Homeward bound

My house move is almost upon me.  I know because to write this, I’ve fought my way between towering stacks of cardboard boxes containing the first fifty odd years of my life’s belongings.  I hope they don’t split, spilling my 45s all over the road.

I’ll be posting when I can post-move but I’m anticipating no internet for at least a few days not to mention the task of just returning to some semblance of normality.

When I’m back, I’ll be rounding off this long series on the Bee Gees with a look at some of the songs which didn’t make it into the Top 50 including three big hitters – Massachussets, Words and First of May –  and album overviews.

Plus posts on other retro music and related topics too of course.

So see you once the dust has settled.

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I Started a Joke

No. 1 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocal: Robin
Album Idea, 1968
Single A-side 1968


Embed from Getty Images

 

“I fell out of bed thing my head on things that I said”

Given the amount of speculation over the meaning of this song, perhaps I hardly need add my own interpretation but I’m going to have a jolly good try.

Some think I Started a Joke is about making a fool of yourself in a social setting and finally having the guts to own up to that.  Others say it’s about Jesus on the cross from the Devil’s point of view, or Hitler or the Vietnam War…    To some it’s probably just a plain good pop song.  But the lyrics, I think, are too multi-layered for it to be ‘just’ that.  A few years ago, I discovered a piece by Bee Gees’ fan Mary Lee Foote with an interpretation of I Started a Joke as being about self-repression.  Mary’s analysis gets the closest to uncovering the song’s enigma of anything I’ve read.

Ego dented

For me, I Started a Joke is about having an ego, having your ego dented and, at that point, the possibility of losing, or at least, loosening, your ego.  The joke is simply the game everyone indulges in, the game of ego construction – career, fame, wealth, security, beauty etc.  But pursuing these things relentlessly and to the detriment of all else only hurts others and ultimately oneself.  We I Started a Jokecan awake from this narrowness: run our hands over our eyes as if to truly see; look at the skies to take in a bigger picture; have our egos hurt a little and become aware we have an ego at all.  Then the ‘I’ can fall away and the world begins to live because we’ve let down some of our defences.  We begin to see that the joke was on ‘me’, on the narrow me and that we don’t have to work to preserve that narrow ‘me’ and maintain the façade.  We can move beyond it.  And who started the joke?  ‘I’ did.  It all came from ‘me’.  We can hear that in Robin’s final ‘oh, oh oh’s, the pain of realisation.

I’m not sure how much of that interpretation comes from my meditating on and off these past eight years but the meaning seems to fall into place quite naturally, almost without trying.  I can’t see I Started a Joke holding the same meaning had I never meditated or come across Buddhism.

Confessional

So much for the philosophising, what of the song itself?  The verses are built around a common set of chord progressions which are presented at the start.  With some songs, that can strike a note of over-familiarity but here they seem to encapsulate I Started a Joke’s classic timelessness.  Maybe it’s because of the modest instrumental introduction followed by that intriguing, confessional opening line.

A slightly forlorn quality is present in the verse melody which instinctively wants to fall away as if humbled.  Robin’s voice initially soars in the bridge but, by steps, the melody again falls.  The melody is classic in its simplicity throughout, like something you have heard before but can’t quite place – and I mean that as the highest accolade.

The lyrics are also incredibly simple as if – to quote a cliché – they ‘wrote themselves’.  But that simplicity allows an amazing spaciousness so that listeners can bring their own meanings – and they do.  The only lyrical ‘device’ is in the juxtapositions of  ‘joke/crying’, ‘cry/laughing’, ‘died/living’ (twice), with ‘crying’, ‘laughing’ and living’ each heard after a slight pause in phrasing which gives them a subtle added weight.

I Started a Joke is a wonderful song for anyone to have written.  But for nineteen year-old Robin Gibb to have picked out this immediately appealing melody from the drone of a Vickers Viscount and married it to those deceptively simple lyrics strikes me as amazing.

If you need any greater tribute to this song than the richness of interpretations brought by many listeners over the years, there is this: Robin’s son, Robin-John Gibb, played I Started a Joke on his phone just after his father died from kidney failure on May 20, 2012. The song had come back to its creator. “I put the phone on his chest and that was the first time I broke down. I knew that song and its lyrics were perfect for that moment. That song will always have new meaning to me now” – from Songfacts I Started a Joke

No 2 Morning of My Life (In the Morning) 1966 version

 

Morning of My Life (In the Morning) – 1966 version

No. 2 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Barry Gibb 
Lead Vocal: Barry
Recording: 1966 for Spicks and Specks sessions
Album Inception/Nostalgia 1970 compilation


“Building castles in the shifting sands, in a world that no one understands”

This song alone inspired me to roll back my ‘early years’ canvas one year to 1966 so I could include Morning of My Life high in my Top 50.

