Growing up with Lego

Moving house in May has meant my childhood belongings, stranded in an unboarded loft for over a quarter of a century, are now accessible at last.   

As Christmas approaches and the thoughts of many turn to giving or receiving toys, it feels a like a good time to begin posting on the toys I played with as I rediscover them nearly fifty years on. 


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Last week’s big find was my Lego set, stored in my father’s old toolbox.  I wondered just how old this actual set might be…

Happily, along with the familiar bricks was some helpful publicity heralding the new set available in autumn 1970.  I was six in April 1970.  That sounds about right.

Unmechanically minded

lego-bricksI was never the most dextrous of children and not at all mechanically minded but Lego I liked.

My best friend was much more on trend as he had Fischertechnik, a German product founded in 1965 which seems to have reached US and European saturation by 1970.

Fischertechnik was much more about engineering and motorization.  But I never formed a vision of what a Fishertechniik world might look like, there was no aesthetic grand design that I could see.  You needed to have a basic interest in mechanics to engage with it.

Lost in Legoland

legoland

The appeal of Lego was less the construction aspect per se, more my nascent town planner’s instinct to create my very own Trumpton in the brightest of bright primary colours (blue pitched roofs, trucks in chequered yellow and black, platform lawns in radiant green and red pretty much everywhere else) then populate it somewhat bizarrely with plastic farmyard animals and my few Matchbox cars.  Lego supplied trees but not, at least in 1970, people.

This tended to be a Sunday morning activity.  While my parents had their lie-in, the early quiet was an ideal time to assume the uninterrupted role of creator of worlds in brilliant plastic (or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene to be precise).

One interesting aspect of Lego is that you can’t smash it up, taking the equivalent of a wrecking ball to your creation.  You have to pick it apart.  As a child who hated throwing hammers at fairground crockery stalls, possibly that lack of destructiveness and a certain meticulous quality appealed.

“Playing is learning made enjoyable” 

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Clearly I couldn’t articulate this at the time, but the feel of Lego wasn’t quite British – was it too well designed? – but nor was it US.  Lego had its own particular aesthetic which perhaps owed something to a European/Nordic, well I might say Icelandic but lego-logoactually Danish, sensibility.   Even that vertical striped logo suggests an idealistic amalgam of Euro flags.

There is something inherently progressive about children’s play products emanating from Europe, as if they must possess a nobler aim than simply to entertain.  There is no deliberate play at cuteness.  Those colourful Cuisenere counting blocks, or ‘rods’ as they were known also come to mind; mine will doubtless turn up at some point.

Amongst my collection there are yellow signs bearing the legend ‘Shell’, a blatantly corporate insertion which wouldn’t make it through contemporary radar (you can just make out an upside-down sign in the top picture).

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Look and learn

lego-childrenThe publicity is fascinating.  Boldly colourful pictures of clean-cut børn and Startrite graphics strongly evoke the times lego-textwhilst the text [right] provides glimpses into then current ideas on children’s learning and the wider world.

Here we have the dizzying pace of modern change tempered by a note of paternalistic reassurance and a hint at progressive ideals of child centred learning – by 1970 the child had needs which ‘demanded’ to be met.

Yet the internationalism of ‘boys and girls throughout the whole world,’ reeks not of global corporatism but of Children’s Hour wide-eyed wonder.

A boy’s world

In the publicity material, eight out of ten children shown are boys and in the packaging there are typically two boys to every girl.   lego-boys

At times Lego seem at pains to avoid the generic ‘children’, preferring instead ‘boys and girls’ as if to emphasise that the product is as much for girls as it is boys.  Nevertheless the third person singular is always a ‘he.’

Future planning

Having languished unused for twenty-five years, it seems criminal to simply close the lid on that toolbox for another twenty-five.

Toys are meant for children to play with.  I had a slightly self-conscious try myself and found the bricks, smaller now, still slot together in exactly the same satisfying way they did forty-five years ago.  But those grand designs aren’t in my head anymore, nor the nimblenesss in my fingers.

So I’ll be taking the box and its contents to a charity shop.  Who knows where it will end up for another generation to enjoy?

