I Started a Joke

Writers - B., R., and M. Gibb
First released - 2012
Original album - Elysium 2017 reissue bonus disc
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - bonus track with the single "Winner"

Being longtime fans of the Bee Gees, Chris and Neil decided to cover their 1968 classic "I Started a Joke" as a tribute to Robin Gibb, who succumbed to cancer in May 2012, and to release it as one of the bonus tracks with their single "Winner" the following August. It's an apt choice for such a tribute: "I Started a Joke" was, in fact, Robin's signature tune, written and sung primarily by him, inspiring a great vocal performance that almost invariably earned him tremendous ovations during the Bee Gees' live shows. What's more, it also happens to be one of the Boys' own favorite Bee Gees songs; they had even used the original as music played over venue sound systems as audiences filed out following the shows on one of their tours (possibly the Release tour in 2002).

This somber song, with its truly enigmatic lyrics, has attracted diverse interpretations through the years. It could be nothing more than the exaggerated, overly dramatic musings of an ordinary man who profoundly regrets his actions, whatever they may be. On the other hand, both Jesus and Satan have also been suggested as possible narrators, with Robin himself having on occasion acknowledged such interpretations. Neil for his part stated in the January 2013 issue of their fan club magazine Literally that he "always assumed it was about the man who invented the atomic bomb," though he quickly added, "I don't know if it is." Whoever that lyrical persona may be, his words and/or deeds have resulted in general feelings that seem to be the opposite of what he had intended. His "joke" caused the world to cry, his tears resulted in laughter, and his death brought life to the world. Whether you interpret these lines literally or figuratively, it's hardly surprising that such evocative concepts would generate such widespread speculation.

All lyrical interpretations aside, as for the Pet Shop Boys' musical interpretation, the approach they've taken is to record it as a midtempo ballad—just a hair faster than the Bee Gees original—with a somewhat richer and understandably more contemporary sound. (They abandoned an earlier attempt at a much speedier "Italo-disco" arrangement, which they determined was "completely wrong.") Chris and Neil flesh out the song's sumptuous chords more than the Gibbs did. And Neil's vocal is, quite simply, superb—which is not to take anything away from Robin's own remarkable performance in the original. The PSB remake is, in many ways, a faithful, lovely, even touching rendering, yet very much a product of the new century.

I think Robin would've been pleased.

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