Counterbalance No. 129: ‘Saturday Night Fever’

Various Artists
Saturday Night Fever

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.