The Bee Gees' total record sales are estimated at 220m. It seems odd that anybody that successful could feel that their dreams hadn't come true, but in his last years, Robin certainly gave that impression: storming out of an appearance on, of all things, Radio 4's Front Row; complaining at length in touchy interviews about the lack of respect afforded him and his brothers. The issue was, fairly obviously, the glaring disparity between the Bee Gees' commercial success and their critical standing. The music they made for themselves and others seems utterly indelible: as if to prove the point, a few days before I meet Gibb, Kenny Rogers's performance of his 1983 Bee Gees-penned hit Islands in the Stream goes down such a storm at Glastonbury that he has to sing it twice. But there's still a tendency to regard the Bee Gees with a certain knowing smirk, to view them as a joke or an embarrassing guilty pleasure. You could see how this would begin to wear on your nerves over time: 220m records sold and people are still less inclined to discuss your music than they were to snigger about the size of your teeth and how you dressed in the mid-70s.
They had served a weird musical apprenticeship in Australia, three adolescent brothers singing in hotels and Returned Servicemen's Clubs between dog acts and jugglers: "We saw things. People sitting at tables having fights without standing up. We'd be singing and water would be pouring in through the galvanised steel roof. It was like Crocodile Dundee." They sounded weird, particularly Robin: he sang in a bizarre, strangulated quaver that gave the disconcerting impression he was about to burst into tears. And their songwriting was weird. Despite this, while still in their teens, they were writing modern-day standards, big ballads that got covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Al Green: “To Love Somebody” alone has been covered by such a vast and peculiar array of artists the list seems faintly comical. It's probably the only song in history to have found its way into the oeuvres of both Ronan Keating and Joe Strummer, via Tom Jones, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, Lee "Scratch" Perry and Dusty Springfield.
On the other, however, their first three albums are packed with majestically skewed baroque pop songs that didn't really fit with the prevalent trend for psychedelia, but did sound like the products of off-kilter imaginations being allowed to run riot: Lemons Never Forget, I Have Decided to Join the Airforce, The Earnest of Being George. Listening to the latter, you might have come to the conclusion that the Bee Gees were enthusiastic consumers of acid, but Barry says not, or at least not exactly: "We never saw LSD, heroin, any of those things. Discovered grass, though. Fantastic. I loved it. It opened up your mind. Magic mushrooms will do that too. But you go through magic mushrooms. You don't do them all the time. It opens your brain up and I know what I need to know now. So that didn't become a habit; it was experience. There were plenty of amphetamines around, Dexedrine and things like that, which all three of us loved, although I think Maurice was more inclined towards a scotch. When he married Lulu, he got to drink with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton and all these people that she knew. His world opened up completely; he was forever the extrovert."
Robin Gibb is sitting behind Robert Stigwood's desk, looking dwarfed, happy, but also slightly nervous. After 20 years in show business and ten years of international stardom, it is still characteristic of him to be uncomfortable about interviews. I mention songwriting and Robin breaks in indignantly: "No one has ever talked to us about our songwriting! That's always amazed me. I don't think people even realize that we write our own songs. "It doesn't bother, me, but – you know that Playboy poll? It has a songwriting section, and this year we're not even in it. There's people in there who haven't had any success for the last two years. We've had two platinum albums, all our own music, and three hit singles practically at one time on the Hot 100. At this moment we stand to be given the, uh, whatever that award is for songwriting. It's just that they don't know their business. They don't make it their business to know how many records the Bee Gees have written. I call it just – musical ignorance!"
The Bee Gees' songwriting talent is quite extraordinary. They write hits the way most people write postcards. They write them on demand – any time, anyplace, on any subject. They've written a lot of them while sitting on staircases. "Jive Talkin'," one of their latest hits, was written on a causeway between Miami and Miami Beach. "I Can't See Nobody," one of their early hits, was written in the dressing room of a club. The Bee Gees were in their midteens at the time, sharing the dressing room with a stripper.