The second of three posts on Saved by the Bell: the Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-70.
Here I’m listening to CD2, the Sing Slowly Sisters sessions recorded 1st January – April 1970.
From the stentorian drum beats which open the album, Sing Slowly Sisters conjures up so many ghosts: the exhuming of material nearly half a century old, the shadow of World War One which haunts some of the music and most of all, the ghost of Robin Gibb himself.
Sing Slowly Sisters’ apparently sepia-tinted setting is a historical place only inasmuch as it is fundamentally a place of the mind, Robin’s mind, a shrouded place in which to contemplate loneliness and loss. Sing Slowly Sisters is introverted to its very core.
Some of the music might have made a good soundtrack for a film or TV play with a historical setting – a Victorian drama made in the early 70s, a Ken Russell production perhaps?
There is more variety on offer here than on Robin’s Reign Not all the songs proceed at a similar pace and the production is more intimate especially on the chamber songs.
Along with his pronounced eccentricity, Robin’s amazing facility for melody barely relents throughout more than twenty tracks; in fact, the songs are pretty much built on melody alone with not a riff, a groove or rock motif in sight.
The ideas seemed to pour out of him at this time, not just in the songs collected here but across other projects too, some mentioned in interviews with Brian Matthew and David Wigg on CD3.
No less than four songs mention the word ‘wife’, an unusual emphasis in pop, perhaps used to root the songs firmly in the past and within a particular structure of society. But the uxorial pre-eminence also points to an enduring relationship rather than mere passing fancies, thus dignifying love and intensifying its loss.
The contrast between the ambitious Sing Slowly Sisters and the uninspired reunion group effort Two Years On recorded only months apart is astonishing.
Joseph Brennan gives the Sing Slowly Sisters track listing and running order (based on two acetate LPs) as possibly:
1. Life – 2.32
2. I’ve Been Hurt – 4.21
3. Irons in the Fire – 4.07
4. Cold be My Days – 6.14
5. Avalanche – 4.13
6. Make Believe – 5.03
7. All’s Well That Ends Well – 2.12
8. A Very Special Day – 2.56
9. Sky West and Crooked – 2.31
10. Sing Slowly Sisters – 3.57
11. C’est la Vie, Au Revoir – 3.19
Running time: 41.25
Saved By the Bell provides us with an entirely different one, supplementing the eleven above with a further seven tracks and two demos:
1. Sing Slowly Sisters – 3.57
2. Life – 2.32
3. C’est la Vie, Au Revoir – 3.19
4. Everything Is How You See Me – 2.39
5. I’ve Been Hurt – 4.21
6. Sky West and Crooked – 2.31
7. Irons in the Fire – 4.07
8. Cold Be My Days – 6.14
9. Avalanche – 4.13
10. Engines Aeroplanes – 2.25
11. The Flag I Flew – 4.15
12. Return to Austria – 2.17
13. It’s Only Make Believe – 5.03
14. All’s Well That Ends Well – 2.12
15. A Very Special Day – 2.56
16. Great Caesar’s Ghost – 2.23
17. Anywhere I Hang My Hat – 3.41
18. Loud and Clear – 3.34
19. Return to Austria (demo) – 8.02
20. Why Not Cry Together (demo) – 2.09
I would barely want to take issue with the eleven tracks shortlisted by Brennan (and presumably those chosen by Robin to comprise the finished Sing Slowly Sisters); these alone would comprise a most distinctive and distinguished album. Return to Austria is perhaps a surprising omission. I’d take any of Robin’s originals over the slightly underdeveloped All’s Well that Ends Well though his highly unusual borrowing of another’s melody (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’) probably makes it a ‘must’ for inclusion.
Of the twenty tracks on this CD, the most accessible songs with the biggest arrangements mainly come first, as if from a rousing start we move deeper into the album’s melancholy heart. But with the eleven Brennan tracks largely placed across the first half of the CD, there is an inevitable, though slight, dip in quality on the second half. Significantly, the Brennan selections tend to be the songs with the strongest historical placements and/or narratives.
Three songs recorded together – I’ve Been Hurt, Irons in the Fire and Cold Be My Days – occur consecutively on Brennan’s proposed running order and almost do so here (separated only by Sky West and Crooked). This nearness allows for a sense of a developing and deepening mood across the three which share in delightful chamber arrangements and a delicate, inward discernment. The mood culminates in the crystalline sharpness of Cold Be My Days.
Still, whatever the running order, at last here is much of the material gathered together from scattered acetates, demos and tapes and as cleaned up as it can be for our listening pleasure. Having heard – and in some cases endured – scratchy, creaking versions of some of these songs, it’s marvellous to hear them in near pristine form.
Two Sing Slowly Sisters tracks are utterly definitive and if I was compiling a ‘Best of Robin Gibb’, they would have to be included. They are Sing Slowly Sisters and Cold Be My Days.
Sing Slowly Sisters: track-by-track
Sing Slowly Sisters
Bob Stanley describes Sing Slowly Sisters as ‘possibly the most moving song about the First World War ever written’. It surely sits alongside the very best of Robin’s work.
This lively number sounds like a hit, pure and simple, in the orchestrated pop style of the day. You’ll appreciate its simple virtues once you reach further into the lonely depths of Sing Slowly Sisters. There are even echoes of I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You if you listen for them.
C’est la Vie, Au Revoir
Although more mainstream than the two unarguably (in my opinion) essential tracks Sing Slowly Sisters and Cold Be My Days, C’est la Vie, Au Revoir is classic Robin with its affecting, inexorably sad chorus and that wonderful couplet:
“All the trees around me ignored the sun and died,
Grass and reeds around me quietly apologized”.
