It looks like I took off 2020 completely from doing any installments of The People’s Albums, but I’m still so close to finishing out this seven-year journey that I just gotta keep pushing. Also, after catching up with The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart? and the film Saturday Night Fever this past week, I finally feel ready to assess this cornerstone of the disco movement.
Album: Saturday Night Fever (The Original Movie Soundtrack)
Artist: The Bee Gees / Various Artists
Release Date: November 15, 1977
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 16 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves To Dance Its Pain Away
It’s impossible to talk about the success of this album without talking about the success of disco. Not only because the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever (and the film it accompanied) skyrocketed disco into this ubiquitously popular thing, but also because the film/soundtrack in many ways cashed in on disco’s steadily rising popularity in the mid-to-late ‘70s. Like many of my entries in The People’s Albums, I can only speculate why this form of music was so massively popular (since it arrived on the scene far before my time), but in the context of the decade it’s forever linked with, it makes a lot of sense.
Just from a musical standpoint, the worlds of pop and R&B had been heading towards disco for a while by the mid-70’s. You had the Philly soul sound that brought a class and sophistication to R&B that built even more on Motown’s polished aesthetic of making black music that was more palatable to a white audience. You additionally had the harder funk elements of P-Funk and James Brown that proved that music committed completely to a groove could be intoxicatingly fun to move your body to. Then on top of that, you had the slickness and pristine AM radio sounds that a lot of pop artists were leaning into as recording techniques and studio musicianship reached its absolute height before the pop world turned to the more synthetic instrumentation of the ‘80s.
While these styles of music became more and more popular, it also seemed like people were just looking more and more for something to dance to. Not only because the arena rock and folk rock that dominated the early ‘70s was pretty much impossible to dance to, but also because the pressure and chaos of living through that era gave people a need to let go of their troubles and dance like their lives depended on it. People often talk about Star Wars being this big phenomenon in 1977 because America had gone through Vietnam and Watergate and just needed some sort of escape from a very tough decade, and I think that mindset applies to disco as well. Though in this case, it started as this escape for the black and gay communities living in large cities that were suffering from urban decay. But by the time Saturday Night Fever hit, disco became this thing that everybody could get lost in.
You could certainly debate how much The Bee Gees’ white-ness helped them become the biggest act in disco, but considering the other biggest artists of the disco era were the likes of Donna Summer and The Village People, it’s hard to say for sure. What I think isn’t debatable is how well-suited The Bee Gees were to adapt to this emerging genre of music when they started to incorporate these slicker, funkier elements into their sound on 1975’s Main Course. Not just because those early Bee Gees disco singles are elementally danceable, but also because the brothers Gibb use their voices in a way that’s so unique and distinctive that I don’t think any other disco acts ever really came close to replicating that Bee Gees sound. Additionally, their background in writing Beatle-esque pop songs in the late ’60s gave them an edge in bringing a melodic quality to their songwriting that I think tapped into a broader pop audience than a lot of disco acts were able to do.
Then there’s of course the popularity of the film Saturday Night Fever itself. There are plenty of great movies with decently successful soundtracks (The Graduate, Pulp Fiction) and there are also massively successful soundtracks from decent-to-lousy movies (Purple Rain, The Bodyguard). But Saturday Night Fever is the most perfect example I can think of of a great movie that was a big hit (despite being much darker and grittier than everyone remembers) that also has an equally great soundtrack that was even more successful than a movie was already a huge unexpected hit in its own right. So because both the film and its soundtrack managed to capture an era and a feeling so perfectly, their greatness fed off of each other into this zeitgeist-defining moment that managed to make everyone involved a lot of money.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Considering this is almost undeniably the definitive disco album, yeah, of course it deserved to be popular. And while it is a bit strange for the definitive album of an incredibly popular and influential genre to be a movie soundtrack album, here it makes sense. Disco wasn’t a genre defined by well-known stars and wasn’t really an album-based genre, since it was best enjoyed at a club where a DJ was spinning all kinds of different artists in heart-pounding succession. So the fact that the SNF soundtrack is composed of a variety of the best disco tracks at the time (everything from “Disco Inferno” to “A Fifth of Beethoven”) makes this album feel like a night at the club where the DJ is playing banger after groovy banger. The addition of David Shire’s instrumental compositions from the film seem like they may bit a bit outside of this vibe, but considering how deliciously they combine disco grooves with a Hollywood film score aesthetic, I have no problem with them being thrown into the mix.
Though really what makes this album is the songs The Bee Gees recorded specifically for the film that kick off side A of this double album. There’s a moment in the Bee Gees documentary that recently came out on HBO where their producer talks about receiving a tape of demos for the songs that would make up this first side, and it’s just insane that they were just like “yep, this is what we got for your dance movie”. “Staying Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love?”, “Night Fever”, and “More Than A Woman” are all just a perfect mix of dance-able but also swooningly romantic disco tracks, so it’s unsurprising that all four songs were giant hits and make it even less surprising that an album containing all four of these songs for the first time would become a monster seller.
Would I Spend Money On This?
I believe I paid 99 cents for this record at a thrift store in San Diego when I was thinking about getting back into vinyl, but hadn’t actually bought a record player yet. When I finally bought a turntable and stereo set-up a couple months later, I was a bit skeptical about whether getting back into vinyl would be a worthwhile endeavor at that point in my life (especially when I wasn’t exactly brimming with cash to spend on a new hobby). However, when I heard that luscious, harmony-laden intro to “How Deep Is Your Love?” coming out of my speakers with the kind of warmth and depth that you can only get from analog, I knew I’d made the right choice.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: Enter night, exit light. Next time I’ll be off to never-neverland, talking about Metallica’s The Black Album, because nothing else matters.