Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Stayin' Alive
Notes about the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack
I've been tracking the disco releases of 1977, month by month, throughout 2022. It was a very significant year in a number of ways, with European synthesizer records like I Feel Love, and artists like Cerrone, Space, Kraftwerk and other records having a big impact on the development of a more abstract and extended musical style. 1977 was also the year that Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage opened. And after all of those things, at the end of the year, it was also the year when the movie Saturday Night Fever was released.
This blog post complements the commentary about the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack in episode 149 of Sunshine After Dark, which I ad lib-ed after writing down these notes. My overall argument is a bit more refined there. I've cleaned these notes up a bit, but left them a little rough for the time being. The main sources for this post are: the soundtrack itself, Wikipedia, and two guardian articles, listed at the end. Another good source to look at is an article about the Brooklyn disco scene by Lenny Fontana.
I'm hoping the episode stays up on Mixcloud for at least a while (here's the link). Mixcloud limits the number of songs from one album you can include in one show, so there's a chance the algorithms will pick up my flagrant disregard for this rule at some point.
Saturday Night Fever had a huge impact on the way disco was perceived by a large number of people. Disco was not new in 1977. It was already recognized as a part of popular culture—the novelty record Disco Duck came out in 1976—but the movie and its soundtrack was arguably the moment when disco began to dominate the mainstream. Combined, the movie and soundtrack were a phenomenon unto itself. I'm going to focus on the soundtrack in this post.
The soundtrack supported the movie release, but the album was the thing people took into their homes and interacted with in a way that you couldn't do with radio. And with the publicity and hoopla of a major Hollywood cinematic release creating public attention for the soundtrack release, it had a head start on sales. The soundtrack was released on November 15th, 1977. It spent 24 weeks at #1 on the Billboard album
chart from January to July and has sold over 40
million copies worldwide, one of the best selling albums of all time.
One of the features of the disco scene up that point was that there were so many artists and new releases all the time, as I've shown over the course of this past year on the radio show. Keeping up with weekly releases would have been an impossible task for the casual listener. Disco was primarily about hot songs, whether they were found on 7", 12" or on an album. But here, finally was an album that was easily accessible, and that someone could listen to and know that hundreds of thousands of other people were listening to the same thing. It was like a public monument that everyone could visit and take the measure of for themselves to learn about this disco thing.
The soundtrack acts much more like a conventional album, following the accepted conventions of album sequencing in a time when records had two sides, a listener had to flip the record over to hear the second act and the opening cut on each side was prime real estate.
The soundtrack does not set out to highlight the DJ as the orchestrator of musical selection. It does not try to replicate the experience of a night of dancing, like Disco PAAAAARTY (1974) did, by segueing songs together. Nor does it present an authentic underground scene, like Scepter's Disco Gold I and Disco Gold II (1975) did, which compiled special extended cuts and included shout outs on the jackets to working DJs. Nor does it compile indisputable hits like Philadelphia International Classics (1977) did, released at the end of 1977 too and also a double LP.
By de-emphasizing the role of the DJ in disco culture, this concept didn't need to be explained to a mass audience, and the disco experience could be presented as a variation on the conventional artist model, where stars performed and songs floated on the sea of top 40 charts, vying for success. The importance of labels in establishing a particular sound or set of artists was also down-played.
The 2-record set is an elaborately constructed compilation, more like a musical than a DJ set with peaks and valleys. Like a musical, there are main characters and supporting characters. The Bee Gees are clearly the main characters of the soundtrack, even as they are not characters in the film, in the way that the Beatles are in Hard Day's Night, for instance. In fact, none of the new Bee Gees' songs had been written when the movie was filmed. Incidentally, Boz Scaggs' Lowdown was one song that the actors actually danced to during one of the rehearsal scenes. It was replaced by music written by David Shire, because the movie producers were unsuccessful in licensing the song.
The reason you know the Bee Gees are the main characters, starts with the fact they are pictured on the cover, looking down on John Travolta in full strut. Also on the back cover, presiding over the only two other artists contributing new material, Yvonne Elliman and Tavares. In fact, the songs that both of these artists perform on the album were written by the Bee Gees.
