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.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage