599. ‘You Win Again’, by The Bee Gees

They’re back. Again! One of the most resilient pop groups in history returns for a final hurrah on top of the charts…

You Win Again, by The Bee Gees (their 5th and final #1)

4 weeks, from 11th October – 8th November 1987

I’m not sure quite how many reinventions The Bee Gees went through in total. But in chart-topping terms, this is Bee Gees MK III. Folk-tinged pop in the ‘60s, disco behemoths in the ‘70s, now a middle-aged, man-band. (In the video, they’re all sculpted beards, lounge bar jackets and, er, a beret.) But while ‘middle of the road’ is usually thrown about in an insulting way, I’d say this is one of the best examples of the genre.

In fact, I’d say this is my favourite of their five #1s. I love the clanking, industrial intro. I love the deeper timbre of Barry Gibb’s voice, compared to their famous disco falsettos. (It does re-appear, almost, in the second verse.) And then, by the chorus, an initially dark and melancholy number has turned into an Irish jig of a tune. But it’s all still very recognisably Bee Gees – their sound is so flexible and, while they haven’t always been fashionable, they’re one of the best pop song-writing teams ever.

Certain moments are a little too glossy for my tastes. It is still 1987, after all. The high synth notes are catchy, if of their time, and the electronic horns in the solo are a cheesy touch too far. There is also an unintentionally (or not?) filthy line in the second verse, as Barry describes how he’s going to win back his woman: Gonna hit you from all sides, Lay your fortress open wide…

‘You Win Again’ was a huge comeback for the Bee Gees. It was their first Top 40 hit since 1979, and it made them the first group to score #1s in three different decades. (Elvis, Cliff and Paul McCartney having already got there as soloists.) It was also a huge hit across Europe, but in the US ‘disco-sucks’ seemed to have stuck to them, as it got no higher than #75. Though we should mention that they were so heavily involved in Diana Ross’s own big comeback smash, ‘Chain Reaction’, as writers and backing singers, that they should probably have been given a ‘featuring’ credit.

Anyway, ‘You Win Again’ set them up as MOR superstars, and they’d score intermittent Top 10 hits throughout the nineties, including ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (which for a long time I thought must be a Metallica cover…) and the brilliant ‘Alone’ in 1997, which was on the very first NOW album I owned. (‘Now 36’… I think. Or ‘35’… Or maybe ‘37’. Memory ain’t what it used to be…) In 2003, Maurice Gibb died unexpectedly, and the remaining two brothers retired the Bee Gees name out of respect. In 2012, Robin died from cancer, while Barry still performs the band’s music in his solo tours.

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566. ‘Chain Reaction’, by Diana Ross

If you thought our last number one owed a debt to Motown, well here comes an actual living Motown legend for one last spin around the chart-topping block.

Chain Reaction, by Diana Ross (her 2nd and final solo #1)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd March 1986

And in a sixties throwback double-whammy: it’s only written and produced by the Brothers Gibb AKA The Bee Gees. (They also provide some fairly prominent backing vocals throughout.) Diana Ross sounds much huskier than when we last heard from her, fifteen years ago on ‘I’m Still Waiting’. She was approaching forty-three when this reached top-spot, putting her firmly among some of the oldest chart-topping female acts.

I want to love this – I thought I did love this – and, yes, parts of it are great. The song is one constant key-change, ascending and descending through each verse and chorus, and it’s crammed full of hooks. The lyrics are pretty steamy too: my personal favourite being the hand moves lower… swallow slower couplet. But it’s a little slower than I remembered, and the heavy synths are a bit lumbering, especially at the start. The ingredients are there, it just takes a while for them to settle.

Worryingly, my take on ‘Chain Reaction’ may be clouded by the fact that I’m more familiar with Steps’ Hi-NRG, early ‘00s cover. (I will happily say ‘sorry’ for many misdemeanours, but I will never, ever apologise over my love for Steps…) This record may have united two titans of popular music, but for me H, Claire and the gang just gave it more welly. Sue me!

In the original, things do finally reach boiling point during the final chorus and the fade-out, as Ross’s voice goes up an octave or ten and she really goes for it. Yes, Diana! If only her voice and the production had matched this tempo from the start then ‘Chain Reaction’ would be a stone-cold classic for the ages. As it is, it’s a very respectable slice of throwback pop – slightly out of place in March 1986, but all the more welcome for that.

