1978 produced the attitudinal brio of Elvis Costello’s ‘This Year’s Model’, the sleek futurism of Kraftwerk’s ‘Man Machine’ and the bubblegum swagger of Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’. I listened to all three a lot in the run up to this week’s meeting but ultimately, and if I’m honest rapidly, I passed them all over in favour of the best-selling record of my given year, a record which co-opted, some say plundered and eviscerated, the sound of the mid-seventies underground and in doing so changed the face of pop music.
You can say what you will about ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and there are arguments a plenty here for those who wish to have them. It took an emerging musical subculture which was significantly black, Latino, gay, blue collar and made it white, straight, elitist, aspirational. It grabbed the niche sounds of New York and Philadelphia dance clubs and turned them into mainstream millions. It’s ridiculous and silly – woolly-headed music made in a time of social and economic strife which, despite, or perhaps because of, its focus on pleasure rather than politics, struck a hefty blow against activist punk and intellectual new wave. In doing so it created a schism between pop and these more engaged forms which had briefly, fleetingly threatened to unify. It opened the door for a generation of preening poseurs, more concerned with the state of their hair than the state of the nations.
All these are arguable points. You may wish to add the view that the Bee Gees, who contribute around half the tracks on the album, have possibly the most ludicrous vocal stylings in history. Again that’s arguable, but I would disagree. By 1978 Barry Gibb was esseqtially the lead singer, with his brothers supporting with harmonies and trills. Their falsettos are perhaps the most distinctive voices in pop. They are a marvel, as impossible to explain as they are to imitate.
But once the arguing is done, this remains: ‘Saturday Night Fever’ contains eight or nine unimpeachably perfect pop songs. ‘Staying Alive’, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’, ‘Night Fever’, ‘More Than A Woman’, ‘If I Can’t Have You’… Pitchfork pretty much nailed it when they said “The first five songs on this double LP could be considered the greatest album side of all time”. Scattered across the remaining three are ‘Jive Talkin’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’ and the ten minute version of ‘Disco Inferno’.
Between the ages of 14 and 30, I would have scorned this record. How very stupid of me. Half of it is brilliant, the rest is forgiven.
Graham Listened: Certainly didn’t expect this one, but brilliant choice. Much as Rob says, there are so many reasons that this should be all wrong and not work, but it just has a quality to it that makes many of these tracks unforgettable and unrivaled classics. Because this record helped (or more or less single-handedly) took Disco mainstream, I would have avoided it like the plague But there’s that moment in life when year’s later you discover what you have been missing. Who knows what other previously despised genre could be next for me to embrace?
Tom Listened: I have just returned from a five day jaunt to the tiny Pyrenneen mountain town/village of Bielsa – a funny little place nestling (as if against the cold) at an altitude of 1600m amongst the mighty peaks that form the French/Spanish border. The last time I was in Bielsa was as a 7 year old when my brother and I joined my father on a school trip he was running. My one lasting memory of Bielsa itself were our evenings in the local bar; an Orangina, some table football and the jukebox for company. All I can recall of the jukebox was, somewhat appositely, that it had plenty of songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. We weren’t interested in any of the other songs – SNF was where it was at – pop songs that were a cut above anything else…at least that was what it seemed like at the time. So, for me, Bielsa will always be connected to the Bee Gees and being there the other day seemed even odder given that Rob had just brought this to record club.
35 years on, the songs still sound as fresh and vital today as they did then – old friends that you’re always happy to reacquaint yourself with. The songs themselves are near-ubiquitous and I hear them often enough to not feel the need to own the record but you can’t help but marvel at just how many corkers there are on SNF – most bands would give their eyeteeth to have written just one of these songs!
Nick listened: As iterated by everyone above, this is great – these songs are as woven into the public psyche of the UK and US as anything by The Beatles or Elvis or Madonna or anyone else you could care to mention. Pretty much faultless.