The opening notes of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack have a steady, driving, tempo, the perfect music to work out to. The ideal timing for performing CPR. The opening beats of “Stayin’ Alive” are steady and vital as a heartbeat.
You might remember John Travolta walking down the street in Saturday Night Fever’s opening scenes, or any of the countless parodies that followed. But the song stands on its own, and it has for forty-four years. It’s become part of the cultural background, known but not always listened to, so much so that people are often taken aback if they take a moment to hear the desperation and sorrow in the lyrics.
It’s only the opening track, and Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack are already in perfect sync: iconic, unforgettable, and misunderstood.
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is the second-biggest soundtrack of all time (topped only by The Bodyguard; Whitney Houston also toppled the Bee Gees’ record of most consecutive #1 singles). It’s one of the enduring albums of the disco era, and even when anti-disco backlash was at its height, the songs didn’t disappear. More than half of the tracks on the soundtrack have their own Wikipedia pages, and most of them were written by the Bee Gees themselves — Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb. It includes recent disco hits repurposed for the soundtrack, a few cuts from the score, and some new tunes. Overall, it’s a pretty comprehensive statement of the disco era, if nowhere near a definitive one.
It helped that the movie was a monster hit, but the tracks also hold up pretty well on their own. The double album never escapes the disco sound (nor should it) but the songs range from instrumental riffs on classical music to love songs and full-out dance tracks.
Saturday Night Fever, the movie, is remembered primarily for the dancing. The dancing is fantastic, but it’s overshadowed the serious issues the movie takes on. Tony’s world is one where the only way to escape despair is on the brightly patterned lights of the dance floor, and sometimes even that’s not enough. “Life goin’ nowhere,” Robin Gibb sings in “Stayin’ Alive,” a dark, intense vocal almost hidden under the violins, “somebody help me/somebody help me, yeah.”
After the album announces itself with “Stayin’ Alive” — as much a thesis statement as a starting track — the album moves seamlessly into “How Deep Is Your Love,” an uncertain lover’s question. “Night Fever,” which follows, takes the soundtrack back to the dance floor. This song is the first one that’s pure escapism, a story of two lovers losing themselves on the dance floor, “prayin’ for this moment to last.” And they let the moment last with another love song, this one more certain: “More than a Woman.” (This one is the core of one of the best dance sequences in the movie.
But the euphoria doesn’t last: the next song is Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” a song that’s pretty much what it says on the box. Despite the disco beat, the song’s about longing, loss, and need. Elliman is probably best known for this single, but she had a few other hits, and the Hawaiian-born artist is known in theatrical circles for originating the role of Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and hit the Billboard charts with her version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” She also sang backing vocals for Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” appeared on several of his albums, and toured with him. The Bee Gees wrote “How Deep Is Your Love” for her, but their manager insisted they should keep that one for themselves. Elliman did all right with the song she got, though; I’m not sure, but I think she was the first artist of Japanese-American ancestry to score a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Fun fact: Without “Night Fever,’ Saturday Night Fever’s trajectory might have been slightly different. The original title of the movie had been Saturday Night, but the Bee Gees had no interest in recording a song with that title (there were already dozens of songs with the title already), but they did have a song called “Night Fever.” The producers decided to add “Fever” to the title of their movie, and the legend was born. Would a movie called “Saturday Night” have been as popular? Who knows, but I think adding “fever” was the right call.
When you flip the record over (it’s the ’70s, we really ought to do it the old-fashioned way), you’re greeted with the intense disco beat of “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Composer Walter Murphy — who would go on to compose for the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and almost everything Seth MacFarlane has put his hands on — was fascinated with pop adaptations of classical music, and his first and best attempt was this song, which was a monster hit on its own before getting added to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
There were other pop and disco “adaptations” of classical music, but “Fifth” was one of the earliest and best, using the distinctive short-short-short-LONG motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to its full advantage. The theatrics of Beethoven work beautifully for a disco song in a way a lot of other future fusions would try — and fail — to pull off.
From here, the soundtrack loses focus a little. Tavares, a group of brothers whose family hailed from Cape Verde, cover “More than a Woman,” and it’s solid, if a bit too loyal to the Bee Gees version. The band’s soul and funk influences are there in the vocal, and in an album so heavy on falsetto, it’s nice to hear some solid tenor voices. (Though the Bee Gees didn’t always use falsetto, and Tavares’ vocals soar in the final chorus.)
“Manhattan Skyline” is by David Shire, who did the orchestral soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, and it’s fine. You can feel it pushing the plot along, but that makes it less successful as an independent song, and it doesn’t quite justify its four-minute length.
“Calypso Breakdown” picks things back up. It’s a second instrumental, and while it’s also more about getting from point A to B than a destination in itself, it’s got more verve and life. Composer and performer Ralph MacDonald (you might remember his compositions “Just the Two of Us” or “Where Is the Love”) shows off his family’s Trinbagonian roots, and that lends a depth to the music that even I, a perennial disco defender, must confess isn’t always present in disco hits.
Time to get out the second record. Side three is filled top to bottom with dance tracks, and kicks off with “Night on Disco Mountain,” one of the many songs following in “A Fifth of Beethoven”’s footsteps. It’s a perfectly solid tune, but the path to how awful these adaptations would end up being is already visible. (I refer you to Hooked on Classics, a series that seemed to never end, if you really want to practice self-harm. I am not linking them. You’ll have to go on that journey on your own.)