Morning of My Life (originally known as In the Morning) has a longer and more complex gestation than perhaps any other in the Gibb canon.  Written in 1965 it was first recorded in 1966 while the brothers were in Australia.  Given its standout quality, it’s surprising that the song wasn’t picked for inclusion on an early UK album but then there was such a wealth of material to choose from.

Morning covers

So instead, Morning of My Life surfaced as cover versions, most resplendently, perhaps, by Nina Simone.  This was the version I heard first with its jazz piano accompaniment and replete with Miss Simone’s distinctive vocal and turn of phrasing.  Morning of My LifeAs she has done so many times elsewhere, every nuance of feeling is elucidated but upon first listening, what made me sit up was perhaps less her performance and more the song itself.

Some years later, I heard the Bee Gees’ recording of Morning of My Life, the one included in the 1971 film Melody.  I must have assumed this was their only version, perhaps recorded in response to the popularity of the Nina Simone cover.  The Melody version is very much in keeping with early ‘70s ballad-orientated Bee Gees – slow pace, lush orchestration and sung in Barry’s soft, feather-light style.  Gorgeous though it is, it seemed to add loveliness upon loveliness to lesser effect.  And that tootling flute is just a little too much.  So Nina’s remained the version for me.

Crystalline fragility

Until, that is, some years later again, I came across the Bee Gees’ original 1966 version.  Immediately its clarity and straightforwardness seemed a perfect vehicle for allowing the song to simply speak for itself in all crystalline fragility and innocence.  The lyrical images seem to paint instant pictures as if out of thin air.  Barry’s voice has gentle, natural warmth.  The guitar just strums and the percussion shuffles away nicely in the background.

Some comment on Morning’s breadth, its apparent insights hinting at a ‘spiritual’ quality – how could this have been written by one so young?  Maybe (as the title suggests) that’s the point.  It takes freshness and vulnerability to be able to feel life this way.  And that again is why I prefer the earlier version.  I’m surprised to hear myself say this as I generally prefer more ‘worked over’ versions of songs.

I’ve heard In the Morning compared to Donovan’s Colours and, yes, I can hear the similarities.  But with its delightful day in a life/life in a day conflations and sometimes startling lyrical freshness, Barry’s composition is more subtle and moving than Donovan’s simple colour-list love song.

Somehow I don’t want to unpick Morning of My Life too much.  Really you just need to take a listen for yourself.

No 1 I Started a Joke
No 3 And the Sun Will Shine

 

And the Sun Will Shine

No. 3 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocal: Robin
Album Horizontal 1968


“You should be here standing so near to me”

My enthusiasm for the Bee Gees wanes a little with their drift towards all-out, orchestral emotional ballads.  And the Sun Will Shine is one of the earliest examples (if you listen to the albums purely chronologically – we haven’t quite got to Massachusetts yet!).

We’re not talking First of May sentimentality here.  And the Sun Will Shine is a far more sophisticated, nuanced beast.

Unique atmosphere

And the Sun Will Shine has a fascinating, unique atmosphere, one of angst, despair even, giving way to a kind of redemption.

I would say it is about someone experiencing the intense pain of a love that has ended.  This is never made explicit but we are presented with images of rain, clouds, trees, birds and trains, a landscape of the mind and possibly also an actual place which the lovers used to share.  Now this place evokes emptiness and an indifferent world (‘Trains roar by and the birds disappear’) through which one of them And the Sun Will Shinetries to work through his feelings.

There is a plea to ‘give me time alone’ as if the singer recognises the necessary cathartic nature of what must be endured in order to reach a kind of freedom beyond.  He is overcome with grief but it is punctuated by moments of clarity and self awareness – ‘I know it’s only the weather’.

The orchestration gives the sense of waves of ruminating emotion gathering force.  I love the way from time to time the ‘cellos break through the strings’ swell like an emotional undercurrent, particularly effective at 1.51-1.54.

Pause for thought

As a contrast, the song uses pauses to provide respite and insight ‘Then I wake up/Then I grow up’.  The orchestra falls away and these phrases are accompanied by a cor anglais/harpsichord motif, underlining the clarion ‘wake-up’ call.

