No. 6 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72
By Robin & Barry Gibb
Lead Vocals: Barry, Robin
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 2006 Rhino re-issue
Embed from Getty Images
“His hearing wasn’t good but his eyes were clear”
Gilbert Green’s non-appearance on 1st is something of a mystery given the song’s unique qualities in the brothers’ canon. Perhaps Robert Stigwood felt deathly themes had been sufficiently aired in New York Mining Disaster 1941, a song which marries the Gibbs’ originality with just enough folk-rock commerciality.
Or perhaps there is something too esoteric and obscure about ‘Gilbert Green’ which is precisely what makes it so fascinating. Given its enigmatic theme, it is apt that the brothers’ rendition should remain buried in the vaults for almost forty years.
The song was given to Gerry Marsden, presumably in the hope that it might reignite his career as a kind of psychedelic hipster. The former Pacemaker turns in a creditable enough performance and the well dressed 1967 strings are present and correct. But the Bee Gees’ own version definitely has the superior edge.
Various elements combine to create a disconcerting mood. Even the introduction and opening bars remind me of something from Julian Cope’s Fried.
Firstly, the intriguing verse melody is set to solo electric guitar, underscored only by Barry’s mournful backing vocal. For the Bee Gees this is an unusually stark arrangement (their own) which ideally suits the song’s fairy-tale strangeness.
The melody is folk-based yet never adheres to a strict folk template with its twists and turns as the story unfolds.
Then at times it feels as if we are in a minor key even when we’re not hearing minor chords; rather than offering relief, unresolved major excursions serve only to emphasise a shadowy quality.
And the tempo has a flexibility which lends the song a particular air of uncertainty.
The approach here is more imaginative and multilayered than the tragi-romantic ballads of 1969/70 onwards, which is why I have a special regard for the Bee Gees’ very earliest UK years.
Like some kind of alchemist, Gilbert labours away alone, trying to write the perfect song while the world carries on, oblivious. The mood is of secrecy and mystery couched in a sadness which is ironic. We are never quite meant to feel sorry for Gilbert Green, not even his eventual demise in a fire presumably of his own making, though we are perhaps meant to wonder whether he was mad, bad or brilliant.
Lines like ‘His hearing wasn’t good but his eyes were clear’ are vaguely unsettling but still quirky enough to raise a smile. ‘Mending fifty carpets that are worn’ is another especially good line – a vivid image of Gilbert’s threadbare quest.
Then we have the tumble from the attic of the second verse to the surviving basement song of the last verse, implying a descent into madness and a man brought down by lofty (sorry!) ambitions – classic fairy-tale morality.
Robin sings the verses with understatement. His questioning, dropping away at the end of phrases is especially effective. Only the lyric ‘laughing men and yellow beans’, for me, works against the song’s careful tension between sobriety and sly humour, moving into comic nonsense.
The chorus, announced by a simple double drum beat, is a more conventional beast both melodically and lyrically but ends with the arresting: ‘We can tell the world that he was right!’
Hearing this, for the first time we are brought suddenly and directly into the mystery. This feels unexpected and disconcerting. Gilbert Green, a man barely known let alone understood, is nevertheless made known to us by the telling of this ‘song that wasn’t seen’. The song we hear is Gilbert’s song, his sole legacy. We have become a party to his secret story and a part of it.
The joke is on…
The song’s central event, the burning of the house ‘along with Gilbert Green’ – happens off stage. Was the fire a result of simple carelessness or was Gilbert Green, in some sense, consumed by his own passions? Perhaps the ‘laughing men and yellow beans’ hint at Gilbert’s madness yet somehow the joke seems to be on the world at large. The song exits on an extended meandering ‘aah’ vocal coda, fading like a question mark in the air.
Gilbert Green sits squarely in that peculiarly ‘60s pop genre ‘portraits of eccentric outsiders’. It shares elements with the genre’s pinnacle, Eleanor Rigby: a story of a lonely life followed by death and then mourning, a sense of surreal disassociation, the significance of a few carefully chosen details, a willingness to visit discomfort upon the listener and a would-be literary sensibility.
Gilbert Green also represents an early example of the brothers’ skill at absorbing musical styles around them and working them into a uniquely Gibb sensibility. It’s amazing to think that Gilbert Green was written when the Bee Gees were not yet out of their teens.