The Bee Gees, after the Beatles, were the greatest pop tune-smiths of the 20th century, particularly during their incredible first run of hits from 1967-1971, thanks in no small part to Robin Gibb, who passed away yesterday.
In fact, it was Robin who sang on most of their earliest hits: “I Started a Joke,” “Massachusetts,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “Holiday,” etc.
While Barry was (generally) effortlessly melodic and bright, Robin was obtuse, dark, and inconsolably sad. While other mid-60s songwriters explored relationships or class issues or successfully hid behind surrealistic imagery, Robin plunged the depths of sorrow and melancholia. He was one existential 17-year old.
Here are some of his greatest tunes.
“I Don’t Know Why I Bother With Myself” (1966); miscellaneous jam, which can be found on “Birth of Brilliance”
Armed with their best Hollies-esque 12-string intro, sad-sack Robin sets the tone early – at the tender age of 17. The self-loathing trend shall continue for the next three decades.
“Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts” from Bee Gees First
Here Robin out-Brit Pops XTC, Blur, and the bunch about 20 years early.
“Harry Braff” off “Horizontal” (1967)
“Horizontal” plays like a greatest hits album. Not a bad tune to be had. It’s the best starting point if you want to delve into classic mid-60s Bee Gees. While Robin was glum, he also had a brilliantly sardonic and macabre side. “Harry Braff” shows off Robin’s absurdist streak – lionizing a racecar driving dude (who I think crashes and dies?)
“The Singer Sang His Song,” non-album jam (1968)
“Some Christmas Eve or Halloween,” B-side from “Idea” (1968)
“I Started a Joke” from “Idea” from “Idea” (1968)
Not much commentary needed on this one.
“Down to Earth,” from “Idea” (1968)
So you can see that Robin is absolutely killing it during the “Idea” era. And when you listen to the sweeping, eerie lilt of “Down to Earth” you can also see why David Bowie consciously tried to rip off the boys’ sound; Bowie’s colleague John “Hutch” Hutchinson said so: “‘Space Oddity’ was a Bee Gees type song. David knew it, and he said so at the time … the way he sang it, it’s a Bee Gees thing.”
What’s cool about “Down to Earth” is that Robin projects his loneliness outward, telling the audience (or himself) “You can see if you stand on your chair / That there’s millions and millions and millions and millions / of people like you.” See? There’s hope!
“Odessa,” from “Odessa” (1969)
Here a 19 (!) year old Robin pens a 7+ minute orchestrational epic about a sailor lost at sea (and is “on an iceberg, running free”) It was also the title track from their greatest LP.
“Farmer Ferdinand Hudson” from “Robin’s Reign” (1970)
So Robin wanted to release “Odessa” as a two-sided single. Barry wanted to release his “First of May.” Barry won out; Robin quit. The Bee Gees – as Barry and Maurice – record a decent “Cucumber Castle” as well as “Sun in My Morning,” one of their Top 3 jams ever.
Robin recorded “Robin’s Reign,” a strange, drum machine-ladden platter that yielded the hit “Saved by the Bell.” Then there’s this jam, which starts like some nightmarish waltz in a hailstorm. Suddenly a figure emerges in the field: it’s Robin in an aqua-blue haze talking about the (predictably) sad story of Farmer Ferdinand Hudson.
“Alone Again” off “Two Years On”(1971)
After his brief solo career, Robin returns to the Bee Gees, who, after almost a decade in the business, finally achieve their first #1 hit in the US. Yet as we see on “Two Years On,” poor Robin is still “alone again.” Guy can’t catch a break.
The chorus has his textbook descending vocal hook (a la “Three Blind Mice”); you can hear it on the aforementioned “Odessa” and the mega-rare and very bizarre/difficult “Avalanche.”
“Country Lanes” from “Main Course” (1975)
1972-1975 was a dark time for the boys. They resorted to playing small supper clubs to pay off crushing text debts. But they re-discovered their muse with “Main Course,” which was chock full of hits. Disco rears its head on “Jive Talkin’” and the astonishing “Nights on Broadway,” and they stand alongside Robin’s country-ish “Come on Over”, which underscores the fact that the Bee Gees were collectively one of the best country music writers ever. And then there’s this tender and pastoral Robin tune: