Sep 08

THE BEE GEES – “Tragedy”

FT + Popular46 comments • 6,693 views

#434, 3rd March 1979

The Bee Gees at this point were surely the world’s biggest act: “Tragedy” sounds it, absurd explosion noises and all. It’s a disco epic to file alongside tracks like the Jackson’s “Can You Feel It” but also it’s pop at its most maximalist, a cousin to the largest productions of Steinman, Horn, Martins Max and George – or at the other end of the quality scale, the sickly pomp of a Be Here Now.

Pop on this Roman scale doesn’t seduce, it bludgeons, and you either feel the blow or duck it. For me “Tragedy” is impressive, dramatic, thoroughly enjoyable but not really as effective as the earlier Bee Gees disco tracks – it’s missing the glide of “Night Fever”, the swagger of “Staying Alive”, the paranoia of “You Should Be Dancing”, and replacing them with scale, which doesn’t always age so well. To be sure, somewhere in “Tragedy” there’s an astonishing song capturing a soul – and an era – in meltdown. But I have to stretch to feel it, it doesn’t come over for me naturally, except perhaps in the Gibbs’ panicky falsettos on the chorus, pitched close to unbearable. Though for all that, “Tragedy” has an undeniable decadent power.



  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Ha! ‘Be Here Now’ – fantastic point of comparison – biggest act in pop feels compelled to make a big-sounding comeback record. But there is a really great song embedded within this gargantuan thing, the loneliness and loss of which more or less justifies the scale of the project: lost in the strange city, unable to cope without the one who made it all make sense – the lover gone now, the singer utterly bereft. Such is dynamism and excitement with which the song builds to its choruses, though, that this can only be a very manic sort of breakdown, not a quiet wasting away that the verses sort of might imply.

    What lets it down slightly for me is the middle-eight – which pads it out without taking it any further. I think that its a minute or two longer than it needs to be. For the comparative lack of embellishment and simpler feel, I actually find the 1998 Popular reappearance of the song a more engaging listen…

  2. 2
    LondonLee on 8 Sep 2008 #

    I think this falls a little victim to the “long-awaited new single by newly-mega band” syndrome that I pointed to with ABBA’s ‘Take A Chance On Me’. ie: It’s more than a little too overproduced and epic as if it’s very sound announces “Look! We have tons of money now! Our records sound as huge as we are!”

    Though having said that it is a bit of barnstormer, they opened with this when I saw them at Wembley in the late 80s and it was fucking brilliant.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 8 Sep 2008 #

    I’ve always been a sucker for excess in pop – and this song really over eggs the pudding. Despite, or perhaps because of, their worldwide success this communicates a great sense of impending loss – “Don’t take our pop crown – please” It’s a great melody, with the synths enriching the vocal harmonies – and in a weird way pre-figuring the synth tones and paranoia of an upcoming android who I shan’t mention by name for fear of the bunny

  4. 4
    SteveM on 8 Sep 2008 #

    but Marvin didn’t even get in the top 40…

  5. 5
    thevisitor on 8 Sep 2008 #

    I bought this, aged nine, from a record shop in Birmingham called Discus. It was part of a small row of shops in the suburb of South Yardley. Thinking back to the decor (a couple of disused listening booths are foremost in my mind), the shop had clearly existed since the 60s, when music was such a big deal that a record shop was just as necessary in a small row of shops as a newsagent, grocer and a butcher.

    Anyway, I digress. What I hear now is a palpable sense that things are getting a little odd in the Bee Gees’ world at this point, which extends to other songs on the Spirits Having Flown album. A sense of souls marooned in a transition that refuses to be hurried along. You also get it in the title track of the album (“How long must I live in the air”) and a certain other song penned for someone else whose Popular time has yet to come. They sounded like they were trying to sing their way out of a panic attack. Maybe they were.

    Or perhaps they were trying to protect the moat around their disco castle before the tide of, um, change came in, using the only tool available to them at the time – the a cappella shriek that had helped revive their fortunes in the first place.

  6. 6
    mike on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Unlike LondonLee at #2, I think this is a GREAT example of how to follow up a worldwide mega-success. For rather than stick to the slinky, smooth-funking SNF template, the Gibbs have pulled out all the stops, ramping up the drama to tremendous effect. This fairly screams “Top Of The World, Ma” confidence, even as the anguished lyric subverts all the surrounding bombast.

    Perhaps all that lets it down is the Gibb vocal style, which does admittedly take their characteristic castrato right to the brink of self-parody – but in the strident, diva-like hands of a Donna Summer (or even an Amii Stewart), this would have been viewed as the sort of unassailable classic that would never have required subsequent rehabilitation by cover version. As it stands, it’s still an 8 from me.

  7. 7
    Doctor Casino on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Never heard this before – and I kinda like it. Probably because it’s unfamiliar, it doesn’t sound to me like a #1 smash single – more like an interesting album track. I do think the accompaniment is sort of out of scale of the vocal performance – the Bee Gees’ vocals are just too thin to contribute to a true wall of sound. Frankly, I just appreciate the fact that this isn’t “Night Fever” done over again – give them that, at least!

    Has this ever been prominently sampled?

  8. 8
    Doctor Casino on 8 Sep 2008 #

    (Full disclosure: I also find a lot to like about Be Here Now – but we’ll get to that in time…)

  9. 9
    wichita lineman on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Tom, spot on, though I’d mark it down a tad. I’ll echo Lee about the feeling of letdown – I remember being in hospital, no tv, trapped by the Radio 1 dj’s who were gushing over it. And I just couldn’t love it, much as I wanted to, because it was just too mono-minded. Not a hollow roar like Be Here Now, but more like a sabre-rattling Destiny’s Child number one that I’m not allowed to mention for a while.

    By contrast, the title song from the parent album was an onion-layered creation that took me an age to fully get into (though I could tell it would be that way from the first time I heard it, so loved it all along).

    And Until, the flip of Tragedy, is almost too heartbreaking for me to listen to; the antithesis of the A-side, it curls upwards over Manhattan in a balloon built solely out of Aero-bubble keyboards and Barry’s orphaned vocal, gently drifting over the skyline and out of sight.

  10. 10
    o sobek! on 9 Sep 2008 #

    big and blasty and barry gibb’s vocals here perch somewhere between trumpet and bagpipes (we’re well out of human range now) but if this is just fun enough where hating it would be churlish it’s still not really charming enough to love or effective enough to admire (thankfully it’s never as plodding or astoundingly dull as bullypop bookends ‘hey jude’ or take yr pick from be here now). was gonna mention this on the ‘nite fever’ thread but figured another opp might present itself soon enough but very nearly the very week i was saying that the disco not disco beardo whatever revivals had bypassed the bee gees lo and behold they benighted the bee gees w/ that cole medina edit of ‘love you inside out’ becoming pretty ubiquitous in short order. thankfullly it should be said, the edit not only salvaging the original (byebye bridge) but making b-level bee gees a nice contrast – stuttering whisper to ‘tragedy’s’ bombastic shriek. and it really doesn’t hold a candle to ‘can you feel it’ for me – the jacksons know when to pull back and when to let go and most importantly know to trust in that incredible march groove, consider how incredibly more effective michael’s holding back is vs barry’s just shooting his wad w/out focus from the get go. ‘forced’ is the word i’m looking for i guess. 5.

  11. 11
    DJ Punctum on 9 Sep 2008 #

    But these tears were anything but dry. Just because the Bee Gees had entered (or some say inaugurated) the disco era didn’t mean they weren’t still writing tempestuous and tormented ballads. A decade previously, “Tragedy” might have been recorded at the same tempo as things like “First Of May” or “Saved By The Bell,” but double-speeded for a new age it is still easy to imagine Barry Ryan howling his way through the song’s pitiless self-torture.

    As it is, it was left to Barry Gibb, in his most extreme falsetto, to negotiate the ruts of turmoil; in fact as the song opens he is already dead. “Here I lie/In a lost and lonely part of town/Held in time/In a world of tears I slowly drown.” The key changes slowly modify upwards, as was the Bee Gees’ wont and specialty, until Gibb cries “I really should be HOLDING you, HOLDING you, LOVING you, LOVING youuuuuuuu….” before the chorus crashes in, perhaps sung so speedily as to minimise the spectre of unresolvable pain which the song depicts: “When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on,” “When the morning cries and your heart just dies” – we were still six months away from the first Joy Division album at this point, but “Tragedy” doesn’t seem that far removed. Its hectic pace does a very professional job of concealing what is essentially a plea for suicide.

