*DECEMBER 2014 UPDATE: See below for thoughts on the new album.
With Bee Gee Robin Gibb’s posthumous album 50 St Catherine’s Drive to be released this month, here’s a look back at five essential, too-often neglected, Robin-heavy Bee Gees songs.
1: Don’t Fall In Love With Me (1981) – I’ve written before about the underplayed role the Bee Gees lyrics had in the brothers’ success. With people normally focusing on the beauty of the melodies and vocals, it’s easy to underestimate a couple of things. Namely, the appeal of how Gibb lyrics match exactly to their melodies (possibly due to them always writing the music first, the lyrics later) and the draw of the unique matters of the heart depicted. Case in point, there aren’t many love songs where the protagonist warns the object of his affections against falling in love with him.
Essential Moment: The moment Robin’s vocal combines with his brothers on the chorus, “Gonna’ be a lonely night, nothing but a lonely night.”
2: The Longest Night (1987) – The standout ballad from ESP (1987), the Bee Gees first full studio album in six years, The Longest Night is a good argument for why the brothers were stronger together than apart. Ostensibly a Robin song, the power is still in the brotherly harmonies. A prominent Marcus Miller bass, lush Arif Mardin production and sad, direct lyrics add up to ESP‘s second most vital song after the chart-topping You Win Again.
Essential Moment: “Nobody cries / nobody cries / for the pain I feel / nobody knows / nobody knows / and it makes me want to die.” Pop music doesn’t get much bleaker lyrically, but as just as the listener realises the gravity of Robin’s trailing vocal being “die” rather than “cry,” they’re distracted by Barry’s beautiful, non-lyric, syncopated vocals. It’s undeniably forlorn, but altogether far too pretty to be depressing.
3: Living Together (1979) – While not exactly “Robin-heavy,” Living Together is one of the only recorded instances of Robin in a falsetto lead. This occurs in the twice-appearing bridge with Robin on the lines, “I lay my heart on you / and you can show the way…” etc and then, “My life was emptiness / until you came along…” etc.
Essential Moment: Other than the surprise of hearing Robin in falsetto on the bridge, Living Together‘s other essential moment is towards the end of the song when all instruments are removed except for the funky bass, the drums and Barry’s vocal lead. A song much closer to funk than whatever disco is or came to mean.
4: For Whom The Bell Tolls (1993) – A contender for being the finest song the Bee Gees wrote post Saturday Night Fever, For Whom The Bell Tolls was a huge hit in the UK, in parts of Europe and across South America. FHTBT is included in this article because it was inexplicably not a hit in America nor Australasia.
Essential Moment: The chorus. FHTBT is representative of one of the Bee Gees hardly-mentioned, quite staggering capabilities: Robin singing natural voice in Barry’s falsetto range, a technique also used in 1997’s international top five hit Alone. Harking back to a strategy used more frequently in pre-1976 Bee Gees songs, the magic is in the vocal interplay between Barry and Robin on the verses combined with Maurice’s harmonies on the chorus. Robin is majestic as he sings, “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.
5: My World (1972) – The simple chorus of this largely forgotten UK / US top 20, South East Asian #1 hit belies the unusual song structure of having two different verse melodies. Robin sings the first verse of the country-styled, “Don’t shed a tear for me,” which then contrasts with his soulful “I’ve been crying, I’m lonely,” etc. Regarding that contrast, it becomes substantially more apparent when Barry – who could do a country vocal more readily than Robin – sings the third verse, a return to the “don’t shed a tear,” lyric and melody. When Robin then hits with the soul of his pleading, “I’ve been crying,” the effect is quite stunning. The harmonies with Maurice on the chorus “My world / is our world,” etc are unsurprisingly grand.
Essential Moment: The second time the listener hears Robin’s “I’ve been crying…” A pleasant, straightforward pop song is immediately elevated into something infinitely more soulful and unforgettable.
Afterword: These are but five songs in a catalogue of literally hundreds upon hundreds. For fans in search of further lesser-known Bee Gees songs that highlight Robin’s vocals, also be sure to track down material like the following: Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights, Lamplight, Odessa, Walking Back To Waterloo, Man For All Seasons, Mr Natural, And The Sun Will Shine, Bodyguard, I Can’t See Nobody, Black Diamond, Method To My Madness, Country Lanes, Love Me, When He’s Gone, Rings Around The Moon, Love Never Dies, Heart Like Mine, Fallen Angel, Deja Vu and many, many others.
*DECEMBER 2014 UPDATE: Quick Thoughts On 50 St Catherine’s Drive
Listening to 50 St Catherine’s Drive I can hear the intact beauty of Robin’s voice alongside some big hooks, namely on Alan Freeman Days, Instant Love, Don’t Cry Alone, Sorry, I Am The World (originally recorded in 1966) Sanctuary, Days Of Wine And Roses and most heartbreakingly, the wistful and autobiographical Sydney (his final recording, 2011).
Reminding of the overwhelming talent Robin talent still had, Sydney is one of a lyrically-direct trio of 50 St Catherine’s Drive’s best tracks: Sydney, Alan Freeman Days and Don’t Cry Alone.
With the bulk of the 17-track album recorded between 2006-2008, 2011’s Sydney might be just a rough iPad demo, but its melancholy melody and lyrics of “I close my eyes / I’m back in Sydney / my brothers are with me,” make it the most authentic, emotionally connecting moment on 50 St Catherine’s Drive. Alan Freeman Days is a close second as it pays homage to John Lennon, Marc Bolan and Robin’s late twin Maurice. It even includes audio a la Starship’s We Built This City of the famed radio host of the title. It sounds real because it isn’t a pop elder statesman trying to sound like a 20 year old: it’s Robin being Robin and it makes you long for more.
Don’t Cry Alone was the standout from Robin’s Titanic Requiem (2012) and is again rewarding because it sounds like mature, beautiful music made by a songwriter who needn’t have been shy to use his gifts this way even more in the latter part of his career.
Additionally, Days Of Wine And Roses is almost up there with these three, despite its opening line of “I ain’t lost but I’ve been searching” distracting with its nearly-there reference to the Bee Gees early 70s soul gem Alive and its lyric, “I ain’t lost and I ain’t searching.” With the right treatment this very good song – complete with bagpipes – could’ve been a contender for the last truly great Robin Gibb song.
As for the pursuit of hits – something Robin never gave up on – big brother Barry re-recording Sydney with both his and Robin’s vocals would pack a huge emotional punch even if it didn’t grace radio playlists. Otherwise, the best bet is for Robin’s family to get their record company to push Sanctuary to the likes of One Direction. This is genuine, rather than backhanded praise. This song, as well as Instant Love, both sound like quality pop songs that in the hands of a polished, young pop act could really resonate. I have no doubt that if Harry Styles and co. got their chops around the hook-filled Sanctuary (a potential musical cousin of the brothers’ magnificent 1987 #1 You Win Again) that they’d have another UK #1. What a wonderful and deserved crowning achievement for one of the departed giants of pop that would be.