Everything Is How You See Me
This has something of an Idea Side 1 song about it though Vic Lewis’s introduction lends an incongruous epic western quality. I especially like Robin’s late entry backing vocals swelling the outro.
I’ve Been Hurt
After the relatively lavish arrangements up until this point, I’ve Been Hurt shows the way to the intimate, introverted heart of the album by way of a sweetly Victorian string quartet and woodwind arrangement.
Combining startling vulnerability with an air of quiet entreaty, Robin sings of shame, about being hurt and misled. ‘Be careful with my heart’ might sum up the song’s gentle plea.
Amidst the studied seriousness, he can’t resist a little humour – ‘last not least my job went east’.
Sky West and Crooked
‘Cobwebs smother the eyes of another…’ A simple strumalong waltz with elliptical lyrics referencing an ‘East Derbyshire dentist’ this is perhaps Robin at his most endearingly strange.
The title seems to be a self-acknowledgement of Robin’s eccentricity but is also a 1965 film starring Hayley Mills.
Irons In the Fire
Set to the loveliest arrangement of harpsichord and strings, Robin imagines himself as old and downcast, looking back on the ‘arcade of my age’ as ‘tapestries of youth fall into view.’ There are some characteristic rhymes within rhymes – ‘mentally on the whole you stole my soul’ and a lovely downward drop of key on the very final vocal ‘I’m a helpless choice’.
Cold Be My Days
The second of two essential Sing Slowly Sisters tracks.
The bright-eyed Cold Be My Days shows Robin’s mastery of a quasi-classical genre in his own inimitable style. His voice is utterly suited to the string quartet arrangement.
The apparently meandering middle detour is immaculately integrated into a carefully thought through whole, its thematic and musical sensibilities completely at one.
A disarmingly ambitious song.
Born out of Robin and wife Molly’s four days trapped in an Alpine cabin, this is the most stripped down thing here. Robin’s voice strains (deliberately) a little at the upper reaches as if to convey the altitude and extremity of the situation (probably a little serendipitous thinking there on my part!).
The title left me hoping for vivid imagery à la Cold Be My Days. This is very highly rated but I’m afraid I find it a little repetitive.
A break for an ostensibly jaunty countryish mood after the intensity of what has gone before and we’re back to a more arranged sound.
The Flag I Flew
This and the following three fully orchestrated tracks share something of the flavour of Robin’s Reign’s tracks such as Gone, Gone, Gone, The Worst Girl in This Town and Most of My Life.
Return to Austria
A continuation of farewell from the previous track, the same key and a definite similarity between the melody in the verses.
It’s Only Make Believe
“I’ve never been alone before,
It makes me feel so insecure,
There’s nowhere I can turn”
Few singer-songwriters are as unguardedly exposed as this. There is a nice upward moving inclination taken up towards the end by the violins and a well crafted elaboration of ‘believe’ morphing into a repeated ‘Believe me…’
All’s Well That Ends Well
Robin utilises the melody of that most melancholy of carols, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, his upper register voice a complete contrast from the preceding track. His plaintive tone belies the title.
The melody is so well known that upon hearing it, one cannot but help recall the original words, like a kind of silent subtext. This element of recall is probably an artful aspect of the palimpsest. If so, Lord Bless All far more successfully conjures a wintry feel.
A Very Special Day
“People danced like in a story from Bernard Shaw…’”
… such gaiety begins a vivid and extraordinarily economic narrative.
It’s possible to piece together a story from the lyric’s allusions: Robin is about to leave for war. He has been ‘thrown down like the enemy’ by his bride to be who has left him to seek her ‘very special day’ with a new suitor. He surveys the dancers at an unnamed occasion (her wedding?) with great sadness and loneliness at the prospect of walking away and losing everything – his wife, his comfort and familiarity and ultimately perhaps his life.
A companion piece to Sing Slowly Sisters, A Very Special Day is characteristic in its conflation of personal loss with broader themes of greater loss in war. Robin skilfully uses the language of one to evoke the other.
This piano and vocals only piece is wedged amongst a run of heavily orchestrated tracks so as to accentuate its starkness.
‘A Very Special Day’ is a later standout track.
Great Ceasar’s Ghost
A stately serenade, Great Ceasar’s Ghost is possibly a kind of idiosyncratic ode to ‘the most incredible man to arise’, a product of Robin’s historic heroism. But given the almost unrivalled obscurity of the lyrics even that interpretation may be conferring upon the song a precision its writer never intended.
‘Great Ceasar’s Ghost’ was possibly to have been Robin’s fourth solo single.
Anywhere I Hang My Hat
A likeable piece which ups the tempo and wants to inject a little soul into proceedings. Re-worked I can hear this almost fitting into Bee Gees 1st.
‘Anyone can come and use my phone…’ thanks Robin.
Loud and Clear
Repeats the melody and some of the lyrics of I’ve Been Hurt with a far more conventional and upbeat arrangement, a less intimate vocal recording and to lesser effect.
Return to Austria (demo)
An eight minute demo which perhaps begins with something of the flavour of Hudson Fallen Wind thanks to heavy echo and synth only (joined by drum machine after five minutes).
Robin sings the chorus with real feeling ‘I still love you more than you’ll ever know‘ but retreats to la-las and da-das for sections which do not yet have lyrics. The repetitive nature as Robin gets to grips with the material is almost hypnotic. The ‘I just don’t know what to do’ proto-lyric is thankfully excised in the finished version.
Why Not Cry Together (demo)
A heavily reverbed vocal for a short acoustic guitar accompanied piece with an undertow of bleak good humour, a plea for togetherness in the face of life’s mixed emotions.
Look out for my third Saved By the Bell post coming soon where I shall review CD3, Robin’s Rarities.
Gibb Songs 1970 – Joseph Brennan’s site