For the chorus – ‘And the sun will shine…’ – the orchestra swells once again but the key has shifted from minor to major, the mood from despair to uplift, even ecstasy.

The song’s overall dark/light feel is contained even within the final few seconds of Robin’s falling away ‘And the love…’ over a fairly rapid fade and then his barely heard higher register vocal in the final moments.

Overall though, despite its ‘clautrophobic’ verses, the light side triumphs; the clue is there in the title’s ‘And…’ , pointing to an optimistic, cyclic inevitability.

European flavour

And the Sun Will Shine – and its near neighbour on Horizontal Really and Sincerely – were issued as single A and B-sides in France.  That underscores the European – dare I say, existential – flavour of both songs.

Interesting that some of Robin’s lyrics were ad libbed although you would never guess this.

Interesting also that the fullness of the orchestration, which feels such an integral part of this song was actually added later, foreshadowing techniques Robin was to use on his 1969/70 solo material, Robin’s Reign and Sing Slowly Sisters

The aching quality of Robin’s voice (recorded in one take) and the surround of the orchestra come together to create a particular kind of interior emotionality which I’ve never encountered elsewhere.

Paul Jones: And the Sun Will Shine

No 2 Morning of My Life (In the Morning) – 1966 version
No 4 To Love Somebody

A house is not a home… but soon will be

I’m moving house in ten days so expect lightspots to be a little on the quiet side for a while the other side of that.

Even though I’m moving just a few hundred yards down the road, it doesn’t diminish the chaos involved.

Short of a disaster, I’ll have unveiled the Top 3 Bee Gees songs before I move so no keeping you on tenterhooks.

Hope you’ll bear with me during a few weeks of craziness.

For now back to the Bee Gees

To Love Somebody

No. 4 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Robin & Barry Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 1967
Single A-side 1967


“There’s a light, a certain kind of light”

Barry and Robin wrote this moving ballad with Otis Redding in mind in 1967.  Redding died in a plane crash later that year and never recorded the song.  Its inauspicious placing on the 1st album – side two, track three – suggests it was not regarded as one of the album’s prime cuts.  The almost casual ‘slotting in’ makes its quality all the more startling.

Although released as a single, To Love Somebody generally underperformed in the charts, making No. 17 in the United States and only No. 41 in the UK.  Yet over the years its stature has grown to near standard status.  The song has garnered an array of cover versions and featured in at least half a dozen films. Its air of locked-in, pained love set to a winning melody, coupled with the distinctive rhythmic ‘triplet’ motif of the chorus have ensured a long karaoke afterlife.

Pained love

To Love Somebody‘s stance could be said to be that of the pained adolescent in love – ‘You don’t know what it’s like’ – a familiar pop motif.

Yet key elements – a dignity held in abeyance until the declamatory choruses, the colours lent by Bill Shepherd’s orchestration, an overall sense of classic modernity – ensure To Love Somebody is as far from ‘Teenager in Love’ cornball territory as it is possible to get.

Orchestral colours

Many reviewers criticise the orchestration as taking away from the song whereas I wouldn’t be without it: the mellow string opening theme giving way to a romantic repeated harp arpeggio over bendy bass, flourishes of flute and horn during the verses, the sense of a To Love Somebodygathering climax in the lead-up to each burst of chorus and then that engaging percussive triplet pulse between each ‘To love somebody…. To love somebody… the way that I love you.’  Although, taken overall, these inevitably lend the recording a lushness (which is, I think, what its detractors dislike), each touch is applied with such precision and expertise that without them the song would simply be lacking not just in sonic richness but emotional impact.

For comparison, listen to Jimmy Somerville’s 1990 cover.  This replaces the thoughtfulness of Bill Shepherd’s orchestration with constant ticking drums and a dry-ice synthscape.  Hearing this again a quarter century later, I ‘get’ the originality of his reggae approach but the arrangement still sounds thin, samey, generic and now dated too.

Pop par excellence

To Love Somebody is a lesson in mainstream pop par excellence.  It exhibits none of the derogatory connotations of that phrase – blandness, bog-standardness, juvenilia, ephemerality – but all of the positive ones  – universal emotions expressed with clarity, an instant but lasting appeal, rhythmic and melodic assurance.

And I almost forgot to mention how well a young Barry Gibb sings. The final chorus is announced with an impassioned ‘No no no nooo’ which sounds like Robin but appears to be from Maurice in the promo.

More on To ‘Love Somebody’ in Life with the Bee Gees

No 3 And the Sun Will Shine
No 5 Swan Song