Apparently, the Gibb brothers were nervous about approaching Diana Ross with this song, as it sounded so retro. (I imagine most people are nervous about approaching Ms Ross for just about anything, but that’s another story…) She was into it, though, and the video especially leans into the record’s sixties roots. You do wonder – and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out – if a song about ‘chain reactions’ and ‘instant radiation’ would have been such a big hit later in 1986, given events in the USSR… It’s lucky they didn’t hold on for another few months!

This was Diana Ross’s final chart-topper, but she would continue scoring hits throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium – an impressive feat for a lady of her vintage. Her last Top 10 hit came in 2005, with Westlife of all things (she should have given Steps a call…) Meanwhile, away from the recording studio, here she is taking possibly the most iconic penalty kick in football history.

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Cover Versions of #1s – The Dee Gees & Miley Cyrus

As a celebration for reaching 500 (!!) #1s, I’m going to spend the rest of the week treating you to some cover versions of #1s. First up, some 2020s takes on a couple of disco classics…

The Dee Gees – ‘Tragedy’ (originally a #1 in 1979 for The Bee Gees)

There are some people for whom Steps did the definitive cover of ‘Tragedy’. (They do exist…) Luckily for them, that version will feature at #1 in its own right. So, stepping up to the plate with their own cover… The Dee Gees. Ok, ok… Foo Fighters! For their most recent album, the band devoted half of the run-time to covers of late-seventies Bee Gees hits. ‘Night Fever’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’… But I’ve gone for this one. It’s a pretty faithful cover – I do wish they’d gone a little more ‘rawk’ – though Dave Grohl’s falsetto is a majestic thing to behold. There was a time when rock bands wouldn’t have touched disco with the end of a smashed-up guitar. Those days are gone, hurrah! And isn’t ‘Hail Satin’ just the perfect album name for a hard rock band’s disco covers?

Miley Cyrus – ‘Heart of Glass’ (originally a #1 in 1979 for Blondie)

In the past twenty years, it’s become the thing for current chart acts to do live sets for radio stations and streaming services. Radio 1 kicked it off, in the UK at least, with their ‘Live Lounge’ series. Here then, is Miley Cyrus belting her way through ‘Heart of Glass, from the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas in 2020. It’s not the subtlest take on the song, and it’s a pretty faithful cover like The Dee Gees, but there’s something compelling in the way she just goes for it. Folks agreed, because this made #38 in the UK charts (quite unusual for a live cover version).

Two more tomorrow…

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468. ‘Woman in Love’, by Barbra Streisand

Is there a softer-rock intro than that of this next #1? Woozy guitars, soaring strings, a gentle riff…

Woman in Love, by Barbra Streisand (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 19th October – 9th November 1980

We came through the plodding soft-rock of the mid-to-late seventies – the David Souls, the Commodores, ‘If You Leave Me Now’ and more – and made it to the promised land of New-Wave. But any fears I have that this record might be the start of another soggy patch of MOR balladry are banished pretty quickly. Yes, this is glossy, and soppy, but if it isn’t a bit of an earworm too…

Life is a moment in space, When the dream is gone, It’s a lonelier place… OK, the lyrics are the usual love-song piffle: grand imagery that actually means very little. But Barbra Streisand sells it, cooing the verses and belting the chorus… It’s a right I defend…! she hollers. The right to be a woman in love. It’s hard to dislike any song when the singer goes for it as she does.

Also on this record’s side is the fact that it was written by two out of the three Bee Gees, who had spent the last couple of years ruling the charts (in the US in particular.) Pair the Gibb brothers’ pop nous with Streisand’s vocal chops and you’re on to a winner. Sometimes, yes, the Broadway-ness of ‘Woman In Love’ gets a little too much. It’s not subtle but, if you’re in the mood for it, perhaps three or four glasses of wine deep into a karaoke evening, then it’s a classic.

Streisand was of course already a huge star by this point in her career. ‘Woman In Love’, and the album it came from – ‘Guilty’, which features her and Barry Gibb clinching on the cover – was definitely the peak of her pop chart powers, in the UK at least. (In the US she had been charting since the mid-sixties, and had scored four chart-toppers before this, her last.)

