By January 1969 it seemed like the Bee Gees — brothers Barry, Maurice, and especially Robin, their vibrato singing teen idol — were on top of the world. The band was completing work on their fourth record, Odessa, the first three having spawned no fewer than five UK hit singles, while “I Started a Joke”, featuring Robin’s lead vocals, had gone top ten in the U.S. Further, Robin’s compositions for other performers such as British UK duo the Marbles were also charting. But clouds were quickly forming.
Rumors of drug addiction swirled around 19-year-old Robin, heightened by a nervous collapse and ongoing personal health crises that forced cancellation of an American tour. The actual cause of Robin’s tenuous physical and emotional condition was actually post-traumatic stress brought on in the aftermath of Robin having survived the Hither Green rail crash in November 1967 where 49 people died. While unharmed, Robin was trapped for a time in his car, forced to watch the dead and injured as they were removed; this, ironically, on the very day that “Massachusetts” became the first of the band’s singles to reach #1 on the UK charts. Adding to his personal insecurities, familial tensions in the form of competition with older brother Barry were reaching a head. Odessa producer Robert Stigwood favored saw Barry as the group leader and favored his songwriting and singing over Robin’s. The final straw occurred when Stigwood released Barry’s “First of May” as the next Bee Gees single, relegating Robin’s “Lamplight” to the B-side. Shortly after this perceived slight, Robin announced his departure from the band.
The 12-month period of Robin’s absence from the Bee Gees is generally recognized as a time of unfulfilled promise and broken momentum for all involved. Barry and Maurice released Cucumber Castle which, while including the hit single “Don’t Forget to Remember”, stalled on the UK album chart at #57; a Bee Gees long-player would not chart again until Saturday Night Fever in 1978. Robin, too, seemed to come out of the gate fast but as quickly lost momentum. His initial single “Saved By the Bell” reached #2 on the charts, but its parent album Robin’s Reign charted disappointingly and plans for a follow up record were shelved, even though Robin was enjoying one of his most prolific periods as a songwriter and had already recorded more than enough material to fill it. That unreleased album, Sing Slowly Sisters took on a mythic reputation among fans.
Saved By the Bell: Collected Works 1969-70, ten years in the making, brings the long out of print Robin’s Reign back in a stereo mix appended by nine unreleased tracks and constructs a version of Sing Slowly Sisters from the 18 completed tracks and two demos recorded for the abandoned album. The latter album was compiled from original acetates and studio-copied cassettes that have circulated in the hands of private collectors for decades, an amazing feat of persuasion and perseverance on the part of producer Andrew Sandoval. The collection’s third disc, an emptying-the-attic collection of demos, experiments, and interviews, effectively captures the entirety of Robin’s recorded work during his holiday from the Bee Gees. The collective effect of hearing these long-lost recordings (47 of the collection’s 63 tracks are previously unreleased) is to realize that Robin Gibb deserves a revered place among the auteurs of late ’60s baroque pop psychedelia, such as the Merry-Go-Round’s Emmitt Rhodes or the Left Banke’s Michael Brown.
Robin’s Reign makes full effect of Robin’s vibrato voice, resting it upon a bed of symphonic textures, as if Nelson Riddle were scoring a Brian Wilson record. On “Weekend” the strings summon a sonic vista matching Robin’s call to the sun at his top range, while “Give Me a Smile” with its growing sense of yearning romanticism should have been a hit, a worthy follow-up to “Saved By the Bell”. “Mother and Jack” highlights both Robin’s compassion and whimsy as he weaves a social commentary disguised as a fairy tale while the 12-minute suite “Hudson’s Fallen Wind” demonstrates his sonic adventurousness. But it is on the songs that comprise Sing Slowly Sisters that Robin really comes into his own, as if the first album was a warm up allowing him to find the voice for his personal masterpiece. From the plaintive plea in his voice that opens the song “Sing Slowly Sisters,” Robin is in charge, his vision one of symphonic pop perfection. “Life” is an uplifting sing along while “I’ve Been Hurt” matches Robin’s sorrowful vocal to an oboe-like violin accompaniment that amplifies the pain of the lyrics. “C’Est La Vie, Au Revoir” and “Avalanche” each evoke the triumphant melancholy of the hopeless romantic. In all, the appearance of this album 45 years after its recording should be celebrated with equal fanfare to that which greeted the release of Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004.
I’ll even argue that this re-release is superior to that much-more-anticipated and legendary album’s final appearance. The important difference is that Sing Slowly Sisters appears to us, unlike Smile, unmodified from the time of its origin. We are hearing these tracks just as Robin left them, free of the second-guessing and contemporary overdubs that marred the release of Wilson’s “lost masterpiece”. For some, the reward at the end of the decades’ long wait for Smile was underwhelming. The release of Sing Slowly Sisters will only enhance Robin Gibb’s and the whole of the Bee Gees reputations as trailblazers and talents of the highest order. Rhino’s Saved By the Bell collection is one of the most important and enjoyable re-releases of the year.