    In truth, “Tragedy” has little to do with disco, but in terms of arrangement and approach suggests that the Gibbs had been listening intently to Abba; the electro-sequencing which doubles up in the second verse, the relationship of the agonised lead guitar lines to the song’s general processional. And Barry’s vocal becomes more emotional and desperate as the song progresses; note the clenched howl of his “aa-aa-AH!” after the second line of the second verse (“There’s a burning down inside of me”) to indicate that he is indeed burning. As the song nears its end, his grief goes out of articulate bounds, and the track and arrangement build up to a catastrophic thunderclap – or is it a gunshot? The song fades on the chorus, but that thunderclap/gunshot continues to resonate in its emotional rafters. It may well be the most extreme thing the Bee Gees ever did. And then, a generation later, a cover version turned it into a work of accidental art.

  12. 12
    DJ Punctum on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Number Two Watch.

  13. 13
    Waldo on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Dear God, this was woeful. “Tragedy” is about right, I would say. It might as well have been given to Pinky and Perky…. Oh, wait…it was!

  14. 14
    Erithian on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Well I’m not going to be churlish and say I hated it, but it left me pretty cold and it’s painful to see that it kept old Declan off the number one spot, which would have been another classic number one in the sequence. It’s not quite a meaningless song as others have pointed out, but it’s still sung in very high voices, and really I couldn’t be doing with it.

    At the time I thought the Bee Gees were a blot on the pop landscape, and although I’ve mellowed in respect of other stuff I didn’t like at the time, I’ll make an exception for this. I can’t defend it with a logical argument beyond saying the falsetto totally grates on me – not so much a musical instrument as a gimmick.

  15. 15
    mike on 9 Sep 2008 #

    #10 – There’s also a lovely cover of “Love You Inside Out” (the relatively under-performing follow-up to “Tragedy”) on Feist’s 2004 album Let It Die, which to my mind did a far more sympathetic rehabilitation job than That Other Cover Which We Must Not Mention.

  16. 16
    LondonLee on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Re: 11

    This is a pretty dark song which, for all their white teeth and LA tans, they did do a lot of. As a song it vaguely reminds me of ‘Nights On Broadway’ and it’s tense and edgy “Heeere we are, in a room full of strangers” opening, except with this one it’s all turned up to 11 which drowns the effect somewhat.

  17. 17
    vinylscot on 9 Sep 2008 #

    With this, did the BeeGees beat everyone else to the parody? We were still a year away from Dobbin, Garry and Norris, but this sounds every bit as ridiculous as their “p***take”.

    I think it’s the “bombast”, for want of a better word, which does it. The sound is just so OTT – thunderclaps FFS! And what on earth made them think it was acceptable to sing like that?

    If the remainder of their album hadn’t been so consistent with the SNF stuff, you could imagine this being the Gibbs trying to get their “rock” mojo back, something which had probably been missing since the very late 60s/early 70s and their (not very good) forays into concept albums etc.

    Now I don’t mind hearing this as apiece of random background noise; I may even stop and listen to it when I hear it; but I never ever have the urge to hear it again after I’ve heard it once.

    I don’t think this would have been a #1 without the SNF bandwagon still following them; it would probably been one of their occasional mid top-tenners, and I would have thought that would have been about right. At a push a 6.

  18. 18
    Kat but logged out innit on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Blimey no wonder their hair is catching fire if they’re floating that close to the sun…

  19. 19
    Malice Cooper on 12 Sep 2008 #

    This is the one Bee Gees disco record I really love. To suggest this only made number one because of saturday night fever is somewhat naive, as the previous single had stalled at number 3. It was almost a year since “Night fever”.

    It’s a fantastic pop song, timeless as proved by its mega success when re-recorded by Steps years later.Most of Steps records were spending 10-14 weeks in the charts and their version of this spent 30 weeks in the charts (forget the other side of the single “heartbeat” that was crap).

    Basically it got them back to the top of the charts. It held Abba off number one which is no mean feat either.

  20. 20
    DJ Punctum on 12 Sep 2008 #

    Spoiler Bunny wants you in his office NOW.

  21. 21
    vinylscot on 12 Sep 2008 #

    I have to disagree with comment #19, which sggested I was rather naive to consider that this only made #1 because of the SNF factor.

