FEATURE: Stayin’ Alive: When the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack Ruled the Charts




Stayin’ Alive



When the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack Ruled the Charts


TOMORROW is a bit of a big anniversary...


IN THIS PHOTO: John Travolta (Anthony ‘Tony’ Manero) in a still from Saturday Night Fever (1977)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

because it remembers the start of an incredible chart run! The soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever started a twenty-four week spell at the top of the U.S. album charts - and would go on to sell over thirty millions copies! Those sales figures would make it the top-selling soundtrack ever and it is amazing to think how ageless it sounds. Many might argue the fact it is Disco-heavy and belongs to the 1970s means it holds no relevance today. I feel Disco has never really died and many artists today incorporate Disco elements into their music. It was inevitable Disco would be phased out and replaced by movements like Punk but I have never subscribed to the notion that it was a cheesy and rather ridiculous style of music. You do not really need to know much about the John Travolta-starring film to fall for the soundtrack and the incredible music throughout. The film was released in December of 1977 and the soundtrack came out the following month. The fact the soundtrack is over forty years old is shocking to me. I love the music throughout and feel, at a time when albums are maybe less important to some people, we went nuts for Saturday Night Fever! John Badham directed the film and it sees a working-class man, Tony Manero (John Travolta), spend his free time dancing at a Brooklyn disco.

Karen Lynn Gorney played Stephanie Mangano, his dance partner, and they would (in the film) fall in love. It centres on the club/disco and the amazing arc of the lead. Manero’s friends and allies support him as he has to cope with a dead-end job and his unsupportive parents; racial tensions in the community and a general feeling of restlessness (the story is based upon a 1976 New York Magazine article by British writer Nik Cohn, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night).  If we’re talking about classic Travolta films of the 1970s then I’d plump for Grease (1978). It was clear that 1977-1978 period was lucrative and stunning for Travolta. He was able to shine in these two roles but, to many, Saturday Night Fever is a bit coarse, lewd and controversial. Its sexual content and free will regarding bad language did cause some controversy but the central story and the fantastic soundtrack won hearts around the world. The film became a big success and continues to win new fans but I feel its soundtrack is even stronger! It is said the producers, when thinking of the music, wanted to use Boz Scaggs’ Lowdown in the scene where we see Manero and Mangano rehearse in the dance studio. The label, Columbia Records, did not give permission to use the song and it fell to composer David Shire to fill in the gaps and come to the rescue. Many people have their favourite scenes from Saturday Night Fever but I cannot help think of the film and those iconic soundtrack songs.

The Bee Gees did not get involved until post-production and, when you see various scenes, other songs were played whilst filming. Producer Robert Stigwood approached the Bee Gees to write music for the soundtrack and the band was a bit wary. They were recording in France on a new album and were told about this new film that needed music. There is debate regarding Saturday Night Fever’s completeness and when the Bee Gees came in. It is evident the film was underway before they were contacted and the brothers wrote the songs practically in a single weekend. When they presented songs like More Than a Woman and If I Can’t Have You, the producers liked the songs but wanted something more Disco-heavy and upbeat. The Gibb brothers set to write a song called Saturday but, knowing there were a lot of songs with that title, changed it to Stayin’ Alive. If the music came after the film started to roll, it is hard to think of Saturday Night Fever and have all the classics dancing in the head! The impact of the soundtrack was immediate in the U.S. The Bee Gees were not aware that songs such as Night Fever and How Deep Is Your Love would appear on the soundtrack as they thought they were just recording a regular Bee Gees record! There are some other previously released Disco songs on the record but it the Bee Gees’ cuts that stand out hardest.


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Bee Gees/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It was no surprise to see the soundtrack win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1978 and was the first Disco record to win that award! Because it sounds so much like a Bee Gees album – and there are not vocal snippets throughout like a soundtrack – it has gained huge acceptance and acclaim and is ranked alongside ‘traditional’ studio albums by critics. The soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever is often viewed as one of the finest albums ever and helped keep Disco alive – it gave it a new lease and introduced the genre/movement to a new generation. When reviewing the soundtrack retrospectively, AllMusic had this to say:

Every so often, a piece of music comes along that defines a moment in popular culture history: Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus did this in Vienna in the 1870s; Jerome Kern's Show Boat did it for Broadway musicals of the 1920s, and the BeatlesSgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album served this purpose for the era of psychedelic music in the 1960s. Saturday Night Fever, although hardly as prodigious an artistic achievement as those precursors, was precisely that kind of musical phenomenon for the second half of the '70s. Ironically, before its release, the disco boom had seemingly run its course, primarily in Europe, and was confined mostly to black culture and the gay underground in America. Saturday Night Fever, as a movie and an album, plus a brace of hit singles off of it, suddenly made disco explode into mainstream, working- and middle-class America with a new immediacy and urgency, increasing its audience ten-fold overnight”.


