Bee Gees – Idea

The first Bee Gees album which fails to satisfy yet two of their all-time killer songs are to be found here.

Unlike its late 60s counterparts, Idea lacks coherency.  1st fizzes with quirky likeability, Horizontal explores new territories and Odessa luxuriates in ambitious orchestral grandeur.  But Idea?  Well what was the idea apart from producing another outlet for Bee Gees’ songs?  Probably just that.  Given the pace at which the brothers were working at the time, it’s not surprising that about half of Idea sounds like set aside material.

Two sided

Idea is an album of two sides in more than just the literal sense.

Side One is largely content to tread water.  We have the swooning, overly lush concoction Let There Be Love (though wonderful sostenuto vocals), the folk/country-lite of Kitty Can, a heartfelt though merely pleasant ballad from Robin (In the Summer of His Years – in memory of Brian Epstein) and the enjoyable while it lasts Indian Gin and Whiskey DryDown to Earth is hugely promising but criminally under-developed (did David Bowie ever hear it?).  Vince gets his sole bite of the cherry on Such a Shame but his guitar and harmonica outing is little more than an enjoyable diversion.

There’s nothing that’s bad here, just little that’s inspiring.

Bright Ideas

But then it all kicks off with the pent-up restlessness of Idea (or the top notch soul of I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You if you’re listening to the US or South African Idea) building to the magisterial humility of I Started a Joke and the dignified finale Swan Song which is Where the Swallows Fly without the hyperbole.  Along the way, the understated Kilburn Towers provides a delightfully whimsical digression.

So what you’re left with is the deceptive feeling of a Bee Gees album as good as any other – in fact one which includes two stellar classics in I’ve Gotta get a Message to You and I Started a Joke – because by the album’s close, the far superior second half has so thoroughly eclipsed the memory of the somewhat ordinary first.


Idea [1968]

Side 1
Let There Be Love

Kitty Can
In the Summer of His Years
Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry
Down to Earth
Such a Shame
I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You*

Side 2
Idea
When the Swallows Fly
I Have Decided To Join the Air Force
I Started a Joke
Kilburn Towers
Swan Song

* US/South African LP version only


Singles 1968 [related to Idea]

Jumbo
The Singer Sang His Song

I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You
Kitty Can

I Started a Joke
Kilburn Towers


Unreleased 1968

Chocolate Symphony*
Bridge Crossing Rivers*
Completely Unoriginal*
Come Some Christmas Eve or Halloween*
Gena’s Theme*
Another Cold and Windy Day (Coke Spot #1)*
Sitting in the Meadow (Coke Spot #2)*

* released on Idea Rhino reissue, 2006


-> Odessa
<- Horizontal

 

Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

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Bee Gees – Horizontal

The declamatory opening bars of World hammer home the psychedelia of Horizontal but it’s less quirky than on Bee Gees 1st and decidedly heavier too.  The band stray into interesting new territories such as chanson, Really and Sincerely, and blues rock, The Change Is Made.

Some of 1st‘s wayward edges have been ironed out so that Horizontal has a more settled, consolidated feel.  The song-writing is solid, sometimes inspired, and they convince across the range.  Surprisingly, instead of expanding the soul repertoire of 1st it’s pretty much abandoned here.

The depressed album

Often labelled the Bee Gees’ depressed album, Horizontal has a remarkable coherency.  

I find the flow of Side 1 the most satisfying in their back catalogue; as one song fades you can’t wait for the next because you feel a growing confidence in their hands.  Really and Sincerely somehow manages to build upon the emotion of And the Sun Will Shine. Between those two highs Lemons Never Forget provides some necessary acidity and channels the Beatles less slavishly than In My Own Time whilst the wistful, subtly playful Birdie takes the emotional impact down a few notches just when needed.  Side 1’s spinoff, Barry‘s spotlight centre stage solo With the Sun in My Eyes, envelopes you in love’s warm glow.

Side 2 is the lesser, lumbered as it is with the resolutely mainstream Massachusetts but the final three tracks intrigue, hinting at an alternative more rock oriented Bee Gees, an option which the band would only occasionally take up.

As for the depression, it’s there but Horizontal is by no means a depressing listen.  Yes, there is bitterness – The Change Is Made – and queasy otherworldliness – Horizontal – but the eye opening World is breathtaking as well as post-traumatic and the painfully naked Really and Sincerely ultimately cathartic.

Truly lush

Crucially, they show their prettier side without just layering on the strings.  Birdie is truly lush thanks to Vince’s warm guitar licks and regret beautifully poised on Day Time Girl, the album’s dark horse and one of their finest ballads.  Both have terrific chord modulations and lovely melodies.

Bee Gees 1st is a fresher, more diverting album but Horizontal the more satisfying. 


