Top of the Pops: Saturday Night Fever

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July 4, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

For however prominent grunge or hipster culture was, never had there been a movie made specifically about these sub-cultures.  Even hip-hop never had a movie made about its effect on society.  Films like Boys in the Hood and Menace II Society aren’t specifically about rap culture, but more about the shared society from which gangsta rap arose from.  What makes the disco movement so interesting is both the enormity of the sub-culture, and the fact that it remains the only fad that was actually murdered out of existence.  Like all movements, fads, and sub-culture, the disco movement had its own peak before quickly being snuffed out like an insolent Icarus who had grown too big for his own britches.

Grunge culture peaked during the 1992 MTV VMA’s when Axl Rose finally lost his cool and challenged Kurt Cobain to a fight.  The hipster movement climaxed in 2010 when it was still obscure enough to be trendy and sincere, but still unpolluted by commodification.  The peak of the disco era came in the form of Saturday Night Fever and its flawless accompanying soundtrack.  Save for Purple Rain, no other (good) movie has been eclipsed by its soundtrack than Saturday Night Fever.  And for a movie that captures the zeitgeist of the late 1970s the way that Saturday Night Fever did, being overshadowed by its soundtrack demonstrates just how significant and reflective the album was to that era.

How could anyone have imagined that the BeeGees, a soul band from Australia, would have spearheaded the greatest disco album of all time, and one of the greatest dance albums ever produced?  Yet with a little help from Yvonne Elliman, Kool and the Gang, and KC and the Sunshine Band, this is exactly what happened.  Not only is the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack a disco album, it’s an ode, a tribute to disco, as all 17 tracks revolve around this theme of patronage like a funky solar system rotating around a central star to a four-to-the-floor beat.

Although the Gibb brothers wrote about half of the songs on the album, they only perform on six of the seventeen tracks, leaving the other two-thirds of the album to be divvied up between the songs not sung by the BeeGees, and the instrumental tracks.  While the BeeGees are undisputed MVP of the soundtrack, Yvonne Elliman gives an impassioned effort on the timeless “If I Can’t Have You”, a song that probably would have gotten lost in the shuffle if it was song by the Gibb brothers as originally intended.  Likewise, KC and the Sunshine Band bring a levity to the album with the morning wood anthem “Boogie Shoes”, a post-coital romp that decrees “I want to do it til I can’t get enough”.  Kool and the Gang’s contribution, “Open Sesame” is a funk infused disco jam that must have been produced by a spastic and schizophrenic Flash.  There’s so much going on from the Middle-Eastern inspired bridge to the melting hook that it’ll take multiple listens to really appreciate its frenetic intent.

The closest thing that the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack has to a blemish is the inordinate number of instrumentals.  The fact that there are three consecutive instrumentals on this album would almost be enough to drag it down if not for the fact that even the most boring instrumental track still pays homage and tethers itself to the teat of Mother Disco.  “Manhattan Skyline”, “Calypso Breakdown”, and “Night on Disco Mountain” can all be skipped without the album losing any of its inherent value.  The only exciting instrumental is “A Fifth of Beethoven”, a modern reimaging of the classic symphony.  If not for “Disco Inferno”, penultimate track “K-Jee” would serve as a most fitting epilogue to the album, as it sounds like the dawn of a new day, a new day that will eventual descend into the very same night that preceded it filled with immature decadence, hedonistic madness, and regret.

Every song recorded by the BeeGees however proves to be a rousing success.  Their version of “More Than a Woman” is superior to the Tavares version, while “Staying Alive” has become the most widely recognized disco song ever recorded.  “How Deep is Your Love”, a tender ballad that probably would have been the soundtrack to my first kiss had I been alive in the 1970s, proves to be the standout track on an album rife with memorable songs.  The sister songs “Night Fever” and “You Should be Dancing” reflect the tempered excitement of getting ready to prowl the street looking to satisfy some insatiable lust, and uncontrollable excitement of being right in the heat of the moment respectively.

Every decade has that one album that perfectly captures and summarizes the ideals and culture of those 10 years.  The album of the 1960s was Let it Bleed, the album of the 1980s was Purple Rain, and the album of the 1990s was Achtung Baby.  While there’s no clear cut album of the 1970s, the case could certainly be made for the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, as it superbly captured the essence of the disco craze which took the nation by storm for three years.  What it comes down to, is that you can’t think of the 1970s without thinking of disco, and you can’t think of disco without thinking of Saturday Night Fever and its accompanying album.  The soundtrack was the ultimate sign of the times, and no album since has been able to commercialize, simplify, and reflect the zeitgeist of its era.

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