There is a wonderful moment near the end of the fascinating new documentary The Bee Gees – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Sky Documentaries) that speaks to the impact that the songs of the Bee Gees have had on popular culture. The sole surviving brother, Barry Gibb, watched by a heaving 2017 Glastonbury audience, is playing Stayin' Alive, and even the bouncers and stage crew are dancing in sync to the Saturday Night Fever classic from 40 years ago. It's a heart-warming sight.
That infectious tune launched the band’s ridiculously successful (if often derided) disco period in the late 1970s and has, like so many of their songs, become a staple of pop culture – embedded in memory and affection, not without a hint of irony.
The Bee Gees, even at their peak, and no matter how hard they tried, were never considered cool – pop was ephemera, destined to disappear. But their music and their complex soul-infused sound have survived to become signposts to different moments in time.
The number of classic pop tunes written by brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice is remarkable. And then, having retreated from the stage, they wrote more hits for others including Diana Ross and Dolly Parton. Indeed, Ms Parton is one of the mostly country-affiliated friends Barry Gibb has enlisted for this mixed reheating of many of those classics.
Now aged 74, it is hard to understand why he would want to revisit these mostly hallowed songs and performances. The brothers, whose cushioned harmonies made Barry’s dramatic falsetto such an exceptional instrument, are no longer around (Maurice died in 2003 and Robin in 2012) and their absence is telling, despite the game approach by all concerned. With a few notable exceptions, these new versions are too close to the originals without ever matching them. The Nashville influence may be strong in personality, but it never leaves its mark on the music.
Honourable mention must go to Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for the lovely harmony-heavy Butterfly and Jason Isbell for his country-soul pleading in Words of a Fool. Both of these songs are relatively unknown and thus free of historical baggage. Brandi Carlile and Sheryl Crow face higher fences with the classics Run to Me and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart respectively, and both emerge with credit.
Dolly’s duet with Barry on Words is weighted with poignancy – two old stagers looking back, the lyrics gaining new meaning in the process. Maybe more of that for volume two.