Horizontal [1968]

Side 1
World
And the Sun Will Shine
Lemons Never Forget
Really and Sincerely
Birdie Told Me
With The Sun In My Eyes

Side 2
Massachusetts
Harry Braff
Day Time Girl
The Ernest Of Being George
The Change Is Made
Horizontal


Singles 1967/68 [related to Horizontal]

Massachusetts
Barker of the UFO

World
Sir Geoffrey Saved the World

Words*
Sinking Ships

* Words, a non-album track, was recorded the same day as World (3rd October 1967) and so in that sense can be said to be Horizontal-related 


Unreleased 1968

Out of Line*
Ring My Bell*
Mrs Gillespie’s Refridgerator*
Deeply, Deeply Me*
All My Christmases Came at Once*
Thank You for Christmas*
Medley: Silent Night/Hark the Herald Angels Sing*

* released on Horizontal Rhino reissue, 2006


-> Idea
<- Bee Gees 1st


Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

Bee Gees 1st

The brothers were lucky when they came to England from Australia in early 1967.  Not only was London in full swing but pop was taking on a range of new and exotic influences from medieval minstrelsy to mellotrons, ragas to Victoriana.

Much of this found its way into the Bee Gees’ music.  That was nothing unusual, it was what a lot of bands were doing at the time – absorbing, adapting and adapting again.  But when these influences combined with the brothers’ distinctive harmonising talents – honed over a decade of performing live – and their solidly melodic songwriting, the results were amongst the most solid yet engaging of the psychedelic pop genre.

Bee Gees 1st marked the beginning of a sustained campaign which kept the brothers’ Gibb in the charts throughout the remainder of the 60s, consistently balancing discipline with flair, accessibility with a desire to grow and change.

Ear to the zeitgeist

Some would say 1st is the Bee Gees’ strongest album and it’s not hard to hear why.  Their ear-to-the-zeitgeist is evident everywhere: the Edwardian toytown pop of Turn of the Century, the fairytale swirl of Red Chair, Fade Away and the bendy monastic weirdness of Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You.  As the 60s progress, the psychedelic trimmings gradually fall by the wayside but here they’re in full flight and put across with a confidence and, as always, terrific melodic ease.

They play with structure too, not just for the sake of it, but in a way which shows genuine musical understanding: listen to Robin’s sudden operatic digression taking Close Another Door to a whole other level and psychedelia triumphing over pop to bring an inventive fade to I Close My Eyes.

Startling soulfulness

And then there’s their soulfulness.  It’s startling just how fully formed were the brothers’ soul credentials even at this early stage and indeed soul forms the often underappreciated alternative arm of Bee Gees 1st.  There is incredible emotion in Robin’s vocals for I Can’t See Nobody – and that’s before you even get to Nina Simone’s cover.  And how To Love Somebody was so undervalued at the time is a mystery: what an utterly consummate pop ballad.

Interestingly, the album’s programming accentuates the psychedelia/ soul division with all the baroque pop/psychedelic tracks (bar Cucumber Castle) placed on side one and side two showing a definite leaning towards soul as well as a greater group feel.

Folk, Beatlesque pop art, cute whimsy, medieval psychedelic drones, soul ballads – beneath the genre hopping and sometime Craise Finton cheekiness these brothers simply write great pop music.

Bee Gees 1st sets out their stall and proves that they are songwriters to watch and be reckoned with.


Bee Gees 1st [1967]

Side 1
Turn of the Century 
Holiday
Red Chair, Fade Away
One Minute Woman
In My Own Time
Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You
Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts

Side 2
New York Mining Disaster 1941

Cucumber Castle
To Love Somebody
I Close My Eyes
I Can’t See Nobody
Please Read Me
Close Another Door


Singles 1967 [related to Bee Gees 1st]

New York Mining Disaster 1941
I Can’t See Nobody

To Love Somebody
Close Another Door

Holiday
Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You


Unreleased 1967 

Gilbert Green*
House of Lords* 
I’ve Got to Learn*
All Around My Clock*
Mr Waller’s Wailing Wall*

* released on Bee Gees 1st  Rhino reissue, 2006


Other artists 1967 

Adam Faith – Cowman Milk Your Cow


-> Horizontal


Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

Sarstedt 1969

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It’s hard to catch up with the 60s generation.  For a while I’ve had it in mind to post on Peter Sarstedt but his death in January of this year has overtaken me.  So this review of his first two albums from 1969 becomes something of a tribute by default though not an uncritical one.

The two albums in question are Peter Sarstedt and As Though it Were a Movie both for United Artists and brought together on BGO’s 1995 CD re-issue [BGOCD274] – more on the CD release later.

