The soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever sold more than fifteen million copies by the end of the seventies — that’s enough records to fill every inch of our record shop, floor to ceiling, more than ten times. Crate digging collectors know it as one of the most ubiquitous albums of its era, though the album remains popular enough that copies reliably pass through nearly ever record shop in the country.
“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees
Saturday Night Fever is synonymous with the disco era, with songs from the soundtrack, specifically “Stayin’ Alive,” a sort of pop culture shorthand. Many mistakenly assume the monstrously popular double LP was disco’s driving catalyst — on the contrary its success sustained its reign just as it seemed to be running its course.
Over the course of several years, the brothers Gibb had a hand in so many hits at the top of the charts that there grew an inevitable backlash: by 1980 “top 40″ stations were announcing “Bee Gee free weekends.” The Bee Gee’s sales never recovered — after absolutely ruling the world of pop music for a half decade, they wouldn’t see a single near the top of any chart again until 1989.
During the long and lean years after “Stayin’ Alive” the Bee Gees lamented the disco label they couldn’t shake. In the decade leading up to Saturday Night Fever the trio had produced a remarkably varied catalog, with everything from Stax-style southern soul (with “To Love Somebody,” said to be a song inspired by Otis Redding) to story-telling folk rock (“New York Mining Disaster 1941″) — these all appearing on their first LP issued outside Australia, Bee Gees 1st. “Sweetheart” on 1970s Cucumber Castle (this writer’s favorite Bee Gees album) felt for all purposes like a fine tune for Charlie Rich, while “IOIO” on the other side was their first foray into what we’d later call “world music” in the era of the Bee Gee’s commercial decline.
Such was the diversity of the Bee Gees’ music that they had a b-side which reached the top forty of the country charts in 1979, “Rest Your Love on Me.” The song was an outtake from Children of the World. Conway Twitty’s cover of it the following year was a #1 hit.
Still, the Bee Gees are inexorably entwined with the ambiguous legacy of disco, unable to re-invent themselves in the 90s as a certain actor somehow could — all due to their agreement to contribute five songs, which they had already recorded for what would have been the follow-up album to Children of the World, to a film project that didn’t even have a name or plot at the time. Saturday Night Fever is, of course, a great movie, if that’s what you’re into. Here at Hymie’s we’re defiantly low-brow in our taste for film, and we’d rather watch Airplane! with its parody scene in which John Travolta’s iconic dance move is not to “You Should be Dancing” as in Saturday Night Fever but a sped-up version of “Stayin’ Alive.”
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is surely one of the most-often parodied record jackets, lending to its camp charm. Look by the office door at Hymie’s and you’ll find a little image of MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Newman in a white suit displaying the familiar peacock stance from that first dance scene in the film. The most satisfyingly silly take on Saturday Night Fever was this 1977 Sesame Street LP in which Grover, Cookie Monster and the whole gang react to the fever sweeping the sweetest street on Earth.
“Sesame Street Fever”
Sesame Street Fever was a surprise hit, as was the Boston Pops’ Saturday Night Fiedler. You’ll find the latter in the “classical gasp” section here at Hymie’s. And then there’s whatever Ceppelin is. Your guess is as good as ours.
“Stayin’ Alive” by Ceppelin
What’s remarkable about “Stayin’ Alive” that’s lost in all these various parodies and re-recordings is its relentless drive, so perfectly suited to the song’s manic narrative. Take a CPR class and they’ll tell you it’s the perfect rhythm for chest compressions — it’s the beat of staying alive. Ironically, its a rhythm born out of death, specifically that of session drummer Dennis Byron’s mother. Without him to complete the recording session, the Bee Gees cut a break out of “Night Fever,” already recorded, and looped it — this is why the song has such an intense push. “Stayin’ Alive” is in a sense one of the earliest hip hop beats.On the soundtrack the drummer is credited as Bernard Lupe, a nod to jazz drummer Bernard Purdie. The former, fictional character, became a sought-after sideman in the years the followed.
Of course, Bernard Purdie may well have played the song at some point. Seems like everybody did for a little while there, even Lionel Hampton (the drummer on this 1978 album was Al Foster).
“Stayin’ Alive” by Lionel Hampton