In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
From the opening seconds, the keyboards and the drums interlock, creating grooves within grooves. Layers of synth buzz and ripple. The drums are elemental — a metronomic thud. Then, within seconds, the guitars come in screaming, like missiles streaking down from an open blue sky. The strings are almost a parody of Motown strings, or ABBA strings — a finger-snapping heartbeat that just gets a second to twinkle before the drama levels rise again. When Barry Gibb’s voice first arrives, he’s howling. To anyone alive in 1979 America, that falsetto had to be powerfully familiar. But Gibb almost never made his falsetto quite as intense as he did on “Tragedy.” On “Tragedy,” that voice becomes an open-wound yelp, a wail into the void.
“Tragedy,” the Bee Gees’ fifth consecutive #1 single, is all drama. It’s a furious, wild-eyed song. It’s a disco song, sort of. It’s got that wailing diva vocal and that four-four bass-drum kick. I’m sure it got plenty of play in strip-mall clubs across America. But “Tragedy” is also what happened when disco became completely unmoored from its uptempo-soul roots. There’s precious little R&B in “Tragedy.” Instead, it sounds like the Bee Gees doing their best to invent ’80s synth-metal. In tone and aesthetic, “Tragedy” is a whole lot closer to something like Europe’s “The Final Countdown” than it is to anything from KC & The Sunshine Band. (“The Final Countdown” peaked at #8 in 1986. It’s an 8.)
There’s no grand origin story to “Tragedy.” The Bee Gees came up with the song while in the midst of their insane hot streak, and from all available accounts, a track like that was business as usual for them. The Bee Gees wrote the song while on a break from filming their disastrous Beatles-inspired movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. According to at least some reports, they wrote “Too Much Heaven” and Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” on the very same day — a productive day’s work for a group that, at the time, was only not productive when they had to film actual Sgt. Pepper’s scenes.
But “Tragedy” doesn’t sound like business as usual, even for a group as manifestly unusual as the late-’70s Bee Gees. It’s a wild-eyed, freaked-out screech of a song. Cranking that falsetto up as high as it’ll go, Barry Gibb sings about romantic desolation in apocalyptic terms: “Tragedy! When you lose control and you got no soul! It’s a tragedy! When the morning cries and you don’t know why!” Even on the opening, Gibb is making sounds that only barely translate as language: “Here I lie in a lost and lonely part of town! Held in time, in a world of tears I slowly drown!” When his brothers join him in high-pitched harmony, they sound just as hysterical as he does.
Only the Bee Gees could have come up with “Tragedy,” partly because only the Bee Gees could afford to come up with “Tragedy.” It’s the sound of a group with unlimited resources, given the time and the money they need to go absolutely bugshit in the studio. I’m pretty confident that Giorgio Moroder’s Donna Summer productions were an influence, given how much “Tragedy” relies on bleeping synthesizer pulse. But there’s more going on, too. The Bee Gees, co-producing with their regular collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, add in guitars and horns and strings, all of them sounding gloriously artificial.
Toward the end of “Tragedy,” there’s a moment where Barry Gibb lets out a post-chorus scream and something explodes. It’s supposed to be an explosion, anyway. We hear it more as a dense, wet crunch. That sound, it turns out, is Barry Gibb himself. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Karl Richardson says that Gibb cupped his hands around the mic and made a noise with his mouth while keyboardist Blue Weaver played random bottom-end piano notes. They took a bunch of those sounds and ran them through a “product generator.” (I don’t know what a product generator is, and Google isn’t much help.) So at least part of “Tragedy” is Barry Gibb human beatboxing. He would’ve made a hell of a Foley artist.
In a way, it’s a historical injustice — maybe even a tragedy — that the public lost its taste for disco just as disco was getting really interesting. The Bee Gees weren’t at the end of their imperial phase when “Tragedy” hit #1, but they were getting there. (They’ll appear in this column again.) Disco was nearing the end of its boom period. But “Tragedy” still foreshadowed a lot of things — like the way synths and disco beats pushed their way into urgent and insistent big-money rock music and movie-soundtrack pop in the ’80s, or the way superstars would use all the tools at their disposal to make wild, paranoid sounds. “Tragedy” is a futuristic song; maybe that’s why it sounds so freaked-out.
Four days after “Tragedy” hit #1, a reactor at a nuclear power plant on Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island went into partial meltdown. The disaster didn’t kill anyone, but it cost a billion dollars to clean up and helped turn the public against the idea of nuclear power. The future, clearly, was not all it was cracked up to be. I wonder how many of the news anchors reporting on Three Mile Island had “Tragedy” stuck in their heads.
BONUS BEATS: The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” hit #1 in the UK as well as the US. In the UK, the song also hit #1 a second time 19 years later, in the form of a 1998 cover from the dance-pop group Steps. Here’s the video for the Steps version, which did not chart in the US:
BONUS BEATS BEATS: Here’s Dipset journeyman Hell Rell rapping over a “Tragedy” sample on “Hush Now Lil Gangsta,” a track from his 2007 mixtape Eat With Me Or Eat A Box Of Bullets: