New book review: “Tragedy: The Sad Ballad of the Gibb Brothers” by Jeff Apter

"Tragedy: The Sad Ballad of the Gibb Brothers" by Jeff Apter
(The Five Mile Press)

A new biography of the Bee Gees has just come out.  Written by an Australian author, Jeff Apter, who has published more than a dozen music biographies, the book is available in print and as an eBook.

Award-winning writer Steven Carroll’s review of the book in Sydney Morning Herald is interesting enough. "My brother was bass guitarist for Normie Rowe when Barry Gibb played a demo of the Gibbs’ latest recording at rehearsals one afternoon in Sydney.  It was Spicks and Specks," writes Carroll.  "Jeff Apter’s record of their rise, fall and rise really gets you in. Especially those heady days in Britain in 1967 when they turned out a string of hits. But there is deep sadness in the tale too, for when they sang Tragedy they couldn’t have known that was in store with the untimely death of Maurice, younger brother Andy and, more recently, Robin."

Carroll is right.  The book did get me in so much that I read it through almost in one sitting.  However, I am not exactly sure if it’s the subject matter or the book itself that got me in.  The bibliography at the end of the book is interesting because it suggests the author did not have very many primary sources: that is, he did not speak much with anyone who were actually connected with the Bee Gees; and, unlike Steven Carroll, he did not even claim to have a brother who was present at one of the rehearsals in Sydney.  But living in Australia, couldn’t he find more people who were willing to talk to him?

The bibliography does suggest that, unlike David Meyer whose 2013 book "Bee Gees: The Biography" was so poorly researched, Jeff Apter did an extensive library research, especially of Australian material.  I also suspect he owes much of his information to online sources including YouTube.  If such is the case, then I think he should at least have watched a Midnight Special performance or two of the Bee Gees from 1973 before he wrote of the Bee Gees’ 1974 Aussie tour that Robin "was no mover. Rather than dance, he’d shoot an occasional smile on Mo’s direction," making it rather clear in my opinion that Apter never saw the Bee Gees onstage back in the mid-’70s, because Robin did dance back then in his own particular fashion as most Japanese fans know.

I also wonder if Apter has ever listened to the "Kick" album which he writes off as "a disaster." Justifiably, Barry himself called the album "awful," speaking in the middle of the Fever craze; but, writing the story in 2014 or 2015, Apter could have come up with a more unbiased appraisal, disregarding what was then supposed to be the album’s lack of commercial value.  If, as the book argues, fame has been one curse that followed the brothers through their long career, talk about the commercial value was yet another curse that never seemed to leave the Bee Gees alone.  Maybe it’s time we should forget about it.

Also, there were certain expressions in the book that rather awkwardly stuck out for me, like the "Beatles wannabes."  And, with almost two thirds of the book over when we reach the early ’80s, the author just runs through the ’90s and 2000s. 

There are not as many outrageous mistakes as the awful Meyer bio.  However, Prince’s Trust in May 2006 was not "the last time Barry and Robin shared a stage."  Well, technically speaking, maybe it was not a "stage" they shared, but the fact that Barry and Robin did perform together in public several times after that, including Strictly Come Dancing (November 2009) and American Idol (May 2010), should at least have been mentioned.  Also, Barry did not visit Robin in the hospital in autumn 2011.  (Robin, although undeniably ill, was not in hospital at the time of Barry’s autumn visit.) Apter was confusing two separate occasions, sadly adding to the already existing confusion surrounding the strangely perplexing timeline of Robin’s final illness.

All in all, I think the book is well-constructed and will be a good, interesting read for anyone who wants to get a basic timeline of the Bee Gees’ and Andy Gibb’s career.   (Plus, the photos are also nice!  I hope fans, who live outside of Australia and are interested enough, will find a way of buying the physical book from one of the sales outlets.)  I myself would have liked more depth and details, but maybe it’s just me.  For now, I’m waiting for Dennis Bryon’s new book that is about to become available in Japan.

(BGD – August 3, 2015)

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