Disco should’ve been dead. By late 1977, when the movie Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack were released, many of the biggest hit disco singles had come and gone: “Rock The Boat,” “Kung Fu Fighting,” “Lady Marmalade,” “The Hustle,” “Get Down Tonight,” “Love Machine,” “Disco Lady,” “Play That Funky Music,” “Disco Duck,” and more. Rock and pop acts like David Bowie, Elton John, ABBA, and others had been purposefully adding slinky guitars and insistent backbeats to their songs, to the extent that music critics were starting to rebel, looking to the nascent punk-rock movement to save them from the scourge of disco. What began as a slick, uptempo variation of R&B that thrived in gay nightclubs and black and Hispanic neighborhoods was fast becoming the new bubblegum pop: formulaic and simplistic, ideal for one-off novelty singles. And that novelty was wearing off.
Then rock promoter and manager Robert Stigwood—under the auspices of his company RSO Films—produced Saturday Night Fever, about a talented young Italian-American dancer (played by John Travolta) who deals with the pains of growing up and taking responsibility against the backdrop of the Brooklyn discotheque where he spends his weekends. Stigwood showcased his longtime clients The Bee Gees on the soundtrack, and when the movie and the album were both wildly successful, disco made an unexpected leap in the culture, from popular musical style to genuine phenomenon. Saturday Night Fever popularized the fashions, the dances, and the genre’s varying subgenres (from pop balladry to Latin rhythms), breathing a second life into disco. Even today, the film is so deeply identified with the expanded reach of disco—and disco itself is so hated by so many—that what’s often forgotten is how good and how tough of a movie Saturday Night Fever actually is. For some, the film will always be inextricably, unforgivably tied to its soundtrack.
“The picture on the front of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack isn’t the apex for Tony; it’s a step toward something higher.”
Saturday Night Fever had its roots in what was then called “the new journalism.” In 1976, British rock critic and reporter Nik Cohn wrote an article for New York magazine called “Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night,” about the working-class young men and women in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge who’d get slicked up and go out dancing at nightclubs, just like the fancy folks over in Manhattan, but without their intense self-awareness. Cohn’s piece described these disco-crazy kids as unsophisticated but fervent, using their preoccupations with their weekends to escape the drudgery of their weekdays. The story was also, Cohn later admitted, mostly bullshit. He’d channelled a first-timer’s impressions of Brooklyn through his memories of the “mod” scene in 1960s England, transferring characters from his old home to his new one. But in a weird way, Cohn’s reckless compositing—not uncommon for the cutting-edge journalists of the time—served the truth. His story wasn’t about disco per se; it was about being young and dissatisfied, stuck in a low-paying job in a materialistic culture. “Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night” set the tone for what Saturday Night Fever would be.
“More Than A Woman”
The most-remembered image from Saturday Night Fever—reproduced on the soundtrack LP’s cover—is of Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, stabbing at the air with his finger while wearing a white suit. It’s a flashy, somewhat goofy-looking representation of disco, but that’s only because it’s meant to represent Tony as his ideal self: the most popular dancer at a club that’s off the radar of New York’s socialites. Screenwriter Norman Wexler (who previously wrote Joe and Serpico) and director John Badham didn’t conceive Saturday Night Fever as a phony musical or underdog-makes-good story. Instead, they made a vivid portrait of life in Brooklyn in the gritty mid-1970s, and didn’t spare the ugliness. Tony is a bigot, a misogynist, and something of an oaf when he isn’t dancing—though he’s brighter and more sweet-natured than his Bay Ridge buddies, who are more interested in getting loaded to escape the daily grind than they are in accomplishing anything.
Saturday Night Fever’s main storyline has Tony wooing the elegant Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney)—who has a day job in Manhattan, making her more “refoined”—while partnering with her to win a big dance contest. But the real story of the film is how Tony wriggles out from the low expectations of his family and friends. His big moment of self-realization comes when he looks at his future as a hardware-store employee who gets married too young, and says, “There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself.” Badham’s lively style and The Bee Gees’ music have a lot to do with why people still think of Saturday Night Fever as escapist, but the movie never lets its audience ignore exactly what’s being escaped.
“How Deep Is Your Love”
There was a time, not too long before Saturday Night Fever, when a soundtrack like this wouldn’t have existed. There had been massively popular motion-picture soundtracks before Saturday Night Fever, but they mostly contained orchestral scores, or were for movie musicals. One of the big breakthroughs in the use of popular music in a mainstream feature film came in 1973 with George Lucas’ American Graffiti, which has a soundtrack that’s wall-to-wall pop hits from the 1950s and early 1960s. The American Graffiti soundtrack album tries to re-create the feel of the movie by weaving together 41 of those songs with the voice of disc jockey Wolfman Jack, making the LP itself an enjoyable standalone listening experience.
