Once there were three brothers, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, and they ruled the world. In 1977 they wrote and performed the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. It became the most successful film soundtrack ever, selling more than 40 million copies and defining the disco era.
One single from the album, Stayin’ Alive, sold more than five million copies, turning the brothers, a previously out-of-favour Anglo-Australian pop group called the Bee Gees, into the biggest stars alive. “It was enormous,” says Gibb, 40 years later, sitting in a chintz-covered armchair in his Buckinghamshire country house. “Absolutely enormous.”
He need not say more – the great hall, minstrel’s gallery, swimming pool and, on the other side of the mullioned windows, 90 acres of Buckinghamshire parkland eloquently attest to the album’s success. As does Gibb’s mansion on Millionaire’s Row in Miami Beach.
The video for Stayin’ Alive is perhaps the campest declaration of heterosexual intent ever made. Barry struts out in Cuban heels, a silver lamé blouson hanging on one shoulder, sporting ferociously tight white slacks. He tosses his mane of hair back and declaims in a tremulous falsetto, “Well you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.”
When he takes to the Pyramid Stage in Glastonbury’s Legends slot on Sunday night, the seven-times-over grandfather – Gibb is 70 – will be wearing more forgiving trousers, but his footwear will still be raised. “I need to wear heels now,” he says. “My knees and ankles wouldn’t last a show without them; it keeps the bones in position. I rub in some balsam as well.”
The years may have weathered him, but Gibb still hangs on to that mane of hair and, as he proved when he appeared briefly with Coldplay at Glastonbury last year (“I love Chris Martin,” he says), he is still, even without his brothers – who have all predeceased him – a brilliant performer. Glastonbury is going to be good, and Gibb knows it. “This is the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever,” he says. “And I’m embracing the music.”
Gibb qualifies more than most for the right to occupy the Legends slot. The wall of his snooker room is covered with gold discs; he has sold more than 200 million records and provided classics like Islands in the Stream and Grease for other artists. When he compiled his latest greatest hits album, his problem was what not to put on it. In the end he opted for those songs, such as How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, which have a close “spiritual connection” with his brothers. “The songs that I know my brothers would have liked.”
His youngest brother Andy (not a Bee Gee) took so much cocaine and drank so much that he died of heart failure, aged only 30, in 1988. Maurice, a recovering alcoholic, was 53 when he died after an operation to correct a blocked intestine in 2003. Robin, Maurice’s twin, died of complications due to colorectal cancer aged 62 in 2012. Barry’s difficult relationship with Robin was the band’s defining dynamic. The Bee Gees’ late 1960s hits, such as New York Mining Disaster 1941, were often sung by Robin. The 70s world-domination period was all about Barry. Robin resented it, and for long periods the two didn’t talk to each other.
Robin didn’t even tell his brother he had cancer. “I saw a picture of Robin in the paper, and I took that picture to my doctor and I showed it to him,” says Barry. “I said, ‘What’s wrong with that person?’ And this doctor is brilliant. He just said, ‘Go and see him.’ ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because what I see is cancer.’ And I said, ‘How do you know that?’ He said, ‘Pallor of the skin, and his teeth don’t look right.’ I said, ‘What’s the prognosis, if you’re sure?’ He said, ‘Three to six months.’ That’s when I found out.”
Barry preferred spliffs to lines of coke and whisky. “My brothers were always drinkers, and used other things that I never questioned. It was never grass, really, for them.” These days Barry prefers sake. “It’s wonderful. Because you can have two or three mugs in a night and no hangover.” Gently warmed? “Yes. About one minute, 20 seconds in the microwave, if you’re curious.”
The success of Saturday Night Fever meant they could do anything they wanted. But Barry didn’t. “I was a good lad,” he says. “I kept it in my trousers.” After the fantastic success there came the inevitable fall, and within two years the Bee Gees were profoundly unfashionable. Not that it bothered Barry.
“I don’t buy into failure, I let it go. John Lennon was right, nothing is real. It’s only real if you make it real. Linda [his Scottish wife of 47 years, with whom he has five children] and me were building a family, so I wasn’t miserable about people saying, ‘Oh, we liked them but we don’t like them now.’ That was OK. Goodbye.”
Barry and Linda
When Gibb was on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories recently, Morgan pressed him to reveal just how he met Linda, an audience member on Top of the Pops. In fact Jimmy Savile introduced them – was Morgan fishing for the DJ’s name? “Jimmy Savile’s name was never mentioned,” Gibb says. “Piers asked how we met, and I said it was ‘a famous DJ’. I didn’t want to mention his name. I can’t see why anyone would.”
What Gibb didn’t tell Morgan, and what he reveals now for the first time, is just how raw the subject of sexual abuse is for him. “I’ve never said this before,” he says. “Jesus Christ, should I be saying it now? But there was a moment in time when a man tried to molest me when I was about four years old. He didn’t touch me, but other things happened, and happened to other kids.
“And eventually they came and arrested him, and they woke me up during the night. Four years old and a policeman on your bed at four in the morning, interviewing you! If that doesn’t teach you about life, nothing does. But it’s vivid for me still. I’ve never told anybody.” I ask if this abuse was in the home and he says, “Those details would be unpalatable.”
Gibb had a peripatetic childhood. He was born in the Isle of Man where his father, Hugh, also a musician, and mother, Barbara, had moved for work. The family returned to Manchester, where Hugh and Barbara met, before emigrating to Australia. He says there were other instances where other older men made approaches, “but I knew what to do then”.
Hugh and Barbara
It seems remarkable to be that young and that tough, though it meant that when the family moved to Australia in the late 1950s, Gibb was ready for any inappropriate behaviour. “In Australia there was a lot of returned soldiers that were damaged, like people are damaged in the war now,” he says. “They would drive up next to you and open the door of their car and say, ‘You want to go for a drive?’” What would young Barry say? “F*** off!”
He says this was all good training for a career in showbusiness, which took off after the boys appeared on Australian TV when Barry was 13. “I was ready,” he says. “I could see the predators coming. I learnt very quickly to say, ‘Sorry, not available,’ to move the other way as fast as I could. There is a dark side, a very dark side, to showbusiness.”
Instinctively, Barry became the protector for his younger brothers as their early career brought them back to England and almost immediate success in 1967. “The oldest brother always does [act as protector],” he says. “Whether you want to or not. And eventually they didn’t want that.”
The recent terrorist attacks have left him aware of just how fragile life is. “After Manchester,” he says, “I was thinking about Glastonbury. My God, when you gather 100,000 people together, who knows? And I don’t, and maybe there’s nothing to even worry about in any way because I think what we’re going to see is security like we’ve never seen in our lives.”
Besides, he has had tough gigs before. “In Jakarta in 1972, we played an open-air gig to about 60,000 people and a hurricane hit. And the military made us go on at gunpoint. There were two inches of water on the stage! I said, ‘We’re going to die! We’re going to get electrocuted.’ They just lifted their guns [Gibb makes gun-cocking sound] and said, ‘You’re going on stage.’”
Glastonbury is a famously damp affair, but it hopefully won’t get that bad; his biggest struggle when he goes on stage will be with the past. Five years after Robin’s death he still finds it strange to sing without him. “On the middle section of Nights on Broadway and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, my throat goes dry. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it the best shot, but that’s when it starts to hit me.”
Barry Gibb is performing at Glastonbury at 4pm on Sunday 25 June
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news