Romantic outsider

A European flavour runs through both albums, at times recalling something of the romanticism of Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas.  It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that, like Nick, Peter travelled widely in Europe prior to his major success at the end of the 60s.  But Sarstedt’s romanticism, whilst never jaded, is far more equivocal, more observational than Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s misty-eyed musings.  Sarstedt is also some eight years older.  A certain worldliness is offset by a literary, artistic sensibility – witness the wistful epiphany of I Am a Cathedral, also the most Garrie-like track here.

Talking of I am a Cathedral, Peter acknowledges he was looking for ‘something obscure and enigmatic’ and that seems key to an understanding of these albums.  At once both wayward and mainstream in a way which only the late 60s can muster, we’re always aware of Sarstedt’s instincts to deliver a good, or at least reasonable, folkie melody but then he’ll throw something unsettling into the lyrical mix so that Sons of Cain are Abel begins by evoking days of wine and roses but its summery gaze is drug-fuelled and blank.

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Both albums are produced by Ray Singer and arranged by Ian Green and share a similar sonic sensibility.  The latter, despite its top and tailing orchestral extravaganzas, is slightly drier, a little rootsier.  On the debut album especially, the producer might have been Mike Hurst around the time of Neil McArthur’s She’s Not There. 

The orchestration is by turns quasi-psychedelic, middle-of-the road, folkie, cinematic, clicky in an early Cat Stevens sort of way, featuring just an occasional brush with rock.  For me, the instrumentation mainly enhances the surprisingly diverse styles on offer – country, calyspso, gospel – but I say that as a fan of 60s arrangements.  I have only dipped into Peter Sarstedt’s later albums but singles like Beirut from 1978 and 1986’s Hemingway both suffer from unsympathetic backings.  Peter’s 2006 album On Song (which I have heard through) opts for a reduced palette of acoustic guitar and I suspect this may be true of his later offerings; how I miss those arrangements!

Gentle but sardonic

Sarstedt comes across as someone who partakes of life but remains essentially an outsider.  He as good as tells us this in Boulevard.  He comments on his experiences, painting portraits of people he meets along the way though at times it’s not clear how these encounters affect him.  He is like a traveller negotiating his way through the peace, love and drugs generation via the wheeler dealing of Blagged, the drug bust of No More Lollipops for You and the permissive apologia of I’m a Good Boy.

Sarstedt’s voice may be gentle but his tone can be surprisingly sardonic.  He acknowledges Dylan’s influence.  Only on Many Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg does the debt become overly onerous.

I find the overtly satirical pieces pall after a few listens – My Daddy is a Millionaire (the clue is in the title) the sly Take Off Your Clothes, the insistent I’m a Good BoyMary Jane (portrait of a dominatrix) gets by thanks to some fabulously blaring toxic swinging London horns – it feels like you’re in a Jaguar swinging round Piccadilly Circus (or Pigalle) in 1968.  On the second album generally, Sarstedt seems more relaxed, less keen to impress: Letter to a Friend is welcome for its self-deprecatory honesty.

Follow that

Embed from Getty Images

 

It’s so hard to hear Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) just as ‘track 7’ when you know it was a massive international hit.  The song dominates Peter Sarstedt by nature of its length, repetitive structure and comprehensive narrative but I wouldn’t say it completely overshadows its peers.

Follow-up,  Frozen Orange Juice, although likeable enough in a jaunty kind of way, was a lost opportunity to showcase the best of Peter’s material, a view shared by its composer.  It’s just too different from its predecessor, an infinitely inferior song with an unevocative title.  Inevitably it made it to Number Ten.

At his best

As Though It Were a Movie is often cited as his best song and, on the basis of these two albums, I’d agree.

As Though It Were a Movie in full.

I’d also highlight Blagged with its clever, sometimes cynical power exchange, catchy melody and Day in the Life drums.

The double CD

It would have been nice had the double-CD included as bonus tracks Peter’s two pre-album singles:  In the Day of My Youth b/w My Monkey is a Junkie (Major-Minor 1967 as Peter Lincoln, the B-side is Bonzoesque and quite irritating) and I Must Go On (Island 1968, the B-side Mary Jane features on Peter Sarstedt).

More pertinent is the omission of Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) B-side Morning Mountain.  Having caught it on Youtube, it’s a minor piece but should have been included anyway.

Liner notes from Spencer Leigh of BBC Radio Merseyside provide just enough context together with reproductions of original album artwork and full lyrics for Peter Sarstedt.  

This is an adequate but by no means deluxe re-release.

‘Life … God how it slips away’  – ‘Time, Love, Hope, Life’.

Peter Sarstedt: 10th December 1941 – 8th January 2017.


