Saturday Night Fever: The Soundtrack

discolives.gif“Would ya just watch the hair. Ya know, I spend a long time on my hair and he hit it; he hit my hair.”

For anyone who has ever in the privacy of their bedroom given in to the irresistible urge to pretend to be cool cat Tony Manero (John Travolta) strutting down a New York City street, swinging paint tin in hand to the sound of “Well you can tell by the I use my walk…”, this has to be the mother of all soundtracks. And if album sales are any indication, at least 25 million people (and counting) did just that, leaving the then biggest album, Pete Frampton’s rock-heavy ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, eating its nancy-boy, disco-flavoured dust. (Apparently, in some parts of Brazil, a guy who is considered ‘cool’ and a good dancer is still referred to as a ‘Manero’).

Besides being the largest selling soundtrack album of all time (bested only by Titanic twenty years later), Saturday Night Fever is notable on a number of other counts: it made Austro-Brit trio the Bee Gees global superstars; it plucked disco from its designated status as Euro-trash/ gay underground music and launched it into the international mainstream with an explosive immediacy (which, admittedly, some might see as a rather dubious achievement). And perhaps most importantly, like the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had done for the psychedelic era a decade earlier, SNF marked a defining moment in popular culture history, becoming the de facto soundtrack for the latter half of the 70s. Pre-AIDS swinging America, post-Sonny Cher, Studio 54, revolving disco balls, floor lights, bellbottoms, Farrah Fawcett flicks, sequined satin catsuits, platform shoes, bean bags, lava lamps, music on vinyl, and John Travolta in a white polyester suit striking THAT much-imitated-but-never-bettered pose, so magnetic and masculine he makes disco look not gay– SNF brings it all back.

Five of the original songs that Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb – known collectively as the Bee Gees – contributed to the SNF soundtrack were actually intended for use on the follow-up to their Children of the World album. Two others – ‘Jive Talkin’’ and ‘You Should Be Dancing’ – were earlier releases. Instead they ended up making history as part of producer Robert Stigwood’s ‘low-budget’ urban drama about youth sub-culture, having survived original director John Avildsen’s intense opposition to their involvement when he himself was replaced by the far more agreeable John Badham. Stigwood and Badham obviously knew a good thing when they heard it: the album’s monster sales landed it almost immediately atop the Billboard charts where it stayed unendingly, spawning ten chart hits with six of them rocketing to Number One. In fact, between December 1977 and May 1978, one Bee Gees single or other was Number One for fifteen out of twenty weeks. It became a matter of heated debate whether the hit film was feeding the hit album or vice versa.

Is there anyone on the planet (ok, over the age of twenty-five) who doesn’t get the urge to get down upon hearing those instantly recognisable first chocolaty bass notes of ‘Stayin’ Alive’? Much like the star of the film himself, the 80s and 90s saw the song take on something of a cheese factor, being used to derisively ‘comic’ effect in films like Airplane!, Foul Play and even amcha Rishi-Padmini romp Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai. Inevitably though, it bounced back to lay claim to its rightful status as the ultimate hipster nostalgia piece. And we continue to get taken in again and again. It’s like a brash but irresistible seductress; you’re not sure of her antecedents but man, you can’t help but go along for the ride! And then there is of course the Gibb Bros.’ marvel of a falsetto belting out that incredible vocal melody. The kind of high-pitched keening that would get lesser singers laughed off the job, is not only audaciously sustained throughout the song but, even more impressive, actually complements perfectly the macho posturing of the lyrics. Go figure.

Although all three Bee Gees are on vocals, it should be obvious to the discerning that it is really Brother Barry who carries the song. Just listen to the oh-so-subtle virtuosity displayed in the send-off: one sustained note then descending step-by-glorious-step into nothingness – Mariah Carey eat your heart out.

On a note of anecdotal interest, on the day ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was recorded, drummer Dennis Bryon was late to the studio, so a tape loop was created using the drum track from the already-recorded ‘Night Fever’ instead. This accounts for the unchanging rhythm throughout the song.

More ferocious in tempo and orchestration is the absolutely fevered ‘You Should Be Dancing’, a smorgasbord of a number that encompasses the many mercurial shifts in mood that disco often allows for, Now all pomp with wailing guitars and masterfully placed trumpet n’ sax passages, now moody and seductive with thumping bongos and falsettos on echo – quite the roller coaster ride. And in the film it provides the background for Travolta’s electrifying solo on the dance floor.

Cut from the film but included on the soundtrack is the curious but decidedly catchy ‘Jive Talkin’’. Originally titled ‘Drive Talking’, the song’s rhythm was meant to duplicate the sound a car would make crossing the Biscayne Bay into Miami (illustrated by its ‘chukka-chukka-chukka’ opening). When the title was changed to the more hip-sounding ‘Jive Talkin’’, Barry Gibb wrote the lyrics assuming that the new title was a reference to black vernacular English – ‘talking in jive’. Upon being told the phrase was also popular slang for ‘telling lies’, he altered the lyrics so that all actual ‘talking jive’ references would be read as ‘lying.’ Starting with the vocals in hushed tones, the song builds up steadily to the infectious riff on synth, which is then vocalised in unison, and punctuated by some clever Rembrandts-style clapping. Like I said, curious but catchy – an opinion obviously shared by blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ‘fake’ band Boogie Box High (fronted anonymously by George ‘Wham!’ Michael) that had a Top 40 hit with a respectable redo in 1987.

The mood is mellowed further with the coolly erotic strains of ‘Night Fever’, an altogether underrated tune that is often unfairly overshadowed by the more showy material on the album. For me, its power lies in its ability to capture the flash of the era and the style while managing to be musically sound, with a number of subtle and sonorous shifts within the melody.

The Bee Gees’ penchant for soaring lyrical, romantic numbers finds form in the ethereal ‘How Deep is Your Love’ as well as the lesser ‘More Than a Woman’. A tune that might in today’s vapid terms be described as an ‘easy listening track’, the former is really a sensual yet somewhat melancholic ballad with the masterfully performed vocal harmonisation floating over soft beats, bass line, organ and other digital sounding instruments. Both the verses and chorus are parallel yet have quite different sounding melodies. The second love song, although also recorded by the Bee Gees themselves, was handed over for inclusion in the film to Massachusetts soul quintet Tavares. Not a great song but it earned the group a Grammy.

Hawaiian-born Yvonne Elliman had already gained recognition for playing Mary Magdalene in both the stage and film versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (her sweet and soulful rendition of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ became a Top 40 hit and a karaoke staple) when she was tapped to sing the Bee Gees-penned ‘If I Can’t Have You’. And indeed, the girl is in fine form here, making good on a tune that would forever mark her as a disco diva; somewhat ironic considering that the style is miles away from the medium-tempo ballads that she favoured, both pre- and post-SNF. As for the song itself, it is really Bee Gee-lite, with some rather overzealous backing vocals and the kind of soaring and cascading string sections that are somewhat over-the-top but ‘pretty’ enough to keep the song from becoming kitsch – just about. One can see where one Biddu got some of his inspiration from (aside from the Tina Charles oeuvre) for his collaborations with Nazia and Zoheb.

As is to be expected from a quintessential disco collection, plenty of silliness also abounds on the album, not least of which is represented by Walter Murphy’s head-scratcher ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’. A funkified version of Ludwig Van’s celebrated Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, the number takes the stormy, heroic tonality of the classical piece’s unmistakable four-note (short-short-short-long) rhythmic motif and puts its own demented little disco twist on it, resulting in a much mocked pop oddity that has become something of a punchline. (On a related note, recall and snigger if you will at the tune’s very ‘dramatic’ use in the 1990 Aamir Khan-Madhuri Dixit starrer Dil).

The madness continues in David Shire’s equally kooky discofied version of Mussorgsky’s orchestral tone poem ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, here dubbed (and I can barely bring myself to say it) ‘Night on Disco Mountain’. It’s impossible to look past the cornball factor, but at least the melody is preserved.

Yet more guileless mirth bubbles forth in the shape of ‘Boogie Shoes’ from disco royalty K.C. & the Sunshine Band’s self-titled 1975 album. Employing plenty of brass blasts that serve to emphasise disco’s underlying affinity with swing and big-band music of the 40s, the song is infectious in the same vein as some of K.C’s other big successes – ‘That’s the Way (I Like It)’, ‘(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty’, ‘Get Down Tonight’ – the disarming dimwittedness of the lyrics only adding to the fun:

Girl, To Be With You Is My Fav’rite Thing
Uh Huh
And I Can’t Wait Til I See You Again
Yeah, Yeah
I Want To Put On My My My My My
Boogie Shoes
Just To Boogie With You, Yeah
I Want To Put On My My My My My
Boogie Shoes Just To Boogie With You,Uh Huh
I Want To Do It ’til The Sun Comes Up
Uh Huh, And I Want To Do It ’til
I Can’t Get Enough, Yeah, Yeah
I Want To Put On My My My My My
Boogie Shoes
Just To Boogie With You, Yeah
I Want To Put On My My My My My
Boogie Shoes Just To Boogie With You
Uh Huh, Yeah Yeah
I Want To Put On My My My My My
Boogie Shoes
Just To Boogie, With You, Yeah
I Want To Put On My My My My My
Boogie Shoes Just To Boogie With You, Yeah

There are other numbers on the album – including one from that other funk era staple, Kool & the Gang – that exemplify all that was right (and sometimes a little ‘off’) with disco: clever, diverse, often ‘twee’ arrangements, with dollops of brass, frenzied orchestration, wah-wah guitars – the works. Some do grate on the nerves, like Ralph McDonald’s ‘Calypso Breakdown’ which wears out its welcome pretty quickly. But the Trammps’ blistering ‘Disco Inferno’ that closes the album on a lengthy but smashing, ten-minute note more than makes up for such missteps. Disco originally grew out of a ‘whiter’ take on funk and soul, but these guys really put the ‘soul’ back into the genre.

Amazingly, although Grammy came calling with a bunch of awards, not one of the songs from Saturday Night Fever was nominated for an Oscar. I guess Academy voters simply weren’t discotheque-goers. They gave that year’s honour to the cavity-inducing syrupiness of ‘You Light Up My Life’ from the movie of the same name. What, can’t recall it?

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