No. 38 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72
By Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocals: Barry & Robin
Album: To Whom It May Concern 1972
Single B-side 1972
“Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere”
Paper Mache Cabbages and Kings sees the Bee Gees looking for novel ways of expressing their quirkier side. Marked eccentricity had been a hallmark of their late ‘60s albums but tended to fade along with psychedelia so that by Two Years On and Trafalgar the quirky quotient is low indeed. Paper Mache ostensibly attempts to resurrect a kind of playfulness but presents a darker vision, a bad trip, in fact.
On a first listen, the song seems simply weird and nonsensical. Jumbled, arbitrary lyrics (‘cabbages and kings’ is taken from Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’) are set to a European schlager feel with balalaika-like mandolin accompaniment.
Two near-identical outer sections relate the craziness of the brothers’ lives, the strains of constant touring and travelling, of communications and missed communications (‘telegraph poles’, ‘autograph books’, ‘people you don’t meet’). A fraught landscape is seen as if through a child’s eyes – ‘Things go dead in the night… make you want to jump with fright’.
There is a slow middle section about the pain of a broken relationship. It’s as if the brothers pause for a moment to catch their breath – and their feelings – realising the personal casualties of their success and their own emotional burn-up. This ‘breakdown’ section culminates in some shredding vocals from Robin – there is something disturbing yet bizarrely comical about hearing ‘paper mache’ yelled with such extreme intensity – before the deranged circus of ‘cabbages and kings’ starts-up again, now gathering pace.
We fade to the manically repeated ‘Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere…’ with its intimations of a child under unbearable pressure about to explode. In fact ‘manic’ is what underscores the song throughout.
So Paper Mache Cabbages and Kings turns out to be not a psychedelic fantasy after all. Neither is it any kind of nonsense song. Actually, it’s more of a no-nonsense song: the paper mache is hearts torn apart and the cabbages and kings, the fragility of success.