Counterbalance No. 129: 'Saturday Night Fever'

The 129th most acclaimed album of all time comes to you on a summer breeze, keeps you warm in your love, and then softly leaves. Call it the night fever, but the Bee Gees et al are the subject of this week's Counterbalance.

Various Artists

Saturday Night Fever

US Release: 1977-11-15
UK Release: 1977-11-15
Label: RSO

Mendelsohn: It finally happened, Klinger. Disco. Disco on the Great List. I didn't think it was possible. But there it is. The list does not lie. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is the 129th most acclaimed album of all time. On a no less interesting note, this album is also the first soundtrack to make the Great List—one of only five we will ever have to talk about, should we make it that far (the other four are, The Harder They Come at 213; O Brother, Where Art Thou? at 1592; West Side Story at 1632; and The Sound of Music at 2305).

The truth is, I had spotted this album a long time ago and have been waiting eagerly to actually listen to it. I have never seen the movie and probably should have watched it as research for this piece, but I understand it is pretty much just one long rape scene and not the feel-good dance picture I always thought it was.

Klinger: Well, it's not quite that dark, but it is a good bit bleaker than the movie poster/album cover would have you believe. I was mere lad of nine when this fever swept America, and the main thing I recall is a lot of kids wearing Tony Manero t-shirts and such even though they we're nowhere near old enough to see this film. They did re-release it in a PG version, which I assume made it mostly about the dancing. But feel-good it clearly could never be. Of course, you might not realize that based on the soundtrack, which mostly passes from one uptempo disco dance number to another for 75 solid minutes.

Mendelsohn: Ah, yes it does. And as you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for electronic music, especially the variety that travels around 120-130 beats per minute. One hundred-twenty BPM is also the signature speed for disco and the human heart. Need to perform CPR? Keep time by humming "Stayin' Alive". No joke. Unless you want to write one. All of the material is there.

Anyway, I wasn't too terribly disappointed by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. In fact, I enjoy most of this album quite a bit. Except the stuff by the Bee Gees. I could do without that. I would like to be clear that I don't dislike the music the Bee Gees wrote, just the music they perform—listening to Gibb brothers sing gives me vertigo. But there you have it. I sort of like the rest of it—kitsch and all. Disco remakes of "Night on Bald Mountain" and Beethoven's Fifth? Fine by me. Seven minutes of "Calypso Breakdown"? I'm all about it. Kool and the Gang? Yes, please.

What about you, Klinger? How deep is your love for this jive talkin' album?

Klinger: Well...

Mendelsohn: Did you enjoy your stay on disco mountain?

Klinger: Um, I...

Mendelsohn: Did it cure you of your night fever and transform you into more than a woman?

Klinger: Wait, what?

Mendelsohn: Open up about this disco inferno, sesame.

Klinger: OK, stop that. I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around the notion that you enjoy the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack except for all the Bee Gees songs on it. That's like saying you'd like Double Fantasy better if that English guy would shut up. I'm reluctant to call myself a fan of this album—in fact I'm quite comfortable restricting my disco intake to romantic comedy soundtracks and the occasional Pepsi commercial—but I cannot sit idly by and allow you to defend what is clearly filler and ignore the entire reason this album has placed as highly as it has. I agree that someone could have urged Barry Gibb to save the falsetto for special occasions, but it's obviously the Bee Gees songs that keep this from being a K-Tel Disco Biggies compilation.

Mendelsohn: Did you just refer to K.C. and the Sunshine Band as filler? I think you did. I understand that this album is mainly a Bee Gees vehicle, but I think that is being unfair to Walter Murphy—especially for his excellent update to a frumpy classic. Same goes for David Shire, whose solid reworking of an ominous piece of classical music into disco nirvana is quite possible one of the most inspired things I've ever heard. Shire's Broadway-esque contributions to this album is what really pushes what could have been a forgettable exercise in disco to an over the top extravaganza that rolls along at an unstoppable 120 BPM.

Toss in gems like Ralph McDonald's "Calypso Breakdown", Mother Father Sister Brother's "K-Jee", Kool and the Gang's "Open Sesame", and more Shire with "Salsation", and you get an incredibly diverse album that touches on a variety of global dance music, not to mention funk and soul.

I'd also like to point out that there are 17 songs on this album, Klinger. Six of them belong to the Bee Gees—eight if you want to count the songs they wrote but didn't perform. The math is telling me the Bee Gees are the filler and not the other way around. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe your boogie shoes are telling you something different?

Klinger: Oh, "Boogie Shoes" is, as it turns out, a pretty good song. Better than I remember, even. It was also a pretty good song when it was originally released in 1975—two years before this album came out. In fact a lot of the songs you mention ("A Fifth of Beethoven", "Disco Inferno", even the Bee Gees' own "Jive Talkin'") had already been in circulation prior to the release of the film. "Open Sesame" was the title track from Kool and the Gang's 1976 LP. So, yes, maybe filler is a strong word for what amounts to an effective snapshot of the disco era, but it's hard to escape the feeling that these songs were included to pad the album out to double-LP length as a Robert Stigwood cash grab (perish the thought!).

Percentages aside, this is really a Bee Gees album with a Hot Disco Dance Favorites record grafted onto it. Look at the cover—you see those three guys hovering over John Travolta, beatifically grinning like gleaming white gods on Mount Polyestus? I think we have our answer here. The defense rests.

Mendelsohn: Considering that this was a Bee Gees record that was pretty much co-opted into being a soundtrack, I don't see why those three Aussies shouldn't get top billing on the cover. Plus—as a marketing ploy—it is pure gold. What other band represents the disco era as thoroughly as the Bee Gees? Had this record been strictly a Bee Gees record with no movie attached, no padding from the other hot dance tracks of the time, would we still be having this conversation? Probably not. I'm not setting out to knock the Bee Gees, they do what they do and they do it well, but what we have here is the distillation of the disco era on two slabs of wax. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is a place holder for one of the most popular and commercial viable genres to ever hit the market. The influence of disco reaches everywhere—from today's Top 40 to every soft drink commercial. Disco never died. It just got so big that we can no longer distinguish it as a separate genre.

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is where it all started. The Bee Gees form a solid foundation, but it is the rest of the songs on this album that flesh out disco's many uses and different directions. All of which, apparently, lead right back to bad fashion and silly dances.

Klinger: Disco had been brewing for a few years before it blew up into the mainstream—figuring out the exact point where it became its own entity apart from '70s soul is kind of nebulous. At a certain point the beat shifted over from the one to the three, and from then on it was just a matter of time before white people everywhere could figure out how to move to it. You're right that Saturday Night Fever marks the apex of disco as a component of mass culture. And like a lot of apexes, the seeds of its own destruction are already sown into it. In addition to being a time capsule of the successes of disco ("Stayin' Alive", which is not only a great single but also one of the best uses of song in film), it also has a few pretty good examples of its excesses ("Night on Disco Mountain" is just one silly example of an industry that would slap a disco beat on just about anything). The backlash was imminent, and a lot more lunkheaded than it needed to be. You'd think somebody could have recognized that disco, like punk, was more likely going to get co-opted and folded into the larger rock architecture than serve as rock's end of days.

Mendelsohn: And somebody could have given poor Maurice a box to stand on. He looks so tiny next to his brothers.

Klinger: That would have been thoughtful.

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Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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