(#199: 6 May 1978, 18 weeks)
Track listing: Stayin’ Alive (Bee Gees)/How Deep Is Your Love (Bee Gees)/Night Fever (Bee Gees)/More Than A Woman (Bee Gees)/If I Can’t Have You (Yvonne Elliman)/A Fifth Of Beethoven (Based On Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) (Walter Murphy)/More Than A Woman (Tavares)/Manhattan Skyline (David Shire)/Calypso Breakdown (Ralph McDonald)/Night On Disco Mountain (Based On <
I know, you are disappointed, I can already feel it. I know you really wanted this to be entry #200, just as you might have wanted Sgt Pepper to be #50. It would have presented a tidier picture. But the charts rarely organise themselves with such keenness for posterity, and are altogether a messier matter. But then Saturday Night Fever the movie could only hint at the absolute hopelessness and dead end aura of “Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night,” the story Nik Cohn wrote for New York Magazine in 1976.
Originally presented as a piece of reportage, with Cohn as the unnamed reporter in the tweed suit, the story eventually reappeared, retitled “Another Saturday Night,” in the writer’s Ball The Wall anthology, and Cohn himself later admitted that the story had been fabricated from memories of Shepherd’s Bush, Goldhawk Road and Mod culture in the sixties. So when I saw Franc Roddam’s film of Quadrophenia a couple of years later, I wondered: haven’t I seen this story before somewhere, with its talk of “Faces”?
If Saturday Night Fever is, essentially, Quadrophenia transposed to seventies Brooklyn, with the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge standing in for the cliff-strewn southern edge of Britain, then it is scarcely surprising that on release in Britain the film obtained an X (now 18) certificate. This meant that as Travolta-mania swept the country, many young people were frustrated that they could not get into the cinema to see those routines which even Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire had raved over, and so the soundtrack album served as a kind of large-scale samizdat, a hint at what could not be revealed. But I managed to get into the Sauchiehall Street ABC in Glasgow to see it; I attended with my parents, who assumed it was going to be a knockabout Italian-American comedy with music and dancing, and was tall enough and dressed smartly enough to pass as eighteen.
But the film is an almost unremittingly grim affair, even though it only hints at the larger and more residual grimness suggested in Cohn’s story. For one, Tony Manero was not originally called Tony; he was Vincent (no surname), and even his dancing does not appear to give him his keys to escape the prison of Brooklyn and his upbringing. In many ways, Jimmy and his pals in Quadrophenia had it better; Mods of the sixties were not necessarily rich, but neither were they poor; they somehow scraped enough to keep getting the latest clothes, the newest sounds. But in Vincent’s Brooklyn, that conduit is cut off, or more likely never existed in the first place. There are hints of parental abuse in Vincent’s own story, whereas the Manero family portrayed in the film are a stereotypical Italian-American movie construct, with the faltering older clerical brother, the grunting parents (“He hit my hair!” exclaims an astounded Tony at the dinner table at one point), and the unutterable cul-de-sac that comes from a misguided belief that the old ways could be transposed securely to another country and society and still thrive, let alone survive. In Cohn’s story, Vincent merely trades one metaphorical prison for another; one still beset, and ultimately suffocated, by its self-imposed rules which, as we see, rule out life, love and happiness. Not to mention permanence, since neither the Odyssey club nor Vincent’s dancing can flourish for more than maybe a few months.
The film is besotted by the contrast between the socio-material poverty of Tony’s shit life and crappy job and the glamour and escape that music, club and immaculate Patrizia von Brandenstein white suit (he glides like an avenging angel through these sequences) could offer. In Cohn’s story there is no notion of any of the dancers having fun or finding freedom through music, nor any evidence that they are really listening to the music (“One after another the stock favourites came churning out…each reduced to the same automaton chugging, interchangeable”). In the end, after various gruesome things have happened to members of Tony’s gang, or members of their family, all they can do is mutter about getting revenge without ever doing anything about it. In the movie, there is more than one rape scene, and also an accidental death masquerading as suicide. This is the fate awaiting those not fortuitous or artful enough to get out of Brooklyn. Tony Manero, a failure in life except for the one thing he is good at doing – and it turns out that he cannot really make a living out of doing it and moreover that he can only keep on doing it for a limited amount of time before next month’s Manero takes over – has to come to terms with his own emptiness.
