The Bee Gees had one of the most regal of imperial phases in the late 70s.
But we’ve heard plenty about that.
So I’m focusing on the late 60s:
Which turns out to be a rich and prolific period full of classic songs and some more unusual choices.
Maybe it was a product of dislocation having started life on the Isle Of Man, midway between England and Ireland, moving onto Manchester and then Australia before coming back to England at the start of 1967.
Possibly also that on returning to England, Barry was 20, and twins Robin and Maurice 17. So they matured as artists in public.
The song that brought them international recognition:
New York Mining Disaster 1941
Spring, 1967: the Summer of Love is about to burst into full bloom. But the Gibbs are on a whole other trip. Industrial accidents aren’t typical chart material.
I don’t know if its the confidence or naivety of youth to go against the grain and serve this up as your introduction to the world. Whichever it is, it worked.
There were frequent early comparisons to the Beatles. It’s reported that people thought this was the Fab Four or that they were behind it. Personally, it brings The Hollies to mind. But “In My Own Time” from Bee Gees 1st couldn’t be more blatant in revealing that they owned a copy of Revolver.
I assumed at first this referred to an actual mining incident. But no, they invented it. They explained that they settled on “New York.” as it sounded more glamorous than a British placename.
OK, New York has more international resonance, but glamour is at odds with the subject matter. Particularly as they later said it was inspired in part by the Aberfan disaster of October 1966 . That saw the Welsh village decimated by a landslide of decades wrth of colliery waste that had accumulated in spoil heaps on the hillsides above it. Houses and a school were destroyed resulting in 145 deaths including 116 children, most of them under 10.
I can see why they wouldn’t want that inspiration to be too obvious.
Dealing with heavy subject matter leads us to…
I Started A Joke
In November 1967 49 people were killed in the Hither Green train crash. A crash Robin and his girlfriend walked out of physically unscathed other than for minor cuts.
It would only be natural if the trauma of that experience fed into his songwriting.
Its an affecting but enigmatic number, open to all sorts of interpretations. Robin preferred to leave it to the listener to make their own judgement. It certainly reads as though the protagonist is working through some issues. As well as suggesting religious connotations:
‘I finally died,
Which started the whole world living’
The depth of the message spoiled only by the verse:
That thud is not the protagonist falling out of bed; rather, the sound of an out-of-step lyric landing.
It’s not the only time they would take unexpected tonal shifts. “Sinking Ships,” the B-side to “Words,” veers from a startling image of mortality in the first verse;
Only the eyes of the doomed with a smile on their face”
To mild inconvenience by the final line;
Banging the door to a close as it’s hurting my knee”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom:
Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of The Arts
They had a way with a whimsical song title. Surprisingly, Craise Finton Kirk is a real person, he just wasn’t an esteemed member of the Royal Academy of the Arts.
- “Paper Mache,”
- “Cabbages and Kings“
- “Mrs. Gillespie’s Refrigerator“
Cowman, Milk Your Cow
From the start the Bee Gees were in demand providing songs for others. Some found chart success, like “Only One Woman” by The Marbles, a UK #5 hit in 1968. Others did not.
Adam Faith was a teen idol in the late 50s / early 60s and in the 70s would successfully transition to acting and music management (Leo Sayer). In 1967 it had been two years since his last hit. He turned to the Bee Gees and with the brothers on backing vocals recorded their composition, “Cowman, Milk Your Cow.”
The song is a hidden gem with a gentle, folk infused psychedelic feel, showing Byrds influences. It didn’t chart though.
Faith said the problem was that his vocals couldn’t match that of the Gibb’s demo. I say maybe the title didn’t have mass appeal. Outside the farming community.
- “Town of Tuxley Toymaker, Part 1” recorded by Billy J Kramer. I’m sure Barry will release Part 2 any day…
Onwards to peak madness:
Odessa (City On The Black Sea)
The Odessa album didn’t perform well on release but has grown in reputation since. The title song is barking mad. But is an immersive listen.
It starts with ghostly echoing voices intoning the fate of the British ship Veronica. Followed by a snatch of baa baa black sheep before we meet our bereft sailor.
It makes an initial kind of narrative sense about a ship lost at sea and a survivor stuck on an iceberg but how we get from there to the second verse is another matter;
“Treasure, you know the neighbors that live next door,
They haven’t got their dog anymore”
For someone stranded on an iceberg, he’s remarkably well informed about the neighbour’s dog. Plus, his priorities are some way out of whack; you need rescuing man, send out an SOS instead of making polite conversation.
That title misleads as well. I can’t say they struggle with geography as they correctly identify Odessa as a city on the Black Sea but its a fact wholly irrelevant to the song which they locate in the Baltic Sea before drifting into the North Atlantic.
