The ground­break­ing ‘Satur­day Night Fever’ sound­track was re­leased 40 years ago, writes JOHN MEAGHER

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

David Shire cut his movie com­poser teeth on some of the great para­noia thrillers of the 1970s. It was his spooky, pi­ano-based score that helped el­e­vate The Con­ver­sa­tion — di­rected by his then brother-in-law Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola — into one of the great films of the decade. And he also was in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing the sound of two of the era’s defin­ing movies, The Tak­ing of Pel­ham One Two Three and All the Pres­i­dent’s Men.

But in 1977, he worked on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent film — one that re­quired an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent score. That pic­ture was Satur­day Night Fever, a ca­reer-defin­ing movie for John Tra­volta. Di­rected by Bri­tish film­maker John Bad­ham, it was an at­tempt to cap­ture the disco scene that had swept the globe in the pre­ced­ing cou­ple of years, and was based on a New York mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle by the English rock critic, Nik Cohn, that had aroused con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion the pre­vi­ous year.

Shire got to work on the mu­sic and even when film­ing was on­go­ing it was thought that Boz Scaggs’s songs would fea­ture promi­nently. His 1976 al­bum, Silk De­grees, was a crossover sen­sa­tion and it was hoped that its most defin­ing song, the ur­banely so­phis­ti­cated ‘Low­down’, would sound­track a key part of the film. But Scaggs was tied to an­other dance movie project and for­bade use of his work.

It left Shire — and Bad­ham — with a con­sid­er­able pain: just what disco star or stars could they use to give the movie the au­then­tic­ity they were seek­ing? En­ter the Bee Gees. The Gibb broth­ers’ songs are now so syn­ony­mous with Satur­day Night Fever that one might have imag­ined they were there at the film’s in­cep­tion. Far from it. The Isle of Man­born, Aus­tralia-raised trio only be­came in­volved at the post-pro­duc­tion stage.

“The Bee Gees weren’t even in­volved in the movie in the be­gin­ning,” Tra­volta later re­mem­bered. “I was danc­ing to Ste­vie Won­der and Boz Scaggs.”

Hav­ing en­joyed huge suc­cess in the 1960s — es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia — the Gibbs had been hav­ing a poor 1970s. They had gone from top­ping the charts to play­ing work­ing men’s clubs in the north of Eng­land.

But their for­tunes would change when their old man­ager Robert Stig­wood got in charge. He had ven­tured into the movie busi­ness in the 1970s and had had suc­cess with Hair! and Je­sus Christ Su­per­star. He was one of the pro­duc­ers on Satur­day Night Fever and it was he who made con­tact with the broth­ers.

“We were record­ing our new al­bum in the north of France [at the cel­e­brated Château d’Hérou­ville stu­dio],” Robin Gibb re­called. “And we’d writ­ten about and recorded about four or five songs for the new al­bum when Stig­wood rang from LA and said, ‘We’re putting to­gether this lit­tle film, low bud­get, called Tribal Rites of a Satur­day Night. Would you have any songs on hand?’, and we said, ‘Look, we can’t, we haven’t any time to sit down and write for a film. We didn’t know what it was about.”

It didn’t take much to per­suade them and Bee Gees leg­end has it that they wrote the songs over the course of a sin­gle week­end. Barry Gibb later spoke about the re­ac­tion of Stig­wood and mu­sic su­per­vi­sor Bill Oakes when they first heard the demos. “They flipped out and said these will be great. We still had no con­cept of the movie, ex­cept some kind of rough script that they’d brought with them.”

Mau­rice Gibb re­called, “We played him demo tracks of ‘If I Can’t Have You’, ‘Night Fever’ and ‘More Than a Woman’. He asked if we could write it more dis­coey.”

The sound­track, ma­jor­ing on Bee Gees songs, was re­leased a full month be­fore the movie — this week­end 40 years ago. The movie was re­leased in the US on De­cem­ber 16, 1977 and be­came an in­stant suc­cess. It found a huge au­di­ence ev­ery­where on re­lease the fol­low­ing year, in­clud­ing an Ire­land, which was it­self in the throes of a disco in­ferno. It first hit cin­e­mas here on March 24, 1978.

It’s tempt­ing to think that punk swept all be­fore it at the end of the 1970s, but the truth was disco had a far greater reach at the time and Dublin clubs like Zhivago’s and Bar­barella’s were packed out ev­ery day of the week. The lat­ter even fea­tured ex­otic dancers — “our lovely wa­ter nymphs” — who ca­vorted in the club’s pool.

The six Bee Gees songs that ap­peared on the re­sult­ing sound­track al­bum were ma­chine- tooled to ap­peal to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence — and as dance­floor clas­sics, they re­main undimmed in their bril­liance. One need only think of the num­ber of cock­sure types who’ve strut­ted their stuff to ‘Stayin’ Alive’ through the years.

Lit­tle could the Gibb broth­ers have imag­ined when Stig­wood made that call that it would go on to be­come one of the big­gest-sell­ing al­bums ever, shift­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary 40 mil­lion copies. As sound­tracks go, only two oth­ers come close: The Body­guard (1992) and Dirty Danc­ing (1987).

In an il­lu­mi­nat­ing re­view of a 30th an­niver­sary edi­tion in 2007, crit­i­cal tastemaker Pitch­fork noted that “disco’s most pop­u­lar doc­u­ment was, at the time of its re­lease, also one of its least rep­re­sen­ta­tive: Satur­day Night Fever is disco for straight, white males... [that] es­corted the mu­sic out of gay dis­cothe­ques and black night­club and into the glare of the main­stream. How­ever, it did so by di­lut­ing disco’s more ex­treme el­e­ments to cre­ate a safer, more mar­ketable pack­age.”

It would be re­miss not to ac­knowl­edge some of the other artists who helped make the Satur­day Night Fever sound­track such a huge suc­cess. The 10-minute clos­ing track ‘Disco In­ferno’ re­mains ev­ery bit as iconic as the Bee Gees’ an­thems and made stars of the Philadel­phia col­lec­tive, The Trammps. The song had ap­peared on their self-ti­tled fourth al­bum in 1976 but had made lit­tle im­pact into the main­stream.

Else­where, KC and the Sun­shine Band’s brass-tinged ‘Boo­gie Shoes’ would also be lapped up in 1977 — a full two years af­ter the song had been orig­i­nally re­leased.

And David Shire would have his mu­sic in mil­lions of homes too: three in­stru­men­tals from the al­bum were penned by the com­poser.

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