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Lego in the 60s
British Lego Ltd. Wrexham, N. Wales – a personal pilgrimage

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

The Casuals: with Jesamine gone, 1970-76

1970/71: the end of the Decca years

Come early 1970, over eighteen months since the release of Jesamine and with a clutch of unsuccessful singles behind them (not to mention a commercially unsuccessful album), Decca still believed the band had a future.

Stalwart Ivor Raymonde was recruited for May 1970’s My Name Is Love (co-written by Chris Andrews) b/w John Tebb’s I Can’t Say.  Sales were over too long a period to chart and both slightly plodding songs comprise The Casuals’ weakest single to date.

On live dates, Chris Evans stood in for Howard Newcomb who was ill and when bassist Alan Taylor and drummer Bob O’Brien left in 1970, Evans became a permanent member, along with Lloyd Courtney.

Roger Grey and Steve Wallace joined the band in October 1970.

Tony Hiller (of Brotherhood of Man fame) became producer with Tebb’s eminently commercial Some Day Rock ‘n’ Roll Lady, recorded in December 1970 and released as a single in January 1971.

By now, The Casuals had grown their hair and favoured a more, well, ‘casual’ look for the 70s.

Along with changes in line-up and an updated image, the catchy Some Day Rock ‘n’ Roll Lady marked a new sound for the group, linking into bubblegum and the current rock ‘n’ roll revival mood while still sounding fresh.  A ‘toy’ feel remains given the deliberately lightweight production and there is some chirrupy laughter during the instrumental break.  The contrasting B-side was Newcomb’s A Letter Every Month, a fine song which deserved more exposure.  The single sadly made little impact.

The Decca demos

I have several demos made by the band during that 1970/71 period at Decca with either Tony Hiller, David Hitchcock or Peter Sames as producer.

Casuals, Sunday Morning Coming

 

Some sources show Hey Mary b/w Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming was recorded November/December 1970 whereas mine is stamped with a February 1971 date.

Hang On To Your Life (the Guess Who song from 1970?) b/w Let Him Live was possibly recorded November 1970.  I don’t know as I don’t have this one.

Everything’s Alright b/w/Peace Is All You Need with Peter Sames producing at Decca’s West Hampstead studios was recorded in June 1971 according to my single-sided demo though some sources say May 1971.

Who Trevor was, we might never know.

I would say all three are highly respectable interpretations of moderately strong songs with fairly low-key arrangements (no orchestra now though these are, of course, demos) suggesting some commercial potential.  The overall flavour is a kind of pop take on folk-rock or, in the case of ‘Sunday Morning Coming’, gentle country-rock.

For a while, a second album was in the offing but this was not to be and following a prolonged period of a lack of commercial success, The Casuals were dropped by Decca in 1971.

Label to label

June 1972 marked a move to Parlaphone for Tara Tiger Girl b/w Nature’s Child written by the band’s Chris Evans and with a Move-like bouncy-stomp.

There was an American Jam single for which the band were renamed American Jam Band though as both singles had the same B-side, the link was obvious.  According to John Tracy’s sleeve notes for 1991’s Casuals CD compilation, the group was probably Chris Evans and Rob Moore AKA Kansas Hook/ American Jam Band.  AnyCasuals The Witch resemblance to Jesamine is entirely accidental.

They took a punt on progressive label Dawn in June 1974 for The Witch (written by the band’s Chris Evans) b/w Good Times, both sides produced by Robin Blanchflower.  ‘The Witch’ is a last ditch attempt to be heavy (‘black eyed queen you’re the devil’s machine’) and ‘Good Times’ has zingy snyth but neither convince.

The Casuals were consigned to the cabaret circuit now that the hits had very much dried up.  They disbanded in 1976.

Fragments of an afterlife

A spell of session singing followed for John and then involvement in Big John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus by John Goodison, founder of Brotherhood of Man.  Tebb left for France in 1987, worked solo in the south of France and, last heard of, still fronts a number of bands.  Rockafantazia profile of John Tebb (scroll down a little).

Bassist Alan Taylor had a spell with Italian jazz oriented group Ping-Pong  in the early 70s, re-emerging as Bulldog.

Taylor surfaced again for a 1977 single Song for Magdalena in 1977 which you can read as a sort of mid-70s Casuals sound.  It is smoothly competent but strains for a certain ambitiousness it cannot quite muster.

