In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1978: Saturday Night Fever (The Original Movie Soundtrack)
In Saturday Night Fever, our lead character Tony Manero is a teenager living a stagnant life in the gritty streets of ‘70s Brooklyn working a dead-end job at a paint store while living with a family that doesn’t respect him. He only finds real fun and enjoyment when he goes out with his friends to the local disco on Saturday nights where his dancing makes him the king of the disco. Throughout the film, we see his already bleak life fall apart around him to the point where even dancing isn’t an escape anymore. There’s a gang fight, racism, his family disowning his brother for quitting his job as a priest, his friend Bobby C falling to his death from the Verrazano Bridge, his friends raping a woman they know Annette while Tony himself attempts rape on his dance partner Stephanie. All in all, it’s a pretty dark movie.
But in our popular culture, Saturday Night Fever has mostly been remembered by the image of John Travolta in a three-piece suit on the disco floor pointing his finger to the sky and the opening scene of him strutting down the sidewalk. For me and many others, the film has acted as a major cultural signifier of the ‘70s and a lot of that has to do with the music that soundtracked these moments.
Saturday Night Fever, the movie, did big numbers at the box office when released before Christmas 1977. It grossed over $237 million at the box office over a $3.5 million budget quickly becoming the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1977 behind Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the soundtrack arguably had a bigger impact on pop culture. From January to July 1978, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the #1 album in America for 24 straight weeks. It had four singles that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a new record for #1 hits off an album building on and topping the blockbuster singles success seen by Rumours, the previous year’s best-selling album. When you combine it with three previous #1 songs on the album, you have seven #1 songs. Fever quickly became the new best-selling album of all time, a title it kept for a few years until Michael Jackson’s Thriller overlook it. It was also the best-selling soundtrack album until the Whitney Houston-led Bodyguard soundtrack supplanted it. Current estimates put sales of Fever at over 16 million copies in the US alone. In 1978, you could not ignore it.
This blockbuster success helped catapult everyone involved to superstar status. Travolta graduated from a teen idol TV actor on Welcome Back, Kotter to immediate A-list actor soon capitalizing on his Fever success with the silly retro ‘50s musical adaptation of Grease which became 1978’s biggest film and its soundtrack finished right behind Fever as the #2 album of the year and even had some hits himself from singing in Grease including the #1 “You’re The One That I Want.” For the Bee Gees, the act that wrote the new songs for the movie that would become the big hits, the soundtrack brought them to a level of fame that only the Beatles had previously experienced. It also blew disco, the music genre prominently features on the movie and the soundtrack, wide open into the mainstream becoming the dominant form of pop music in the late ‘70s before it would come crashing down.
By this point, the Bee Gees had been in the midst of a major comeback. After the brothers of Robin, Maurice, and Barry Gibb broke out in the late ‘60s with lush psychedelic pop hits, the Bee Gees hit #1 in America with the somber reflective acoustic ballad “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” in 1971. But after that, they struggle almost getting dropped from their label. By the suggestion of Eric Clapton, the brothers moved to Miami and started hooking up with legendary producer Arif Mardin helping them adapt to an American R&B sound. Mardin’s assistance proved to help big time as their 1975 album Main Course spawned their second #1 hit, the driving R&B groove of “Jive Talkin’.” The follow-up “Nights On Broadway” proved to be more important to the group as it unlocked a crucial weapon for success which was Barry Gibb’s distinctive falsetto. Their 1976 album Children of the World was also a success with another classic #1, the disco jam “You Should Be Dancing.” The Bee Gees were already doing well for themselves and working on another album in 1977 when they were approached to submit songs for their boss’ low-budget disco movie.
The group’s manager Robert Stigwood bought the film rights to a New York magazine article called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night which was a profile on the rising disco scene in Brooklyn. (Writer Nik Cohn would later admit to making up much of the story.) During post-production, Stigwood had an idea for some new Bee Gees songs to include in his film. Recording at France’s Château d’Hérouville for their new album, the Bee Gees began coming up with songs for Stigwood’s film despite having little idea about what it was about aside from a rough script presented to them. Through one weekend, the brothers wrote “If I Can’t Have You,” “Night Fever,” “More Than A Woman,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.” (That might just be the single greatest creative burst ever in music.) Stigwood loved the songs but wanted them to write a song called “Saturday Night” after the initial film title but refused feeling it was an overused title and with “Night Fever,” Stigwood combined it with Saturday and got his new film title as well as giving “If I Can’t Have You” to Jesus Christ Superstar actress and Eric Clapton backup singer Yvonne Elliman.
