Happy 30th Anniversary to the Bee Gees’ eighteenth studio album One, originally released in the U.S. July 25, 1989.
The story of 1989’s One includes a decade of necessary context that essentially picks up where Spirits Having Flown leaves off.
Few other artists have achieved in a lifetime what the Bee Gees amassed commercially and artistically in just 1978 and 1979 alone. The Gibbs finished out the ‘70s with both Spirits Having Flown and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack still clinging to the Billboard album chart after 46 and 123 weeks on the list, respectively. A new compilation rife with the stunning run of hits they’d amassed over the past four years, Bee Gees Greatest, had just climbed into the top five, on its way to becoming their second consecutive number one album in less than a year. And, all fifty-three show dates on the exhaustive Spirits Having Flown Tour sold out completely.
But by 1980, their Midas touch became an unusually sharp double-edged sword. Public and media affection for the Gibbs’ craft quickly turned to ire as popular music experienced a turbulent sea change, and they became the embodiment of the broad rejection of “disco” and everything it represented. They were ridiculed and silenced to an extent that was unprecedented, especially by the same US radio stations that had helped to propel Saturday Night Fever and Spirits Having Flown to record-breaking heights.
For nearly ten years, the Bee Gees were effectively embargoed from the American airwaves. 1981’s Living Eyes, and their contributions to the soundtrack of the 1983 Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive, were likely more overlooked rather than spurned, as a result. But, for a band who had thrived by making records so prolifically, the calculated exclusion was damaging.
“We have taken a lot of flak over the years,” Barry Gibb told People in 1989. “This band has been around for 30 years, so it’s a little unfair to tag us with a disco label. Paul McCartney made disco records. Rod Stewart did. Even Ethel Merman, which shows you how outrageous the times were. It’s very confusing. If everybody said no, I would understand and maybe go off and buy a farm and raise pigs. On the other side, I hear people say, ‘Your music is the most beautiful I ever heard.’”
Barry, Robin, and Maurice sustained themselves in the first half of the 1980s bestowing their songwriting and production talents upon projects for other musicians—Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Diana Ross being among the major beneficiaries. Barry and Robin also recorded solo albums in between.
In 1986, the Bee Gees reformed to record E.S.P., their first full-length album in six years. Under a new record deal with Warner Brothers, the Gibbs were also able to reunite with producer Arif Mardin—a relationship that had generated 1974’s Mr. Natural and their 1975 landmark Main Course. E.S.P. fared well outside of North America, especially with the magnificent single “You Win Again” reaching number one in several European markets in late 1987.
E.S.P. and “You Win Again” were woefully underappreciated in the United States. Still, its performance elsewhere urged the Bee Gees to head back into the studio to record its follow-up.
Sessions for One began in early 1988. But less than three months in, the unthinkable happened. Younger brother Andy Gibb, who had forged a phenomenally successful recording career of his own in the thick of the Bee Gees’ late ‘70s heyday, died at the age of thirty on March 10th from myocarditis, a viral inflammation of the heart. Andy had publicly struggled for years with drug and alcohol addiction, the long-term damage from which ultimately contributed to his death.
In the months leading up to his passing, the brothers had been writing and demoing tracks with Andy in preparation for a new recording contract that had been negotiated with Island Records in the UK. At the beginning of the year, he was living on Robin’s estate in Oxfordshire, writing songs alone. He began drinking again. The pressure to revive a career that had already caused him such distress may have been too much to bear.
"We wanted to revitalize him, get his confidence back, refocus him," Robin explained to The Washington Post in 1989. "He was really young when he died. There was a hell of a lot he could have done. Maybe he never should have pursued a solo career. Maybe he should have gotten confidence without having success first; maybe it would have been better for his first four or five records to have died.”
"[It] spiritualized the whole family," Barry affirmed in the same interview. “They say it causes soul growth when you lose somebody. Before, you don't look at the metaphysical side of life much at all. After, you start to look at everything like that: 'How long have I got ... we're not immortal ... I must get back to making something happen for myself, to working hard, to being fruitful and not taking my family for granted.' The trauma of losing Andy, the idea that we were wasting what we were doing, everything compounded to make us start performing again.”
Resolute, the Bee Gees returned to the studio in November to continue working on One. As its title suggests, solidarity is the common thread that runs through its sound and messaging. The creative tensions that complicated the sessions for Living Eyes and E.S.P. were put away.
