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.
You couldn’t follow up the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It wasn’t possible. That album, the highest-selling of all of 1978, was a genuine cultural phenomenon that launched four #1 singles — three performed by the Bee Gees, one merely written by the group. If the Bee Gees had disappeared forever after Fever, they would’ve still left their marks. Instead, the Bee Gees went into the lab, worked for months straight on their follow-up, tinkered with their sound, and returned at the top of the next year.
The conditions were pretty much perfect for Spirits Having Flown, the album that the Bee Gees released in January of 1979, to flop spectacularly. The public should’ve been utterly sick of them by then — their screechy yelps, their voluminous hair, their vaguely terrifying teeth, their generally nonsensical lyrics. Instead, Spirits Having Flown was another blockbuster. It launched three straight #1 singles, the first of which was the Bee Gees’ attempt to remind the public that they weren’t just a disco group. The crash would come, but it wouldn’t come yet.
The Bee Gees released “Too Much Heaven” nine months after “Night Fever.” At the time, that was a long break between singles for such an on-fire group. Barry Gibb-written songs kept coming out, of course. And the Bee Gees starred in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a notorious box-office bomb released in the summer of 1978. The Bee Gees’ manager and mastermind Robert Stigwood had the idea for a rock-opera celebration of the already-classic Beatles album that was barely a decade old at that point, and the Bee Gees clumsily acted through the vague narrative that had been constructed for them. The movie bricked hard, but the Bee Gees still managed to bounce back from it. (The flop didn’t hurt Stigwood, either. He’d also produced Grease, the biggest box-office hit of 1978, which spun off a pair of #1 singles too.)
For “Too Much Heaven,” their big follow-up single, the Bee Gees figured out a pretty good way to stave off overexposure and create public goodwill: The all-star charity concert. Years after George Harrison staged the Concert For Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, the Bee Gees invited a ton of other big pop acts of the moment — ABBA, Donna Summer, Rod Stewart — to play the Music For UNICEF Concert at the United Nations General Assembly. The show was broadcast on TV, and a soundtrack album came out later.
I don’t know if the Music For UNICEF Concert was a genuine expression of concern for the world’s children or a canny PR stunt. Maybe it was both. In any case, it gave the group plenty of good PR, and tons of other superstars have attempted similar moves in the decades since. When they announced the show, the Bee Gees pledged to donate all the money from their next single to UNICEF. That single was “Too Much Heaven,” and it was #1 by the time the concert aired.
“Too Much Heaven” is, very consciously, not a disco song. Instead, it’s a big, gloopy ballad full of grand flourishes. The Bee Gees brought in the Chicago horn section for the song, and they add a certain smoothed-out sheen to a group that was already plenty smoothed-out. Meanwhile, the Bee Gees themselves multi-track their own voices into oblivion. On the chorus, you can apparently hear 27 voices — most of which are just Barry Gibb — singing in harmony.
On “Too Much Heaven,” the Bee Gees don’t have too much to say. It’s a love song, obviously. But it’s also a fine example of the trio’s weird-as-hell lyrics. Once again, Barry Gibb sings words that look like they’ve been run through Google Translate a few times: “Everything we are will never die… Oh, you make my world a sunny day/ Are you just a dream to fade away?” There’s something slightly compelling about just how oblique those lines are. They hint at a depth that probably isn’t there.
In its way, “Too Much Heaven” calls back to the Bee Gees’ pre-disco balladeer days. There’s not a whole lot of rhythm to the song, and there’s no excitement whatsoever. I generally find the Bee Gees pretty boring in this mode. But “Too Much Heaven” has at least one thing that the pre-disco Bee Gees didn’t: Barry Gibb’s falsetto. That falsetto gets a hell of a workout on “Too Much Heaven.” By the time the song hits its big, cathartic finale, Barry is pretty much doing an inhuman car-alarm howl. Even in the context of a song as sleepy as this, it’s pretty impressive.
After all that, the Bee Gees’ win streak was intact. We will see them in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Kevin Smith’s 2001 film Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back where Jay discusses stealing a monkey while listening to “Too Much Heaven”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Snoop Dogg’s 2008 single “Those Gurlz,” producers DJ Quik and Teddy Riley sampled “Too Much Heaven.” Here’s the video:
(“Those Gurlz” did not chart. Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column. Teddy Riley will also be here as a producer and as a member of Blackstreet. As a producer, DJ Quik’s highest-charting single is Truth Hurts’ 2002 Rakim collab “Addictive,” which peaked at #9. It’a a 10.)