Album: Saturday Night Fever
Artist: The Bee Gees
Has any group in history as undeniably talented band as the Bee Gees been subject to as much derision as they have? Even the most dedicated Bee Gees hagiographer seems to have something awful to say about the Bee Gees' disco period in general and Saturday Night Fever in particular. Indeed, recently I read an overview of the Bee Gees' career by an otherwise sensible music writer who proclaimed that the Bee Gees' disco hits thoroughly despoiled their previously well-regarded Beatles-esque 1960s pop records.
The recent death of Robin Gibb led me to re-evaluate the Bee Gees' singular accomplishment—Saturday Night Fever. In the interests of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I did not buy my vinyl copy of Saturday Night Fever in a local thrift store; I've had it for two decades. But because the album is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time, you could probably find one quite easily in a local second-hand establishment.
The album ostensibly is a soundtrack to the monster hit movie of the same name. But in reality it is a Bee Gees record with a few extras thrown in. And what a record it is. The music is groovy in the true sense of the word. You won't find the hard, pulverizing funk of Parliament or Rufus here, but you will find softer R&B-tinged light funk on the classic tracks "You Should Be Dancing," "Jive Talkin'," and the seminal "Stayin' Alive." All three are rhythmic juggernauts full of thick bass, prominent percussion, and repeated James Brown-inspired funky guitar chords. The album also contains the saccharine ballads "More Than a Woman" and "How Deep Is Your Love," both of which work because they are simple soft-rock tunes tailor-made for a movie about young stupid people dancing around at night and thirsting for true love. Elsewhere on the album are a couple of catchy disco staples, including Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You" (written by the Brothers Gibb), Walter Murphy's goofy but irresistible "A Fifth of Beethoven," and the Trammps' incredible "Disco Inferno."
Why do so many people hate Saturday Night Fever? Rock purists attack the Bee Gees for leaving their beautiful "chamber pop" and mainstream melodic rock behind for silly and sullied disco. This line of criticism is a non-starter, as the Bee Gees were hardly alone in turning to disco. The Grateful Dead gave us the bland "Shakedown Street" in 1978, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys vomited up the 11-minute disco disaster "Here Comes the Night" in 1979, and who can forget Rod "the ex-Mod" Stewart's execrable 1978 sell-out "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" And of course, the Rolling Stones did disco right with the rousing "Miss You" in 1978. No one gives Mick Jagger crap for his falsetto turn on that song, but poor Barry Gibb regularly is accused of huffing helium by snarky music writers. No, the "Bee Gees as sell-outs" narrative just doesn't make sense. My own suspicion is that the late-1970s overwrought backlash against disco was rooted in simmering but subtle racism and homophobia; after all, disco was initially a gay and non-white phenomenon. Contemporary hatred of disco seems to be based entirely on disco's bad reputation. Today's young music mavens may hate disco, but they've never actually listened to it.
Saturday Night Fever is not challenging, or innovative, or groundbreaking. But it sure as hell is entertaining.