    The reason that “Too Much Heaven” only made #3, despite the SNF factor, and eagerly awaited as it was, was that it was a disappointment, an uninspired and uninspiring dirge. Without SNF hype it probably wouldn’t have made the top 10.

    “Tragedy” was better than that, but so were most things. It does not rank among the BeeGees finer moments; I have a colleague who has been a fan since the 60s and he agrees (not that that proves anything).

    I would actually turn this around and say one would need to be quite naive not to factor SNF into its success.

    It’s difficult to reinforce this without aggravating young Mr Bunny, as discussions on the song’s merit will undoubtedly cause him to spring into action, but suffice to say I stand by my original point.

  22. 22
    DJ Punctum on 12 Sep 2008 #

    “Too Much Heaven” is apparently Brian Wilson’s second favourite single ever, after “Be My Baby.”

  23. 23
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 12 Sep 2008 #

    calling mr bunny “young” is like calling alecto, tisiphone and megaera the “kindly ones” — ie IT WON’T SAVE YOU IF YOU TRANSGRESS

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 12 Sep 2008 #

    Poor young bunnies, how could they grow so pale?

  25. 25
    rosie on 12 Sep 2008 #

    By not looking for the big shiny lights when they cross the road.

  26. 26
    DJ Punctum on 12 Sep 2008 #

    Not looking before they cross the road? They must have been absolutely Batty!

  27. 27
    rosie on 12 Sep 2008 #

    Yes. They’re not artful enough to dodge the traffic

  28. 28
    DJ Punctum on 12 Sep 2008 #

    I’m sure one of the news items I saw about Hurricane Gustav spoke of following the river of death downstream.

  29. 29
    Mark G on 12 Sep 2008 #

    Well, consider all those BG singles that flopped, before the SatNavFiver…
    Pick the bones out of these..

    “Charade” · “Jive Talkin'” (1975) · “Nights on Broadway” (1975) · “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love) (1976) · You Should Be Dancing (1976) · Love So Right” (1976) · “Boogie Child” (1977) · “Edge of the Universe (Live)” (1977) ·

    So, there you have two hits proper, a couple that made the lower regions, and some flops. Now, how many of them would have been hits if they’d come after SNF? At least two…

  30. 30
    Mark G on 12 Sep 2008 #

    #28, or, is it a dream?

  31. 31
    DJ Punctum on 12 Sep 2008 #

    I’m waiting for Dale to play “Edge Of The Universe (Live)” as one of the exciting new releases we all went out and bought this week in 1977…

  32. 32
    Chris Brown on 17 Sep 2008 #

    As I think I’ve hinted before I have an – ahem – difficult relationship with falsetto vocals, and on this track in particular that seems to overpower every other element of the record. I’m not sure I ever even noticed all that production.

    Good point about that Feist record – it’s another example I had in mind of my preference for covers of Bee Gees songs over the originals. I’d say more but I see the sihouette of two big ears…

  33. 33
    Tom on 22 Oct 2008 #

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/7886103 – disco saves lives!

  34. 34
    thefatgit on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Not exactly sure what the problem is with the falsetto. I have tried to reboot this song in my mind with somebody like, oh Tom Waits or Nick Cave. Those lyrics take on a whole new perspective. But then on the other hand, coming from Cave or Waits, it could have been theatrical high camp.

    The song itself dressed in it’s spangly-shirted, bare-chested Gibbness, seems to me to be a perfect fit. An 8 for me.

  35. 35
    Brooksie on 13 Feb 2010 #

    @Mark G # 29:

    Yes, there’s no doubt that SNF popularised and consolidated The Bee Gee’s as an international act. It’s worth pointing out that if you transposed those hits to the US you get a very different chart story: Two # 1’s, a # 3, a # 8, two # 12’s and a # 26 (live). All predating SNF. The film may have cradled them internationally, but they were on a hit-making roll before it.

    @ Vinyscot # 21:

    ‘Too Much Heaven’ is a dirge? Ok, it isn’t ‘How Deep is Your Love’, but in my opinion it is a very good ballad. And ‘Tragedy’ was always going to hit the top (or near top) of the charts even without SNF. It has exactly what a big pop hit needs. They might not have been as consistent before SNF, but ‘Jive Talkin’ and ‘You Should be Dancin’ proved they could take a song high up the charts on hooks alone. And unlike those two, ‘Tragedy’ was a song that 12 year-old’s could immediately understand.