Peter Sarstedt

1. I am a Cathedral – 2.49
2. Sons of Cain ae Abel – 3.46
3. No More Lollipops – 2.12
4. Stay Within Myself – 2.56
5. You are My Life – 3.13
6. Sayonara – 2.36
7. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) – 5.23
8. Blagged – 3.12
9. My Daddy is a Millionaire – 2.18
10. Once Upon an Everyday – 2.33
11. Mary Jane – 2.19
12. Time Was Leading Us Home – 4.27
13. Many-Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg – 2.51
14. Time, Life, Hope, Life – 3.52

As Though It were a Movie

1. Overture – 3.08
2. As Though It Were a Movie – 3.54
3. Open a Tin – 2.54
4. Step into the Candlelight – 3.06
5. Take off your Clothes – 3.55
6. Letter to a Friend & Intermission – 3.05
7. Overture – 0.30
8. Boulevard – 2.44
9. The Sunshine is Expensive – 3.17
10. The Artist – 2.52
11. The Friendship Song (Hey Nena) – 4.23
12. Juan – 1.37
13. I’m a Good Boy – 3.52
14. National Anthem & Doors Clsoe at 10.45pm – 1.28

Extra tracks

15. Frozen Orange Juice – 3.10
16. Aretusa Loser – 3.43


Update June 2017: first two images substituted [original selections withdrawn by Gettyimages]

Robin’s Rarities

Saved by the Bell 1968-70I was a little unsure how to tackle this collection of demos and other rarities from 1968-70, comprising CD3 of Saved By the Bell: the Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970 .  The pieces are not slight but they are, by their very nature, often incomplete or unfinished.  

I gave track-by-track commentaries for Robin’s Reign… Plus (CD1) and the Sing Slowly Sisters Sessions (CD2) but in this post, I’m going to be more selective.

Works in progress  

All 23 tracks here are previously unreleased.  They were never intended to be made publicly available let alone form a coherent album.  They add further weight to the sheer quantity of material Robin produced during his time away from the Bee Gees and his fertile imagination around this time.  They also provide insights into his working practices and how the songs later shaped up.

(Un)easy listening?

With the CD clocking-in at 73.55, hearing it in one sitting isn’t always easy listening.  This is partly because of the raw emotion conveyed pretty much across all tracks, also the slow, sometimes wavering pace of the songs (many of them in ¾ time) and the unadorned sonic quality of many of the recordings.

#2 Janice and #3 Love Just Goes are perhaps the most extreme examples of all of Robin’s tendencies at this time.  The dirge like Janice enjoys a good chorus melody and benefits from plucked then bowed strings but with its heart-wrenching relentlessness coming in at 5.36, is a little too unremittingly sad to be a comfortable listen.   Still, the song’s expressiveness cannot be denied.

The rendition of #4 August October is likewise slow and prolonged, low backing vocals accentuating a mournful air.  Despite a rather splendid ending, August October was to benefit hugely from the contrasting faster pace adopted on the final Robin’s Reign version.

BBC sessions

Sessions for Brian Matthew and Johnnie Walker (#6-10) offer interesting variations on familiar songs and also provide historical insights into the needle-time saving practice of BBC sessions during the 60s and 70s.

#6 Saved By the Bell is a smooth rendition with lots of backing vocal and what sounds like a double tracked vocal whilst #8 August, October is mandolin heavy.

Again I’m struck by the sheer good naturedness of the slightly overlooked #9 Weekend, sounding a little punchier here maybe due to compression.  #13 Give Me a Smile highlights how the bass moves the chorus along.

Robin speaks 

Interviews with Brian Matthew (#7) and David Wigg of The Daily Express (#11) again reveal Robin’s array of projects at this time, most robins-raritiesof which were never seen to see fruition.  It’s interesting to speculate whether they may have done so had he not returned to the Bee Gees’ fold in 1970.

Talking to the always upbeat Brian Matthew, Robin speaks of his ‘unlimited horizon’ for writing and unsurprisingly describes himself as a dreamer.  If you didn’t know of his huge success, he might be any aspiring English songwriter with a head awash with ideas.  The conversation ends in a half humorous, half bewildered fashion.

Unheard of

Then follow a clutch of the most interesting tracks, representing ‘new’ songs.

#12 The Band Will Meet Mr Justice (demo) sounds like and is from 1968, delivered in busking style on acoustic guitar whilst #13 The People’s Public Poke Song (demo) is a nonsense animal song which again wouldn’t have been out of place as a quirkier piece on Bee Gees 1st.   #15 The Girl to Share Each Day (demo) – again acoustic guitar only – is a romantic song from Robin’s perspective of invisibility and vulnerability.  #16 Come Some Halloween or Christmas Day (demo), with its Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry-like melody meanders rather (well it is a demo) and would benefit from a little trimming.  #17 Heaven in My Hands is slightly ragged in places with snatches of weird lyrics.

