Give me a smile! With the new release of Robin Gibb's Saved by the Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970 (R2 549315), Rhino/Reprise has unveiled the most significant archival collection related to The Bee Gees in nearly a decade. Not since 2006's The Studio Albums 1967-1968 has the vault door been opened to reveal such a remarkable wealth of pop treasure from an artist with the surname of Gibb - in this case, the late Robin.
This three-CD set, produced with stunning attention to detail by Andrew Sandoval, includes the recordings Robin Gibb made when he briefly stepped away from the Bee Gees, beginning in 1969. Only one album was released from these sessions, Robin's Reign. The LP was issued in early 1970 (on Polydor in the U.K. and Atco in the U.S.). Despite the success of the single "Saved by the Bell," the album's commercial performance was poor, and Robin's planned second album was never released. Once he returned to his brothers' fold, Robin didn't try any more solo outings until How Old Are You?, from 1983.
The first disc of Saved by the Bell presents an expanded edition of Robin's Reign (which has only been available on CD in a long out-of print barebones German edition from the 1990s) with the original album in stereo plus selected mono mixes, alternates and an outtake. The second disc assembles the never-before-released follow-up album Sing Slowly Sisters, and the third disc rounds up other odds and ends including BBC appearances and song demos. All told, 47 of the set's whopping 63 tracks are previously unreleased, and liner notes by Bob Stanley and Sandoval place these important, lost recordings into complete context of Robin Gibb's career and artistry.
The seeds of Robin's Reign were planted when Robin's title track to The Bee Gees' Odessa was announced, then shelved, as a single. Brother Barry's "First of May" would occupy the A-side of the album's 45 instead, with Robin's "Lamplight" on the flip. Robin publicly vented about the situation, predicting that "First of May" wouldn't be a smash hit like "I've Gotta Get a Message to You" or "I Started a Joke" (both of which had Robin's prominent vocals): "[It] might make No. 10," he opined. It made No. 6 in the United Kingdom and No. 37 in the United States. He also brashly noted that "Lamplight" "would be Number One for weeks" if it were the selection. Pressing on in March 1969, just weeks after the release of Odessa, Robin recruited his brother Maurice and arranger Kenny Clayton to record his dramatic solo ballad "Saved by the Bell," which would become the centerpiece of Robin's Reign. Its Top 5 placement on numerous European charts in summer 1969 validated his decision to strike out on his own.
Many of the tracks on Robin's Reign, arranged and conducted in richly orchestral fashion by Zack Lawrence and Kenny Clayton, are cut from the same haunting, baroque cloth as Odessa. Gibb's resonant, quavering and needless to say, recognizable vibrato is commanding on these songs which he wrote and produced himself during a truly prolific patch. Gibb poured his heart and soul into this suite of ornate musical reflections on love, loss and the nature of goodbye. (Could his break from his brothers have been weighing on his mind?) "August October" is a lovely remembrance of a departed lover while a thick Wall of Sound is conjured on the bitingly acerbic "The Worst Girl is Town." A dark air of resignation permeates "Gone, Gone, Gone."
The early use of a drum machine adds a singular color to the lush sonic palette of Robin's Reign. ("Saved by the Bell" is recognized as perhaps the first commercial release of such an instrument on a record.) It's prominent on tracks including the quirky story song "Mother and Jack" (the B-side of "Saved by the Bell") and "One Million Years," a non-LP single included on some pressings of the album. (It's included here in two mixes as part of the bonus material.) Kenny Clayton teamed with "musical director" Vic Lewis to craft the two most commercial cuts on Robin's Reign. The melodic yet wistful pop of "Give Me a Smile" and the gently sweet "Weekend" are both enhanced with strings and sighing brass, the latter adding evocative woodwinds, too. Given their sheen, it's surprising that both songs were relegated to single B-sides. (Those mono single mixes appear here, too.)
Gibb certainly didn't put the reins on his ambitions when it came to Reign. The stark "Father Ferdinand Hudson" was drawn from 12+-minute "Hudson's Fallen Wind" suite that appears in the bonus section in its entirety. The multi-part "Hudson's" shows Gibb expanding his vistas as a songwriter and producer; indeed, at the time, he was reportedly contemplating other long-form pieces for television or stage. The stately, majestic "Lord Bless All," features Robin's church-evoking organ and multi-tracked vocal choir to yield the most rousing sound on the album.
Robin had already begun work on the Sing Slowly Sisters album by the release date of Robin's Reign in January 1970. The month before, Barry Gibb had announced his departure from The Bee Gees, and Maurice, too, had begun work on a solo project. It made sense for Robin to continue his very personal creative journey. Sessions for the LP took place between January and April, with Kenny Clayton again contributing arrangements to several tracks. As there are 20 tracks here from the period (18 completed recordings and two demos), it's impossible to know exactly what would have comprised Sing Slowly Sisters as a single-LP release. But Gibb certainly had a wealth of diverse, fascinating and frequently complex material from which to choose.
