50-years ago this month, Cucumber Castle by the Bee Gees was released. To mark the anniversary of this largely forgotten album, I’ve done a deep dive to figure out how something this good managed to slip through the cracks…
The semi-soundtrack to a silly TV special nobody saw, likewise became an album that few people bought. A shame, because alongside the classic 1969 double-LP Odessa, Cucumber Castle should lay claim to being one of the two best pre-disco-era Bee Gees albums, even if it only featured two-thirds of the group. With Robin having quit acrimoniously following Odessa and drummer Colin Peterson ousted not long after, in a matter of months the Bee Gees had gone from a five-piece (including guitarist Vince Melouney), to a four-piece, to a three-piece, to finally, just Barry and Maurice.
The initial Barry/Maurice songwriting duo produced a couple of standout tracks that were ultimately left off Cucumber Castle, the impassioned, bluesy Tomorrow, Tomorrow (a UK #23 hit and a top 10 in at least 10 different countries that was written for Joe Cocker but not recorded by him) and the stunning acoustic ballad Sun In My Morning.
But even without material as strong as this, Cucumber Castle shines with a not entirely unsurprising North American glow when you understand much of the direction of the best of Barry’s music that immediately precedes it. Specifically, the Americana-style of Odessa tracks like Marley Purt Drive and Give Your Best, as well as the soulful The Sound Of Love. Sure, Cucumber Castle may’ve been attached to a very British TV comedy, but the music across those two underbought sides of vinyl frequently draws on American gospel, soul, folk and country.
Even the way Barry starts singing about his “woman” around 1969/1970 sounds more Memphis than Manchester. There’s “went up the stairs and kissed my woman,” from Odessa’s Robbie Robertson-inspired Marley Purt Drive, there’s “I’ve got my woman there to guide me”, from Sun In My Morning and then by late 1970, there was Lonely Days’ “Where would I be without my woman?” Said more as a statement than a question, there was a growing confidence and self-assured masculinity in this era of Barry’s voice.
All that confident Americana couldn’t help the lead single in the States though, with Don’t Forget To Remember stalling at 73. In the UK the public lapped up this new country-twanged incarnation of the Bee Gees to such an extent that it almost gave them their third chart-topper in as many years after Massachusetts (1967) and I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message (1968). Peaking at UK #2 in 1969, Don’t Forget To Remember was a mammoth hit in pretty much every major international market except the States, topping charts in countries like New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Given Don’t Forget To Remember was such a success, it may’ve been a missed opportunity that it wasn’t followed with the similarly twangy (and equally catchy) Sweetheart. Later a UK top 30 entry for Englebert Humperdinck, the harmony-laden Sweetheart has verses almost as hooky as its chorus and sounds like a hit.
Instead seven months would pass – from August 1969 when Don’t Forget To Remember was released – to March 1970 when a followup single finally arrived. When it did, it was the attractive, whimsical If I Only Had My Mind On Something Else. Attractive and whimsical, yes, but not something to necessarily jump from the radio. The single flopped and with the actual album unreleased until April 1970 – now a full eight months after Don’t Forget – any momentum for the project was derailed.
This helps explain why Cucumber Castle could house a hit as big as Don’t Forget and still fail to sell, as hugely disappointing peaks of #57 and #94 in the UK and the US show. This was also at a time when the brothers were becoming almost as famous in the UK for their public squabbles as for their music. They could still generate headlines in the British press, but by 1970, they were no longer guaranteed sales.
Internationally they rebounded with the quirky African-flavoured I.O.I.O – a top 10 smash everywhere from Brazil to Austria to New Zealand – but there was little transatlantic airplay. From that moment on, Cucumber Castle sank from view, Barry and Maurice had already gone their separate ways and it seemed like it was curtains for the Bee Gees.
Then unexpectedly, Barry and Robin starting talking again, the three brothers reunited in the back half of 1970 and the trio stormed back to the upper reaches of the US charts with their biggest Stateside hits, Lonely Days and How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. There was no longer a need for the two-person Cucumber Castle in the Bee Gees story, nor for the heavily bootlegged solo albums each brother worked on during this period that to this day remain unreleased (except for Robin’s Sing Slowly Sisters which received a justifiably lavish box set reissue under the name Saved By The Bell a few years ago).
What this means is that the general public missed out on the wonderful gumbo of the soul, gospel, country and folk of Cucumber Castle album tracks like Then You Left Me (I freakin’ love this song and the hook on the repeated “ba-by” lyric is hefty), Bury Me Down By The River (with backgrounds from P.P Arnold), The Chance Of Love (check out Barry’s “yeah!” vocal at the 1:09 mark) and I Lay Down And Die (some of Barry’s most soulful and compelling closing ad-libs).
I can’t help myself leaving it at that though, because Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Sun In My Morning weren’t the only gems left off Cucumber Castle. A contender for being the most convincing rock song the Gibbs ever recorded, Who Knows What A Room Is is a swaggering wall of sound ditty with falsetto ad-libs that predate Nights On Broadway by a full six years.
Songs like this are just too good to be sitting hidden away and I pray one day for a repackaged Cucumber Castle with this song – as well as the easier to find Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Sun In My Morning – as bonus tracks.
Either way, Cucumber Castle should no longer be relegated to the likes of a minor footnote in the overall tale of the Bee Gees. The Gibbs obvious love of American music manifested into one of the most cohesive albums the group ever made, and one that retrospectively gives clues as to why their career-defining mid-70s R&B overhaul was not as out of left field as it may have first seemed. 50 years on, it’s time Cucumber Castle was rediscovered.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared as part of ‘Every Bee Gees Album Ranked From 22-1’, published December 1, 2018.