Next, when you look at record 1, side A, you see that it is packed with all the new Bee Gees songs, including Elliman's performance, which would be her greatest hit. So, even if a listener never heard the rest of the album, they would still come away with the impression that the Bee Gees were the stars. It doesn't hurt that the songs are undeniably catchy, right from the opening guitar riff of Stayin' Alive. But side A is essentially a conventional album side by a single artist.
All the rest of the music on the album was either at least one year old at the time of release, or composed for the movie by David Shire, a movie composer who had created music for action films like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and The Conversation. The 'stale-ness' of the older music stood out to disco aficionado's at the time, both because new records came out every week, and also because the impact of European electronic sounds from Kraftwerk, Space, and especially Giorgio Moroder, who created the synthetic pumping glide of I Feel Love for Donna Summer, had a huge effect on the evolution of the musical style over the course of 1977. That style was moving away from the star model of hit songs and towards an extended, ecstatic experience, lost in repetitious and psychedelic instrumental numbers.
But none of that is reflected in Saturday Night Fever. Instead, it's basically the sound of American disco from 1975 and 1976, plus the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees even said they felt they were making blue-eyed soul (Gibbs 2008), rather than disco. That this snapshot of the disco scene, frozen in time, was the blueprint heard by millions around the world means, arguably, that it was a conservative version of disco that took root in the mainstream.
One final point about the Bee Gees as the main characters. It is notable that there are no solo artists included on the soundtrack who might steal their limelight. Besides Yvonne Elliman, who was a minor artist, Tavares, Kool & the Gang, KC & The Sunshine Band and the Trammps were all vocal groups, and so of a kind with the Bee Gees, but none of these groups were presented as a group of personalities. Walter Murphy, Ralph MacDonald, MFSB and David Shire all contributed instrumental numbers.
Okay, so, once you've finished with the Bee Gees' opening side and you flip over to side B, you get a disco hit right away, A Fifth of Beethoven. This was actually a #1 hit on the Billboard Top 40 chart in 1976, but it had minimal impact in the underground charts. I couldn't find it on any charts in the Disco Files column for the same period (starting July 1976). It is actually a super fun and catchy song. A good cut to grab people's interest off the bat, with a tune recognizable to almost anyone. Crucially, also an instrumental cut (see paragraph above). This is followed by Tavares' version of More Than A Woman, which echoes the Bee Gee's own version on side A, like a reprise, reinforcing the importance of the main characters. Interestingly, the Tavares version was the one that charted. Next you get the first number by David Shire, the movie composer, which would recall for listeners the connection of the soundtrack to the movie, followed by Calypso Breakdown, a genuinely fun instrumental number featuring a long, drawn-out groove that is easy to get into as a dancer. This is almost like the intermission music, setting up the second act to come.
Side C, the second record, starts with another David Shire number, Night On Disco Mountain. It's an echo of the opening number of side B, being a disco version of a popular classical music melody. Also a tad campy, but fun and very dramatic. This sets up an equally fun and slightly silly number from Kool & the Gang, Open Sesame, which begins with the declaration "Open Sesame!!" followed by the sound of a gong that dies away for a very long time before a sharp snare hit starts the song proper. This is a legit number, but it's from 1976, and it serves to set up the next batch of Bee Gees songs—their previous hits—both in terms of the time frame, but also to put them in the company of other disco groups, and more to the point, predominantly black disco groups. Jive Talkin' from 1975 and You Should be Dancing (1976) remind listeners that the Bee Gees are the stars of the soundtrack, but also that they had legitimate disco hits under their belts. The closing song from KC & the Sunshine Band, Boogie Shoes, from 1975, serves the same contextualizing role that Open Sesame does.
