25 Years Ago: The Bee Gees Rebound With ‘One’
“It was never our intention to do anything else with our lives except to become famous,” admitted Barry Gibb in a 1989 interview. In fact, he added, he and his younger twin brothers Maurice and Robin — or, as the three have always been more popularly known, the Bee Gees — were busy making plans at an age when most kids were still playing with toys: “Before we ever got into our teens, we had already agreed with each other that that’s where we were going.”
The brothers’ ambition paid off in a big way. The Gibbs formed their first band in the mid-’50s, when Barry was nine and the twins were six; 10 years later, after the family moved from the UK to Australia, they were already a successful recording act with a budding discography that started producing Australian hits as early as ‘Wine and Women’ in the fall of 1965. And although those early years were followed by plenty of ups and downs — including a brief breakup — by the end of the ’70s, the Bee Gees were one of the biggest bands on the planet.
That torrid late ’70s run, fueled by the string of hits that came out of the Bee Gees-dominated ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack, eventually turned into a liability, as the group’s sound and public image became intertwined with the disco craze. When the disco backlash inevitably followed, the Bee Gees became a convenient scapegoat for a musical and cultural fad that, for awhile, proved maddeningly pervasive. In 1979, their ‘Fever’ follow-up LP, ‘Spirits Having Flown,’ topped charts around the world; two years later, its successor, ‘Living Eyes,’ peaked at No. 41 in the U.S.
To their credit, the Bee Gees responded to their sudden change in fortune by going away — or at least seeming to. For listeners who were paying attention, the Gibbs were almost as active on the charts as they’d been during their peak; they just did much of their work behind the scenes, penning hits for artists such as Dionne Warwick (1982’s ‘Heartbreaker‘), Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (1983’s ‘Islands in the Stream‘), and Diana Ross (1986’s ‘Chain Reaction‘), while Barry and Robin continued their solo careers.
By the middle of the ’80s, however, they’d started to get antsy for a return to their roots as a trio, even if resurrecting the Bee Gees banner meant starting over from scratch on the professional front. “We’d lost our management and our record company,” Barry admitted later. “And all of those legal problems associated with both led us into a vacuum for years. And so, for those years we weren’t a pop group and we enjoyed it. It was good for us. Then I think we basically just got tired of listening to everything that was on the radio and knowing we could do just as well, if not better.”
The Gibbs broke the Bee Gees’ recording hiatus with 1987’s ‘E.S.P.’ album, which served as a sonic evolution of sorts, while maintaining ties to the group’s platinum past. Co-producer Arif Mardin, working with the band for the first time in over a decade, had earlier been instrumental in helping them refine the sound that led to their work on ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ And although ‘E.S.P.’ wasn’t a major hit in the States, it enjoyed substantial success in other parts of the world, led by the No. 1 UK single ‘You Win Again.’
“It sustained us,” Barry admitted of ‘You Win Again’ catching on. “It proved our belief in what we were doing and that was encouraging. So we carried on.”
Their resolve was tested harder than ever the following year, when preparations for the ‘E.S.P.’ follow-up were derailed by the sudden death of the Gibbs’ younger brother Andy. Just 30 at the time of his passing, Andy Gibb enjoyed his own late ’70s successes as a successful solo artist, but he struggled out of the limelight. Well-documented battles with substance abuse contributed to the heart troubles that ultimately killed him on March 10, 1988.
In the years before he died, the elder Gibbs had been working on demos for a new Andy Gibb solo record, to be followed by an album and tour with the Bee Gees. “We were going to be together, to go out as a force,” Barry recalled. “He wanted to do another solo album to prove he was good at what he did and then he was going to join us. … That has to be the saddest, most desperate moment of my life, when I heard he was gone. Since then, I’ve asked myself a thousand times, could I have done more or said more to help him?”
The Gibbs’ sadness echoed through some of the material written for the new Bee Gees LP, ‘One,’ which arrived in the summer of 1989 — but while songs such as ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Tears’ seem directly inspired by Andy’s passing, the album’s tone was far from funereal. In fact, as evidenced by the title track and leadoff single, the trio’s trademark sibling harmonies and knack for radio-ready melodies remained intact. As Barry later told it, their younger brother’s death ultimately served as a sort of rallying cry.
“It devastated the whole family,” he admitted. “Nobody expected anything like that to happen to Andy.” But, he said, “It’s been a very spiritual experience for us; it’s made us all much more interested in the metaphysical side of life, and it’s made us want to perform much more than we would have normally. We want to get up and be counted — we want to play our music live, we want to become a performing group like we used to be … I think losing Andy has brought that out in us, in that we always feel that he was a very gifted person and a lot of it was wasted for various reasons. We don’t want to waste what we do, and that’s been a lesson to us: We want to do everything we can do and get better at it, and I think Andy’s responsible for that also.”
Whether ‘One’ represents a musical improvement for the Bee Gees depends on one’s personal point of view, but it definitely marked a surprising commercial rebound for the group, particularly in the U.S., where the ‘One’ single peaked at No. 7, giving them their first Top 10 hit since 1979. The album’s success coincided with the Bee Gees’ first full-fledged tour in years, and a decade after being crucified for disco’s sins, they were finally able to resume their recording career in earnest.
“We’ve always had a feeling about something we thought was a hit. We feel in our bones that that’s a hit record,” Barry noted of ‘One.’ “If we’re going to reclaim ground we’ve lost, then we have to make the best album we know how to make — not just make an album for certain ears, or an album that’s commercial. Just what we love as music.”
Recorded mostly with a relatively small four-piece session band, ‘One’ was neither as dance-driven as their ’70s hits nor as synth-dominated as ‘E.S.P.'; it was simply a snapshot of where the Bee Gees happened to be musically at that point in time. Even as it returned them to the public eye as something other than a punchline for the first time in years, however, it didn’t exactly restore them to their former commercial glory. In the U.S., the album stalled at No. 68, and its follow-up, 1991’s ‘High Civilization,’ failed to chart altogether.
Still, ‘One’ proved far from the Bee Gees’ final chart appearance; while 1993’s ‘Size Isn’t Everything’ failed to catch on in the States, it did well around the world, and both 1997’s ‘Still Waters’ (featuring the Top 40 hit ‘Alone’) and 2001’s ‘This Is Where I Came In’ peaked in the Top 20 of Billboard’s U.S. albums chart. Sadly — but perhaps fittingly — it was finally only death that could drive the Bee Gees apart; Maurice passed away suddenly in January of 2003 while awaiting intestinal surgery, and although Robin and Barry mulled over carrying on as a duo, those plans died with Robin after he succumbed to complications resulting from liver cancer in May of 2012.
Ultimately, while they may always be most strongly identified with one particularly powerful moment in their long career, the Bee Gees never really stopped moving creatively — and although they were counted out countless times, they never lost the drive that initially propelled them to stardom. “We totally believe in our music,” Barry explained in the months after ‘One’ was released. “That’s it, regardless of what anyone else may think of it, and it just drives us on.”