Cohn paints his Vincent as a far more potentially dangerous character, with various levels of pent-up ugliness that the world, even the dangerous world of mid-seventies New York, does not want to know about. “Before Saturday night began,” writes Cohn, “to clear his brain of cobwebs and get himself sharp, fired up, [Vincent] liked to think about killing.” He imagines himself to be Al Pacino – and this is momentarily commented on in the movie, when a girl he doesn’t know and whom we never see again comes up to him in the club and kisses him. So this is someone who could perhaps turn lethal if even snarling guard dogs behind a barbed wire fence bark at him the wrong way. In a short story, published in his Beneath Mulholland anthology, David Thomson imagines Tony Manero slowly turning into Vincent Vega, largely because he’s a good-natured dumbass who lets idiots make decisions for him and never learns to say no (and Vega, as you may recall, ends up being gunned down by Bruce Willis; he was too dopey even to remember to take his rifle with him to the john).
Saturday Night Fever, then, could justifiably have been entitled Delaying Death. Tony is smart and sad enough to sense the inbuilt racism of his “culture”; this is a Brooklyn as white as his suit, but he knows that the Puerto Rican couple wiped the floor with him and Stephanie and deserved to win the dancing cup. Before his appointment with the endlessly circling subway train, he has more or less lost everything; Joey, off the bridge, Annette, the one who loved him all the time, being gang-raped, Stephanie driven off by a clumsy attempted rape by Tony himself. It’s a wonder she lets him back in at the end; but there he is, it’s Manhattan, it’s daylight, and it’s time to look for and be something else. In Cohn’s Brooklyn, the sun never shines; the repeated “hombre…you die” mutter from Vincent confirming that he has learned nothing.
But because Saturday Night Fever is a grim movie, that does not in itself make it a great movie, and were it not for Travolta’s dancing sequences, which are less frequent than you recall (overall in the film he probably spends an equal amount of time in the paint store), I doubt whether it would now be seriously spoken of. John Travolta and dancing; once upon another time it would have been John Garfield and boxing (and Body And Soul this movie is not). And hardly anyone could seriously have danced themselves out of mid-seventies Brooklyn.
Furthermore, I wonder whether the glamour of the disco and the associated music was being used to mitigate or even excuse the grimness of these people’s lives; finally I suspect that the film was so enamoured by its own suggestions of a glamorous otherness that it consciously skates over the material and emotional poverty of its characters. In particular, it gets so spellbound by the clinically sleek work of the Bee Gees, whom the film’s producer Robert Stigwood asked to knock up a few songs for the movie over the space of a single weekend, that the viewer wonders whether all the disco dancing business is merely happening in Tony’s head, and that he is destined to swing pots of paint until he is seventy.
The soundtrack album – originally a vinyl double but now a single CD – was clearly built and marketed around the contributions of the Bee Gees, although they are, as performers and/or writers, responsible for less than half the songs on the record (and it is likewise remarkable how much of the album is wordless). Their four main songs all come at the beginning and are pretty much unanswerable. While Thomson has some interesting things to say about the movie in his Have You Seen…? entry, there are several fundamental errors that suggest he has not seen it for some time. For instance, neither “Stayin’ Alive” (or, as he calls it, “Staying Alive”) nor “How Deep Is Your Love” is used in any of the dance sequences; these two songs are, in fact, the film’s Greek chorus bookends (and also the only two songs set in daylight). “Stayin’ Alive” soundtracks the paint pot opening credits, and “How Deep Is Your Love” emerges at the end, as Tony ventures out of his own twilight. In West London Mod terms it is like following “I’m The Face” with “Love Reign O’er Me,” although with the Gibbs’ songs, fatalism and hopefulness infuse each of this pair in turn.