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack doesn’t have that kind of conceit, but it is a well-constructed record, combining pre-existing disco hits with new Bee Gees songs recorded expressly for the movie. One year later, Robert Stigwood repeated his Saturday Night Fever success with the Grease soundtrack, which took material from the original Broadway musical and added classic pop hits and new songs (including a disco theme, written by The Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb). Movie producers and the music industry quickly learned a lesson from Stigwood: There was a lot of money to be made when they worked together to create a new product, catering to people’s desire to relive movies by listening to popular songs.
Saturday Night Fever has stayed in print through the 8-track, cassette, CD, and MP3 eras, but the best way to experience it is on vinyl—not just because rhythmic music sounds especially potent via a medium that relies on friction, but because the original Saturday Night Fever album had gatefold packaging, and gatefold LP covers are awesome. Saturday Night Fever’s much-parodied cover—with Tony dancing in front of a giant portrait of the three beatifically grinning Bee Gees—isn’t that impressive, but for those who owned the album but weren’t allowed to see R-rated movies, the most important part of the package was the collection of movie stills that fill the gatefold interior. Here are more pictures of Travolta exhibiting grace and athleticism as Tony Manero, alongside shots of Tony hugging his brother, goofing around with his buddies, walking the city streets, and putting the moves on Stephanie. It takes about 75 minutes to listen to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which works out to about three and a half minutes spent staring at each of the 22 photographs inside the gatefold, imagining what Travolta would look like in motion.
“For a lot of record-buyers, this was the disco album.”
On the commentary track for the Saturday Night Fever DVD, Badham talks about how Travolta was just becoming a big sitcom star while the movie was being made, which meant they had to adjust their shooting schedule to avoid the legions of fans crowding the streets of Brooklyn to get a glimpse at Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back, Kotter. It was worth the hassle. One of the things that saves Saturday Night Fever from being miserably bleak is Travolta’s appealing balance of softness and sharpness, and the sheer physicality of his disco dancing, with its emphasis on subtle martial-arts moves and big arm gestures. In a line taken directly from Cohn’s article, a young woman smooches Tony at one point and then shrieks, “I kissed Al Pacino,” and that’s the vibe Travolta exudes in this film: the sensitive tough guy with strong ties to his ethnicity.
Badham also says in the commentary that a lot of Travolta’s funniest lines were nonsensical little ad-libs that he decided to keep in the film because they were so charmingly natural. (Example: When Stephanie asks Tony if he invented one of his dance moves, he mutters, “Yeah, I saw it on TV, and then I made it up.”) The movie doesn’t work if he’s just a mook in a suit. The arc of the story is that Tony begins to imagine a life for himself away from his bigoted friends and their ratty hangouts. The picture on the front of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack isn’t the apex for Tony; it’s a step toward something higher.
“Night On Disco Mountain”
Like Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees are so associated with disco that people sometimes forget the band had been an international hitmaker since 1966, emerging from Australia with light, Beatles-influenced folk-pop. The pre-disco Bee Gees wrote and recorded some terrific songs, combining a little of the era’s psychedelic frippery with a wistful yearning that was distinctive and personal. Those melancholy overtones carried over when The Bee Gees raced ahead of their contemporaries and embraced disco early, on the 1975 album Main Course, which contained the No. 1 hit single “Jive Talkin’,” later to appear on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The 1976 follow-up Children Of The World was another smash, led by another future Saturday Night Fever song—and another No. 1 hit—“You Should Be Dancing.” Combined with Walter Murphy’s disco/classical hybrid “A Fifth Of Beethoven”—a No. 1 for Murphy in 1976—that makes three songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack that topped the Billboard charts well before the album was released.
That’s one of the reasons the soundtrack sold so well: It’s partly a “disco’s greatest hits” album, with pre-existing songs by well-known acts like KC & The Sunshine Band, MFSB, The Trammps, and Kool & The Gang. Given that, it’s important that the soundtrack makes room for songs like Ralph MacDonald’s “Calypso Breakdown” and David Shire’s “Salsation” and “Manhattan Skyline.” The first two bring in more of an island and Latin flavor, reflecting some of the diverse ethnic roots of disco, while the latter track has the feel of a TV cop-show theme waiting to happen. (Shire, who scored The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, had a flair for that kind of rich urban bustle.) Saturday Night Fever may have intended to define disco, however incompletely, but it at least nodded to the genre’s underclass origins, as well as the more Hollywood direction the music was headed toward.