A 1982 single appeared in Italy on Polydor, Out of My Mind b/w Take Your Time credited to Casuals with music and lyrics by Alan Taylor.  I haven’t heard a copy.

Alan was involved with various Euro disco projects for a number of years.  He passed away in Italy in 2011.

On and off the record

Two CD compilations of The Casuals have been released.

Jesamine: The Casuals [Decca, 1991, Deram 820 990-2] offers eighteen tracks and sleeve notes by John Tracy.

The Very Best of the Casuals [Karusell, 1996, 552 088-2] is the superior collection, providing 20 tracks and a better selection from Hour World  though Brian Gammidge’s sleeve notes  are perfunctory (this was only ever a budget release).

The 1991 compilation is no longer available but is worth getting hold of for several tracks which don’t appear on the later comp, namely Don’t Dream of Yesterday, Touched, I Can’t Say and A Letter Every Month.  

As I mentioned in an earlier post on The Casuals, Shapes & Sounds 2: Shades of Deepest Purple from the BBC archives 1967-1971 [Top Sounds, 2008, TSSCD 003] provides interesting insights into the band live and by far the most comprehensive sleeve notes on the group’s history, with some colourful reproductions of memorabilia for good measure though, be warned, the text is tiny!

There is still plenty of room for a definitive compilation which gathers together all the single A and B-sides – including the European only ones – Hour World in its entirety, the leftover album tracks and the 1970/71 Decca demos.

Further loose ends

A few years ago I caught a request for a Casuals song on Sounds of the 60s by a former group member.  I think the requester was John Tebb, and if I remember correctly, the request wasn’t for ‘Jesamine’.

I think John may have entertained on cruise ships and in hotels and bars in the south of France for at least a few years.

According to their joint Facebook page  Howard lives now in Manchester and John in the south of France.

The Stoke Sentinel reports that The Casuals and Herman’s Hermits played a charity gig for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Knutton.

The Casuals Official Site

But we’ve not finished with The Casuals yet…

Ten of the Best from The Casuals


CORRECTION 26 Feb 2016:  I inadvertently reversed the A/B sides of ‘Tara Tiger Girl’/’Natures’ Child’.  Sorry about that.  The text now shows the A-side correctly as ‘Tara Tiger Girl’.


Previous posts on The Casuals

The Casuals: beyond Jesamine
The Casuals: before Jesamine: 1961- mid 1968
Jesamine Part 1

Jesamine Part 2
When Jesamine Goes: Singles 1968/69

Hour World 1969

Lord Bless All… on Christmas Eve

Back in the Spring, I posted on Lord Bless All – ‘a haunted three minutes… a Dickensian mood of carols and God’s blessing at Christmas.’  For me, it’s the most beautiful track on Robin’s Reign.

I suggested giving it a try on Christmas Eve… so now here’s your chance!

Wishing all lightspotters everywhere a very Happy Christmas.

See you in 2016.

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More on Lord Bless All in my review of Robin’s Reign

 

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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

 

 

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

C’est la vie, au revoir

No. 15 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Robin Gibb
Lead Vocal: Robin 
Recording: 1970 [Robin – Sing Slowly Sisters solo sessions: released 2015]


“You sent me out of my mind'”

“I think the human state is predominantly sad” said Robin in a 2007 interview on Sing Slowly Sisters for Radio 4’s Lost Albums. 

With its slight echoes of Odessa’s Lamplight and English orchestrated melancholia from the period such as Jon Plum’s ‘An Apple Falls’, C’est la Vie, Au Revoir is a bitter-sweet melody whose chorus seems to triumph in defeat.

Although perhaps not touching the depth of feeling of Sing Slowly Sisters the straightforward melody is, I think, one of Robin’s strongest, nicely sung in his attractive mid-register and with a natural, gradual build to an affecting chorus.

We can only assume that the sentiments expressed relate to Robin’s departure from the band the previous year: ‘I knew you like no one knew… can I still be your friend?’

C’est la Vie, Au Revoir is well served by its arrangement, less epic than on Odessa or Robin’s Reign with an enticing silvery effect on the string introduction and coda.

It’s a prime example of the ‘well made song’, something the Bee Gees excelled at.

No 14 Walking Back to Waterloo
No 16 Sing Slowly Sisters