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Inside Tracks #13: Bee Gees 1979: Triumph of "Tragedy" + 7 Covers, Including Dee Gees & Cousins Gibb
How do you follow your massive success on a soundtrack album like "Saturday Night Fever"? First, if you're the Bee Gees, wait more than a year. Second, create a "Tragedy." All will be for givin'.
The BGs: Their Initial Head Start
The Bee Gees were one of the most enduring of pop/rock bands. Of course, it helped that they were brothers: That convenient familial fact helped Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb form the group as the skiffle/rock Rattlesnakes in 1955, which eventually morphed into the BGs in 1958 in Australia.
The boys were born on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea; their father was a dance band leader, and growing up, the Gibb bros were big fans of fellow close-harmony siblings, The Mills Brothers and The Everly Brothers. When Maurice passed away, at 53, from cardiac arrest in January 2003, it essentially brought an end to the massive record-selling group after nearly 5 decades of music-making! Twin, Robin, passed away in 2012.
As well as being uniquely creative for most of that time, the trio proved to be artistically flexible, moving from late ‘60s U.S. Top 20 pop hits like “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “To Love Somebody,” and “Holiday” to their wildly popular disco fever hits a decade later.
The Saturday Night Fever film soundtrack double-album boasted a whopping six Bee Gees performances (all written by the Bee Gees), plus two songs written by the Brothers Gibb, but performed by others (Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” and “More Than a Woman” by Tavares; the Bee Gees’ version of the song on the album was accounted for above).
As it happens, the Bee Gees’ involvement in the 1977 film didn’t even begin until post-production. As John Travolta has asserted in previous interviews, “The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning; I was dancing [in scenes previously shot and in the can] to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.”
In typical record company-rights-entanglements-fashion, Motown and Columbia Records (respectively) had no intention of giving the film’s music supervisor, Bill Oakes, or producer Robert Stigwood (on whose RSO Records the brothers recorded), legal clearance for their artists’ songs.
In fact, at the time, CBS Records was planning a disco-oriented film of their own for which they were saving Scaggs’ 1975 Silk Degrees songs (“Lowdown” in particular) for its soundtrack. That film never materialized.
Full-speed ahead, then, on the Bee Gees’ writing new songs for a new studio album (following 1976’s Children of the World, and a live 1977 album) now being “re-routed” to songs that would fill out a double album, as well as propel the action in a film about which little was known until shooting had been completed!
Working title for the mysterious project was Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night. It’s amazing to think how many history-making and money-making decisions were made about that landmark movie and its soundtrack in such a short period of time: Principal photography began in Brooklyn in February 1977, with its wide release just ten months later! This is also when Barry discovered his falsetto, a new musical “weapon” he’d utilize virtually exclusively over the ensuing decades.
The Bee Gees “Tragedy,” 1979, RSO Records
How do you follow an album that whelped eight singles (most of which you performed and/or wrote) and was eventually added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for being culturally significant?
In March 1978, recording for Spirits Having Flown began in Miami. To dispel the “disco-only” stereotype the group was saddled with after SNF, the first single released (in November 1978) was the ballad, “Too Much Heaven.”
Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote this song and “Tragedy” in a fall 1977 afternoon-off from filming the resoundingly hideous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, in which they were starring.
“Tragedy” was released to radio and retail in February 1979, and hit #1 in both the states and the UK by March.
While maybe danceable, “Tragedy” was two things their SNF songs weren’t: 1) incessantly over-played and by this time, unbearable as anything but cheeky nostalgia (yes, even a year later), and 2) noticeably and refreshingly “sophisticated,” at least to a point where the listening experience alone was enhanced; in other words, a disco ball, tight pants and a furry chest (even for the guys) weren’t a prerequisite for enjoyment, this time.
The Brotherhood of Man, “Tragedy,” 1981, Warwick Records
British 4-piece poppers (2 gals, 2 guys) who had a UK and U.S. Top 15 hit in 1970 with “United We Stand,” and had won the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest with “Save Your Kisses For Me,” had suddenly become a Holiday Inn lounge-worthy cover act by 1981.
From a double album of nothing-but-covers comes their fairly straightforward run-through of “Tragedy.” A pounding low-register piano key mixed with hand-claps, at least, offers something new to the verse intros.
While the group’s brotherhood of men (Lee Sheriden and Martin Lee) offer harmony vocals on the chorus, it’s the ladies (Nicky Stevens and Sandra Stevens, no relation) who provide the lead vocals, and help give this effort a decidedly ABBA feel.
Coincidentally enough, ‘twas the Eurovision Song Contest that put that similarly-built hit-making Swedish foursome on the worldwide musical map, with their “Waterloo” in 1974!
As one of “Tragedy”’s first covers out of the box, Brotherhood of Man did us a favor, and set out a warning to future “Tragedians”: Don’t let this happen to you.
And, judging by most of the unique and creative covers that followed, they listened…mercifully.
Brian David Gilbert “Tragedy,” 2022, self-produced
Apparently something of a card who should be dealt with, Brian is a happy-go-lucky cross between Weird Al and Stan Freberg…a 29-year-old lover of the song parody who’s also musically proficient. For a recent single, BDG even tackled SNF’s “Stayin’ Alive.”
The internet (and, they should know) calls Brian a podcaster, YouTuber, and we used to be able to find Brian, quite often, in The Altogether (sadly, photos are rare to non-existent). Born in Baltimore, he earned his B.A. in Writing Seminars and Cognitive Science from Johns Hopkins University. He also spent time as a video creator at Polygon, a video game website.
