40 Years Ago: The Bees Gees Break Away From Disco on ‘Living Eyes’
The Bee Gees' fall from commercial grace was directly tied to changing attitudes about disco music as the '80s loomed. Even the band members themselves were pondering where the future might lead.
"There was a tremendous fear that we had fallen into a rut, and I felt strongly on Living Eyes that it was time to change," long-time producer Albhy Galuten said in 2000's The Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb. "When we started working on [what became the Bee Gees' 16th album] and it was not being fun, I remember sitting around with my friends at the time, and saying, 'It's just not working and I think that I'm going to leave.'"
Part of the disconnect in the studio may have stemmed from the brothers' rustiness as a collective group: All three had contributed to outside projects as the decade turned, and reconvening wasn't without its difficulties. With a large portion of radio stations refusing to play Bee Gees records in the midst of the anti-disco movement, it was time for a new approach.
Barry Gibb's R&B falsetto had dominated the group's lead vocals through the late '70s, but a change in style would also prompt a shift at the mic.
Watch the Bee Gees Perform 'He's a Liar'
"'God, every falsetto record we're putting out is a monster; we shouldn't change yet.' That's what stopped us from saying, 'Well it's time Robin [Gibb] had a lead,'" Barry recalled in The Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb. "But now it's no longer a sales point, it's important that Robin's voice get heard. It's equally important that Maurice [Gibb]'s voice gets heard. And it's becoming less important that I get heard – and that's the way we work. There's no ego within the three of us, whoever's singing most or whoever has the most hits is irrelevant."
Session musicians also took the place of the band that had recorded and toured with the Bee Gees in the late '70s. Newcomers included Don Felder of the Eagles, and an impressive lineup of well-known studio vets like Jeff Porcaro (Toto, Steely Dan), Richard Tee (Paul Simon, George Harrison), George Terry (Eric Clapton, ABBA) and Steve Gadd (James Taylor, Chick Corea), among others.
Most of Living Eyes, with the notable exception of "Soldiers," ended up avoiding Barry's falsetto. It was a commercial risk that may have appealed a bit more to anti-disco consumers, but likely wouldn't go over as well with Saturday Night Fever fans. Indeed, the album fared poorly on the charts after its October 1981 release, landing at No. 73 in the U.K. and just outside the Top 40 in America.
Listen to the Bee Gees Perform 'Soldiers'
There were larger forces at work once again, Barry Gibb argued. "I've come to the conclusion that if you have too much success in this business, the business turns against you,'" he told the New York Times in 1987. "But we also had some bad luck. Besides the disco backlash, Living Eyes came out while our previous label, RSO, was in the process of shutting down. The week it came out, the president of the company was fired."
In the end, Living Eyes ended up making history anyway: The album was was selected to be manufactured as a compact disc in 1981 for demonstration purposes on the BBC television program Tomorrow's World, a show intended to introduce people to developing technology. The format wouldn't be produced and distributed to the public for another year.
Host Kieran Prendiville memorably tested the new technology by smearing the disc with strawberry jam, insisting that Living Eyes would play anyway. It didn't, but the Bee Gees had once again found a way to break new ground.