Before Jive Talking and Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were a great pop band. Consisting of three brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. They were responsible for hits like To Love Somebody, I Gotta Get A Message To You, Massachusetts, Words and many others. After the release of their 1969 double velvet encased album Odessa, Robin left the group to pursue a solo career. Odessa remains their crowning pop achievement, but it is the next release, Cucumber Castle, minus Robin, that we touch on here. From the album cover, with the two remaining Gibbs dressed as Knights, plumes intact, to the music’s over the top production, everything about Cucumber Castle is in excess.
Through my many years of listening to music, this is without a doubt the most overproduced, lush, bloated, garish, dense, beautiful mess I’ve ever heard and I love it. Don’t Forget To Remember Me, Bury Me Down By A River and I Lay Down And Die seem as if they were written in an English manor with a baroque quartet during the 17th Century then updated with a bit of pop sensibility pepper. The album is a masterpiece of production that holds up to any of today’s rock, pop or classical release engineering. It is stunningly beautiful. The only clunker on the album is the song My Thing, I’ve never understood its inclusion as it breaks up the thick sonic cycle before and after it.
Cucumber Castle was not a hit album release and didn’t birth the usual Bee Gees top singles. It was and is overshadowed by its predecessor Odessa, the follow up album 2 Years On, featuring the return of Robin and the smash hit Lonely Days, the subsequent Top 40 hits and finally the mega success of the Saturday Night Fever era and their mirror ball future. Buried in that hubris of great pop and decadent disco are the bold shining nuggets and crystals of Cucumber Castle. It is a place worth visiting.
When your first two albums are true musical masterpieces the third has the potential to add to your legacy, disappoint and question the preceding work or take a back seat to it. In the case of The Band’s Stage Fright the majority view lies with the latter, mine the former, very few the middle. A tiny number of artists create their seminal works with their debut and sophomore release, but with Music From Big Pink and The Band (aka The Brown Album), The Band did just that. Seasoned musical veterans of years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, a tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band and months of wood shedding songs together gave birth to these two incredible albums. Hailed as heroes of the new country rock genre with a cover feature in Time Magazine, lauded by critics worldwide, the pressure on their third release was enormous.
The critics were not kind to Stage Fright, but every critique was based on what came before, and what came before was different. There was less cornfield and more rock in the grooves of Stage Fright. Less sharecropper observations and more street views. Less in-the-moment songs and more remembrance. It was also a work by a successful band instead of struggling musicians in search of not only a career but a steady paycheck. They had stopped living and working together, they now had families and separate lives and paths. Looking back on Stage Fright, time has lessened the critical web surrounding it. It was unfair to expect The Band to stay the course and not explore their rock and rhythm and blues alleys. And really, how can any album containing songs as rich and remarkable as Stage Fright, W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, The Shape I’m In, Daniel And The Sacred Heart and The Rumor be considered anything other than triumphant.
Though musically estranged from its older siblings, I believe Stage Fright stands with them as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, consecutive first three albums by any musical artists.