In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In 1978, the Bee Gees were chart vikings, Billboard raiders who left devastation wherever they landed. Saturday Night Fever had come out at the end of 1977 and left a deep imprint on America’s cultural dream life. The Bee Gees, already surging, became supernovas. Songs written by the Gibb brothers were at #1 on the Hot 100 for more than half of the 1978 calendar year. This wasn’t just the Bee Gees’ imperial era. It was an all-time run, a record-shatterer. We’ve only seen hot streaks like that a few times in Hot 100 history: the Beatles in 1964, Puff Daddy in 1997. And like the Beatles and Puffy, the Bee Gees spread their success around to a few other artists. One was baby brother Andy Gibb, who was merely caught up in the whirlwind.
Everyone who has ever scored a #1 hit has shown up in the right place at the right time. To land a single at #1 requires some obscure, impossible-to-predict combination of luck and timing. A song doesn’t necessarily have to be good to hit #1; if you’ve been reading this column for long enough, you already know that plenty of bullshit has made the cut. But a song does have to capture some elusive zeitgeist. And nobody has ever shown up in the righter place at the righter time than Andy Gibb.
Gibb, more than a decade younger than his three famous brothers, first arrived with 1977’s “I Just Want To Be Your Everything,” a teen-idol simper written by an in-the-zone Barry Gibb. Andy released “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” his second single, in September of 1977, and it had a slow climb up the charts. But when Saturday Night Fever turned the Bee Gees into juggernauts, the song was right there, ready to make the leap. Andy Gibb, already a big deal thanks to “I Just Want To Be Your Everything,” could not have had better timing, at least as far as the 1978 charts are concerned.
“(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” came from the same songwriting and recording sessions that “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” did. Barry Gibb wrote “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” in a 20-minute sprint while Andy watched. Andy and Barry both have songwriting credits on “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” but they did not contribute equally. Barry had asked his younger brother for a title, and Andy had suggested “Thicker Than Water.” Barry liked it, and he went off and wrote the whole song based on it. Andy didn’t even write the entire title.
Barry sang backup on “Thicker Than Water,” just as he’d done on “I Just Want To Be Your Everything.” The Eagles had been recording Hotel California in an adjoining studio, and Joe Walsh showed up to play guitar on both songs. Flowing Rivers, Andy Gibb’s 1977 debut album, mostly consisted of songs that Andy had written while in his pre-fame days in Australia. Barry Gibb only wrote two of the songs on the album, and only those two tracks featured Barry backing vocals and Joe Walsh guitars. Those two songs were always going to be the singles.
Andy recorded both of his first two #1 singles at Miami’s Criteria Studios, the Bee Gees’ home base, with Barry Gibb and Bee Gees collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson producing. So Andy had access to pop-production masterminds at the moment when those men were poised to utterly take over the charts. “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” isn’t an especially well-remembered song, and it probably wouldn’t have hit #1 in any other moment in chart history. But in the early months of 1978, it couldn’t possibly fail.
It almost doesn’t matter that “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” is a pretty good pop song, but it is one. Like a lot of big Bee Gees hits, “Thicker Than Water” has echoes of disco and ’70s soul but also of early-’70s psychedelia. There’s a nice breezy sense of strut to the locked-in rhythm section. We get a tumbling drum-roll intro and a tiny, diluted bit of Isaac Hayes chicken-scratch funk in the guitars. It’s a song with a pronounced, impossible-to-miss beat, but it’s not quite a dance song.
Joe Walsh gets more to do on “Thicker Than Water” than he had on “I Just Want To Be Your Everything.” He bluesily noodles all over the song, giving it some of the expensive California-pop smear that he brought to the Eagles. When Walsh faces off against Albhy Galuten’s grand, glassy, dramatic synths, we get a quick preview of the ’80s synth-rock movie-soundtrack sound that would take over the charts a few years later. The song works as a sort of cocaine reverie — a piece of music that might play in your head while you’re strutting through the foyer of a seedy European casino, giving finger-guns greetings to people you don’t know.
Lyrically, “Thicker Than Water” is an oddly morbid sort of love song. Andy is consumed with his girl, and he can only describe her in the most flowery and overdone poetic language: “You are this dreamer’s only dream, heaven’s angel, devil’s daughter.” But Andy doesn’t seem to enjoy his time with her. Instead, he fixates on how destroyed he’ll be when everything inevitably falls apart: “She’ll leave me crying in the end, wandering through the afterglow.” And eventually, the bridge tells us that Andy is singing this whole song to someone who’s involved with the same woman: “I need her more than she needs you / That’s what I’m praying for.” (That’s my interpretation, anyway. The lyrics are a little vague.)
Vocally, Andy comes off more as a K-Mart brand Bee Gee than he does on “I Just Want To Be Your Everything.” He can hit the weird, yelpy high notes, but he can’t sell the song with the urgency that those weird-as-hell lyrics demand. Barry, on backing vocals, gives the song a dimension that his younger brother just can’t muster. The song should be a hysterical, dramatic bugout. Instead, Andy keeps it earthbound. He’s the weak link on his own song.
You never hear “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” these days. It doesn’t show up in samples or commercials or movie montages. The song hasn’t lingered in the cultural memory the way so many of the Bee Gees-affiliated smashes of 1978 have done. These days, it’s mostly just a remnant of the Bee Gees’ absurdly dominant streak, a part of an impressive statistic.
“Thicker Than Water” showed up at just the right time to become a #1 hit. The song hit #1 the day before Andy turned 20, a month and a half after his baby daughter was born, and a few months before Andy divorced his already-estranged wife. Shortly after the single hit #1, Andy released his hastily recorded follow-up album.
From a pop-chart perspective, Andy Gibb won the lottery. But there’s a well-documented history of lottery winners becoming depressed and self-destructive after winning. That’s what happened, more or less, with Andy Gibb, too. But we’ll get to that, since Andy Gibb will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s what appears to be an entire wildly elaborate and deeply corny Olivia Newton-John/ABBA/Andy Gibb 1978 TV special, which, at one point, features Andy Gibb singing “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” without the assistance of Olivia Newton-John or ABBA: