At 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:
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
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
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 ostensibly 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.
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.
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
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.
‘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.
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.
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