In marketing for the film, Stigwood placed a big emphasis on the music releasing the first single “How Deep Is Your Love” in September 1977 with the soundtrack being released in November. At the time this was an unusual move. It’s not that pop music and film hadn’t worked together before. A decade earlier, Simon & Garfunkel’s music in The Graduate led the film and its soundtrack to major hit status and showed how filmmakers could use current pop music to increase a film’s popularity. But Stigwood released the first single and album well before Saturday Night Fever, the movie, was in theaters. The week after Saturday Night Fever hit theaters, “How Deep Is Your Love” went to #1 with the soundtrack hitting the top a few weeks later. This meant that people were getting invested in the music before they even saw the film. They were enjoying the music on its own merits rather than because of seeing it in the movie. In the decades since, this tactic of releasing soundtracks and singles from a movie before its release to build up hype has become commonplace thanks to what Saturday Night Fever proved.
Listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack today, it still remains, like the movie itself, a fun time capsule of an album giving us a collage of the biggest acts of disco, funk, and R&B music. The filmmakers use a lot of songs and artists that you would’ve plausibly heard at a disco in the late ‘70s from the aforementioned Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Kool & The Gang, “A Fifth of Beethoven,” “Disco Inferno,” etc. Despite being cut from the film, “Jive Talkin’” is included on the soundtrack probably as a reminder that it kickstarted The Bee Gees’ comeback but I’m not complaining. A lot of these songs still hold up today as certifiable bangers. Even the songs I don’t care for that much are still a fun time.
Even though the Bee Gees didn’t know much about Saturday Night Fever when writing their songs, their hits do touch on the basic themes that the movie tries to convey. “Stayin’ Alive” is about keeping yourself alive in a world that’s been pushing you around since you were born. “Night Fever” touches on how a night on the dancefloor can be a magical experience. “How Deep Is Your Love” is someone questioning a partner’s devotion to them in a world that seems to tear them apart. It’s all vague but to me, it helps in these song’s timelessness beyond the movie and the disco craze. We all know that these songs are from Saturday Night Fever and can picture the scenes in our head that used one of the songs but they’re also good enough to stand on their own as good music.
The film makes great use of these songs for the most part. The opening shot of John Travolta walking down the sidewalk wouldn’t be as legendary if it wasn’t for “Stayin’ Alive” and its urban style strut soundtracking it all. “Night Fever” perfectly captures the excitement of a night out playing in two parts the first being Travolta in his bedroom getting his clothes on for the disco and the other scene being at the disco showing dancers joining close together in a group hustle. “More Than A Woman” is beautifully used during Tony and Stephanie’s dance contest performance. But my favorite use of music in the movie would have to be “You Should Be Dancing” playing as Travolta’s character takes over the dancefloor and gives a crazy energetic performance set to a very energetic song. You can’t help but keep your eyes on him the whole scene.
One of the weirdest uses of music is in the ending when Tony takes the subway to Manhattan after Bobby C has jumped off the Verrazano Bridge to see Stephanie, the night after he tried to rape her. After talking, the both of them agree to be friends as Tony starts a new life with the film ending on the shot of them holding one another. During that ending, we get “How Deep Is Your Love” playing over it which I won’t say is ill-fitting but strikes me as odd. You have what’s basically a love song playing over a scene where two people agree to be friends after one of them attempted rape on the other. Still doesn’t take away from another great song from the movie but it’s a weird fit.
Aside from the Bee Gees and John Travolta, the other major beneficiary of the Saturday Night Fever blockbuster was the entire genre of disco music. At the start of the ‘70s, disco had started out underground in Black and gay clubs in places like New York where they’d dance to a lot of the soul music coming out at the time especially from Motown and Philadelphia which provided the early framework for this music with its heavy orchestrations, steady four-four rhythm, chicken-scratch guitars, and busy bass lines. European producers like Giorgio Moroder took disco and mechanized it while also doing a lot of cool shit with it. Eventually, artists began to make music with this crowd club in mind which eventually started crossing over to the wider pop mainstream which is how we wind up with Saturday Night Fever, the moment when you could no longer ignore disco and its impact.
