Friday, August 13, 2010

"I Started a Joke" / The Bee Gees

No, not these Bee Gees. . .

These Bee Gees:
I heard this same song not once but twice today -- first on Sirius XM Radio's Sixties station, then again hours later on the PA system in the IGA where I was shopping for dinner. Now, it's entirely possible that I hear the same song twice in a day all the time, and just never notice. When it's something as obscure as this, though, I take it as a sign from God.

You know, the Brothers Gibb did have a career before they became the Kings of Disco in the late 1970s. In the mid-1960s -- soon after they moved back to the UK from Australia, where I gather they were like the Osmond Brothers, all over Aussie TV -- manager Robert Stigwood, always a man with his finger on the pulse of the times, steered them in the direction of Beatle-y folk pop. They happened to be good at it, VERY good at it, and I loved them. (Hence my disappointment in 1977.) In my household we -- meaning of course my older brother -- owned their first album, The Bee Gees' 1st, which featured such splendid songs as "Holiday," "Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Tell You," and the haunting "New York Mining Disaster 1941" (a.k.a. "Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?"). This was a truly lovely album that promised great things to come from this brotherly trio.

On their next album, 1968's Idea, they drifted a little from that folk-oriented lodestar, though their material was still loaded up with ambiguous existential "messages" -- witness the other big single from this era, "I'm Just Trying To Get a Message to You," a hectic and clamorous song about social isolation. Compare it to, say, Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," or even Jonathan King's "Everyone's Gone to the Moon," and you'll see how the Bee Gees didn't quite get the point. Nevertheless there was something mesmerizing about Robin Gibb's high, nasal, hard voice streaming out of your radio speakers, and they were still worthy of respect.

So naturally when this song came out in December 1968, we all knew it had to "mean" something. But what?

I love this video, if only for the spectacle of Robin Gibbs' teeth, the long lanky hair, and the way he presses his right ear, straining to hear his tone and pitch, not to mention that distinctive quaver. But of course he sings it beautifully, he really does -- unless you find his voice cloying, which I understand some people do -- and the cryptic lyrics, the plaintive melody, the billowing strings and glissandos of harps, all conspire to convince us that this is a Heavy Statement.

The actual lyrics are deliberately vague. In verse one he starts the joke, but the "whole world" cries; in verse two he cries and they laugh. An obvious turnabout, and for some reason I always imagine Marcel Marceau here, with that little tear stenciled on his white cheek. (Reason enough to be wary of this song.) Since he declares the whole world is involved, however, it's hard to take this as just a story about a bloke who says awkward things at parties. And in verse three, it gets even more cosmic -- "I finally died / Which started the whole world living." Is it any wonder that people think this is a religious song? Because that smells like Christ imagery to me, whether the Gibbs brothers meant it or not.

The bridge gets even heavier, man. "I-I-I-I / Looked at the skies / Running my hands / Over my eyes" -- I picture that like a soft-focus movie scene, telegraphing a moment of spiritual awakening. Yet we're rudely jerked to earth by the end of the bridge: "And I fell out of bed / Hurting my head / From things that I'd said." Oof! Maybe it's just a hangover song after all.

The bottom line is -- this number sounds like a message song, but it's all balderdash. A year later, the Hollies would do it right with "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" -- a message song that conveys its message clearly (which presumably is the point of a message song, isn't it?) I'm willing to cut the Gibbses some slack -- I suppose they couldn't help it if their talent for mimicry led them to copy a style they couldn't fulfill, or if their natural tendency toward a Big Sound loaded songs with undue importance. "I Started a Joke" is still better than "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," "To Love Somebody," "or (shudder) "How Deep Is Your Love." But . . . sigh . . . I expected so much more from them.


Alex said...

I also have a soft spot for the pre-Disco Bee Gees although listening again to this reminds me that cranking up the melodrama almost never ages well.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing, again. A ""diss"ertation", though, and I think you're being a little tough on them.

We always heard that "I Started A Joke" was about Hitler...gave it an even darker feel and despite the whineyness, self pity, and self absorption, I bet it still stopped you COLD as you examined the endive and honey dew at the produce aisle of IGA.

...always had a soft spot for Brother Groups, just like everybody else. I saw them on the Merv Griffin Show, must have been 1971, and at their truly creative peak. They did "Lonely Days" and "Run To Me" (with its great, and just this side of "barbershop" harmonies) and just about blew the doors off the place.

Yeah, they sold out to disco and I don't even think they made it to the Rock 'n Roll Hall Of Fame yet, but if not, they should be there.

Have a nice weekend,


Dave said...

Whoa! "Idea" wasn't the sequel to 1st -- "Horizontal" was, and it's almost as great as 1st, and features what is arguably their best song -- "World" (a massive hit in the UK but for some reason, not that big stateside).

It's a mistake to dismiss the boys' disco and retro-soul stuff, too. "Night Fever," "Love So Right," and "Fanny" are gorgeous songs.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the correction, Dave -- at the time my record collection was only as good as my older brother's allowance could make it. Perhaps the lack of US attention to Horizontal accounts for why we missed it.

I don't dismiss their disco and retro-soul stuff., not at all. I freely admit that it is very good -- they were head and shoulders above most of the pap of that genre in that era. Trouble is, it's not what I like to listen to, hence my disappointment. I thought I'd found one sort of band and they turned out to be something else.

The Hitler interpretation of this song interests me, Rich -- but ultimately I don't think it sticks either. Hitler falling out of bed? And since when did the whole world laugh at anything Hitler did?