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.
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.
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 gathering 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