In my new column Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. To help make my site more interactive, if you like what I’m doing comment and let me know what random hit song you want me to review.
Barbra Streisand- “Guilty” (feat. Barry Gibb)
PEAK: #3 on January 10, 1981
WEEK OF PEAK: John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over“
Imagine one of the biggest stars today say Drake all of a sudden falling out of favor on the charts. Everyone is sick of him and the songs he puts out after the fall hardly make the huge impact they did at his peak. Now imagine Drake still finding a way to get onto the charts but by collaborating with another artist and producing their album that is in essence just a Drake album in disguise.
That’s where Barry Gibb was at the beginning of the ‘80s. As the leader of the Bee Gees, Gibb helped bring the group to stratospheric levels of success in the late ‘70s thanks to the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 1978’s best-selling album. The soundtrack spawned three #1 singles, “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Night Fever” as well as a fourth #1, Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” written by the group. Barry’s falsetto and the group’s shiny suit and chest hair image were everywhere. With this massive success, the Bee Gees became the most successful chart-dominating act since the Beatles in 1964.
Adding to their success, the Bee Gees were keeping busy as songwriters writing and producing many hit songs for other artists including their little brother Andy Gibb, Frankie Valli, and Samantha Sang. In 1979, their hot streak continued with the album Spirits Having Flown which launched three more #1 hits for the group, “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” and “Love You Inside Out.” The album was another hit with Billboard naming it as the #2 best-selling album of 1979 behind Billy Joel’s 52nd Street.
But after “Love You Inside Out” hit #1 in June 1979, the Bee Gees’ massive imperial phase would soon come crashing down. Thanks to Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees had come to represent disco for much of the public even though they were much more than disco if you know their whole career. But it didn’t matter. When the American public turned on disco in late 1979, the Bee Gees fell with it. They wouldn’t get back into the Top 10 until a decade later with 1989’s “One” which peaked at #7. (It’s a 6.) In the meantime, their sales tanked hard with their next album 1981’s Living Eyes failing to break the Top 40 and its two singles not doing much better. A far cry from the massive success just a couple years earlier.
Despite their sudden fall from the top, music listeners weren’t as sick of the Bee Gees as they thought they were. Bee Gees songs were still getting big after the ‘70s. It’s just that the Bee Gees name wasn’t on the record. The group still managed hits by working with other artists as shown by their biggest post-disco success writing and producing Barbra Streisand’s 1980 album Guilty. Guilty became Streisand’s best-selling album launching three Top 10 singles including its title track collaboration which may not be disco but isn’t all that different from the Bee Gees.
The funny thing about Guilty is that while it’s credited as a Barbra Streisand album, it’s essentially a Bee Gees album with Streisand singing on it. Barry Gibb did much of the work on the album including writing, producing, and arranging. He plays guitar and sings much of the backing vocals as well as a couple of songs with Streisand including the title track. And the album cover shows Streisand and Gibb nestled with each other in white clothing against a white backdrop. Streisand wasn’t trying to hide the connection. Despite the massive backlash against the group at the time, the public was perfectly fine with hearing the Bee Gees in a supporting role.
The idea for Guilty came from Streisand who after attending a Bee Gees concert at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium approached the group about having them collaborate with her on her new album. The initial plan was for the Bee Gees to write and produce half the album but Streisand liked the songs they wrote so much that she and Barry wound up working on the entire album. “Guilty” was written by Barry along with his brothers and bandmates Robin and Maurice Gibb, the only song on the album with writing credits from all three Bee Gees, with Barry producing alongside regular collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson.
“Guilty,” the album’s first track, was an obvious choice for a lead single but Streisand and her label Columbia held back on releasing it. By this point, Streisand had hit #1 twice with duets, 1978’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Neil Diamond and 1979’s “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer, and she didn’t want the public to see her as just a duets artist. Columbia released “Woman In Love,” a ballad-heavy solo track as the lead single from Guilty weeks before the album’s release to establish the album in its own right. It turned out to be the right decision as “Woman In Love” hit #1 on the Hot 100 in October 1980 becoming Streisand’s fifth and final #1 hit. The success eventually led Columbia to release “Guilty” and it wound up being a big hit as well.
The Bee Gees influence is heavy on “Guilty.” Like a lot of Bee Gees songs, “Guilty” is a love song with vague lyrics about a couple expressing their devotion to each other. Like many Bee Gees songs, it’s filled with lyrics that don’t make a whole lot of sense using Max Martin’s method of melodic math well before he popularized it, “You battle on with the love you’re livin’ on/We are devotion.” None of the lyrics for the album were re-written which says a lot. And it also has lyrics that are trying way too hard to be poetic, “Make it a crime to be lonely or sad/Our love will climb any mountain near or far.” The influence shows up in more direct ways. The build-up to the chorus sounds a lot to me like the post-chorus of “Night Fever.” And one of the lyrics, “Eyes can see that we got a highway to the sky” is a direct lift of the lyric, “You and me girl got a highway to the sky,” from “Too Much Heaven.”
On Barry Gibb’s demo for “Guilty” released in 2006, you can easily hear what the song could have been with Barry singing in his trademark falsetto throughout. Considering the lyrics don’t exactly require a duet, if the Bee Gees hadn’t fallen so drastically it very well could have been another hit for them. Gibb and Streisand could have easily turned “Guilty” into a show-stopping vocal duet. Instead, their performances are toned down singing in a more restrained manner and not being too showy.
For the final version, Streisand, Gibb, and team recorded in Miami with a crew of experienced session musicians. It sounds like the lush and expensive style productions the Bee Gees were utilizing at their peak. Processed electric guitars murmur to each other, rich strings, and liquid electric piano. Barry multi-tracked his vocals where his falsetto comes in prominently. Despite the more restrained singing, both Gibb and Streisand sound like they’re having fun together.
Despite all the professionalism on display, “Guilty” doesn’t do much for me. The song has a lounge pop, easy listening sound that while well made comes across as forgettable. The same thing goes for the performances. It’s a song that to me exists to fade into the background. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just drifts along before evaporating. It’s also hard for me to not think about how much like the Bee Gees this song sounds and how much better it would be listening to them.
It’s easy to see the success of Guilty and its title track not as much about the Bee Gees but about Barbra Streisand and the type of music she was making. In 1981, Barbra Streisand was one of the biggest names in both music and film scoring hits through the ‘70s so “Guilty” was just more of that success. Plus, the music fitted with the gooey easy listening and adult contemporary sounds that came in to dominate the early ‘80s era between disco and MTV. With Barry Gibb dialing back his falsetto, people who were sick of that sound by 1981 could still tolerate listening to Barry.
Guilty launched one more Top 10 hit with another Barry Gibb collaboration, the ballad “What Kind Of Fool” which peaked at #10 later in 1981. (It’s a 4.) After that, both Streisand and Gibb wouldn’t have much more pop success as artists. Streisand wouldn’t get back into the Top 10 until the 1996 Bryan Adams collaboration “I Finally Found Someone” from the soundtrack of the Streisand movie The Mirror Has Two Faces. (“I Finally Found Someone” peaked at #8. It’s a 3.) Aside from working on hits for other artists and “One,” Barry Gibb wouldn’t make many more hits on his own or as a Bee Gee. With the deaths of his brothers, Barry is now the last surviving Gibb brother at age 73.
BONUS BEATS: The Australian band Human Nature released their cover of “Guilty” titled “Guilty (One In A Million)” in 2004. Here’s the video:
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