The Bee Gees: 'Saturday Night Fever' (1977)

Rediscovering lost music via the vinyl bins at secondhand stores

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.

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Comments » 3

Rockner writes:

Thanks for your piece on the Bee Gees. Ironically, for an article attempting to re-evaluate and praise the Gibbs, you fall into the same traps and assumptions that have led to their astounding career being misunderstood in the States.

This is summed up by your final sentence: "Saturday Night Fever is not challenging, innovative or groundbreaking." Challenging I'll concede, because it is perfect, accessible pop and hits you on the first listen. But do any reading on how they came up with those songs and you'll see the groundbreaking innovation.

For example, the songs were all written by the Bee Gees in less than 2 weeks in France without having seen nor heard of the film. Instead, they were making songs for their next album. This means that songs like "How Deep Is Your Love" and "More Than A Woman" weren't tailor-made for the film, nor are either of them about dancing as you suggest. They are love songs written in the R&B vein the Gibbs adored, inspired by the likes of Delphonics, the Stylistics, Earth Wind & Fire and the Temptations.

"Night Fever" might sound like nothing but ear-candy, but listen to it with headphones on and hear the layers of classical strings topped with way-wah pedals melded with falsetto and natural-voice harmonies. The harmonic structure of the voices alone in songs like this is far more complex (and yes, innovative) than most people realize with Barry in falsetto, Maurice on high harmony, Robin on low harmony, Barry and Robin overdubbed in natural voice unison etc etc.

But the clincher for "Night Fever" is the song's structure. The Bee Gees hooks were so huge very few rock critics realized the song has one of the strangest structures in pop music history. Listen to it and hear how it goes:

Verse 1
Bridge 1
Verse 2 (with a completely different melody to Verse 1)
Verse 3 (back to the same melody as Verse 1)
Bridge 2 (same as Bridge 1)
Verse 4 (same as Verse 2)
Chorus and then fade.

This is so unusual for not just a pop song, but for any song. In fact you could argue, an odd structure like this is stranger and more innovative on a pop song because the song still has to be accessible.

One last point. "Night Fever" was recorded before "Stayin' Alive" and during the recording of "Stayin' Alive" the Bee Gees drummer had to return to the UK to be with an ill family member. Literally cutting the tape, the Bee Gees found a few bars of drumming from "Night Fever" and looped it for "Stayin' Alive." So it is a real drummer, but one of, if not the first, drum loop in music history.

Add to that the arrangement of the harmonies (which won them one of their 9 Grammys), the use of the violins and that Stevie Wonder inspired riff and you have one helluva song. And a clever one at that.

Kindest regards.

anownes writes:

Hi Rockner. You raise some great points. I probably should have said that the ballads SEEMED tailor-made for the movie, not implied that they actually were. I still think the true disco innovators came before the Bee Gees, but perhaps you are right that I did not give the Bee Gees enough credit for their obviously complex and amazing harmonies and arrangements. Compared to what else was happening at the time (punk, etc.), however, it's hard for me to use the word "innovative" to describe this wonderful stuff. In the end, what is most important is that we agree...the Bee Gees are great. Thanks for reading!

TomB writes:

David Shire's songs hold up well over time, in particular the soaring "Manhattan Skyline."

Triva note-the song "Disco Duck" appears in the TV version of the movie but not on the soundtrack nor on the theatrical version. Extra scenes were added to keep the running time the same after R-rated scenes were cut for TV.

"Night Fever" seemed strange at the time, like two songs grafted together. The analysis by Rockner helps to explain it.

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