once again in need of a sound change. The ’70s were firmly in the past, and disco would no longer lead the band to success. They opted to embrace the style of Barry’s duet partner, Barbra Streisand. Soft rock suited The Bee Gees, but they rarely produced the transcendent hooks and lively production that they did during the disco era.
Barry released his tight grip on lead vocals and falsetto, and ballads started to take over the band’s songwriting. It took them a while to return to their experimental edge, but 1987’s E.S.P. saw the band go full ’80s, complete with gated reverb, synths, and their desire to structure songs around a huge chorus. ‘You Win Again’ is a song that is weirdly awesome in its complete embrace of the sounds of the time, and unlike most of their ’80s material, it’s actually got a hook you can remember afterwards.
‘This Is Where I Came In’
Say whatever you like about The Bee Gees originality, but one thing is for sure: they were smart enough to hop on trends that ideally fit their circumstances.
By 2001, Johnny Cash had started an incredible resurgence with the American Series of recordings, which specifically banked on Cash’s age and connection with his former self. The Gibbs decided to hop on the self-referential train with their final album, This Is Where I Came In.
Unfortunately, their circumstances would mirror Cash’s in more ways than one. Maurice unexpectedly passed away in 2003 (the same year as Cash), and the other Gibbs retired The Bee Gees out of respect. The two would occasionally reunite before Robin’s death in 2012, but the duo would never again record as The Bee Gees. ‘This Is Where I Came In’, appropriately, becomes the band’s final word, and acts as a summation of their extensive four-decade career.