The first original single released from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the ballad “How Deep Is Your Love,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in December on 1977. In the first half of 1978, “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “If I Can’t Have You” also reached the top of the charts. The soundtrack as a whole stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts for almost half a year, from January to July of 1978. In 1979, the soundtrack won a Grammy for Album Of The Year—the first movie soundtrack to do so. (The feat was later repeated by the soundtracks for The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) The LP has sold more than 15 million copies in the United States, and reportedly more than 40 million worldwide. Global figures are hard to confirm, but it’s generally accepted that the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is one of the 10 biggest-selling LPs of all time. It was released in the decade of the mega-album—Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, etc.—and its sales are indicative of its impact. For a lot of record-buyers, this was the disco album.
“If I Can’t Have You”
Though the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is a fair survey of what disco was like circa 1977, it isn’t the best representation. A better anthology is Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story, released in 2006, which attempts to capture the kind of records influential DJ Larry Levan spun in the Paradise Garage: a mix of traditional soul music, avant-garde dance tracks, and gay anthems. Levan started working at the Paradise right around the same time the more famous Studio 54 opened, and in Saturday Night Fever terms, the Paradise Garage was the Tony Manero to Studio 54’s Stephanie Mangano. Levan’s kind of disco welcomed the disreputable. In the wake of Saturday Night Fever mania, disco songs skewed more lavish, but part of the early appeal of the genre was that there was a low barrier to entry. Like garage rock before, and electronica and hip-hop later, disco was a kind of music that people without record contracts (or sometimes bandmates) could make on the cheap and release independently.
The music on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack represented the polished, professional side of disco, but that’s somewhat ironic, given that the movie is more populist. Tony and his friends are rude to gay people and racial minorities, but Tony himself understands that it’s not really right to live in a world where “everybody’s dumping on everybody,” and where good dancers like the Puerto Rican couple he and Stephanie compete with in the big contest can’t get a fair shake. There’s an egalitarian message at the core of Saturday Night Fever: better living through disco.
Saturday Night Fever was released on December 14, 1977—a month after the album hit the racks. A year and a half later, on July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox had a double-header scheduled with the Detroit Tigers, and decided to beef up attendance by inviting popular local DJ Steve Dahl to bring his longstanding anti-disco crusade to Comiskey Park, hosting “Disco Demolition Night.” The event was a fiasco. Fans were let in on a discounted ticket if they brought in a disco record Dahl could blow up between the games, but many of those fans flung their records onto the field, then stormed out of the stands after the explosion, causing such mayhem and destruction that the second game had to be canceled (and eventually forfeited to the Tigers). But while Disco Demolition Night was embarrassment for Major League Baseball, it signaled a real change in public opinion. Look at the list of Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles in 1979: Aside from The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” and Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited,” every No. 1 from January through August is a disco song. But in the back half of the year, really only Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and the Barbra Streisand/Donna Summer duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” qualifies as disco. And in the years that followed, big disco hits were so infrequent that they were rarely classified as such. Instead, they were filed under R&B or new wave. The fever had broken.
“You Should Be Dancing”
Disco didn’t die. The fashions faded, as fashions do. Some of the superficial trappings of the disco sound—the banks of strings, the hand-claps—were replaced by entirely different superficial trappings, as happens in pop music every three years or so. The established stars who’d hopped on the disco bandwagon hopped back off. But young people still went to nightclubs and danced, to songs that could’ve passed for disco in 1977. In a way, the close identification of Saturday Night Fever with disco helped expedite the genre’s exit from widespread cultural relevance. If “disco” could be reduced to a guy in a white suit with an open collar, then all it took to kill disco was for people to stop dressing that way.
But Saturday Night Fever survives, both on film and on record, because the entire project has the confident strut of Tony Manero, striding down the street to the steady beat of “Stayin’ Alive.” Badham’s movie gets beneath the sexual aggression and violence implied by the dancers’ poses, but it also tracks through the cluttered anxiety of homes and workspaces on the way to the wide-open harmoniousness of the dance floor. And the soundtrack scores both the movie and the times, expressing the aspirations of people unwilling to let economic uncertainty and social divisions keep them from having fun.
The beat, as ever, goes on.
Next month: The Polar Express 2013 Hallmark Keepsake Ornament: “Santa’s Sleigh Bell.”