27 January 2014

The irredeemable public image of the Bee Gees

One of the most fascinating and surprising chapters, given Stanley’s anti-rockist stripe, is his explanation of why heavy metal was so big – and mostly enjoyable – in the Seventies and Eighties. But Stanley is wise enough to avoid making any ludicrous claims for, say, Herman’s Hermits being better than The Beatles or for Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys being ‘overrated’. Each of these staples of pop history given praise, but without Stanley rehearsing and falling back on familiar arguments. Stanley’s trick is often to uncover some fascinating new fact about a long-established act which he then uses to explain their appeal.

None of this means that Stanley makes his judgements according to melody and brilliant-album status alone. Pop bands and singers still have to display a sometimes-elusive cool factor because, even if they’re masterful tunesmiths, some can still be resolutely unlovable. The Boomtown Rats, the Stranglers, XTC and, for me, Elvis Costello tend to hit that category. For Stanley, while the Police’s early singles were ‘economical and irresistible’, ‘the feeling that something wasn’t quite right crept in early’. Quite. Nowhere is this truer than with U2 who, despite some very fine albums, are a band impossible to love and easy to hate – and it’s not all down to the preposterous Bono, either.

Sometimes, the anti-cool factor is a cruel judge, as the Bee Gees repeatedly found to their cost. Despite a back catalogue of genuinely phenomenal songs, despite the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever still sounding miraculous and beamed in from another planet, the Bee Gees have become a byword for the gauche and tacky. Chic they were not. Stanley’s attempt to explain this chasm between the pristine quality of the Bee Gees’ songwriting and their irredeemable public image is perhaps the finest segment in Yeah Yeah Yeah. The hostility the Gibb brothers generate is long documented, and attempts to rehabilitate them by focusing exclusively on their music remain unconvincing. No matter how much Barry Gibb remains bitter at the Bee Gees’ public reputation, that enormous gap between their work and their image is an inexorable part of the Bee Gees story. Stanley gets the balance right and offers a sharp insight into why a set of siblings who had so much going for them ended up getting all the fine details so spectacularly wrong. But by concluding that the Bee Gees were ultimately responsible for writing a dozen or so pinnacles of modern pop, Stanley gets the judgement just about right.

- Neil Davenport reviews Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley, in Spiked Online, 17 January 2014, via AL Daily.

See also:
MusicElvis Costello - Tramp The Dirt Down, 14 April 2013
Music: Elvis Costello in Hyde Park, 4 July 2010
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