Bee Gee Robin Gibb dies at 62

One of the men who brought disco to the mainstream.

Robin Gibb – one third of the seminal disco outfit the Bee Gees – has died of cancer at age 62.

Formed with his late twin brother Maurice and elder brother Barry, the Bee Gees garnered a place in musical history with their distinctive falsetto harmonies and disco classics like “Staying Alive”, “How Deep is Your Love” and “Emotion”. The group has sold upwards of 200 million records, penned hit tracks for artist like Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Yvonne Elliman, and Olivia Newton-John, and seen thousands of others recording version of their music throughout the past four decades. Their soundtrack for the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever defined a moment in musical history and is often credited with turning disco into a global phenomenon.

Today the music industry pays tribute to the man broadcaster Paul Gambaccini called "talented beyond even his own understanding". He went on: "Everyone should be aware that the Bee Gees are second only to Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriting unit in British popular music."

A life in music:

22 December 1949 – Born on the Isle of Man to a band leader father and former-singer mother who encourage their sons to perform.

1958 – Robin and his family move to Australia, where he and his brothers adopt the stage-name the Bee Gees (an abbreviation of Brothers Gibb).

1963 – The Bee Gees are signed to Festival Records Australian subsidiary Leedon Records.

1967  – The Bee Gees introduced to the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and are soon signed with Polydor Records. Robert Stigwood calls them “The Most Significant Band of 1967”.

1969 – Robin quits the group amidst difficulties with his brother Barry.

1970 – Robin rejoins the group and The Bee Gees enjoy US success with "Lonely Days" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" (later covered by Al Green).

1977 – A turning point in the band’s career: the Bee Gees compose and perform the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, bringing “disco craze” to the mainstream and skyrocketing the band to international success. Tracks such as “Staying Alive”, “How Deep is Your Love” and “Night Fever” reach Number 1 in countries worldwide.

1983 – Robin releases a solo album, several more to follow throughout the decades.

1997 – The Bee Gees receive the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music.

2000 – The Bee Gees receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.

2009 – Robin tops the charts again with the Comic Relief version of "Islands in the Stream", a collaboration with Ruth Jones, Rob Brydon and Tom Jones.

 

(How Deep is Your Love, 1977)

 

(Staying Alive, 1977)

 

(John Travolta dances to "More Than a Woman" in Saturday Night Fever)

 

Robin Gibb (centre) with his brothers and bandmates Barry and Maurice in 1970. (Photo: Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle