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Islands in the Stream

July 14, 2014 | by

The elephant in the discotheque: the Bee Gees.

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A 1977 publicity photo of the Bee Gees for a television special, “Billboard #1 Music Awards.” From top: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

The Bee Gees’ dominance of the charts in the disco era was above and beyond Chic, Giorgio Moroder, even Donna Summer. Their sound track to Saturday Night Fever sold thirty million copies. They were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978’s number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney in 1963/64 could rival—and John and Paul hadn’t been the producers, only the writers. Even given the task of writing a song called “Grease” (“Grease is the word, it’s got groove, it’s got a meaning,” they claimed, hoping no one would ask, “Come again?”), they came up with a classic. At one point in March they were behind five singles in the American Top 10. In 1978 they accounted for 2 percent of the entire record industry’s profits. The Bee Gees were a cultural phenomenon.

Three siblings from an isolated, slightly sinister island off the coast of northwest England, already in their late twenties by the time the Fever struck—how the hell did they manage this? Pinups in the late sixties, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early seventies, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgeist until, inexplicably, they had hits like “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them. This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B, and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978. They melded black and white influences into a more satisfying whole than anyone since Elvis. Simply, they were defining pop culture in 1978.

Like ABBA, there is a well of melancholic emotion, even paranoia, in the Bee Gees’ music. Take “How Deep Is Your Love” (no. 1, ’77), with its warm bath of Fender Rhodes keyboards and echoed harmonies that camouflage the cries of the lyric: “We’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be … How deep is your love? I really need to learn.” Or “Words,” with its romantic but strangely seclusionist “This world has lost its glory. Let’s start a brand-new story now, my love.” Or “Night Fever,” their ’78 number one, with its super-mellow groove and air-pumped strings masking the high anxiety of Barry Gibb’s vocal; the second verse is indecipherable, nothing but a piercing wail with the odd phrase—“I can’t hide!”—peeking through the cracks. It is an extraordinary record.

Total pop domination can have fierce consequences. Elvis had been packed off to the army; the Beatles had received Ku Klux Klan death threats—the Bee Gees received the mother of all backlashes, taking the full brunt of the anti-disco movement. Radio stations announced “Bee Gee–free weekends”; a comedy record called “Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices” by the HeeBeeGeeBees became a UK radio hit. Their 1979 album Spirits Having Flown had sold sixteen million copies and spawned three number-one singles (“Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out”); the singles from 1981’s Living Eyes—“He’s a Liar” and the title track—reached thirty and forty-five on the chart respectively, and didn’t chart in Britain at all. Almost overnight, nobody played Bee Gees records on the radio, and pretty much nobody bought them. The biggest group in the world at the end of 1978 went into enforced retirement three years later. Could they rise again? Of course they could. Read More »

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Highs in the Mideighties

June 25, 2014 | by

Recalling the heyday of Prince and Madonna on the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain.

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Twenty-four-hour music television, the brainchild of a TV-spawned pop star, the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, began broadcasting in August 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” MTV was everywhere within eighteen months. If new pop and postpunk had gleefully and rapidly rewritten rules, taking music forward in a constant revolution of purpose and invention, their aftermath was an era of momentum for its own sake. Things got ever shinier, greed and need replaced innovation: conservatism was a force and a problem both outside and within eighties pop.

Two new names appeared in this froth of newness. Both stood out from the crowd, both clearly demanded attention, worship, devotion: Prince and Madonna. These were names that couldn’t have existed at the dawn of modern pop, names that baited royalty and religion.

Both based their sound on electronically processed dance music, allowing them the opportunity to change style from record to record in a way that seemed innovative, one step ahead of the pack, like Dylan or Bowie before them. Both had egos the size of mansions. Both had a new hunger for success, for money. Both used MTV to become stars, and both used movies (Desperately Seeking Susan, Purple Rain) to make the jump from stardom to superstardom. Sex! Religion! Gigolo! Whore! Purple! Cone bra! No one could accuse Prince or Madonna of underplaying their hands. And, eventually, both challenged Michael Jackson’s place at the very top of the pop empire; by the eighties’ end Madonna had (arguably) toppled him in the popularity stakes, and Prince had (certainly) creatively eased past Jackson with the most streamlined, silver-finned R&B of the decade. These were their similarities. In other respects they were quite different.

Prince had first appeared with the itchy falsetto disco of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (no. 11, ’79) and was presented—not least by himself—as a teenage prodigy. He grew up in the largely white city of Minneapolis: “The radio was dead, the discos was dead, the ladies was kind of dead. If I wanted to make some noise, if I wanted to turn anything out, I was gonna have to get something together. Which was what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown.”

He wanted to be everybody’s lover and—unlike most disco acts—was quite at home with lyrics about oral sex, incest, and Dorothy Parker. This set him apart. By 1983 he was channeling Sly Stone and the Beach Boys on “Little Red Corvette,” and a year later Newsweek was calling him “the Prince of Hollywood” as Purple Rain—starring Prince as the Kid—grossed $80 million. Read More »

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