The prospective album title took its name from the stirring World War I-set ballad "Sing Slowly Sisters," which even surpassed the strongest material on Robin's Reign for its intensity and dark beauty. He was writing in a cinematic vein, and his fragile vocals only underscored the pathos. Chamber strings and evocative horns decorate the emotionally raw "I've Been Hurt," and shimmering harpsichord adds to the baroque, out-of-time beauty of "Irons in the Fire" and "Cold Be My Days." Even the more straightforward love ballads, like "Return to Austria," are filtered through an unconventional lyrical sensibility. (The latter is also heard in demo form, emphasizing Robin's voice and organ.)
The lyrically intriguing, acoustic guitar-and-harmonies-driven "Sky West and Crooked" and "Avalanche" give insight into Robin's visions for a comparatively stripped-down sound; the aching "A Very Special Day" is even sparer, with Robin's stacked vocals set to piano accompaniment. Of course, The Bee Gees would pursue a less heavily orchestrated style, too, upon their reunion. "Avalanche" is one of numerous tracks here that one can easily imagine as a Bee Gees song, as Robin uses all areas of his vocal range to bring it to life.
Sing Slowly Sisters would have had its share of upbeat moments, too. The bright and catchy "Life" is in the mold of the orchestrated big beat of the day. "Everything is How You See Me" opens with a blast straight out of a Hollywood western before introducing a brassy pop groove in its intricately layered production. "Engines, Aeroplanes," with its Floyd Cramer-esque piano licks, has a happily loping country and western vibe. (However, "It's Only Make Believe" is another lush Robin original, not the famous C&W song!) "Great Caesar's Ghost" was intended as a single, and as such, has a more accessible early "Bee Gees" sound to it; the track was shelved when the Brothers Gibb reunited. "Loud and Clear" and "Anywhere I Hang My Hat" also have an easygoing accessibility that would have suited them well for single release.
For the third disc entitled Robin's Rarities, producer Sandoval has unveiled another 23 (!) odds and ends from the 1968-1970 period. "Alexandria Good Time," scheduled for single release but withdrawn, dates from the same March 1969 period as "Mother and Jack" and "Saved by the Bell." It's of a piece with those tracks, another haunting, classically-influenced cut with organ, strings and drum machine. "Janice" and "Love Just Goes," also from March, demonstrate Robin in captivatingly melancholy mode.
There are true oddities here, such as Italian language recordings of "August October" and "One Million Years," as well as a brace of BBC recordings including "Saved by the Bell" and the pop duo of "Weekend" and "Give Me a Smile." A couple of BBC interview tracks are equally illuminating. "Ideas come very easily," says Robin of his time apart from The Bee Gees, and the songs on this set - including ten demos of mostly otherwise-unrecorded songs - prove he wasn't speaking exaggeratedly of his fertile creativity. The vibe is loose on the whimsical "The People's Public Poke Song," one of six songs from a voice-and-guitar session in June 1969 at IBC Sound. "Indian Gin and Whiskey Dry" recalls the Bee Gees at their most Beatle-esque; the happily low-key "The Girl to Share Each Day" is sweet and warmly romantic. Not all of these tracks are fully successful or wholly developed, but all are worthy of the attention here. Most fascinating are a pair of completed recordings by The Robin Gibb Orchestra and Chorus, arranged by Kenny Clayton for an orchestra of 43. The grandiose "Moon Anthem" and "Ghost of Christmas Past" look forward to Gibb's final project, the full classical composition The Titanic Requiem. Like that piece, there's little in these two compositions that qualifies as pop, or even pop crossover; Robin was setting his sights on a "higher" bar.
Dan Hersch has lovingly remastered this collection's tracks, drawn from a variety of sources hunted down and restored by Sandoval. Though there are some fluctuations in audio quality, the overall sound here is nothing short of tremendous. The booklet, designed by Kassondra Monroe and housed in an attractive yet surprisingly diminutive digipak, is both copiously illustrated and annotated. Saved by the Bell adds up to one of the most significant reissue projects in Bee Gees history, and a must-have for all fans of the group's early music and the unmistakable voice of Robin Gibb. Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb played off each other's strengths to create some of the most remarkable pop music ever crafted, but this set reveals that the best of Robin's solo work can stand proudly alongside the music created with his brothers. "We can sing forever," Robin concludes in the closing lyric of "Why Not Cry Together." Indeed, his gift of song will go on forever.