  36. 36
    swanstep on 14 Feb 2010 #

    Building on #35, Brooksie: If you check the charts you’ll find that both before and after SNF, Bee Gees were bigger elsewhere than they were in the UK. This is particularly obvious when you look at the coat-tails they afforded younger brother Andy: he was massive in the US (3 #1s etc.), and v. big down under, but barely charted in the UK. And, yeah, ‘Too much heaven’ is no dirge (def.= a somber song expressing mourning or grief: is that really what #21 wanted to say?). It’s soft and pretty to a fault if that’s not what you’re looking for tho’! Arguably taste in the UK never clicked with that side of the BGs: ‘How do you mend a broken heart?’ was a big hit almost everywhere in 1971, but did nothing in the UK. Andy Gibb’s last significant hit (which really does sound *exactly* like a BGs record), Our love (Don’t throw it all away) is another sublime soft ballad – the BGs really had a knack for this stuff.

  37. 37
    wichita lineman on 6 Jun 2011 #

    It felt an event single, but Tragedy wasn’t the first single from Spirits Having Flown – that was Too Much Heaven. Which, for the record, I reckon channels Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson through a Gibb filter. I find it spiritual in the same way I find many Beach Boys recordings spiritual, and it’s not a word I bandy about very often.

    Can I nominate the blackest Gibb lyric? Robin’s solo 45 One Million Years:

    “We wed, I knew she’d stay
    Then I passed away”

  38. 38
    Moarie on 3 Jun 2012 #

    This is absolutely visionary stuff, in that as devotee to house/dance music since 90s (don’t smirk), the chutzpah of wild abandon, the sweating off your daily grind-attached identities (viz. gender-nonspecific falsetto), I’m hearing a close uncle with a song outta 1979…when YMO, Kraftwerk and other electronic outfits worked within boundaries of “artistic taste & experimentation” but…not THIS!
    Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe fanboys this song, and their “It’s A Sin” coming 8 years later, adopts a similar disco-hell-and-brimestone world bookended by explosions too!

    P.S. Barry’s falsetto absolutely has gone into abuse territory on some titles I can’t think of at the moment. Though, Tragedy is truly the most justified use for the intended shrill and berserk. The real mystery is what producer Arif Mardin was thinking, asking Barry to “scream in tune”. Was it some extra-intimate insight into vocal potential, or a balls-out (off?) gamble to rival Rockist screams/wails? (Did everyone on earth take Robert Plant seriously at first?)

  39. 39
    Jimmy the Swede on 23 Jul 2012 #

    I hope posters will forgive me from plonking a genuine tragic dampner here but we’ve just received the news that one of our colleagues at Gatwick Customs has been killed by a gunman in Afghanistan, having being seconded to a contractor out there. Dave Chamberlain was one of those larger than life bonkers characters and will be missed by us all. RIP, Riggy.


  40. 40
    Erithian on 24 Jul 2012 #

    Dreadful news, my friend. RIP.

  41. 41
    Brendan on 25 Sep 2012 #

    Again I’m in agreement about the “Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices”, but this is still my favourite number 1 from the Hee Bee- er, I mean Bee Gees and, like everything else ***** did, the cover was, er, a tragedy (might as well get that gag in now before anyone else does). I give the original 7.

  42. 42
    wichita lineman on 26 Sep 2012 #

    “In a world of tears I slowly drown
    Going home
    I just can’t take it all alone
    I really should be holding you
    Holding you, loving you”

    I wouldn’t say it’s meaningless Brendan, even if the production’s a little overwrought. The Bee Gees were never meaningless.

  43. 43
    Brendan on 26 Sep 2012 #

    I was referring to the title of the song by the parody band Hee Bee Gee Bees (Angus Daeyton et al) to refer to the point that most were making that they were overusing the falsetto voices by this time – like I said I do like this one.

  44. 44
    punctum on 24 Oct 2012 #

    TPL on the rather troubling parent album.

  45. 45
    hectorthebat on 2 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  46. 46
    Gareth Parker on 18 May 2021 #

    5/10 for me. Good songwriters, but I find the vocals a bit too much here.

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