Bee Gees Fever
Saturday Night Fever arrived in theaters during the 1977 holiday season. Relatively unheralded when it was released, the exploration of New York’s disco subculture gained momentum in the following year, powered by a star-making performance by John Travolta and a soundtrack spearheaded by the Bee Gees.
The former was a supporting player on a sitcom called Welcome Back, Kotter. The latter had made some recent forays into R&B but were, in the public mind, a Beatlesque bunch whose biggest hits dated to the late ‘60s. Maybe the film had some potential, but, hey, another disco flick – Thank God It’s Friday, – was on its way and then it’d be time for Travolta to give up the spotlight.
Well, the film and its soundtrack became era-defining hits and the Bee Gees were suddenly the biggest thing going in an era when everything was oversized. By the spring of ’78, the two-record soundtrack had sold 10 million copies and become the biggest-grossing album in history. It’s now moved something in excess of 40 million copies and still holds a spot among the top 10 sellers of all time. Interestingly, three albums released in 1977 – Saturday Night Fever, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – are in that Top 10 list. They pressed a lot of vinyl in those days.
That landmark phase in the career of the Brothers Gibb is captured in our new Bee Gees Opus Collection, as are other stages in a sterling recording career that spanned five decades. It’s tough to depict the flashpoint impact the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had in its moment. The culture is more diffuse now and nobody sees those kinds of sales anymore, but SNF’s impact transcended film and music. The environment was transformed as disco, which had been losing steam, suddenly soared as a genre. Blue-collar bars were transformed into discothèques complete with dress codes, and a whole lot of unlikely artists flocked to the genre. (Anyone looking for a copy of The Ethel Merman Disco Album?)
The backlash was inevitable, and it wasn’t always pretty.
Today you can listen to the Bee Gees’ music with all that cultural hubbub in mind … or you can discard it and approach the likes of “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing” as genuine milestones in the development of R&B and pop. If you do that, you might just conclude that “Stayin’ Alive,” which stayed on the top of the singles charts for four weeks and remains the signature song in the Bee Gees’ extraordinary oeuvre, is still a little underrated.