When The Bee Gees Peaked

Spirits Having Flown Hits 40

The Bee Gees in TV Guide, 1979

The Bee Gees weren’t just on top of the world when they cut Spirits Having Flown in 1978, they were soaring up in the stratosphere. Things would soon change drastically, but not before the Gibbs delivered their last blast of glory.

Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb had spent the last few years ruling the planet as benevolent disco kings, having found a way to fit their sophisticated, ’60s-honed pop sensibilities into a danceable, contemporary framework without losing any of their idiosyncratic magic. In 1978 they were coming off a run of platinum albums and huge hit singles that would come to a conclusion with their next record.

While the Gibb brothers were toiling away on what would become Spirits Having Flown at Criteria Studio in their home base of Miami, the world outside was changing. Driven ostensibly by what we would call “rockism” today, but really fueled as much if not more by thinly veiled racism and homophobia, the “Disco Sucks” movement reared its ugly head in the summer of ’78, with anti-disco rallies, mass record burnings, et al, in a backlash against the ubiquity of disco.

The Bee Gees TV Special, which aired on NBC on November 15, 1979

The Bee Gees, of course, had ascended to superstar status on disco’s glittering escalator. Despite the fact that the trio had multiple stylistic shifts before then, in the eyes of the masses the Gibbs were tied inextricably to the disco phenomenon, and if it fell, then so would they. By the end of the ’70s, that’s exactly what would happen, but not before The Bee Gees rang that big bell one more time.

Of course, even if you disregard the anti-Bee Gee storm that was brewing outside, the brothers still had some serious trouble in their own camp. Maurice, whose drinking had gotten off to an auspicious start back when he was given his first Scotch & Coke by John Lennon when the Bee Gee was just 17, had been an alcoholic for some time, and his problem was really coming to a head during the Spirits Having Flown sessions. Consequently, he contributed less than ever before, leaving big brother Barry to pick up the slack.

The Bee Gees Spirits Having Flown, RSO 1979

But pick it up he did, and with the help of their longtime backing band of guitarist Alan Kendall, keyboardist Blue Weaver, and drummer Dennis Bryon, The Bee Gees turned out an album as good as anything they’d done that decade. Ironically, the trio was seemingly starting to feel like they were over disco by that time, as Spirits marked a distinct move beyond the genre. Only the opening cut, “Tragedy,” actually bears the four-on-the-floor disco beat, but boy, did that one make the most of it. The track is damn near Wagnerian in its epic drama, with one hook mounting perilously but potently on another, and the whole thing climaxing with Barry emitting the highest, most soul-piercing wail of his entire career, which is saying something.

 

VIDEO: Bee Gees – Tragedy

“Too Much Heaven” is emblematic of the kind of lush, dreamy, Philly-style soul balladry the band had been perfecting since 1975’s Main Course, and it’s every bit as delicious as its slightly older cousins like “Love So Right” and “How Deep Is Your Love.” The funky, syncopated R&B grooves and shimmering synth licks of “Love You Inside Out” underline the Gibbs’ ability to get on the good foot without being bound to the demands of the disco beat.

The transcendent title track dances gently and lithely around a Brazilian-inflected rhythm, with a keyboard riff that stops just short of asking if you’d like another poolside Caipirinha. The whole tune adds up to such a visceral evocation of the title concept that when Barry sings, “I’d like to take you to my Shangri-La,” you wonder why he’s bothering to propose what’s already a fait accompli.

 

VIDEO: Bee Gees – Spirits Having Flown

Such is company with which that song is surrounded that RSO didn’t even get around to releasing it as a single, though it could surely have been the career highlight of any number of lesser acts. Nevertheless, the three singles the label did deign to proffer all went to No. 1. And the album itself didn’t break a sweat in the process of achieving Platinum status.

Unfortunately, trouble was lurking just around the corner. The Bee Gees’ next album, 1981’s Living Eyes, was a comparatively uninspired-sounding LP, unsurprisingly generating nary a big hit and performing (at least in Gibb terms) dismally sales-wise. Combine all of the foregoing with a Bee Gees backlash in full effect, and you have a perfect career-killing storm.

Thus were Barry, Robsin and Maurice driven underground, not releasing another album until 1987. The indefatigable Gibbs prospered even in their self-imposed exile, though, penning and producing huge stealth-Bee Gees hits for other artists. But the album that closed out the decade only an idiot or a liar would deny being The Bee Gees’ was one golden parting shot.

 

VIDEO: Bee Gees Spirit Tour 1979 TV Special

 

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