About a month before the film debuted in December 1977, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was released to the public, becoming a near-instant sensation. The album is an hour and fifteen minutes comprised of 17 disco tracks. It’s mostly associated with the pop band The Bee Gees, who contributed six songs – two of which have covers featured on the album in addition to the originals – but there are 6 other disco hits, by artists such as Kool & The Gang, KC & The Sunshine Band and the Trammps. The album’s incredible success – eventually going Platinum fifteen times – crystallized the popularity of disco music and culture at the time, and most likely has contributed to making the film itself a sometimes-beloved classic.
The film itself is a muddy mess of misogyny and unlikable characters, but it is worth watching entirely because of the moments it comes alive on the dance floor with star John Travolta’s skinny, slinky hips and legs moving to the unmistakable sound of the Bee Gees. The gritty portrayal of New York City in the 70s combined with the seductive glamour and bright lights of the disco floor was attractive to audiences, and finally pushed the culture of disco, long thriving underground with urban minority and queer audiences, into the mainstream.
What makes Saturday Night Fever so indelible is that it partially works as an introduction to, and crash course in, disco music and culture in one handy record. This single-record crystallization of the craze also had to signal the end of the golden age, by virtue of its being such a perfect sum. Where else could you go from there? Even now, 40 years after the release, the album is considered shorthand for disco music, and the Bee Gees sound created for the album is an easy reference for The Disco Sound, despite the band not being too involved with disco for its first several years.
It seemed so intentional and fortuitous at the time, but the collaboration with the Bee Gees was not even considered until the film was in post-production. While filming, Travolta and his co-stars were dancing to music by the likes of Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. When Scaggs decided not to give the film the rights to his music – pursuing an opportunity with another potential disco movie instead – the producer Robert Stigwood turned to the Bee Gees. The English fraternal trio had already been releasing records for over a decade by then, and were in the midst of recording an new one in France when they received a “rough script” from Stigwood and a question as to whether they had “any songs on hand,” according to members Barry and Robin Gibb.
The songs the band presented to Stigwood included five songs – “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman” and “If I Can’t Have You” – that were originally written and recorded to be a part of a regular Bee Gees record. Although the contribution of these songs to the soundtrack could be seen to have “lost” the Bee Gees an album, culturally the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is often considered kind of a Bee Gees album. Their images are featured prominently on the album cover, and in all shorthand remembrances of the band they are the “Stayin’ Alive’” singers. When artists or impressionists “do” the Bee Gees costumed in late-70s leisure suits or all-white, reminiscent of the soundtrack’s cover. Ultimately, if you are able to name just one Bee Gees song, it is most likely from Saturday Night Fever.
The reception of the album was incredible. It reached the number one spot on album charts in numerous countries around the world, only failing to do so in France and Japan (reaching the oh-so-low positions of 7 and 3 respectively). The Bee Gees won a 1978 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Group Performance for “How Deep Is Your Love,” as well as 1979 Grammys for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for Saturday Night Fever album, Best Arrangement of Voices for “Stayin’ Alive” and Barry Gibb, Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson won Producer of the Year. Of course, the album itself won Album of the Year, becoming the first soundtrack to do so (only two others, The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, have since won the award). It was also the only disco album to win Album of the Year, a fact which makes a lot of sense as disco was probably at its peak when the soundtrack was released, and the record puts a lot of the mainstream disco hits or groups into one place. The album’s success of course contributed to the legacy of those songs (like “Disco Inferno,” “Boogie Shoes”) and their place in the popular canon as archetypal “Disco Songs.” The album was literally canonized in 2013 when it was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for long-term preservation.
Ultimately, the booming success of Saturday Night Fever worked more as a definitive announcement of an unavoidable trend in the culture, rather than being a singular work of art. The disco songs are, of course, established classics now, and the Bee Gees tunes are pretty iconic. That is partially due to the images associated with the songs in the movie – who can see it and then listen to “Stayin’ Alive” without seeing Travolta absolutely strutting down the sidewalk, or hear “How Deep Is Your Love” without seeing a forlorn Tony Manero in his suit riding the grimy subway? What’s most ironic about the album’s worldwide success is that it started the beginning of the end of real disco. The movement started in the early 70s, with primarily Latin, African American, Italian American, psychedelic and gay club-goers in a few major American cities. Disco was only able to be delivered to mass audiences via fairly dorky-looking (and sounding) English white men, who were pretty new to the genre.
Once a purposefully underground culture gets taken that mainstream, it’s over. Just a year and a half after Saturday Night Fever, disco haters would gather in a baseball field to smash and burn disco records. Nevertheless, Saturday Night Fever remains a classic last call for disco fans and all of the folks out there who “should be dancin’.” The most famous song from the album is too-aptly titled, as this album continues to live long and remind us that disco was a very real, very groovy dance movement that was meaningful to many people. After all, that’s really what Saturday Night Fever, the movie, is about – the joy, and often the necessity, of losing yourself on the dance floor.