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.
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 can 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.
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