Then it’s “Open Sesame,” a lesser-known but pretty solid tune from Kool & the Gang. They’re intrinsically bound to “Celebration,” but they have a stack of gold and platinum albums and dozens of earworms to their name (I’m partial to “Misled”). “Open Sesame,” which might be best described as disco with a touch of funk and Orientalism, is a throwaway compared to their greatest hits, but it sure is easy to dance to.
“Jive Talkin’” was the lead single from an earlier Bee Gees album and yet another #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Another song about uncertainty in relationships (though that wasn’t its initial premise), it works well to launch us into the high-octane “You Should Be Dancin’.” This is another previously released Bee Gees song, one that sets up yet another bravura dance scene. The vocals are all high, vaulting falsetto, with bone-simple lyrics celebrating sex and music. (Thanks to some fun musical synchronicity, Steven Stills provides some percussion work on this one.)
Next things take a bit of a sideways slide, into KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.” The band was pulled together by the titular Harry Wayne Casey (KC) from session musicians at the record label he worked at and a local Junkanoo band. Their sound had an appropriately sun-soaked party vibe, and you can imagine this song playing at a backyard barbecue or late-night beach party.
Flip that second record over, and David Shire is back with “Salsation,” another piece that’s more score than soundtrack. It’s mostly there for Travolta to complain about (and find a new dance partner). But it does the job.
The original “K-Jee” was a soul and funk hit in 1971 (co-written by Harvey Fuqua, founder of the Moonglows). This version was covered by a Philadelphia house band, MFSB (alternately called “Mother Father Sister Brother” or “MotherFuckin’SonovaBitch,” depending on who you ask). MFSB has a bigger orchestral sound than the original Nite Liters tune, and while they’re both solid, I think the MFSB version fits the soundtrack better. It’s just more disco.
The album goes out with a bang with the Trammps’ long and unforgettable “Disco Inferno.” It’s the soundtrack to a party that never ends, taking its title from one of the ’70s’ great disaster flicks, The Towering Inferno. “Disco Inferno’s” “one hundred stories high” tower is more bonfire than catastrophe. It’s an absolute blast, an ass-shaking party tune whose soulful vocal is backed by energetic horns and a driving beat. Years later, “Burn, baby burn” would be chanted at the infamous Disco Demolition Night. Even as people were rejecting disco, it couldn’t quite get out of their heads. (Tina Turner would later cover it on the What’s Love Got To Do With It? soundtrack. It’s not her best, but it’s still Tina.)
Disco was famously not-white and not-straight, so to have its most famous album be headlined by three straight white men was…well, let’s call it predictable, because it is. The album isn’t wholly without representation from the cultures that fueled the rise of disco, though. Most of the non-Bee-Gee performers have backgrounds in soul, funk, and elsewhere. The bands are primarily black or mixed-race; the one solo female voice on the album has Japanese and Irish ancestry.
The Bee Gees were probably the most “mainstream” of the giants of disco, but they were solid musicians. As countless re-appreciations and a recent documentary have emphasized, in their pre-disco career they put a lot of work into creating the tight, complicated harmonies that would also be present at the height of their career. They knew how to tell a story — you can draw a straight line from the pathos of “To Love Somebody” to the lovelorn lyrics of “Nights on Broadway” — and their vocals are unbeatable.
At its best, the soundtrack does what disco did so beautifully at its peak: taking influences from around the world, quite literally through space and time, to create something new, dynamic, and fun. It also contains some of disco’s great weaknesses; it’s a little indulgent, with some tracks so lyrically weak they might be better off as instrumentals (looking at you, “Open Sesame”), and doesn’t always give full credit for the host of inspirations that fuels the nonstop beats and delicious harmonies — and that’s certainly true of the second wave of disco, when music labels decided to treat it as a fad to cash in on rather than a genuine musical movement. So while the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack isn’t quite representative of what disco was, it’s a pretty good representation of what disco was perceived to be in pop culture.
As the years passed, the disco backlash rose. Many others have written about the death of disco*, so I’ll just say that aside from market forces, the life cycle of any pop culture phenomenon, and the obvious racism, sexism and homophobia at play, there was, is, and remains the maddening insistence that art has to be Very Serious. It’s what disadvantages comedies at award shows, and makes some of the Pulitzer/Booker shortlists look like competitions between the saddest, dourest tomes around. Disco might have talked about love, joy, pain and anger, but it never felt dour or “serious,” and honestly I think that was one of its greatest sins in critical eyes. (There’s a reason “it’s got a nice beat and you can dance to it” is a joke and an insult.)
Disco’s pounding beat and reputation as party music often hid the solid musicianship behind the tones. Nile Rodgers, founding member of Chic, went on to supply the backbone to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and produce countless post-disco successes. A few acts like Donna Summer and the Pointer Sisters managed to emerge from disco into success in the ’80s (and in some cases, beyond). It’s likely that some of the other stars of the era (particularly Sylvester) might have made a comeback later in life if HIV/AIDS hadn’t cut so many lives and careers tragically short. There was always something more in disco, if you could be bothered to listen, just as there was more than dance numbers backing up Saturday Night Fever.
* Disco never died, and if you don’t believe me, listen to “I Feel Love,” also from 1977, and any contemporary EDM tune back to back.
The You’re Wrong About podcast gets into more of the history of disco in their Disco Demolition Night episode, which doesn’t quite give the Bee Gees their due but does get into more about how the disco backlash started and was sustained, and how much disco never really “died,” just evolved into hip-hop and dance music. It’s also just a fun listen.