The first time I heard The Bee Gees 1st, I remember checking my stereo during “I Can’t See Nobody” to see if it was functioning properly. The voice coming out of the speakers had grown so absurdly (epi-)glottal, like someone shaking a helium-fueled foghorn, that I thought it must be a mistake. Nope, it was simply Robin Gibb singing his heart out. He’s often been described as a warbler, which is more than accurate — Robin possessed the sort of eccentric white-boy vibrato that has never been in fashion and will always be an acquired taste. Think a dead serious Tiny Tim (which is slightly ironic given the renown of his “I Started a Joke”). Yet somehow I’ve acquired it. Maybe it has to do with the gloomy melodies he tended to sing or the overwrought orchestral ballads he liked to compose. I’m sure it has something to do with his wonderful grin, and the whole sickly schoolboy image. Or maybe it’s just the brilliant key change at the end of “Let There Be Love” (off Horizontal).
You look at Robin and it boggles the mind to think there was an era in not too distant memory where a guy like him could become an international pop star. Even by the standards of his time, Robin was the opposite of ‘cool,’ about as far from Elvis Presley as you could possibly get and still be in the English-speaking world. And yet, take a listen to his “unbearably glum” first solo record Robin’s Reign, and you’ll hear a work of total self-confidence and vision: the original goth dandy in full imperial regalia. I mean, was anyone using drum machines and 40-piece orchestras in 1970?! (Besides Dennis Wilson?). And the amount of echo on the vocals puts Spector to shame. Some might say that Robin’s Reign solves the mystery of The Magnetic Fields, not to mention The Cure. As the obit in The Guardian reads:
Robin Gibb’s music – untutored and isolated (I can picture most of it being written on a harpsichord in a dimly lit 12th century living room) – has come out without any of the usual dulling rock’n’roll filters. Who else could have written Odessa (City on the Black Sea) about a man stranded on an iceberg, writing a letter to his wife who loves “that vicar more than words can say”? Frankly, no one.
The recent New Yorker tribute by Scott Staton is also worth a look. Here are a few paltry highlights to memorialize the passing of a serious talent:
In my dreams, Barry would eulogize his brother with this song, from their unreleased A Kick in the Head record: