BEE GEES ET AL.: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1978)
1) Stayin' Alive; 2) How Deep Is Your Love; 3) Night Fever; 4) More Than A Woman; 5) If I Can't Have You (Yvonne Elliman); 6) A Fifth Of Beethoven (Walter Murphy); 7) More Than A Woman (Tavares); 8) Manhattan Skyline (David Shire); 9) Calypso Breakdown (Ralph MacDonald); 10) Night On Disco Mountain (David Shire); 11) Open Sesame (Kool & The Gang); 12) Jive Talkin'; 13) You Should Be Dancing; 14) Boogie Shoes (K.C. & The Sunshine Band); 15) Salsation (David Shire); 16) K-Jee (M.F.S.B.); 17) Disco Inferno (The Trammps).
Of all the dance-pop explosions in the history of music, the rise and fall of «classic disco» is the one that has a certain mystical flavor to it. I mean, already in the 1980s dance-pop reformatted itself, incorporating elements of New Wave and electronic music, and in terms of commercial sales became just as huge as disco and maybe huger (Michael Jackson? Madonna?), but it had learned its lesson — it managed to live its life without becoming «the talk of the town», not thinking all that much of itself, and avoiding the restrictive trappings and ultimate fate of disco.
Saturday Night Fever — the album, not the movie — is like Hitler in 1942: huge, unstoppable, with its tentacles all over the place, grinding every musical idea ever thought of by humanity, be it pop, rock, jazz, or classical, in its monster disco grinder... and just a couple years away from total catastrophe: a glorious celebratory triumph before the final crucifixion. Who knows, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to present the «ultimate disco album» in the form of a soundtrack to a movie that is, ironically, in itself a wicked send-up of «disco values». Sure, once the movie hit the screen, most people probably stormed the theaters to catch an iconic glimpse of Travolta doing his flip-flops to ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ — but eventually, some of them might have started paying attention to, like, the plot of the movie, and then...
...anyway, I have not even mentioned yet what we are really talking about here. Technically, of course, this is not a Bee Gees album: this is a soundtrack to a movie of which the Bee Gees are only a part, with only six songs altogether performed by the band and only four of them previously unavailable (and ʽJive Talkin'ʼ, for trivia's sake, was not even included in the final cut of the movie, although it did feature in a deleted scene). However, these six (five) songs are an integral part of both the movie and the soundtrack, not counting a seventh (sixth) song written by the Bee Gees, but performed by Yvonne Elliman, and an eighth (seventh) track that is an alternate version of a Bee Gees track performed by Tavares. In addition, it is the Bee Gees, and not Yvonne Elliman or Walter Murphy, that got the honor of sharing the front sleeve spotlight with Travolta; and it is the Bee Gees that are at least partially responsible for the name of the movie (coined from a superimposition of Robert Stigwood's Saturday Night with the band's own ʽNight Feverʼ) — and it is, after all, the album that really made the Bee Gees into a household name, so not dealing with it in an overview of the band's discography would be ridiculous.
It is true that the Bee Gees really only play the role of those animals who are more equal than the others: in the end, this album is not about the Bee Gees at all, it is about a «saturday night fever» that happened to take New York City by storm and ravage it to the ground. But then again, the Gibbs had already sacrificed the last remains of their artistic identity on Children Of The World a year earlier — their creative dissolution already having occurred, it does not matter much now if they are doing it all by themselves or sharing the spotlight with KC & The Sunshine Band. Now they are simply passive conductors of the disco vibe, even if, sometimes, that vibe still bears occasional traces of their own talent and professionalism.
Because no amount of hatred, even if we all agree to pool however much we have, will ever suffice to derail the powers of ʽStayin' Aliveʼ — the ultimate swagger anthem, perfectly tailored to the ultimate visual swagger of Travolta strolling the dirty streets of 1970's NYC. My favorite part of the song, actually, are the first 15 seconds, right before Barry's falsetto comes rolling in, because it is the funky guitar riff that truly embodies that swagger, not the vocals, and furthermore, it is a riff that probably wouldn't work anywhere outside a disco setting. The embarrassing "ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive" chorus I could easily live without, but the riff, and even its lively interaction with the strings, is murder. On the other hand, the lyrics are ambiguous, and clearly indicate that the Bee Gees were conscious of the movie's principal message — namely, that the disco lifestyle is but a crude front, tastelessly, but seductively set up in order to mask, not to eliminate the ugly things in life — and that the life in question is not so much about real living as it is about «stayin' alive». So the song does have a double bottom, which is good to remember for those who only think of it as a «guilty pleasure» at best.
The same judgement probably does not apply to ʽNight Feverʼ, where neither the music nor the lyrics betray anything but vapid shallowness — but there is still no resisting the magic when the overdriven falsetto verse spills over into the "night fever, night fever..." chorus, as the clock strikes twelve and the brothers shed their «castrated elf» disguises and turn into disembodied friendly spirits of the night, smoothly and suavely rocking out on a bed of grilled chicken-scratch guitars. This may be a guilty pleasure indeed, but I agree to bear the guilt — any sort of atmosphere that finds a perfect representation in music is already an achievement, and this here song is about classy hooks as well, not just atmosphere.
The two ballads are less convincing — disco balladeering, in general, is a couple steps further down from disco dancing, and both ʽHow Deep Is Your Loveʼ and ʽMore Than A Womanʼ are essentially just romantic ear-candy, but the latter at least, moving at a slightly faster tempo (and, once again, perfectly tailored to the main dance scene in the movie), also tends to stick — maybe because of the near-impeccable violin part. Most interestingly, this is so thoroughly «whitebread», there is no sex whatsoever in the song — as if the Bee Gees had secretly imported some of their medieval chivalry from the early classic period and snuck it in (this is why the alternate Tavares version sucks in comparison: they try to ground it with a slightly «fleshier» approach and end up taking away all potential charm without adding anything worthwhile in return).
Still, there is some difference between the Bee Gees stuff and the rest of the album. The Gibbs, as it were, are not doing much of anything they hadn't done before: writing catchy songs and hardwiring them to slick, professional arrangements. The rest of the crowd, assembled in the studio, seems to be operating in a different manner — providing a programmed response to the programmed query of «take musical object X and turn it into disco». And thus, we have classical (Walter Murphy's ʽA Fifth Of Beethovenʼ, vivisecting Ludwig van; David Shire's ʽNight On Disco Mountainʼ, vivisecting Mussorgsky); calypso (Ralph MacDonald's ʽCalypso Breakdownʼ); jazz-rock (Kool & The Gang's ʽOpen Sesameʼ, with distant echoes of Bitches Brew and the like); Latin (ʽSalsationʼ, also from David Shire); old school R&B (KC & The Sunshine Band's ʽBoogie Shoesʼ); and generic movie soundtrack muzak (ʽManhattan Skylineʼ) all brought on their knees to fit the same common denominator.
It is actually quite mind-boggling to see how much inventiveness and creativity must have gone into all of this stuff — there are certain moments on the record when you almost become convinced that there was a real belief in the power of disco, namely, that, yes, this would be the new musical framework, bound to assimilate and reinvent all the musical legacy of mankind. As horrible as that idea is, there is a perverse evil majesty in it, almost Nazi-style (thankfully, without the accompanying carnage), and there is no doubting the professionalism and ardor of the people involved. Nobody in his right mind will ever place ʽA Fifth Of Beethovenʼ next to the real thing — but neither would I just brush it away as a dumb, irrespectful «profanation». Maybe that is the way it was understood by all disco haters back in 1978, but today it seems more like a bit of post-modern hooliganry, and quite inventive at that. (And Murphy's organ solo in the improvised mid-section is coolishly tasteful).
The album culminates in an eleven-minute mix of the Trammps' ʽDisco Infernoʼ — maybe the length was triggered simply by the need to fill up empty space on the double LP, but the result is thoroughly symbolic: this is indeed a huge slice of «Disco Inferno», a mind-numbing, trance-inducing, thoroughly hellish trip on the fuzz disco bassline highway, wrapping it all up in a way in which the Bee Gees couldn't (just compare the grim, gritty jam section of the track with the extended version of ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ on Here At Last and see what makes a simple dance track different from... a pretentious dance track, shall we say).
In short, Saturday Night Fever, even today, lives up to its troubled reputation — it is much more than a soundtrack: it is a musical Godzilla that once threatened to demolish the big city in much the same way, with the Bee Gees acting as suave spiritual leaders and the other members of the crew carrying out rowdy soldier tasks. That said, even with all of its ideological flaws, it overflows with ideas — in an utterly perverse manner, it was really cutting edge stuff back in its day, and even these days, it may still provide some perverse inspiration. For all the guilty pleasuring, all the creativity, and all the stimulation, I give it a thumbs up — a thing I probably would never have done, were I not less than two years of age and living in the USSR back when it came out, but times, ages, and backgrounds do change, and we have to admit that.
In any case, as it turned out, the record did far less harm than, say, Aerosmith albums of the Pump / Get A Grip variety: the disproportionate success and stature of the soundtrack was certainly one of the factors that eventually helped bring disco down, rather than ensure its rule once and for all. All we have left today is a historical document, an instructive memory, a bunch of catchy and / or silly tunes, and a chance to evaluate this stuff without the context of its epoch — «no leisure suit required», as Phil Collins would probably say. Oh, and if, for some reason (like being born no earlier than in the 1990s) you have not seen the movie, do go see it — if only in memory of the late great Roger Ebert, who deservedly put it on his Great Movies list. Don't worry, the Bee Gees do not make any cameo appearances.
Check "Saturday Night Fever" (MP3) on Amazon