Organic

#18 Most of My Life (demo) is the final track on Robin’s Reign and not one of my favourites but here it is set to organ only which inadvertently creates the odd effect of Robin in a deserted church, seated at the instrument, singing this to himself, recalling the wonderful Lord Bless All.   The plaintive quality of Robin’s voice makes an organ pairing particularly expressive.

#19 Goodbye Cruel World (demo) sees Robin ‘crying and wanting to go home’ whilst #21 Don’t Go Away (demo) offers more soulful, anguished vocals.  The likable #20 Down Came the Sun (demo) was later to appear on Robin’s Reign.

Two final tracks are credited to Robin Gibb Orchestra and Chorus with both #22 Moon Anthem and #23 Ghost of Christmas Past sounding most fulsome after the primitivism of what has gone before – fitting attempts to provide finales for this disparate collection.

Thank you

This CD is essentially for Robin devotees.  The material is not lacking, it’s just that absorbing a body of ‘work in progress’ is inevitably not the nuanced, satisfying experience of a Robin’s Reign or Sing Slowly Sisters.  The value of the rarities is largely scholarly and completist.

As I mentioned, I also find a one-sitting listen quite draining.  The insularity and emotionally charged nature of these songs – fervent, tender, passionate, sentimental sometimes almost disturbed – make heavy demands on the listener.  It’s as if Robin has retreated from the many mansions splendour of Odessa into just one (windowless) room.

None of this detracts from Andrew Sandoval and his team’s huge and worthy achievement in allowing us all to hear this material after four decades.  Nor from Robin Gibb for writing it.

Complete track listing CD3:

1. Alexandria Good Time – 3.14
2. Janice – 5.36
3. Love Just Goes – 5.06
4. August October “Agosto Ottobre” (Italian) –  2.34
5. One Million Years “Un Millione de Ani” (Italian) – 4.13
6. Saved By the Bell (BBC) – 2.52
7. Robin Talks With Brian Matthew (BBC) – 1.37
8. August October (BBC) – 2.22
9. Weekend (BBC) – 2.05
10. Give Me a Smile (BBC) – 3.29
11. Robin Talks With David Wigg (BBC) – 1.41
12. The Band Will Meet Mr Justice (demo) – 2.46
13. The People’s Public Poke Song (demo) – 1.49
14. Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry (demo) – 1.53
15. The Girl to Share Each Day (demo) – 2.14
16. Come Some Halloween or Christmas Day (demo) – 3.43
17. Heaven In My Hands (demo) – 2.11
18. Most of My Life (demo) – 3.51
19. Goodbye Good World (demo) – 3.08
20. Down Came the Sun (demo) – 2.47
21. Don’t Go Away (demo) – 5.10
22. Moon Anthem (Robin Gibb Orchestra & Chorus) – 5.34
23. Ghost of Christmas Past (Robin Gibb Orchestra & Chorus) – 7.43

Saved By the Bell: the Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970 [Rhino, LC 02982, June 2015]

 


Reviews of Saved By the Bell CDs 1 and 2:

Robin’s Reign… Plus
Sing Slowly Sisters

Sing Slowly Sisters

Saved by the Bell 1968-70The 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.

Ghosts

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 Sing Slowly SistersSlowly 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.

Track record 

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.

Sing Slowly Sisters – in full

Life

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”.

  C’est La Vie, Au Revoir – in full

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.

Cold Be My Days – in full

Avalanche

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.

Engines, Aeroplanes

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

Robin’s Reign … Plus
Bee Gees’ Top 50 1966-72

Robin’s Reign… Plus

Saved by the Bell 1968-70At last I put fingers to keyboard and get down my thoughts on this year’s feast for Robin Gibb fans, the Rhino 3CD set of his collected works from Robin’s time away from his brothers at the turn of the 60s: Saved by the Bell: The Collected works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970.

This is the first of three posts on this major release, today exploring CD1, Robin’s Reign… Plus.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get writing.  Possibly it’s due to the sheer quantity of material and initially the slightly daunting thought that hearing it might lead to impossible mid-way revisions of my Bee Gees Top 50 (though I’ve decided against any changes as mentioned in my first post on Saved by the Bell).  I also wanted to be able to do justice to this amazing body of work which meant hearing it in its entirety rather than jotting down random thoughts along the way.

I have already commented on the overall Saved by the Bell package so this post and the two which will follow are essentially about the music.

I’ve decided against splitting this rather long piece across two shorter posts, but appreciate that its length probably makes it most suitable for ardent Robin fans.