His musical and vocal prowess is certainly impressive (aided musically by one Jonah Scott), with a voice that can replicate Barry’s falsetto on “Stayin’ Alive” (and the chorus of “Tragedy”), while presenting an impressive tenor for the lead on “Tragedy.” And, seasonal Halloweenie that Brian apparently is, he fashions his “Tragedy” lyrics into a story about torch-wielding villagers (are there any other kind?) hunting down a werewolf, played by our hero.
It came from out of nowhere, but don’t be surprised if Brian becomes your favorite “Tragedian”! And, not just because he named this two-song digital single, Bee Dee Gee’s Hee Bee Bee Gees! Too bad there’s not a Bee Dee Gee “Tragedy” video.👀👇
TenLay (Tenors With a Lady), “Tragedy,” 2006
The two tenors are Christopher Macchio and Elio Scaccio, and the lady is soprano, Marissa Famiglietti. No send-up here, as these three are classically trained, and, with full orchestra, epitomize the elasticity of the Gibbs’ total triumph of “Tragedy.”
Why, the only other genre that might exemplify such songwriting versatility and range just might be…oh, I don’t know….heavy metal?
Tragedy, “Tragedy,” 2021, Napalm Records
As if on cue, the lads of Tragedy pick up the metal mantle, and hit as much of a genre-specific homerun in their arena as TenLay does in their symphonic hall. In short, as a musical outfit, they show a lot of premise.
These New Yorkers belly up to the barre chords with relish, and add high-pitched guitar histrionics and a solo, as one might expect. Falsetto? You’d more likely find tats and piercings on Ms. Famiglietti. No sir, it’s strictly screaming, screeching, and caterwauling for Tragedy, and they’d want nothing less…or else, especially on their latest album, Disco Balls to the Wall, from whence their “Tragedy” was unleashed.
Handling lead singing chores is Disco Mountain Man (who also plays keyboards), Mo’Royce Peterson on guitar, Andy Gibbous Waning on bass, Gibbon Ass Freehly on guitar, and The Infernal Demigibb on drums.
Parody? Yeah, I guess. Send-up? Guilty, I’m afraid. But, the lads are certainly happy to tell you they also bring a sprinkling of sincerity and gravitas to the proceedings, disco dancing and Spinal-Tapping all the way as they do: “Tragedy does not lazily rely on the concept or ‘the joke.’ The band plunges deep – blazing musicianship, tantalizing riffs and stunning vocals. All except for Lance the towel boy. He’s just an idiot.”
Richard Woodford, “Tragedy,” 2015, SimG Records
The musical theatre is the milieu of choice for veteran British singer/dancer, Richard Woodford. From his 2015 album, Because of You, his “Tragedy” is marked by piano flourishes, a chorus, strings, and a couple of modulations. Woodford is a gifted tenor, and his clear chest-voice delivers some new lyrics from the late ‘90s London Palladium stage presentation of Saturday Night Fever, in which he appeared.
Dee Gees, “Tragedy,” 2021
It’s hard to overstate the “rock statesman” tag that can so easily be attached to Dave Grohl (the “DG” in the “Dee Gees”). At 54, “elder statesman” may be a tad premature, but at 2 and 3 decades younger than, say, a Ringo, Paul, or Mick, there may be no more qualified a musicologist, music historian, or lover of the art than the man who’s been forced to endure the aching loss of two friends and bandmates (Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins) in his short lifespan.
In a 1997 Guitar World, it was explained by Grohl that “Foo Fighters used the technique of shifting between quiet verses and loud choruses,” an influence he said was brought by the members of Nirvana, “liking [as they did] The Knack, Bay City Rollers, Beatles, and ABBA as much as we liked Flipper and Black Flag, I suppose.”
Further, Grohl noted, “We all love music, whether it’s the Beatles or Queen or punk rock. I think the lure of punk rock was the energy and immediacy; the need to thrash stuff around. But at the same time, we’re all suckers for a beautiful melody, you know? So it’s just natural.”
It’s this daring pop sensibility that so clearly informs his Dee Gees “altar ego” (misspelling intended) that also proves to be the riskiest collab move since Lady Gaga began rubbing musical elbows with legendary crooner, Tony Bennett.
Both Gaga and Grohl (newly-inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with the Foos…Gaga will join him in due time) risk(ed) losing millions of die-hard fans with their respective moves, but undeterred and unafraid (and relying on laser-focused musical precision and instincts), they proceeded apace, no doubt each leaving hand-wringing managers and teeth-gnashing agents cursing into their Appletinis.
For Record Store Day on July 17, 2021, the Foo Fighters released an album of disco covers, Hail Satin, under the name Dee Gees (Hawkins is heard on the track). The album contains their “Tragedy,” plus three other Bee Gees covers and a cover of Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing.”
Not only does the band play “Tragedy” in the same key as the original, Grohl doesn’t even think of doing anything but replicating Barry’s falsetto: “I have never, ever in my life sung like that,” he revealed to Blabbermouth.net. “But, it was the easiest song I have ever sung in my entire life! I sang the song, and it was like six minutes and I was done. I should have been singing like this for the last 25 years!”
Cousins Gibb, “Tragedy,” 2021
Nick Endacott-Gibb & Debora McLane make up the Cousins Gibb duo. Nick is Bee Gee Maurice’s biological son, and Debora is Nick’s cousin (her mother is Mo’s older sister, Leslie). Both had their separate musical backgrounds before Nick suggested she join him on this warm and gentle treatment which was mixed and mastered by veteran rock producer, Eddie Kramer.
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