Bee Gees Way is 70 metres of pure nostalgia in a seaside town where memories, real and imagined, haunt the streets like ghosts on holiday. Open 24/7, the outdoor walkway has statues, videos, light shows set to music, photographs, album covers, and a giant mural of the Gibb brothers in their musical heyday.
Redcliffe's tribute to its most famous sons spans a whole block, from a back street of the town centre, 30 kilometres north of Brisbane, to the foreshore, where whitecaps stud Moreton Bay and the peaks of distant Moreton Island rise through cloud on the eastern horizon. Across the street from Bee Gees Way is the Redcliffe Jetty, an earlier version of which became the naughty Gibb boys' favourite hangout after they migrated here from Manchester with their family in 1958. The oldest brother, Barry, was 12 then; now, at 71, he's the sole survivor of the tragedy-prone family act that began here and went on to become one of the world's most successful pop groups.
The fact that the then-struggling Gibb family lived on Redcliffe Peninsula for only about 18 months – doing runners from one rental house to the next to avoid paying back rents – doesn't faze Moreton Bay Regional Council mayor Allan Sutherland, a devoted fan who devised the elaborate paean to the Bee Gees after discussions with his now good buddy, Barry Gibb.
A long way
from Redcliffe …
and Barry Gibb
in Los Angeles in
1979 at the height
of their fame.
Boyishly thrilled by his association with the star – "He's a lovely human being; you can't write beautiful music like that and be a nasty person" – the mayor, 62, has built a souped-up version of the HT Holden panel van he owned as an apprentice electrician on the peninsula more than 40 years ago. He calls it "the Wizard", and likes to unwind after work by rumbling about the same beachside haunts he and the Gibbs frequented in their respective youths.
"Sometimes," he confesses at a local cafe, "I park under the same tree at the same beach where I parked as a kid. Then I play Bee Gees songs, only instead of cassettes they're on CD. Everything else is the same: same car, same sound of the doors closing, same rocks where we fished as kids … Time goes on, but nothing really changes."
The sentimental mayor organises a phone call between me and the deeply nostalgic Barry Gibb, who lives in Miami, Florida. At Sutherland's suggestion, we settle at a picnic table between Bee Gees Way and the jetty, where he dials Gibb, regales him with a convoluted joke, then – still chuckling fraternally – hands over his phone.
A mural along
Bee Gees Way,
which features a light
show set to Bee Gees
songs each night.
Gibb tells me that arriving in Redcliffe from the bleak streets of Manchester was like "walking into paradise". He describes fishing and diving for coins from the jetty, climbing trees, chasing girls, falling asleep to the sound of crickets, and the momentous day when he and his younger twin brothers Robin and Maurice – "discovered" after performing with their homemade instruments at the Redcliffe Speedway – signed their first recording contract on the kitchen table of their home in 1959.
After that they gave up shoplifting, throwing their most recent plunder – three penknives from Woolworths – off the jetty to symbolise their newfound dedication to becoming rich and famous. (Sutherland, a fifth-generation local, admits to having swiped penknives from the same store, part of what he genially recalls as "just kids growing up in a real innocent lifestyle".)
Gibb says his most treasured memory is of messing about on the beach near the jetty with Robin and Maurice. He last visited the spot when he returned for the grand opening of Bee Gees Way in 2015. "And I look forward to the very moment when I go back there, and stand there again. Because when I'm there, I see my brothers. And I see my brothers the way they were, not the way we all ended up."
Returning that morning to my home in the neighbouring suburb of Margate, I wonder whether Barry Gibb really does see Robin and Maurice on the beach as nine-year-olds, with their buck teeth and eager, crafty faces, in the days before, as he put it, fame and "competitiveness" eroded their happiness. "The happiest time of our lives was not being famous," he tells me. "At Redcliffe, we were just three kids who wanted to sing and play."
So everything they achieved later actually took them further away from that early happiness? "Yes, because you can be happy and not know you're happy. Because, you know, the grass is always greener …"
And for a while, it actually was. After leaving Brisbane, the Gibb family – father Hugh, mother Barbara, daughter and eldest child Lesley, and sons Barry, Robin, Maurice and Andy (the youngest, who found fame as a solo singer) – moved to the Gold Coast, then Sydney, where the boys had their first hit single with Spicks and Specks. In 1967 they returned to the UK, where producer Robert Stigwood guided them to world fame. Through various musical incarnations, they sold more than 220 million records. Barry and Robin wrote almost every song, and in 1997 the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as "Britain's first family of harmony".
But grief and disharmony seemed to stalk relationships within the family, together with addictive excesses and premature mortality. Andy was the first to die, in 1988 of a heart condition exacerbated by drug abuse. He was 30. Maurice, a recovering alcoholic, was 53 when he died of a heart attack in 2003; Robin, 62, succumbed to liver cancer in 2012. According to Barry, their father "stopped living" after Andy's death; a hard drinker, "Hughie" (once a drummer in Manchester's dance band halls) died in 1992, aged 76. In 2015, Barbara attended the opening of Bee Gees Way in a wheelchair before dying at her Miami home the following year, aged 95.
Perhaps Barry Gibb's passion for Redcliffe is linked to the way that, like him, it seems somehow trapped by its past. In the down-at-heel town centre, robbed of commercial momentum by nearby mega shopping complexes, quirky arcades display ancient newspaper articles pointing to Redcliffe's origins as the first European settlement in Queensland. (Before that it was the province of the Indigenous Ningy Ningy people.) It became the base for the new colony in 1824, only to be abandoned a year later when the settlers shifted to the site of what became Brisbane.
Redcliffe became a farming district, then a thriving resort town. Later, eclipsed as Brisbane's premier holiday destination by the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, it slumbered for decades with a resident population of battlers, pensioners and knockabout fishing families. Even now, with the long-promised rail link to Brisbane finally in place and a new phase of development kicking in, "Reddy", once voted fourth in a survey to find Australia's top 10 bogan suburbs, still gives the sense of having a middle finger permanently raised to the world that left it behind.
A sculpture depicting the Gibb brothers as boys on Bee Gees Way.
As Mayor Sutherland tells it, he was inspired to create something in honour of the Bee Gees after hearing of Robin Gibb’s death in May 2012. Driving home from work, he parked outside one of the houses where the Gibb family had lived, "shed a tear or two", then heard a local radio announcer saying Redcliffe should create a permanent tribute to the Bee Gees. "I thought, 'You're bloody right!'. So I rang the radio station and said we were thinking about doing something."
He commissioned a statue of the Bee Gees as boys, before progressing to the idea of a "living" walkway. Then he and his wife Gayle went to Miami with a Channel 7 crew who were making a documentary about the Bee Gees. "Barry just threw himself at [the walkway idea]," Sutherland says. "He got what I was after, and a friendship kindled … he opened up his whole life to us, and virtually every word [written about the Gibbs family in Bee Gees Way] was his work. We've got footage of his family that no one else has got, their photo albums, everything."
During Gibb's two subsequent visits to Redcliffe, Sutherland took him to visit Moreton Island, and drove him about the peninsula in the Wizard. Now, as he mentions several times, he and Gibb speak regularly by phone, "Although I'm very careful not to impose myself on him."
Bee Gees Way turned out to be a great success, enlivening the foreshore café strip and drawing tourists from around the world. Yet it should be noted (although he makes no mention of it) that Sutherland was not the first to push for something to commemorate the Bee Gees' time in Redcliffe.
As far back as 2008, a group of enterprising locals had received support from Barry and Robin for a "Brothers Gibb Performing Arts Academy", together with tribute statues and an annual Bee Gees Music Festival. According to media reports at the time, Sutherland at first supported the idea then seemed to lose interest, leading to claims his council had "snubbed the Bee Gees". The mayor publicly denied this, insisting in 2009 he hadn't backed away from honouring the Gibb brothers … "[at some stage] in the future."
Barry Gibb meets fans at the official opening of the second stage of Bee Gees Way in 2015.
In February 2013, a beaming Sutherland embraced Barry Gibb before an adoring crowd at the dedication of the first stage of Bee Gees Way. Also present among VIP guests were former 4BH Brisbane DJ Bill Gates, the man credited around the world as having "discovered the Bee Gees", and ex-racing car driver and speedway manager, Bill Goode, who argues it was him, not Gates, who discovered them.
Now both in their 80s, Gates and Goode were long-time mates until falling out over their conflicting memories. Without doubt it was Goode who gave the raggedy little Gibb boys their first paid gig: singing for a "coin drop" on the back of a flat-bed truck during halftime at a Saturday night speed car meeting at Redcliffe Speedway.
But in 2013, when the official party left Bee Gees Way and drove with Barry Gibb to revisit the speedway, Goode believes he was deliberately left behind so that Gates could get more attention. "So I ran all the way up the hill to where I'd parked," the old speedster tells me, "and made my own way to the speedway … then I had the joy of being able to talk to Barry, who sat in my old race car and put his autograph on the inside of the bonnet."