Robin’s first solo album was to be titled the rather boyishly hopeful All My Own Work and came with an entirely different track listing from the eventual Robin’s Reign:

All My Own Work

1. Alexandria Good Time    
2. The Flag I Flew Fell Over
3. I’ll Herd My Sheep
4. The Man Most Likely To Be
5. Love Just Goes
6. Make Believe
7. I Was Your Used to Be
8. The Complete and Utter History
9. Seven Birds Are Singing
10. Sing a Song of Sisters
11. Beat the Drum

 

Alexandria Good Time and Love Just Goes are picked up on CD3’s Rarities whilst Make Believe, I think, must be It’s Only Make Believe which is track 13 on CD2.  The remaining eight songs are not featured at all on this compilation as, if demos were made, unfortunately none survive.

The eventual track listing is:

Robin’s Reign

Side One
 1. August, October – 2.34  
 2. Gone, Gone, Gone – 2.36
 3. The Worst Girl in this Town – 4.32
 4. Give Me a Smile – 3.08
 5. Down Came the Sun – 2.47 
 6. Mother and Jack – 4.06

SideTwo
 7. Saved by the Bell – 3.08
 8. Weekend – 2.12
 9. Farmer Ferdinand Hudson – 2.30
10. Lord Bless All – 3.17
11. Most of My Life – 5.15

CD1 Bonus Material 

12. One Million Years (stereo) – 4.10
13. Hudson’s Fallen Wind (stereo) – 12.18
14. Saved by the Bell (mono) – 3.24
15. Mother And Jack (mono) – 4.29
16. One Million Years (mono) – 4.09
17. Weekend (mono) – 2.12
18. August October (mono) – 2.26
19. Give Me A Smile (mono) – 3.08
20. Lord Bless All (‘alternate take’ – stereo) – 3.17

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Big, blurred orchestra

Upon first listen, to Robin’s Reign, I would guess some 15-20 years ago, I found an overall sameness to the music and this impression returned to me upon hearing the album in full earlier this year for the first time in at least a decade; the songs proceed at a similar slow-moderate pace and have a common feel.

Yet there are two distinct ‘flavours’ to the album.  Setting aside Saved by the Bell, the big, blurred orchestra of tracks 1-3 – August October, Gone, Gone, Gone, The Worst Girl in this Town – and final track Most of My Life seem to define Robin’s Reign but another, more interesting side can be found on Robin's Reignostensibly lower key tracks numbers such as Mother and Jack, Weekend and Lord Bless All.  These tracks are, by turn, more intriguing (‘Mother and Jack’), more endearing (‘Weekend’) and more atmospheric (‘Lord Bless All’) than the album’s outer-edge and it’s for these that I am sure I shall find myself returning to Robin’s Reign.

It is well known that Robin adopted unusual techniques for committing the album to vinyl (or indeed acetate).  He recorded his voice first either with organ, guitar or harmonium, using a drum machine to mark time.  Sometimes further vocals were then added.  The result was sent to Kenny Clayton to provide an often considerable overlay of orchestration.

Robin’s Reign is the earliest known recording featuring a drum machine although possibly the decision to use one was taken out of convenience (enabling Robin to work on the songs when alone) rather than for artistic reasons although it is the odd combination of drum machine and orchestra which gives the album its slightly dislocated (in a good way) feel.  It is significant that Robin’s manager Victor Lewis, with his long career in big band jazz and swing, co-produced the album, as far as I can tell, his only pop collaboration.

Lyrical footprints  

Often overlooked are the lyrics, remarkable for their extreme simplicity.  Robin employs overused, even clichéd phrases such as ‘I walk down heartbreak lane’ (Saved by the Bell), ‘Life was a game and I just had to play’ (‘Most of My Life’) and rhymes such as cried/tried, goodbye/cry.  I don’t for one moment think of this as laziness.  It’s rather as if he wants to set his compositions right at the heart of songwriting tradition, a kind of commonality of feeling, and the resonances with what have gone before are entirely deliberate.  He presses his shoes into footprints in the sand, making his own imprint over the old.

There are also rhymes within lines – ‘Boom goes the moon’ in ‘Down Came the Sun’, ‘… as I leave you Heather, Treasure yourself…’ in ‘Give Me a Smile – to further stitch the whole more cohesively together.  There are no esoteric metaphors or word conundrums, few vividly evocative images.  Yet the extreme simplicity, rather than achieving a conventionality, works to create an effect, combined with the orchestration, which is off kilter and strange, a kind of extraordinary ordinariness – the everyday a little obscured, slightly surreal.

Edwardian summer

A sense of the past pervades the album as it does so much of Robin’s solo material.  If you want to pinpoint an exact time, it might be the brief summer of Edwardian England on the cusp of World War One and the dissolution of Empires.

