434. ‘Tragedy’, by The Bee Gees

Who’s up for some more disco-infused rock? Everyone? I thought as much. If you ignore Boney M’s Xmas #1, and squint very hard to hear the guitars in ‘Y.M.C.A.’ (they must be in there somewhere), then I make this five disco-rock chart-toppers in a row.

Tragedy, by The Bee Gees (their 4th of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th February – 11th March 1979

And who else is turning their hand to it next but The Bee Gees, those great musical chameleons. Gone are the soft chords and swirling strings of ‘Night Fever’, replaced with something much more hard-edged. Queen-like guitars, distorted synth riffs, a harpsichord (?)… The trio’s falsettos hit harder here, too. On ‘Night Fever’ they soared; here they are ragged and semi-deranged…

Tragedy! When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on… It’s a great hook, simply shrieking the word ‘Tragedy!’ Tragedy! When you lose control and you got no soul… It is, I think, a song about of a panic attack, a midlife crisis in which you wake up in drenched in sweat wondering where the hell your life is going… Even the drums leading up to the chorus sound like a shuddering heartbeat. All the while that ominous riff plays in the back of your brain.

The drama is upped for the solo, which is preceded by an ear-splitting howl, and the final choruses, which are preceded by explosions. It’s ridiculous, really; very OTT. Apparently the sound-effect was made by the mouth of Barry Gibb, which is impressive as it really does sound like a thunderclap. The song fades out, all squeals and explosions and riffing guitars. A mental breakdown never sounded so catchy…

This is The Bee Gees’ 4th number one, and my favourite so far. Their sixties hits were fine, but paled against the musical behemoths surrounding them. ‘Night Fever’ was better than I expected, but still for me lacked a true killer hook. ‘Tragedy’ has that hook, and then some. It’s a ‘go big or go home’ moment – the band perhaps looking to move beyond ‘Saturday Night Fever’ with a statement piece.

However, I will show my age and admit that I knew this song first and foremost as a kid thanks to, yes, Steps’ million-selling cover version from the late-nineties. It will be featuring on this countdown in due course, so I’ll say no more save for the fact that I cannot now hear the word ‘Tragedy!’ without fighting the impulse to throw my hands up parallel to my face. Ah well…

The Bee Gees will be back eventually, after another near-decade long hiatus from the top of the singles charts, with another musical reinvention (and probably my favourite of their five number ones). In the more immediate future, though, we are going to crack on with this wonderful run of chart-toppers we’re in the midst of.


17 thoughts on “434. ‘Tragedy’, by The Bee Gees

  1. As I mentioned in my Saturday Night Fever soundtrack review, for a group in the daunting position of following up their career-making blockbuster, The Bee Gees managed to stick the landing better than others in the short period they had before it all fell apart. They released their follow-up album Spirits Having Flown in February 1979 and it was another big-seller though not like SNF to where it finished behind Billy Joel’s 52nd Street as the #2 selling album of 1979 in the US. And it was another hit machine with the ballad “Too Much Heaven” hitting #1 right at the beginning of ’79 and “Tragedy” following a couple months later. What I like the most about “Tragedy” is how even though it’s nominally disco it feels like a fun preview of the ’80s as Tom Breihan pointed out in his review with “Tragedy” sounding more like Europe’s “The Final Countdown” than KC & The Sunshine Band and all the big sounding rock and soundtrack pop to come in the decade ahead. It’s not the disco that you’ve been used to that has a lot of soul or R&B influences. Just everything about “Tragedy” is cool to listen to from the laser guitars, the bleeping synths that play in the verses, Barry Gibb’s falsetto, and just how big it all sounds. Apparently, for that explosion bit, they used a product generator which sounds made up considering Google doesn’t give me good answers for what it is but still cool regardless. Of course, soon after the Bee Gees wouldn’t be on top for much longer after this managing to get one more US #1 a few months later in June with the solid laidback and funky “Love You Inside Out.” And then the disco backlash would hit them the hardest and wouldn’t get their comeback in America until a decade later with “One” peaking at #7 in 1989. But in between that time, they would go behind the scenes and land #1s as songwriters and producers as we’ll see here.

  2. What separates them from the bad disco at the time…is the songwriting…many of the songs would have been good as non disco songs…and this is one of them. It’s not my favorite Bee Gee song of this era but I like it…my favorite of the disco error is Jive Talking but it wasn’t number 1 I don’t think…Good song though.

  3. Tragedy is what I call “Epic”. Wide-screen, melodramatic, exciting and Well-Over-The-Top, I have a real penchant for Epic records, from Dave Dee & co’s Last Night In Soho, Scott Walker’s Jackie and Barry Ryan’s Eloise in 1968 when I really started to get into Epic sounds, right through all the decades, just a few that never topped any charts but should have might include: More Than A Feeling (Boston), Yes (McAlmont & Butler), Born To Run (Bruce), You Get What You Give (New radicals), Princess Of China (Coldplay/Rihanna), Run Boy Run (Woodkid), and a very sizeable proportion of the entire career of Pet Shop Boys.

    No disrespect to your fond childhood memories, but Steps’ version is more late-night karaoke to a cheesy-cover backing track with added kiddie-appealing dance moves. oops! 🙂

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