Stayin’ Alive - the Bee Gees original
The Brothers Gibb are one of popular music’s most iconic and respected bands. From their humble skiffle beginnings to the nauseating highs of disco fever, and back to poppy earworms, this band has run the gamut of styles.
Here in Australia, we have a proud history of claiming émigrés as our own, and Bee Gees is no exception. They spent around 18 months on the outskirts of Brisbane, which qualifies them as bloody awesome blokes and true-blue, dinky-di Aussies. In fact, we’ll even claim New Zealanders who once saw a map of Australia as our own, even against their will. So having a bunch of kids actually live here is enough for us to disavow their English heritage.
So, let’s talk about Australian legends Bee Gees. The band has a knack for creating melodies that won’t leave your head, even after forty years. Starting with gems like Spicks and Specks and To Love Somebody they shifted gears and registers to usher in the disco era. They may be responsible for the explosion of “Disco sucks” stickers in the late seventies, but whatever your musical ilk, you can’t deny those teeth, that hair, and those tight, white pants. The eighties saw them churn out pop boppers like You Win Again and the nineties saw them release the very successful album The Very Best of the Bee Gees, which is never a good sign. There isn’t too much to note, musically, after this.
But back to Stayin’ Alive. It is one of those instantly recognisable tracks. Everybody seems to know it in some form. I’m sure if I were old enough, I would’ve had a disco sucks bumper sticker while secretly hating myself because the bassline is that good. So, so good. We’re talking iconic. The drums keep a laser focus and force us into tapping our feet and nodding our heads as we careen along the highway. Medics even use it during CPR to keep correct pace for compressions and, I assume, as an aspiration for a desirable outcome.
It is said that Alive was written in a French chateau that has hosted the likes of Frédéric Chopin, the Grateful Dead, and David Bowie (and Elton Johh, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac (and Joan Armatrading, Jethro Tull, and Iggy Pop (and Cat Stevens, T. Rex, and Uriah Heap))). Bowie has claimed to have had a haunting, supernatural experience, and for disco haters, I’m sure they believe the place to be haunted after it birthed Alive. Maurice laid the funky bass down. Barry was to sing a Robesonesque bass-baritone but could not produce once his white pants were fully buttoned. Presumably Robin did something too, maybe clearing up the goose fat after helping to shoehorn Barry’s cheeks into his pants.
Alive was a worldwide smash, reaching the top ten or even #1 in most charts. It holds a respectable position at #59 in the Billboard all-time chart. Shamefully, it peaked at #15 in Japan. Even the stoic Finns boogied it up to #2.
Bruce Springsteen covers Stayin’ Alive
Few people know Springsteen covered Alive. It doesn’t appear on any album. I had the great fortune of hearing it live at one of his concerts in Brisbane (home of the Bee Gees).
The Boss is a music-connoisseur of the highest order. Not only is he one of the great songwriters and performers, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music from around the globe. When performing in a city, he will often open with a song from an artist that hails from the area. I saw him once open with local 70s punk band the Saints’ Just Like Fire Would.
At this outing in 2014, the Boss shocked the audience by opening with the disco megahit Stayin’ Alive by Bee Gees, who spent less than two years in the area.
Springsteen’s rendition starts low-key with a simple acoustic patter and distant trumpet. It could be anything, but there was a niggle in the back of the head that told us we knew we knew it, we just didn’t know it yet.
Then he starts with the well-worn, unmistakable lyric You can tell by the way I walk I’m a ladies’ man.
Our hearts sank. “Disco sucks!” was telepathically transmitted across the arena hive mind. “And this version sucks worse.” At least it wasn’t falsetto. Surely the Boss would have to give up his sobriquet if he did.
The backing singers chimed in for the chorus with a breathy croon. It wasn’t getting better. Then the Boss adds the lead vocal descent for the chorus. Things got interesting.
A gaggle of violins drop the main riff and the drums fill up the stadium. A bass guitar kicks in and now we’re grooving. They won the audience over and we sing the second verse and chorus.
The lights flood open to reveal Tom effing Morello is on stage! Some brass wind solos rock along and then effing Morello kicks into gear. The man is a monster and tears the roof off the building with his guitar. He had to do it. He hoists his axe so high up his armpits that he needed more headroom.
Then silence from the band and Bruce scats out “Life’s going nowhere, somebody help me” unaccompanied. He is a masterful entertainer who controls the breath and pulse of each performance, like a god controlling the tides.
Another low-key verse before he dials the band back up to eleven. A million musicians are playing as one and Springsteen shows us why he is THE Boss. He plays 30-odd tracks a night and delivers a big-tent revival feel with the way he plays the audience.
And if this wasn’t enough, after the song ends—or so we thought—he pulls the whole band back in for the finale, and a conga line with the mobile musicians.
This was just the start of the evening. We had another three hours ahead of us. He played requests from the audience by picking up the cards they waved in the front rows. He body surfed from the stage to the other end of the arena and back, and he made us endure 184 encores before letting us go home, exhausted, crying, but fully satisfied.
Comparing Bruce Springsteen and Bee Gees
In the opening minute, I wasn’t so sure about Springsteen’s choice of opening number. By the end I was convinced there could be no other option. The original is so ingrained into popular culture that it will probably be passed genetically to the coming generations. And yet, Bruce Springsteen and the E street Band served it dutifully. They reshaped the disco hit into a pop-rock anthem that somehow remained true to the source material. Few artists can rebrand such an iconic song, make it uniquely their own, and still preserve the very essence of the original.
Usually this is where I tap out some cynical snarking about how awful the cover is. Alas, I have nothing. To bash this cover would be disingenuous. Sorry folks, you’ll have to click to another article if you want to read a take-down of a second-rate cover.
Springsteen is one of the great songwriters of his generation, but I would also list him near the top of great cover artists. He understands what it takes to take someone else’s work, mess around with it until it becomes a Springsteen track, but still pay homage and respect to the progenitor. If this ever came on the radio, I’d crank up the volume … which is the greatest compliment I can pay for a musician’s cover.
I rate this cover another five shrimps on the Bee Gee
At the aforementioned concert, the Boss crowd surfed like an absolute boss. He fell back into the crowd and was pushed about 100 feet to the upper sections where he climbed up the railing and perched. He continued to sing the whole time and was passing the microphone to audience members sat behind him so they could have a moment mumbling a line. He eventually descended and was passed all the way back to the stage where he wound up the song.
It was at this point that he discovered an audience member had sneaked their phone into his pocket (luckily he wasn’t playing Fallout). Bruce tried to call the phone owner’s mother but couldn’t get past the PIN code.
Enjoy the view, this gets up close and personal.
Please enjoy these rejected cover images for this article.