This ‘past’ is, I think, partly Robin’s fascination with history in and of itself but also his means of expressing his most treasured themes of love and loss.  There is not so much a sense that we have stepped into the past (as on say Turn of the Century) as that the past has returned to us as a kind of vision, surrounding us now in a way which is vivid yet also elusive and intangible because of its very impermanence.  This vision seems to offer a promise of security (a desire for heroic recognition and a sense of order are also returning themes for Robin) a refuge even, yet one with its own uncertainties such that security and familiarity could be swept away whether by the whim of an imperial jurisdiction or the force of a mighty storm.  It’s as if Robin has already seen this happening and, as the vision persists, is seeing it again – the past repeating itself.

 


Robin’s Reign… Plus: track-by-track

August October

A somewhat modest beginning to Robin’s Reign in melancholy ¾ time featuring mandolin, blurred strings and (in the verses) Robin’s lower register.

This song could have been written any time over the last century – and that’s not meant as a criticism.  Ostensibly a straightforward lament in which a man mourns the loss of his beloved, the military beat, an Edwardian melody and even the mention of sitting on a sand hill, position this in a quasi-historical, meta-military space quite removed from so many other such laments.

August, October was unsuccessful when released as Robin’s third solo single (b/w Give Me a Smile) in Feb 1970, reaching only UK No 45.

Gone, Gone,Gone

‘I have lost my home, stars have all gone in.
I’m too rich to learn and far too cold to burn’

Most notable for this bizarre lyric and set to a rather repetitive melody, ‘Gone Gone, Gone’ serves to introduce the theme of losing one’s home, subsequently developed in Mother and Jack and most notably Farmer Ferdinand Hudson. At the time of writing, Robin found himself outside his spiritual home – the family fold of his brothers – for some eighteen months.

The Worst Girl in This Town

Despite a military beat prevailing throughout, with its choral ‘aah ahh’ opening ‘The Worst Girl in This Town’ is a little like an Odessa song but alas is perhaps the most dispensable of Robin’s Reign’s  offerings.

It’s a little surprising that the album’s three weakest songs (and perhaps coincidentally the three arranged by Zack Lawrence rather than Kenny Clayton) are placed at the start but this does allow for Robin’s Reign to build a sense of momentum from this point on.

Give Me a Smile

The B-side to August, October and the strongest song so far, benefitting from three different tempos and a more ‘worked upon’ sensibility.  ‘You may not know but I do miss you earnestly’, Robin confesses with formal candour.

The song is summed up in the line ‘For when I say sweet “C’est la vie”, I laugh and leave with tears on me’ with its contrast between outer blithe spirit and stiff-upper-lip deportment with the inner crush of feelings suppressed.  Give Me a Smile opens with a charming if not disarming quality accompanied by Herb Alpert trumpet.  An emotional peak is reached with ‘And then I will go with the thought that you tried not to break’ at the end of the chorus.

But the truth of ‘Give Me a Smile’ seems to lie in those very private ‘aah’s at the start and end, adding a poignant and slightly tragically, ominous touch.  Robin sounds so vulnerable here.

The lyrics are characteristically simple, even everyman obvious.   Because of the song’s old fashioned air, we might choose to hear the cause of the forced parting as the onset of war but this is never stated as such.

The mono version (track 19) has an overall richness of sound.

Down Came the Sun

This begins with a bridal suite classical theme and some nice string and brass work on the introduction.   The song includes some typically intriguing Robin lyrics ‘You like to think that you are Admiral Nelson with a gun, a wife and son’.  Robin’s voice – multi-tracked – sounds good here.

‘So why don’t you grow up and be a policeman
And probably then; you’ll be with men
Or maybe be a walker with a guitar
But then you’ll stall and start to crawl’.

Elliptical perhaps best describes lyrics like these though clearly they are not without eccentric humour.  Is Robin talking to himself – a young man forced to question his role in life?  Behind the obscurity – as the title hints – is the sense of an ending probably referring to the British Empire: all this quotidian human idiosyncracy being swept away or just carrying on until spent.

Mother and Jack

The drum machine at the start of Mother and Jack provides an opening disconcertingly similar to the introduction to Elkie Brookes’ ‘Fool if You Think It’s Over’.  That incongrous coincidence aside, the most notable musical element here is Maurice’s bass introducing a slight bluesy quality from time to time.  Some nice ironically chirpy woodwind too.

The title implies a carefree nonchalance and there is an almost jaunty quality throughout yet the song is about a mother and son whose house is threatened with demolition, protesting to the Emperor, seemingly to no avail.  The contrast between cheerful music and sad lyrics is summed up by the blithe-ironic line ‘said he would think ah, over his drink ah’ which only highlights the Emperor’s cold disregard.  ‘Mother and Jack’ ends with the plaintive repetitions of ‘Please don’t take this house away from us’.  By the end of the song, we are left only with a sense of their smallness.