While you could, and I did, draw a line from this back to seventies soft-rock, I feel like this is a different proposition from David Soul or Leo Sayer. Bigger, bolder, more muscular. Aggressive soft-rock? Can that be a thing? It’s definitely a window into what awaits later in this decade. In my post on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, I wrote that that record was the most ‘eighties’ moment yet at the top of the charts. I’d add ‘Woman in Love’ here – for completely different reasons. In fact, this is something of a template, a ‘Women Singing Power Ballads 101’, that will last on through Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, well into the next century.

Not only has 1980 had a lot of #1 singles, it’s had a wide variety too. Ska-punk from The Specials, TV-show weirdness from M*A*S*H, pop-perfection from ABBA… now this. Is it too early, ten months in, to name 1980 as the best year of the entire decade…??

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.

422. ‘Night Fever’, by The Bee Gees

Some songs from the mid-to-late seventies have a whiff of disco about them: subtle grooves, funky guitars, a nod to the disco-ball… While some songs of the time are drowning in the stuff, as the genre comes close to imploding in a cloud of glitter. Can you guess which camp this next #1 falls into?

Night Fever, by The Bee Gees (their 3rd of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 23rd April – 7th May 1978

The Bee Gees are back, and they’ve gone for a pure and utter disco approach. The guitars go chucka-chucka, the strings swirl, things go ‘ting’… And then there’s the falsettos. Night fever, night fe-ver… By now these voices have gone beyond parody, but here in the moment it really hits you. We know how to show it… (Not that this was a comeback single for the band – they’d been ‘disco’ since ‘Jive Talkin’ came out in 1975.)

Nothing about this song, though, hints at the band who scored their first couple of #1s in the late sixties. In a blind listening test, I doubt anybody would think this was the band that recorded ‘Massachusetts’. And here’s the thing… I thought I’d be finding this song really annoying. This, along with ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘Tragedy’ et al are engraved in popular culture: well-loved, but cliched, and very high-pitched. Songs I know but rarely choose to listen to. Yet this is fun – a catchy slice of peak-era disco.

The high-point – in more ways than one! – comes with the bridge. Here I am, Prayin’ for this moment to last… Everything soars: voices, strings and synths… Borne on the wind, Making it mine… It’s a great pop moment, and really conjures up a mood of walking along the street, thinking of the clubs, the cocktails, and the dancing that lies ahead. The only problem is that the vocals go so high that it’s bloody hard to sing along!

‘Night Fever’ was of course from the soundtrack to ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (a film I’ve never actually seen), along with ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, and ‘More Than a Woman’ – disco giants the lot of them. The soundtrack was ginormous in the US, with three Bee Gees songs in the Top 10 as ‘Night Fever’ spent eight weeks at the top. It wasn’t quite as big in the UK – we opted to go wild for singles from another movie soundtrack (more on that very soon) – though the soundtrack topped the album chart for months on end.

This record hits #1 just under a decade after the Bee Gees previous chart-topper, ‘I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You’. It’s a long gap, but not the longest so far. That honour goes to Frank Sinatra, and the twelve years between ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ and ‘Strangers in the Night’. What is impressive is that the Brothers Gibb will take not one, but two, decade-long hiatuses from the number one spot. Few acts have ever matched their longevity…

257. ‘I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You’, by The Bee Gees

The Brothers Gibb’s 2nd number one picks up where their first – ‘Massachusetts’ – left off. Melancholy and minor key-ish. This time, though, with a hint of gospel about it, a touch of something more funky. I like it more than ‘Massachusetts’ (and always have done…)

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I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, by The Bee Gees (their 2nd of five #1s)

1 week, from 4th – 11th September 1968

The lyrics immediately remind me of Tom Jones’ monster hit from a couple of years back, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, as they concern a man condemned to die. Is it worth making a new sub-genre of chert-topper? The death row #1? Probably not. In GGGOH, the singer was dreaming in an attempt to escape his inevitable fate. But in this one, the singer is under no illusions. The last rites are being read… The preacher talked with me and he smiled, Said come and walk with me, Come and walk one more mile…

The end is nigh, but he wants to get one last message out to his beloved… I’ve just got to get a message to you, Hold on… Hold on… One more hour and my life will be through… Whether or not he manages to get the message out is never revealed. In the background some very late-sixties percussion and an organ make things sound much cheerier than they should.