It does contain a wonderfully baffling lyric as our sailor moves on from the neighbour’s dog to wonder;
“I just don’t understand, why you just moved to Finland”
“Never Say Never Again,” also on the Odessa album, matches that with what may be the biggest overreaction ever to being spurned by a lover:
“You said goodbye...
“I DECLARED WAR ON SPAIN.”
We all cope in different ways.
And then: There’s this 100% proof absurdity:
The song appeared on Bee Gees 1st in 1967. The whimsical title doesn’t suggest a fearsome fortress. It’s a great tune, totally of its era but the syntax is all over the place, like Yoda in training;
“Said ‘Are you leaving or are you receiving my friend,
Do-est need any money till then’ and he did
He said “I’m the owner, not you, and this is my stead,
So give it to me now I’m dead, and he did, said:
Cucumber Castle be ever so humble it’s home”
That all makes perfect sense, then.
The title was resurrected in 1970 for an album and film, devised and written by and starring Barry and Maurice.
Robin’s decision to leave the band in 1969 due to an increasingly fractious relationship and miss out on this was some stroke of luck.
Which ran out with Sgt. Pepper. But that’s Citizen Kane compared to this.
Describing the plot is tricky, as there isn’t one.
Frankie Howerd, who is by far the best thing about it and also turns up in Sgt. Pepper, plays the dying King with Barry (Prince Frederick) and Maurice (Prince Marmaduke) his sons. He declares he’ll split the kingdom in two so Barry will become King of Cucumbers and Maurice King of Jelly.
In place of actual narrative there’s an hour of nonsensical sketches showing us what the dual Kings get upto. This is interspersed with Barry and Maurice in soft focus singing a series of mostly syrupy ballads while surrounded by nature.
None of which have anything to do with the alleged comedy and are tonally jarring in comparison.
Barry features prominently as the dashing heart throb. Maurice follows him around, pulls faces and his starring moment is to sing; “My Thing.”
A love song. To his dog.
It ends with the lyrics:
You could say its unfair to see them written down out of context.
I’d counter that having watched the film hearing them in context is even worse.
Lulu appears, presumably for no other reason than she was married to Maurice and made the unfortunate decision to go to work with him one day.
She’s presented as the cook, but does no cooking and sings Mrs. Robinson (with manic pixie dream girl energy decades before it was a thing.)
For no discernible reason.
Blind Faith appear in footage from their 1969 London Hyde Park concert for no other reason than they were also managed by Robert Stigwood. Given that they split up a year before the film was made and their appearance has (you guessed it) no relevance to the story, I can only assume they were shoehorned in to shift some excess album stock.
It’s edited to appear that Maurice and Robin are sat in a tree watching Blind Faith. While dressed in bird costumes performing terrible impressions of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Obviously. I can only imagine what that personification of calm Ginger Baker thought on, finding he’d been cut into the film. I could quibble that it makes no sense that the film is set in a vaguely medieval era.
So, how Blind Faith fit in is questionable. But it’s best not to try and make sense of it.
It ends with the King deciding he isn’t dying after all, thereby rendering the preceding hour wholly pointless. Which seems an apt metaphor.
If you read up on the film you’ll see reference to Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithfull and Donovan having cameos. Don’t be fooled into thinking this suggests any consent on their part. They all appear in the Blind Faith footage watching from side of stage.
It’s got obvious influences in the surreal nature of Magical Mystery Tour, Monty Python and Spike Milligan – but is relentlessly poor in execution.
Speaking of Spike, he appears as a jester to Barry in a scene that is the most painfully unfunny and awkward of the film. Which is saying something.
Just like Magical Mystery Tour it was shown on the BBC the day after Christmas.
Again, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a sign of quality.
Whereas The Beatles got a primetime evening slot on main channel BBC1, Cucumber Castle got 1:30 in the afternoon on BBC2.
If you want to know how well it was received?
Consider that it was never shown again in Britain and never shown at all – anywhere else.
It received a VHS release in the US but was swiftly removed from sale. The list of suspects for its deletion is limited to anyone who had anything to do with it.
Thanks to YouTube though, you can’t keep a good film down. Or a really bad one.
For all that it is a fascinating watch. I wouldn’t say its in the realms of being so bad it’s good.
More that its so bad, it had me questioning reality.
By the time all three reconvened the weird edges seem to have gone. After the debacle of Cucumber Castle their fortunes waned.
They did get their first US #1 in 1971 with “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.”
But from being chart regulars their appearances would be intermittent until “Jive Talking” set them up for greatness in 1975.
That’s another well told story, though.
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