Staying Alive

Robin Gibb Dissed ‘American Idol’

In one of his final interviews, the Bee Gee criticized music shows like American Idol and talked about songs that stand the test of time. By Samantha Marshall

Tracy Brand / AP Photo

I’ve been a fan of the Bee Gees ever since I was 12 years old and saw them in Montreal during their “Spirits Having Flown” tour. It was 1979, I was about to start high school, and I couldn’t wait to brag about the lavish concert to my new classmates. I still remember those white-satin suits with shirts unbuttoned down to tanned navels. But on the first day of school, the bus rolled up to the campus and I saw the words “Disco Is Dead” on the school wall. I kept quiet about the concert. But in my heart, I never wrote off the Brothers Gibb.

They are among the few artists in the history of popular music to have successfully crossed genres and generations. With more than 220 million units sold, the Bee Gees broke records as they transitioned from sixties British pop to define the disco era. So when I got the opportunity to talk with Robin Gibb a year and a half ago for a book I’m writing about the music industry, I couldn’t think of anyone better to offer some perspective. He had plenty to share about his disappointment in the current state of music, and his words—never before published—remain with me still.

“Nowadays it’s all about style over substance,” he told me. “It’s almost an extension of the catwalk, or Playboy making records. You have hot-looking guys and girls who are manipulated and told which direction to go. They’re told, ‘Don’t worry about the record. Just show up for the video and the television show.’”

He was firmly dismissive about the contribution of reality television like American Idol, although he performed on its stage a few months later and, on this season’s finale, the show’s young contestants sang his hits in tribute. “This is gladiator television that’s not really about talent so much as television ratings,” he said. “And of course whoever wins is going to have a big album.”

I never got the chance to ask him why he later chose to perform on a show he disapproved of, but my guess is that the reason is simple: business is business. If this is where America goes to discover music, he’d be crazy not to seize the chance to showcase his songs to a whole new generation of listeners. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

He went on to say how most of the kids on the show were “straight out of the shopping mall.” In other words, they have a desire for instant success but no track record or songwriting chops. They sing other people’s songs, and not particularly well, judging by the other night’s faltering performances of Bee Gees tunes—which seemed to prove his point.

“You sound frustrated,” I said.

“I am frustrated,” he replied. “It creates the idea that the industry is being controlled by people like these judges. They are the soothsayers, they are the kingpins, and it’s all governed by these three or four people. That message is going out to millions of viewers because of the popularity of the show. There’s a feeling of intimidation. Truly talented composers think they can’t get past these people. Real artists get put off because they think that’s how the industry is run and they get frightened.”

Robin was on a roll, slamming the short-term thinking of record executives more influenced by television ratings than good music. “Some very ignorant people say this has been good for the music industry, and if you’re a record executive who happens to be on the label where these people end up, yeah it might be good. It pays the bills and they can make a profit, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the health of where music is going. They’re all after the fast bucks. But they’re not really doing it by investing in musicians and songwriters and genuinely talented people. Remember, 30 to 40 years ago, there was no X Factor, there was no American Idol, and yet still great acts were being discovered.”

Back in the day, it was a combination of talent, hard work, and persistence that got the Bee Gees their first record deal. They’d been performing together since Robin was 8 years old, but they were living in Sydney and knew they’d never break out unless they left. So, in their late teens, the three brothers—the eldest, Barry, and Robin and his twin brother, Maurice—set sail for their England, working on a ship for passage. They arrived in London flat broke, “sleeping on floor boards” because they didn’t have cash for a hotel room. They’d mailed some records to Brian Epstein ahead of time, and one cold winter morning in 1967, out of the blue, they got a call.

“He actually listened to us and wanted to meet. We got on the bus and went in. And the first thing they did was give us some money so we could buy some clothes!”

Two months later, they were in the top 20.

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Their secret sauce was in the creative process. “We were constantly challenging each other with ideas.” Barry and Robin would usually sing into a cassette player, with no instruments, and then come up with a melody by imagining the chords and playing them on a recorder. They wouldn’t even enter a studio until weeks later. Even in recent years, the Bee Gees would stay away from technology until they were ready to record. “When we go into studio, we will write the songs and we won’t listen to the radio at all for weeks while we are writing.”

The songs also had to be about something that would resonate with everyone: “Robert Stigwood, our manager, told us, ‘Write for 40 years from now, don’t write for now,’ so we always kept our eye on melodies and the substance. The subject matter was always human relationships to appeal to young or old, even the unborn, because it’s something that’s as perennial as the grass. Relationships never go out of fashion—they always say something to people over the decades. And don’t use slang or something that’s for the moment. It’s always; it’s forever.”

Over the years, the tensions between Robin and Barry gave them plenty of material to channel into songwriting. With many of his records relegated to the B-side, Robin often resented being in the shadow of his older brother and even went solo for a few years. But he seemed downright deferential to his only surviving sibling when he visited him at his home in Miami, which is when we spoke. His brother Maurice had died in 2003.

“I can’t say very much at the moment, but of course the Bee Gees story is going to be on the stage by the end of the year,” he said. “We ain’t stopping yet.”

There were a few stage appearances since, although any big plans for a major Bee Gees comeback sputtered as Robin’s health continued to fail. But his legacy of great songs lives on.