If you've made it through the first three sides of the album and are still hungry for more, side D delivers solid numbers from the supporting cast: David Shire's Salsation, MFSB's K-Jee and the Trammps' Disco Inferno. Disco Inferno was a big hit at the start of 1977. It was released to select DJs on New Year's Eve. The Trammps were well established as producers of solid, if predictable disco chuggers by that point. This characterization of the band comes up a number of times in commentary from Vince Aletti on their releases during this period. Like Calypso Breakdown at the end of side B, this is a long song, almost 11 minutes and is probably the biggest disco hit outside of the Bee Gees numbers. So the soundtrack ends on a high note, a long extended, high-energy song bound to leave an impression. A solid anchor track. As previously mentioned, though, the Trammps are not in danger of overshadowing the Bee Gees on this album, given the sheer number of Bee Gees songs included. For good measure, they also aren't pictured on the album jacket. That distinction seems to have gone only to artists who had recorded new material, but I think you could make the argument that Disco Inferno is now closely associated with the film in the popular imagination, so it seems a bit odd.
In presenting my version of this soundtrack album on my radio show, I am more interested in everything around the Bee Gees songs than the big Bee Gees songs themselves. Not that they aren't interesting in their own right, but those songs were launched into a different galaxy far, far away from the underground disco scene—the galaxy of top 40. This album just happens to have been the vehicle. So if you imagine a cast picture of this musical journey, I've cut out the Bee Gees to look around them, a bit like the way Tom Stoppard created a play focusing on a pair of minor characters from Hamlet in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
David Shire's music is actually really great. Vince Aletti wasn't so sure, but to me, yes, it's very dramatic and it's obviously sound track music, but the session playing is top notch and the songs buzz. Since they never got a release outside the album, I'm featuring that music on the show. I really do love campy songs, so I also can't pass up the chance to play Walter Murphy. Even though the supporting cast numbers were somewhat passé at the time, they are generally well chosen, especially the MFSB and Kool & The Gang songs. I'm also really intrigued by the idea that Boz Scaggs's Lowdown was the song the movie actors actually danced to.
Another few interesting factoids about the film. Saturday Night Fever was filmed in Brooklyn, New York, between March and May of 1977. It was based on a June, 1976 article in New York magazine called "Tribal rites of the new Saturday nights" written by Nik Cohn, recently arrived in America from the UK. Later, he admitted that most of the article was made up and was actually based on his observations of mod culture and specific people he grew up with in the UK. He did actually go to Brooklyn, but did not spend much time if any in the Odyssey 2001 club. He walked around during the day to get a sense of the locale.
The Bee Gees were in the middle of recording an album when they were approached about creating music for the movie, and so some of the songs they had written for that album ended up as the core of the soundtrack. The band made the suggestion that the title of the movie be changed to Saturday Night Fever, because of the song Night Fever. Stayin' Alive was going to be called Saturday Night or something like that, but because there were already a lot of songs called Saturday Night, such as by the Bay City Rollers, they changed it to Stayin' Alive (Gibbs 2008).
Interesting to note that the film was about a dance competition and Chic had, just the same month, released its song Dance, Dance, Dance inspired by the movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They, which was about a dance competition in the 1940s.
Aletti, Vince. The disco files, 1973-1978: New York's underground, week by week. s.l.: DJhistory.com.
Fontana, Lenny. 2021. "Brooklyn stories: The kings of disco - before Saturday Night Fever." Faith (3), 3. 20-21.
Gibbs, Robin. 2008. "Flashback: 21 January 1978." The Guardian, 2008-01-20. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/jan/20/features.musicmonthly17. Accessed 2022-12-22.
Khomami, Naomi. 2016. "Disco's Saturday Night Fiction." The Guardian, 2016-06-26. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/26/lie-heart-disco-nik-cohn-tribal-rites-saturday-night-fever. Accessed 2022-12-22.
"Saturday Night Fever." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturday_Night_Fever. Accessed 2022-12-22.
"Saturday Night Fever (soundtrack)." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturday_Night_Fever_(soundtrack). Accessed 2022-12-22.
Whitburn, Joel. 1983. The Billboard book of top 40 hits: 1955 to present. New York: Billboard Publications.