Disclaimer: I do not have any background in music theory and composition, so do not expect this post (and the following ones to come) to be a technical music review/critique. It is best to treat this piece as fan’s appreciation of a beautifully written and performed song.
“I Started a Joke” is a song composed and performed by the Bee Gees in 1968. Songs for the album called “Idea”, including this track, were completed on 25 June, but it wasn’t until 11 December that the band would perform it in the eponymous television special, which aired on Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen. I’m probably more sold than ever before since a German channel and my birthdate are related to this song. It was later released as a single during the same month.
The melody of the song was inspired by sounds that the band heard while riding an aeroplane. In the Bee Gees anthology, Robin explains how it all happened: “It was one of those old four engine ‘prop’ jobs, that seemed to drone the passenger into a sort of hypnotic trance, only with this it was different. The droning, after a while, appeared to take the form of a tune, which mysteriously sounded like a church choir. So it was decided! We accosted the pilot, forced him to land in the nearest village and there; in a small pub, we finished the lyrics [with Barry].”
Arguably, the best version of this song. Robin’s voice sounded so mature and full, and Barry’s guitar blended perfectly with the emotion conveyed in this performance.
I included in this post the best performance of “I Started a Joke” I’ve ever heard.
Here’s a little anecdote on how I found it: For some unknown reason, the song “Tragedy” was stuck my head at the start of the week. I searched the song on YT and ended up binge listening to the Bee Gees. Weary of listening to “Tragedy” for what probably was like the 34th time, I looked over to the right side of the page for video recommendations. Being some sort of an album-or-music-video purist myself, I was never fond of watching clips of artists perform live. But I needed to escape the Tragedy trap. Robin wasn’t even my favorite Bee Gees member, so it was nothing but a mere exploration for me.
The video begins with the appeased crowd briefly shouting, but everything grew calmer as Barry starts strumming the guitar. At the center of the darkened stage were Barry and Robin looking around, holding the mic firmly. Robin would look to the center and start singing, “I Started a Joke..” in such a mellow voice. We see Barry turning his back to the audience. Robin’s eyes were bathed in limelight–it was his song, it was a story that he would tell in the best way possible.
The story behind this “I Started a Joke” clearly shows why Bee Gees really deserve the love and recognition from the fans. In an interview with The Mail, Robbin Gibb described the song as “spiritual,” saying that “The listeners have to interpret it themselves, trying to explain it would detract from the song.” We, as listeners, are given free reign in this song–Bee Gees would not rule out any other interpretation as wrong simply because of authorial intent. In this sense, even the term itself had been defeated: Bee Gees’ intent was to let the listeners craft the meaning of the song themselves.
I think instead of doing the line-by-line interpretation, it would be great to see the stanzas as they are connected to each other. It paints a picture of a life going on like a wheel:
I started a joke, which started the whole world crying,
but I didn’t see that the joke was on me, oh no.
I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing,
oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.
I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
and I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said.
Til I finally died, which started the whole world living,
oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.
The lyrics tell the story of an author who faces demise and misery in contrast to his surroundings. Indeed, we do not always have the last laugh as we meet death at the end of crossing the bridge. Even we though we vanish, the world continues to spin as if nothing has happened.
A Joke That Made People Cry
For me, songs that have withstood the test of time (and the generation from which it sprung forth) are praiseworthy. “I Started a Joke” is definitely be one of the songs that people will always come back to. As I write this post, the video has over 7.28 million views. Almost half a century after this song was released, more people are still discovering “I Started a Joke” and discussing how it made them feel (the typical being melancholic). I believe its greatest power comes from how it was sincerely sung by Robin. He may no longer be with us today, but this song will still be celebrated just as the world will keep on living.