“The egos were left at the door,” Robin’s son Spencer Gibb explained to me during a recent phone interview from his home in Austin. “And that wasn’t always the case with the Bee Gees’ records. Everyone was kind of allowed to breathe, and it shows. It’s very cohesive, and there are reasons why it is. I heard all the demos, and I was in the studio with them a lot when that record was being made. It was a very formative record for me, because it happened at the time when I had chosen to leave home and leave school early to become a professional musician myself. Of course, we were all reeling from the Andy tragedy. [He] was literally my best friend at the time.”
One teamed the Gibbs with their E.S.P. co-producer Brian Tench (Ultravox, Midge Ure, Bucks Fizz, Bow Wow Wow, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark). They assembled a group of veteran session players for the project, including drummer Steve Ferrone (Average White Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton), bassist Nathan East (Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Fourplay), keyboardist Peter-John Vettese (Jethro Tull, Simple Minds, Annie Lennox), and guitarist Tim Cansfield (Elton John, Terence Trent D’Arby). The Bee Gees’ former lead guitarist Alan Kendall, who had played with the band from 1971 until 1980, also joined the studio lineup.
Although there is a good mixture of styles and tempos across its track list, One largely contends with great loss and coming to terms with the void that remains. The protagonists in the Gibbs’ songs have often lingered in melancholy and have lamented heartbreak, but those themes perhaps hadn’t been expressed quite so personally or so literally as they are here.
Album opener and the first single released outside of North America, “Ordinary Lives,” has an immediately memorable verse-chorus interplay with a double-tracked lead by Barry and Robin. Originally titled “Cruel World,” the Gibbs have offered varied meanings behind the song’s lyrics, but lines like “no pity no pain tonight / whatever the cost all is lost” are fitting observations in the wake of Andy’s death.
Press surrounding the release of One was, in many cases, backhandedly complimentary—much of it waffled on whether the Gibbs might achieve their hope of staging a comeback in the US. With note-perfect timing, the Bee Gees responded with the title track and lead single in North America, which brought the Bee Gees the commercial renaissance they had been seeking for years.
In the liner notes of their 1990 box set, Tales from the Brothers Gibb – A History in Song 1967-1990, Barry commented jokingly on the track: “This song brought us back to US radio. A leading media paper recently stated regarding this song, 'The Bee Gees are capable of at least one more hit.' I don't believe that, I believe we could have at least two.”
Released in July 1989, “One” would eventually reach number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in September—their first top ten entry on the chart since 1979’s “Love You Inside Out.” It fared even better on the magazine’s Adult Contemporary chart, where it spent two weeks at number one. It’s a well-constructed, infectious epic that fit in so neatly among its contemporaries in pop that American programmers must have had nearly no room to protest its addition to their playlists.
The mid-tempo chug of “One” is also reminiscent of their 1975 hit “Jive Talkin’”—another track that, coincidentally, had returned the Bee Gees to public consciousness after a career lull. Whether or not the similarities were intentional is speculation, but whatever equation they employed earned them vindication over any critics that had called their hit-making abilities into question.
The Bee Gees released a second single in North America, “Bodyguard,” an exquisite ballad that became somewhat mired in hullabaloo when its accompanying video was deemed too risqué to air on MTV and VH1. The song received enough airplay and sales to make it a top ten hit on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. But its artistic merit warranted more public and critical attention than it received.
“On One, it really feels like they got back to their R&B roots again,” Spencer Gibb observes. “‘Bodyguard’ is one of the best R&B tracks of that period when you compare it to other artists who were making those kinds of records at the time. And also, the dueling vocals between Barry and my dad almost took you back to the Children of the World days a bit, where all of a sudden you had these guys doing double-duty on leads, and it actually worked. Like, ‘Love Me,’ where it’s all my dad and then Barry comes in with this crazy bridge out of nowhere. ‘Bodyguard’ is the same.”
“It’s My Neighborhood,” a guitar-driven track that explores the concept of urban survival somewhat akin to “Stayin’ Alive,” was intended for another project altogether. “It was originally written for Michael Jackson’s Bad,” Spencer Gibb confirms. “They were looking for songs, and then Michael took a turn where he essentially wanted to write more of his own songs. On Thriller, he hadn’t written the majority of the material. But on Bad, almost every one of the songs ended up being written by him because he wanted the songwriting money.
But, early on when he and Quincy Jones were soliciting songs, he’d come to the brothers because they’d just worked on Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive together. The relationship was there, and Michael said ‘give me songs for my next record,’ and ‘It’s My Neighborhood’ was what they submitted. Which makes sense, if you think about it. You can listen to that song and imagine Michael Jackson singing it. And I’m speculating about this, but I imagine after he’d written the song ‘Bad,’ which lyrically is kind of similar, someone said, ‘okay, well we’re not going to use the Bee Gees song when you’ve got your own.’”
