Tragedy: The Ballad of the Bee Gees
By Jeff Apter
Jawbone Press, 272 pp., $19.95
Really, did any act in the rock era have a bigger comeback than the Bee Gees? The mere mention of the band’s name, of course, instantly conjures up the all too familiar white suits, chest hair and medallions of the Saturday Night Fever-era (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Jive Talkin’,” “You Should Be Dancing,” “How Deep is Your Love”) that found them on top of the world (and the charts).
But well before that, there was a string of hits like “To Love Somebody,” “Massachusetts,” “I Gotta Get a Message to You” and “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” And then a brotherly breakup, career bottoming out, drifting, and reinvention to Fever. And then it would happen again. And again. But through it all, their songbook remains one of the richest of any pop group.
As an Australian journalist, Apter understandably gives more space to the Bee Gees' formative career in Oz (as English expats from Manchester) and relations to the continent. But he hits all the brothers’ highlights and lowlights, both in the music and their personal worlds. The book also gives a chunk of pages to fourth Gibb brother Andy, whose tragic life and 1988 death is certainly worth its own tome.
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There’s not much particularly new information offered here, and many of the same stories and tales can be found in David N. Meyer’s superior Bee Gees: The Biography from 2013. But what Apter does do better is delve more into the psychology of the Gibb brothers in terms of their relations to each other, and the jealousies and power struggles that ran throughout their seemingly united front.
That Lone Survivor Barry was feuding bitterly with Maurice and Robin at the time of their unexpected, respective deaths in 2003 and 2012 makes the end of the book rather wistful. (A sister, Lesley, still lives as well.)
Perhaps Tragedy is not a fair title for a book on the lives and careers of the Bee Gees. For while the story certainly has its share of that, there’s a lot of triumph as well. Plus a canon of songs spread over five decades whose catchiness even today cannot be denied.