Another key difference to GGGOH (something very satisfying about banging that out in caps…) is that we are left in no doubt that the singer dunnit. He killed a man – I did it to him, Now it’s my turn to die… And it might even have been a crime of passion: It’s only her love that keeps me wearing this dirt… Is she grateful, or sad, or has she already shacked up with someone else…?

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For the final verse we get a key change. Which means this record about a murderer preparing to face the electric chair ends on a strangely uplifting vibe. He’s still alive at the end, and the listener is left to wonder if maybe, just maybe… I do like a song that tells a story!

As much I like this record, however, there is something irritating about how The Bee Gees sing. While not quite the falsettos from their disco phase, it’s still a bit nasal, a bit whiny, especially after the key-change. Minor quibbles, though, minor quibbles. They would score further hits with classics like ‘Words’, ‘I Started a Joke’ and ‘World’, the latter of which forever has a place in my heart as one of the very few songs that I ever managed to master on a keyboard. This can be seen as the end of The Bee Gees MK I. They will fade from view, chart-wise, for most of the early-seventies, until disco comes along and we meet them again in a decade or so.

238. ‘Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out In)’, by The Bee Gees

A couple of posts ago, as I wrote about Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco’, I made a big deal about #1 hits that reference places, and how uncommon they were. Of course, just to prove me wrong, the charts now throw up a song about Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out In), by The Bee Gees (their 1st of five #1s)

4 weeks, from 11th October – 8th November 1967

And that’s not all that this next chart-topper has in common with McKenzie’s hit. It also, you know, sounds a lot like it. The same light guitar and the same chimes. The same chilled-out vibes. It even references San Fran in the second verse. It’s the (Indian) Summer of Love! Is it harsh to suggest that The Bee Gees were simply jumping on the hippy bandwagon?

Actually, yeah, it would be harsh. This is a retort to songs like ‘San Francisco’. It’s being sung from the point of view of someone who has left his home, in Massachusetts, to join in the summer’s festivities, and who now feels a bit homesick. Feel I’m going back to Massachusetts, Something’s telling me, I must go home… He left his girl standing alone, as the lights all went down in Massachusetts… But he’s now seen the error of his ways: They brought me back, To see my way with you…

It’s an interesting concept, and a quick piece of song writing to get the record out and in the charts mere weeks after the hits that it references. It turns what I initially felt was a so-so, slightly bland song into one worthy of note. The lights are going down in Massachusetts because everybody’s buggering off to the West Coast! I will remember Massachusetts… I wonder if the Massachusetts Tourist Board have ever used it in an ad campaign?

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Moving on – largely because ‘Massachusetts’ is a really difficult word to keep typing – let’s take a look at the band. The debutants atop the UK Singles Chart. The Bee Gees. You know, the band that in a decade’s time will take disco to the masses. I think that’s the ‘Bee Gees’ that most people think of: jumpsuits and sparkles and you should be dancing… It’s there in this record, mainly in the vocal harmonies that tremble a little higher than your regular pop record. (Though Robin Gibb sang lead on this one, while Barry sang falsetto on most of their seventies hits.)

They’re a fascinating band, actually. They will spread their five chart-toppers over exactly twenty years, covering three completely different versions of themselves, in terms of sound and image. But they’re not a band I’ve ever really been able to love, and I wish I could like their debut #1 more than I do… (Personally I think their final #1 is by far the best of the five.)

Anyway, they will be back soon enough. In between this and their next #1, they will release ‘Words’, which I can look on fondly as one of the first songs I ever learned to play on keyboard. Other interesting, and less self-revolving, bits of trivia about sixties-era Bee Gees include the fact that none of them had ever actually been to Massachusetts – they just liked the sound of it, and the fact that it was about as far away from San Francisco as you can get on the continental USA. (The Bee Gees, of course, weren’t American – they’re British/Australian.) And… I really like this one… ‘Massachusetts’ was the first ever non-Japanese #1 single on the Japanese charts! How about that…