Goode won't be hurried in his recollections, and takes a long time to explain – "I have a very, very good memory for detail" – his version of events. He reckons Gates, who sometimes drove a stock car in celebrity races at the speedway, wasn't even present on the one and only night the Gibb brothers performed there, as he has publicly claimed. "And I've got the speedway program to prove it!"
He says Gates didn't hear them sing until a few days later, after he'd alerted his then friend to their talents and urged him to come to Redcliffe to check them out. He and Gates then signed the boys to a recording contract, which never actually generated any income, and Gates came up with the name "BGs", based on the initials of himself, Goode, Barry Gibb and his mother, Barbara. They then spent every Sunday for six months recording the trio at the 4BH studios and sending the results to record companies, without success, before giving up and handing over the recording contract to Hugh Gibbs.
That was pretty much the end of Goode's contact with the Bee Gees, while Gates remained friendly with them throughout their careers. Yet Goode refused to be written out of the action, badgering Sutherland and his council – "Bill Gates did not discover the Bee Gees, I did!" – until his name was included in Bee Gees Way. Gates now lives on the Gold Coast, where his wife Donna, a friend of Sutherland's, is deputy mayor. (Last year, both Sutherland and Donna Gates were questioned at a Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission inquiry over donations received from developers during their respective 2016 local government election campaigns.)
Contacted about Goode's assertions, Gates at first maintains, as he has in the past, that he was with Goode when they first heard the Gibb brothers sing over the speedway PA system. Then he demurs: "To be honest with you mate, I don't remember whether I was there that night or not … that's what I thought happened, but it was 60 years ago!"
From her home in Singleton, in the NSW Hunter region, Gibb sibling Lesley Gibb-Evans, 73, unhesitatingly backs Goode's version of history. "That's the way it was," she says. "Although it didn't directly involve me, I heard the others talking about it, and it was definitely Bill Goode who heard the boys first. Then he told Bill Gates, and got Gates to come down to Redcliffe to hear them."
Barry Gibb with local mayor Allan Sutherland.
Early one morning, a lone tourist sits on a bench in Bee Gees Way watching a video loop of the Gibb brothers' lives. In one segment, Robin and Maurice as 10-year-olds are performing a frenzied mock fighting routine, complete with slapping noises and groans, they devised to shock people on Redcliffe beaches. Moments later, the brothers are London pop stars with shaggy locks and beards and absurd bell-bottoms, belting out hits (To Love Somebody, I Started a Joke, Don't Forget to Remember) so instantly familiar they seem to emanate not from the PA system but something that has taken root within our psyches.
The music flows through the walkway, where pictures and Barry's passionate recollections chart the family chronology from innocence to death. Near the end of this journey, Gibb writes:
Mythology [has come] to define … the whole family. Everyone, in his or her way, has their own truth. Any story you may hear from any one of us may not be true of all of us …
In 2013, a grandmother who had a schoolgirl romance with Barry more than 50 years earlier was among the crowd at the dedication of Bee Gees Way. For Carol Ward, or Carol Coombes as she was as a girl, the abiding "truth" about the Gibb boys is that their father Hugh's relentless campaign to make them famous stripped them of their childhood. Always broke and hungry, the brothers spent a lot of time at Ward's home, where her own parents fed them and drove them to gigs organised by their father.
"Their whole family lived off those boys," says Ward, "and the boys really did it tough. Whatever money they earned went to pay the rent or get food … All Hughie wanted, though, was for them to succeed, so I guess it paid off in the long run." She broke up with Barry after six months, later marrying the only other boy she ever dated.
Ward went to Bee Gees Way hoping to tell Gibb how proud she was of what he'd achieved against all odds. When he realised who she was, Gibb pointed and said, "I'll be speaking with you later." But he never did.
When I talk to him on the mayor's phone, Gibb suggests Carol did the right thing by dropping him. "I was always being dumped. I was too possessive … I had no idea where I was going, but I was certain that along the way I was going to become famous. I told her when she was breaking it off, 'You're making a big mistake, I'm gonna be famous!' "
We both laugh politely, and in the pause that follows my recorder picks up the screech of gulls fighting for scraps near the jetty. "But Carol still talks about it, and I still think about it," concludes the last unfallen star of Bee Gees Way. "It was just that time of life."
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