Friday, June 22, 2018

Book Review: Staying Alive

Book Review: 'Staying Alive: The Disco Inferno of the Bee Gees'
by Simon Spence

4 / 5 Stars

Maurice had been drinking since breakfast and was unsteady on his feet during rehearsal in Batley. By show time he could barely stand. The crowd predictably responded badly to the group's newer material. The club was only half-full. From the stage, the band could hear the sound of the audience eating, chewing, broad Yorkshire accents chatting loudly and drink glasses chinking. All sense of hope began to drain from Barry. "It was the most horrible sinking feeling" he said.

As the above excerpt from Staying Alive shows, for the Bee Gees, April 1974 was the group's nadir. Badly needing income, they had been booked on a tour on the cabaret club circuit of Northern England. 

By 1974 the glory days of this circuit had long since passed; many (if not all) of the clubs were well into decline, their exteriors and interiors showing signs of wear and delayed maintenance. England was in the midst of another of the decade's myriad economic crises, and few people in the North Country had the disposable income for any cabaret-style entertainment. 

The fighting outside the Golden Garter stopped. Maurice was retching. He groaned, vomited, and sank to his knees before rolling onto the floor. It was dark and drunks staggered past, ignoring the once famous Bee Gee brothers.

While Maurice drank himself into oblivion to cope with the ignominy of the band's descent into the 'pop wilderness', and Robin, steeped in depression, stayed alone in his room between shows, older brother Barry tried imagine better times to come. The group was set to release a new album, titled Mr. Natural, later that Summer, and Barry hoped that by working with renowned producer Arif Marden, the band could undergo a musical revival and return to the charts.

Unfortunately for the band, upon its release in July 1974, Mr. Natural was a flop. The head of Atlantic Records (which distributed the Bee Gees records), Ahmet Ertegun, considered the band's career to be over, but their manager, Robert Stigwood, was willing to give the band one more chance to mount a comeback. 

During January and February 1975 the band recorded the album Main Course at Criteria Studios in Miami. The first single from the album, Jive Talkin', was released in May and became a hit...........and the rest is history...........

Staying Alive (286 pp., Jawbone Books, 2017) primarily focuses on the Bee Gees from 1974 - 1981: the years they emerged from the 'pop wilderness' to dominate the Top 10 charts in a way not seen since, before suffering from the fervid backlash against disco music that came with the beginning of the 80s. 

Also profiled in the pages of the book are the Gibbs' younger brother Andy; the Bee Gees manager, Robert Stigwood; actor John Travolta; and Nik Cohn, the Irish writer whose fictional account of dancers at the '2001 Odyssey' disco in Brooklyn, published in 1976 in New York magazine, kicked off the disco craze.

Author Spence fills the book with plenty of insider viewpoints, many of which subvert the carefully manicured history of the band presented in their 1979 'authorized' biography. 

The revelations of Andy Gibb's descent into self-destruction are particularly depressing, as are Spence's blunt dissections of the infighting among the three brothers.

I would give Staying Alive five stars but for the presence of numerous typos and factual errors throughout the book, errors that could have been easily corrected with a bit of googling (for example, Robin Gibb's solo single Boys Do Fall in Love charted in the US in 1984, not 1985). 

The verdict ? Despite its faults, Staying Alive is an engrossing read and anyone with an interest in the pop culture of the 70s and 80s, the Bee Gees, rock music, or disco, will likely want to sit down with a copy.

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