The success and exposure Saturday Night Fever brought to disco made many who were involved with the music uncomfortable with the fact that this style was now being appropriated for mainstream white audiences. Disco is a genre pioneered by minorities yet its biggest cultural phenomenon was a movie centering on a white Italian American at a largely white disco with its big hits being performed by a white act that had been struggling before attaching themselves to the new sound and in the process being seen as the top group in the genre. I get this feeling and yet it’s hard to get all worked up listening to the soundtrack. The Bee Gees knew what they were doing and were so good at it. Really who wants to be angry at Saturday Night Fever.
With the success of Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees found themselves not just dominating the charts with their classic hits but also dominating with songs they wrote for other artists whether it was their baby brother solo star Andy Gibb who rode their wave of success to three instant #1 hits including the top song of 1978 with “Shadow Dancing,” Yvonne Elliman with “If I Can’t Have You,” or Frankie Valli with the title theme from Grease. Songs written by The Bee Gees were at #1 for more than half of 1978 and at one point held the top two songs in America on the Hot 100, something that hadn’t happen since the Beatles at their 1964 Beatlemania peak. The soundtrack also wound up winning Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammys, the first soundtrack to be awarded the big prize.
You couldn’t repeat that type of success but to the Bee Gees’ credit they pulled off the hard act of following up a blockbuster better than most other artists. They released Spirits Having Flown, their first proper studio album since 1976’s Children of the World, in February 1979 and it was another major seller finishing as 1979’s #2 album and its first three tracks, “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” and “Love You Inside Out” were instant #1 hits tying them with the Beatles for the most consecutive #1 hits at six which Whitney Houston would eventually best a decade later. They organized the Music for UNICEF all-star charity concert at the United Nations and spent much of 1979 on tour to sold-out crowds. The Bee Gees were so untouchable in the late ‘70s that they could star in the notorious disaster that was the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie and easily bounce back from it. That wouldn’t last much longer.
With The Bee Gees and disco music, in general, becoming hugely inescapable and overplayed on the charts and in the larger pop culture, a backlash was bound to happen. A backlash came to a head in July 1979 when Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl organized his listeners to bring disco records to a Chicago White Sox doubleheader game for them to be publicly burned as part of a promotional stunt. The records were burned before shit got out of hands and attendees stormed the field causing a riot. While what would become known as Disco Demolition Night didn’t immediately kill disco, it has served as the public image of the backlash leading to lots of discussion over the undercurrents of bigotry that influenced an event of largely white guys publicly denouncing a genre driven by racial and sexual minorities.
In any case, disco soon suffered a dramatic drop in popularity with the entire genre essentially being blacklisted from the industry and “Disco Sucks” becoming a popular catchphrase. As the group associated with the biggest blockbuster of disco, The Bee Gees were hit especially hard with radio stations refusing to play their music and their subsequent albums and singles bricking hard. They wouldn’t get another Top 10 hit until “One” a decade later in 1989. But that wasn’t the end of The Bee Gees’ story. The brothers used their talents as songwriters to transform themselves as behind the scene songwriters making hits for other artists including Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick and got themselves more hits because of it. Even though the public was sick of Bee Gees songs, they were fine with soundalike songs coming from other artists.
Right now, Barry is the only Bee Gee and only Gibb brother left standing after Andy died first in 1988 from years of drug use before Maurice died in 2003 from a heart attack and Robin died in 2012 from liver cancer. In recent years, Barry has been actively carrying on the music that made him and his brothers super-famous right as the public began to re-appreciate The Bee Gees’ music. There’s been a solo tour, a Grammy tribute celebration, performances at the Glastonbury Festival, an extremely entertaining documentary that I wrote about, and this year an album where Barry reimagines his Bee Gees songs as country collaborating with many country artists.
Also benefitting from a cultural re-appreciation is disco music. After a period of time when people acted embarrassed by disco, it became cool again in recent times to like the music with people also understanding its long cultural impact. The truth is that disco has always been around even when Americans started acting too cool for it. It just lingered around and influenced the dance music that came after. Recently, disco has flared up in the pop mainstream with Daft Punk’s final and biggest album Random Access Memories basically being one long love letter to the genre and recent artists like Dua Lipa scoring unabashedly disco-flavored hits. Those idiots in Chicago tried but in the long run, disco won out staying very much alive all these years later.
Honorable mention: Steely Dan’s Aja, 1978’s #5 best-seller, is essentially an adult album about adult things yet even for my young self I can admit this is a perfectly made album with its slick and jazzy inspired production making Aja a good listen and helping to form what we now know as yacht rock where you can just imagine the kinds of rich guy ventures it would soundtrack.
Next time: Billy Joel follows up his pop breakthrough by showcasing a jazzier side of himself on 52nd Street