A friend of mine recently expressed his admiration for the Bee Gees, but he did so more as an admission than a declaration. A “guilty pleasure” or a “secret vice” – those kind of needless disclaimers. It shouldn’t be that way in general – preferences framed as being ironic – and it certainly shouldn’t be that way when it comes to the Bee Gees, whether in open-collared disco duds or as earnestly sensitive folk-pop singers.
This weekend, Robin Gibb died, as did Donna Summer a few days earlier. History is viewing them kindly, as it should.
In some ways, disco music was a disposable novelty and gross fad. And sure, as Tom Moon notes in his book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die: “It transformed ordinarily rhythm-impaired white people into wriggling masses of flesh, and gave them humiliating dances to do in public.”
But it was also music for the marginalized, particularly the gay and lesbian communities. The Village People's Y.M.C.A., Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive and Sister Sledge's We Are Family were empowering anthems and feel-good party songs about kinship: “We are family, I got all my sisters with me.”
To that uplifting canon, the Gibb brothers (twins Robin and Maurice and the older falsetto specialist Barry) added Stayin’ Alive, a stringed, funk-light chest-puffer for no-nonsense heterosexuals – you could tell by the way they used their walk, no time to talk – and anyone else. The song was just one of several smash hits on the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever, a 1977 film with the working title Tribal Rights on a Saturday Night. On their own, the band had a hit in 1976 with You Should Be Dancing.
Summer, of course, was the Queen of Disco. She loved to love us, baby, and for many of us the feeling was mutual. And while her hits were numerous – including Last Dance, MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff and She Works Hard for the Money – one single stands above the rest.
From 1977, I Feel Love was the sound of the future, off the album I Remember Yesterday. It used a spongy, jittery and relentless beat, over which Summer cooed serenely and weightlessly, as if from a nirvana. She felt good, she felt love – “fallin’ free, fallin’ free, fallin’ free....”
The track has been covered by Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but its best legacy is its pioneering sound. Today we call it electronic dance music, and it’s kind of a big deal.
As for the legacy of Robin Gibb and his brothers, it shouldn’t actually be the jive talkin’ that we will remember the most. The harmonious Australian trio (who disbanded after the death of Maurice in 2003) wrote enduring, versatile pop. How Can You Mend a Broken Heart was twee brilliance when sung by the quavering Robin; Al Green did it delicately as a lush soul ballad.
The brothers wrote Islands in the Stream for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, who scored big with it as a chummy, upbeat country-pop chart-topper in 1983. In 2007, Feist and Bry Webb of the Constantines slowed the tempo dramatically, transforming the duet into something more haunting and aching.
Feist also covered the Bee Gees’ Inside and Out on her 2007 album Let It Die. And To Love Somebody has been sung by everyone from Blue Rodeo to Nina Simone to Michael Bolton. The reason? Pure singability.
There’s nothing necessarily complicated about what the Gibbses did. They wrote songs for themselves and others to sing. When it came to their disco material, they (like Summers) offered opportunities to move. And so you should not be guilty of your pleasures. You should not be ironically admiring. You should be dancing.