The Bee Gees have just released their first album in six years, but don't look for a prime-time TV special or a global satellite hook-up to herald their return.
It's not that the Brothers Gibb--Barry, Robin and Maurice--aren't bullish about their new album, "ESP" (see review, Page 99). It's that they're still trying to live down the last wave of hype that surrounded--and nearly sunk--them a decade ago.
That was when the "Saturday Night Fever" sound track sold 25 million copies worldwide, becoming the best-selling album up to that point. The resultant overexposure and a close identification with the disco phenomenon created a backlash that the Bee Gees are still battling.
The trio's last album, "Living Eyes," flopped on the charts, peaking at No. 41. Subsequent solo albums by Barry and Robin Gibb also sold poorly. And though the brothers have remained successful as writers and producers for other acts, turning out Top 10 hits in recent years for Dionne Warwick ("Heartbreaker") and Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton ("Islands in the Stream"), the act as a whole still suffers image-wise.
This time around, the Bee Gees--and managers Gary Borman and Harriet Sternberg--have decided to let the music speak for itself.
"Any big hype would just remind people of the earlier hype," said Borman. "The Bee Gees were so associated with mega corporate success that any mega-hype we might try could backfire on us. We'd be guilty of the very thing we're fighting."
Borman and Sternberg first worked on the Bee Gees account at (Ken) Kragen & Co., where they were employed until they left to form their own company in June. Kragen raised the mega-event to an art form with his handling of "We Are the World" and Hands Across America and the careers of Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers.
Borman said that he and Sternberg had some "really wild ideas" for mega-event stunts to mark the Bee Gees return. Among them:
The Bee Gees would be saluted on the annual Grammy Awards telecast, and would then perform their new single.
The group would perform the album live via global satellite at the America's Cup in Australia.
The group would discuss the album at a satellite press conference--with one brother in London, one in New York and one in Tokyo. ("It would be breakfast with Barry in London, lunch with Robin in New York and a late-night snack with Maurice in Tokyo," said Borman, a little wistfully.)
Borman added that he and Sternberg hatched a couple of other ideas that were even more "Barnum & Bailey." But he noted: "These major event hype-job ideas didn't fit the music or the people. We chose to go with our strength--the music and the songs--as opposed to a phony image where the image and the hype overwhelm the substance."
Is this a wise strategy? Michael Lippman, who co-manages George Michael and Melissa Manchester, thinks so. "The Bee Gees were never an enormous image act," he said. "The music always spoke first. So the strategy they're using is consistent with what the Bee Gees have always stood for.
"There are certain acts you can hype who will live up the hype--Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, David Bowie. The Bee Gees don't have that magnetism or charisma, but they're still very talented musicians."
Borman added that once the music is established, he wants to draw out the brothers' personalities. He noted that even after two decades of stardom, the individual members don't have clearly defined identities.
In fact, he suggested that this is why the white-suited John Travolta disco image became so strongly attached to the group. "People knew this mega-successful musical corporation called the Bee Gees, but they didn't know the members."
Borman notes that even he didn't really know the Bee Gees before he started working with them. "I had no idea of how warm, intelligent, funny and \o7 hungry\f7 they were. I thought I was going to be dealing with these Legends of Rock 'n' Roll who wouldn't have a whole lot to say, who just have money and wanted to buy their success back. I thought their egos would need to be stroked because they hadn't put out a record in a long time. But I've come away realizing that these guys didn't become successful by accident."