The placing of Mother and Jack and Famer Ferdinand Hudson (separated only by Saved by the Bell) is perhaps designed to accentuate their commonality; ‘Mother and Jack’ is about imminent loss and ‘Farmer Ferdinand Hudson’ its aftermath.  The placing of the tracks minimises the damage of the foreshortened ‘Farmer Ferdinand Hudson’ making it onto the album in preference to the twelve minute grandeur of Hudson Fallen Wind which would have told the story in its entirety.

Saved by the Bell

From the opening piano chord, Side 2 opener Saved by the Bell is magisterial, an obvious standout single.  There is a rightness to the sound from the very start.

It’s nice to hear Robin’s acoustic guitar over the orchestral opening and there are some stirring manouveres from the cellos.  Maurice provides backing vocals as well as bass and piano.  I can hear now the similarities with I Started a Joke both musically and lyrically and this fine song has grown on me considerably.

David Meyer is quite right to point out that Robin’s compositional and vocal style – especially in its unfettered form as here – relates to early 60s singers such as Roy Orbison.  On the face of it, the lyrics seem almost banal yet they constantly hint at a great untold grief behind or beyond the surface.  This ambiguity is a source of intrigue behind a number of tracks on Robin’s Reign.

‘Saved by the Bell’ is at the core of Robin’s Reign and its placing underlines the sense that the album is gathering in strength and impact.

Saved by the Bell (b/w Mother and Jack) competed with the Bee Gees hugely inferior Don’t Forget to Remember yet both singles made it to No 2 in the UK whilst reaching only the lower reaches of the Top 100 in the US.

Weekend

Like Give Me a Smile, Weekend is putting on a show of good cheer, hiding the sadness within which can be heard as an endearing plea to be loved – ‘I’m yours to borrow tomorrow good friend’.

The recording suffers from a curious audio drop-out at 0.59-0.60.  According to Gibb Songs, this is in the violin track and was repaired for the German LP release by going into mono.  By opting for the unadulterated stereo ‘original’, Saved by the Bell allows inclusion of this single imperfection but this feels like the right decision to me.

Farmer Ferdinand Hudson

Undoutedly the strangest track here and also one of the strongest despite its neutering from the fully developed Hudson Fallen Wind which is CD track 13.  I discuss both in my post on Hudson Fallen Wind.

Lord Bless All

My favourite Robin’s Reign track, Lord Bless All builds upon the mournful mood.  It is remarkable how Robin can take the quality of loss which pervades the album and shift this into new territory, turning the clock back perhaps a further half century to usher in a decidedly Dickensian air.

The opening verse has strange clicks like the slow melting of icicles and that final ‘aaah’ hangs like a question mark in the air.  Robin’s impassioned voice is at its best here.

I wonder if Lord Bless All would have found a place in Robin’s Scrooge, the musical he apparently wrote at around this time (Ghost of Christmas Past, the final track of CD3’s Robin’s Rarities seems to be the only definite artefact from this project, which survives, anyway).

Most of My Life

Here, the sense of loss is addressed head on: ‘most of my life, I’ve had to run away…’, ‘the friends I thought I had were never there…’.   Most of My Life aims to be an expansive album closer but becomes a rather plodding torch song, piling tragedy upon tragedy to unfortunately lessening effect.

So for me, Robin’s Reign has a kind of arch-like structure, beginning in unassuming fashion, offering up its mildest songs early on and then building towards Saved by the Bell.  In different ways Farmer Ferdinand Hudson and Lord Bless All both add richness and diversity before Most of My Life unfortunately wears out the formula.

Bonus tracks

Of the nine bonus tracks, five are mono versions of Robin’s Reign single A and B sides: Saved by the Bell (with additional repeat chorus), Mother and Jack (longer fade), Weekend, August, October (slightly different ending and drum machine a little more prominent) and Give Me a Smile).

One Million Years (a non-album A-side, except in Germany where it was added as the last track on Robin’s Reign) is represented here in both stereo and mono versions.  Unfortunately, the song occupies similar territory to Robin’s Reign’s earliest, least auspicious tracks.  Suffering a little from a plodding military drum-machine beat, it might benefit from a livelier Lamplight-like pace.

Probably the most eagerly awaited bonus track is the twelve minute epic Hudson Fallen Wind but as this has already circulated online for some years, my favourite bonus track here is an alternative stereo release of Lord Bless All (track 20), featuring an organ only accompaniment.  There is a wonderful moment at the opening cue with a studio engineer or producer asking ‘What’s the title Robin?’ and comes Robin’s precisely enunciated reply: ‘Lord Bless All, Lord let all be blessed’ – Robin sounding positively priestly even down to the respectful downturn on the word ‘blessed’ and the whole intonation enhanced by cathedral echo.  The organ on this alternative take is either an octave higher than on the album version or is using a reedier, far more treble stop.

My review of the ‘Sing Slowly Sisters – Sessions’ follows in the new year.

Sing Slowly Sisters review