They share my views regarding the breakdown of songs and the fact that, in essence, it is a Bee Gees record:

Despite the presence of other artists, Saturday Night Fever is virtually indispensable as a Bee Gees album, not just for the presence of an array of songs that were hits in their own right -- and which became the de facto soundtrack to a half-decade of pop culture history -- but because it offered the Gibb Brothers as composers as well as artists, with their work recorded by Yvonne Elliman ("If I Can't Have You"), and Tavares ("More Than a Woman"), and it placed their music alongside the work of Kool & the Gang and MFSB. In essence, the layout of the soundtrack was the culmination of everything they'd been moving toward since the Mr. Natural album. Even the presence of David Shire's "Night on Disco Mountain" and "Salsation," and Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven," don't hurt, because these set a mood and a surrounding ambience for the Bee Gees' material that makes it work even better”.

Pitchfork, in 2012 – spoke about the album’s highlights but also cautioned listeners that it is not an album that perfectly documents Disco – more an accompaniment and something that has a few gaps:

With its snaking instrumental melody and sneaking beat, opener "Stayin' Alive" is all cocksure strut, even separated from Travolta's stroll through the credits, and "Night Fever" and "You Should Be Dancin'" have an urgency that makes dancin' seem like a life-or-death imperative. Their portion of the soundtrack forms a condensed hits package that few bands of the era can rival...

Ultimately, Saturday Night Fever doesn't disregard disco's underground origins so much as it simply sublimates them to the mainstream white experience. As a soundtrack, it works perfectly well, immersing listeners in the music (and therefore the spirit) of the film while selling more tickets. But as a pop-cultural document, it is significantly flawed, not only linked to a midlevel movie but also unable to fully capture the movement with which it has been so strongly identified. Thirty years later, after the ugly DISCO SUCKS trend and countless revivals both sincere and ironic, the appeal of Saturday Night Fever seems squarely nostalgic, but whatever its impact then or now, there is some amazing music on here-- and even more beyond”.

If you do not see Saturday Night Fever’s incredible soundtrack as the ultimate Disco compilation then you will be fine. Sure, there are compilations out there that are more authoritative, authentic and diverse but the beauty of this world-straddling soundtrack is not whether it defined Disco and made it immortal: the wonderful songs and the way it connected with people is what we need to remember. The songs throughout the album are tremendous. I am a big fan of Stayin’ Alive and think it is one of the best Disco songs ever. I also have a lot of time for the slower numbers such as If I Can’t Have You and it goes to show Disco was not just about boogie and big flares – there was sensitivity and maturity to be found.

Maybe the stellar soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever was not strong enough to save Disco and keep it burning but I think it a great introduction to those new to the genre. It is accessible and fronted by a band most of us know. The songs are all instant and fantastic and some of the lesser-known cuts – such as Kool & the Gang performing Open Sesame – are well worth listening to. I am not surprised the soundtrack stayed high in the U.S. charts for weeks and weeks because it is so catchy and it pays tribute to the legendary Disco scene. For those who attacked Disco and felt it was a bad time need to get their ears around the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and ask whether anything like this exists today. Maybe there are some artists who take bits of the music and make it their own but there is a big hole in the industry that is crying out for Disco. Maybe we do not need to see a return of the big hair, huge shows and some of the tensions of that time but the essence, the fun and infectiousness, needs to make a return. I realise Saturday Night Fever did highlight issues such as racism and it gained a lot of negative press due to its language, sex and violence but one cannot deny the soundtrack is a magnificent thing that has remained dear since 1978. I hear people talking about it today and that amazes me. Many classic albums are not talked about over four decades since their release so it makes Saturday Night Fever’s soundtrack all the more extraordinary!


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

I will end things in a bit but I have been thinking about other classic film soundtracks – including those from Grease, Pulp Fiction and Purple Rain – and wonder whether any have taken on a life of their own the same way Saturday Night Fever’s (soundtrack) did. Even though it is forty-one-year-old, I can play the tracks on there and they do not necessarily seem rooted to a distinct and rigid time and place. You do not need to be a Disco expert to understand what is going down and, in many ways, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack will compel listeners to investigate Disco deeper and get involved with many of the definitive and essential compilations. Saturday Night Fever’s soundtrack has been added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for being culturally significant. Disco would die out from 1979 so, in many ways, this year marks forty years since its demise. Thanks to the Bee Gees, a year before its execration, Disco was provided this fine and legendary soundtrack that accompanied a pretty remarkable film. I play the soundtrack if I need a boost and cannot help but jive and jig to its infectious grooves, arms-aloft giddiness and the sheer vitality of the music! If you want to mark forty-one years since the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack began its rule in the U.S. charts then put it on, put the headphones on and get lost...

IN a simply wonderful album.