The jazz-infused ballad “Tears” glistens with crystalline synths that emulate falling rain—a fitting backdrop for the wistful lyrics, “heaven only knows how much I’m missing you / knowing I had heaven in my hands.” The Gibbs’ harmonies waft like clouds in between the instrumentation. Their vocal work—their perpetual ace—on this track and throughout One is stellar.
“Tokyo Nights” shifts gears as an effervescent tribute to the Bee Gees’ Asian fan base, while “Flesh and Blood” takes a darker turn. Both are exceptional showcases for Robin’s ethereal lead and Maurice’s keyboard arrangements.
The emotional focal point of One is the gorgeous “Wish You Were Here,” a song the brothers had written for Andy shortly after his passing. Their sadness is visceral, although the original working version of the song, according to Spencer Gibb, was overwhelmingly difficult for them to sing.
“My dad came home, and they’d cut the demo of that,” he recalls. “And he came home with his big portable DAT machine and played it for me. It was just absolutely fucking heartbreaking. I burst into tears, and he choked up. They’d written it that afternoon and they cut this little demo. Nothing will ever touch that demo. When they recorded it, everything became very, very clean.
And, of course, it’s still beautiful. But on the demo, Barry’s doing these falsetto ad libs at the end of the song, and his voice is breaking up like he can’t hold it together. I wish they’d kept some of those tracks. I really wish the demo had just stayed intact and they had remixed it and maybe added a few things, because it was so fucking fragile and so beautiful.
My gut reaction as a fifteen-year-old at the time was, ‘you killed that song!’ And, of course, they didn’t, and I look back on it now professionally and go, ‘no, it’s f***ing great and it’s beautifully produced.’ And, I understand why they did what they did, and maybe they didn’t want to show too much fragility. There’s a million things going on there. But, I just loved that demo so much, and it was fresh. The loss was so fresh. Songwriting-wise, that song is up there for me with ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ in how it strikes a chord.”
One closes with the Maurice-led rocker “House of Shame,” and the funk pulse of “Will You Ever Let Me.” Sonically, it’s sleeker than E.S.P., and especially capitalizes on the R&B resumes of Ferrone and East to provide soulful punch to the bottom end of the recordings.
Another track from the One sessions, “Wing and a Prayer,” was included as the B-side of the “One” single (except in the United Kingdom, where the B-side was "Flesh and Blood"), and as a bonus track on some versions of the album outside the US and Canada. The Gibbs produced and played it themselves, and it was not re-recorded or finished by the studio players like the others, which gave it a less polished, demo-like sound than the rest of the album. It's currently unavailable on any of the streaming platforms, but still worth seeking out.
North American pressings of One included "You Win Again" as a bonus track, likely in the hopes that it would trigger renewed interest in a song that was so undeservedly overlooked during its initial release.
The Bee Gees followed One with their first world tour in a decade—the One for All Tour—beginning April 10, 1989 in Tokyo. The European leg, which corresponded with the earlier release of the album outside of North America, kicked off on May 3rd in Dortmund, Germany, and wrapped up on July 1st in Hanover. Stateside, the Gibbs scheduled seventeen dates, starting the same week of the album’s release on July 29th in St. Paul, Minnesota, and concluding September 2nd in Mountain View, California. Two Canadian dates in Montreal and Toronto took place in mid-August.
The shows in Melbourne, Australia on November 17th and 18th were recorded and used for a full-length concert video that was released in 1991, with a remixed and digitally remastered version made available in 2018. The audio recording was issued in full as part of The Warner Bros. Years 1987-1991 box set released by Reprise Records in 2014 when the label acquired their catalog, but portions of the program have been included in various compilations since the early 1990s. One was also included in The Warner Bros. Years. package along with “Wing and a Prayer” and three variant mixes of the “One” single, but without any apparent remastering or remixing of its primary tracks.
While One did not match the commercial peak of their late ‘70s albums (it peaked at number 68 on the Billboard 200), it reinvigorated the Bee Gees’ creative fervor and determination.
"If we're going to reclaim ground we've lost, then we have to make the best album we know how to make,” Barry told Australia’s The Bert Newton Show in 1989. “Not just make an album for certain ears, or an album that's commercial. Just what we love as music."
But more notably, One is an album crafted with love, respect, and faith that shows the Bee Gees at their most vulnerable—and perhaps at their most harmonious.
“Emotions were high, but unity was high, as well,” Spencer Gibb reflects. “I think One is a great example of how tragedy can bring people together artistically.”