|Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb – 1993.|
This November marked 20 years since the Bee Gees released one of the strongest ballads of their career with a song that – had it not been for the likes of Mr Blobby – may’ve even been a UK Christmas #1. As it turned out, the brothers had to settle for a very respectable UK #4 chart peak, as well as top 10 placings in various other European territories.
The Brazilians, however, knew more than anybody that For Whom The Bell Tolls wasn’t just a nice song and it made it all the way to #1 there. It is a track for me which I will never stop trying to introduce to people because as much as it was a big hit, it gets lost a little in the depths of the Gibb catalogue. Particularly in the States where the song was ignored by radio programmers due to the idiotic lingering of the Saturday Night Fever backlash, many American fans are surprised at both how good 90s Bee Gees music was and also that it was so successful. Just not in their back yard.
One of two songs the brothers wrote that lifted a title from Hemingway (the other being Islands In The Stream), For Whom The Bell Tolls is the best of what the pop ballad can be: a massive hook, an unforgettable title, an emotional lyric and expert song-craft.
Listen closely to For Whom The Bell Tolls (and preferably the full five minute album version and not the inferior single edit) and hear the use of Barry’s falsetto, then natural voice and then Robin in natural voice singing so high it would be in Barry’s (lower) falsetto range. The choruses (with Barry and Maurice on harmonies) are the sort of blue-eyed soul that Robin did so well, matched with the lyrics:
When the lonely heart breaks
It’s the one that forsakes
It’s the dream that we stole
And I’m missing you more
And the fire that will roar
There’s a hole in my soul
For you it’s goodbye
And for me it’s to cry
For Whom The Bell Tolls
I asked Barry in a 2009 interview about For Whom The Bell Tolls and I remember him telling me that when the chorus came to him he knew instantly it would sound nice with brother Robin singing lead. As with so many Gibb songs like Nights On Broadway, Massachusetts, Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message and to a more subtle extent You Win Again, much of the magic is in the vocal interplay between Barry and Robin and then the three-part harmonies with Maurice.
Regarding the subject matter, there are aspects of the lyrics that sound like they could be written about baby brother Andy who’d died five years earlier, but the reality is more likely to be of a romantic love lost. Regardless, this is a song which doesn’t just come across as merely good or catchy, it’s patently sad while still sounding big.
So is it the finest post-Fever Bee Gees song? The realisation of the song’s large structural and production aspirations, coupled with the emotion of the lyrics means it is up there for me. But so too are You Win Again, Wish You Were Here, Ordinary Lives, Happy Ever After, The Longest Night, Sprits Having Flown, Too Much Heaven, Guilty, Woman In Love, Hold Me, You And I, Islands In The Stream, Chain Reaction, Alone, Immortality, Heartbreaker, Nothing Could Be Good, Don’t Fall In Love With Me, Rings Around The Moon, Blue Island, Man On Fire etc etc etc.
One of my favourites, here is For Whom The Bell Tolls.
PS. December 1st marks the birthday of Barry’s eldest child, Stephen Gibb and this is the big 4-0. Stephen has spent many years playing lead guitar in hard-rock and heavy-metal bands and these days tours with his father, providing a compelling counterpoint to the music of the Bee Gees. His presence as a rock guitarist of considerable esteem also serves as a reminder of the full spectrum of genres the brothers wrote in with his live versions of Maurice’s brilliant swamp-rock solo song On Time being one of the many highlights from the Mythology concerts of 2013. Happy birthday and may 2014 be another great year for you and the family.