That having been said, I wonder whether any of these songs would fill or clear a non-nostalgic dancefloor today. Recorded at Elton John’s old haunt, the Chateau d’Herouville in France, “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” and “More Than A Woman” are perfectly acceptable pop, but in my mind not much to do with disco. “Stayin’ Alive” in particular is a terrific slice of late-seventies AoR-pop paranoia with infinitestimal attention to detail in its arrangement and production – the repeated question marks of strings, the pitiless midtempo drumbeat, a bass so alive and creative it almost becomes a lead guitar (ahead of Joy Division) and a Barry Gibb vocal that veers between mock-bravado and (increasingly as the song progresses) falsetto hysteria; the “somebody help me” refrain comes back so many times it emphasises Tony’s Moebius strip of a life. It got its own rhythmic and emotional anti-impetus so right that Bob Ezrin was inspired by it when he did the single mix of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” some eighteen months later (and indeed the latter’s dismal, because doomed, defiance almost exactly mirrors “Stayin’ Alive”’s innate despair). “Night Fever” has always struck me as one of the politest number ones; on Top Of The Pops a clip of Travolta in the midst of a solemn formal group dance, like they are queuing up to be blessed by the Pope, was used, but the ingenuity of the arrangement, incorporating both the past (harpsichord) and the present (electric piano), was beyond argument and in a sense the Bee Gees, like Abba, were beyond any notions of “disco”; both groups made records which were firmly of their time but also transcended their time. “How Deep Is Your Love” is a great, slow-burning meditation on the nature of love whose endlessly poignant cycle of chords harks back to their late sixties heyday (“When they should all let us be/We belong to you and me”).
Yet pitting their “More Than A Woman” against Tavares’ version, and, indeed, Yvonne Elliman, highlights some problems. As I said, these four songs are more than fine pop; but although I see the parallels between “Stayin’ Alive” and “Le Freak,” the latter is the far more convincing of the two in terms of disco records wanting to be danced to. Moreover, as dance music they do not live up to the two earlier Bee Gees selections included. I suspect this is due to “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing” both being compositionally built up from the rhythm, or a rhythm idea; whereas the newer songs are clearly written from the melody downwards. Furthermore, given Nile Rodgers’ previous connections to rock music, the best Chic songs sound like rock prototypes. This is not to exhume a defunct differentiation between pop and rock; merely to observe that some modes are better suited to a specific cause than others. “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing” – the latter the soundtrack to Travolta’s big solo routine in the film – remain works of brilliance, the teasing chatter of the former perhaps inspired by Shirley and Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” and its clavinet-driven arrangement looking forward to “Asylums In Jerusalem”-era Scritti Politti (and it is no accident that Arif Mardin should have produced both acts) while the barely curtailed rage of the latter (“What’cha doin’ in your bed at NIGHT?”) smoulders within a firework orchestration that is still startling.
But the two “More Than A Woman”s demonstrate how much more clearly Tavares understood disco. The Bee Gees original sounds like an efficient demo, highlighting the lovely major-to-minor bridge-to-chorus chord progressions at the expense of rhythmic attack, whereas Tavares add all sorts of important detail to their reading, with extra chord changes and enhancements, a more committed sounding lead vocal, a better harmony arrangement and, crucially (and as with “If I Can’t Have You”) a beat that doesn’t just beat, metronone-like, but swings, in perfect Hustle rhythm.
The rest of the album is divided between the perhaps over-generous selection of incidental music by David Shire and a whistlestop tour of the different kinds of disco music that might have inspired Tony to drop those paint pots and fold up his moving ladder. Of Shire’s work, the best that can be said is that they fill a space; “Manhattan Skyline” sounds like a TV theme tune waiting to happen, an echo of the aspirational alternate world Tony sometimes glimpses but doesn’t know how to reach. The inclusion of Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth Of Beethoven” rather outclasses Shire’s bombastic rewrite of Mussorgsky; if you’re going to disco up the classics, apply a light touch (Shire’s work, I’m afraid, makes me wish RSO could have found room for Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck,” audible in the movie but absent from this album). “Salsation,” though still a little Stan Kenton heavy in its brass, is at least a respectful nod to another of the vital New York musical movements of this period. More than anything, Shire’s contributions, clearly played by a live (if large) band, are probably truer to the milieu of Cohn’s story, where Vincent and his cronies gloomily dance to an onstage group of musicians rather than records as such.
The rest is terrific and eclectic. Ralph McDonald’s “Calypso Breakdown,” which at age fourteen I thought an interminable drone, is considerably livelier and more inventive than I remember, with possibly the first clarinet solo to appear in Then Play Long since Acker Bilk. Kool and the Gang’s “Open Sesame” is extremely silly (“Get down with the GEEEE-NIIIIEEEE!,” “Get on your camel and RIDE!”) but terrific fun and funky as fuck; the brass charts point directly to “Chant No 1” and indeed many of these tracks present a prophecy of the early eighties (with its hyperactive percussion breaks, “Calypso Breakdown” could have come out as a Ze 12-inch in 1981 and be acclaimed). Miami, where the Bee Gees were based and inspired for awhile, is saluted by Harry Casey’s brief but bright cameo.
And the final two tracks bring it all back to Philadelphia. “K-Jee,” a cover of a Harvey Fuqua 1971 original, makes “Salsation” sound slow and ponderous, so sparkling with life and intent are its grooves (and its near-epileptic tenor break); this, you feel, is the real land of hope. And to conclude the argument of dance music as societal liberator, the album finishes with the full ten minutes and fifty seconds of the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno.” Although inspired by The Towering Inferno (where, you may remember, a disco gets caught up in the blaze), singer Jimmy Ellis, in the midst of an absolutely bravura performance, is keen to insist that “I’m not talkin’ ‘bout burnin’ down a BUILDING!,” the loaded refrain of “Burn, lady, burn” and the record’s general air of insurrection suggest a different intent. Indeed the whole of pop history seems to get engulfed in the course of the song’s singularly incendiary grooves (apparently caused by an accidentally insufficiently-applied Dolby noise reduction facility on the mixing desk); there is a screaming reference to “Satisfaction,” strings from “A Day In The Life,” summations of everything from “Let The Good Times Roll” to “I Love Music.” Finally, as Ellis’ “It’s comin’ from the SOUL” suggests, we are being taken back to church. The deadpan call-and-response (“Everybody say OW!!” howls Ellis. “Ow-ow,” replies the rest of the group, politely) is inspired and purposive, and the beat is seemingly unstoppable but the final return to the chorus feels as though we have been cleansed; a howling guitar fuzzes its way into the picture. This is the freedom for which Vincent vainly strives (if he even knows what freedom means) and which Tony may yet gain; it’s left up to us to guess. The Trammps’ next single was entitled “I Feel Like I’ve Been Livin’ (On The Dark Side Of The Moon),” and listening to this record, that sentiment is easy to understand.
For above and beyond any of this, Saturday Night Fever represented, after too long a time, what the generation of 1978 wanted; not deceased entertainers from their parents’ age or politely recycled oldies or even well-meaning but failed attempts to hook them (Disco Fever, which set next to this sounds like a slightly runny nose). So many of the recent entries here have been stuck in the past, and so the switch back to the present was long awaited and eagerly received; this record spent more time at number one than anything since Bridge Over Troubled Water, and even if it was uncertain that either Vincent or Tony had any sort of a future worth having, it was clearer that this decade still had something to offer in terms of hope, even with the seemingly hopeless. At the end of Quadrophenia, Jimmy’s scooter dies, but Jimmy himself does not; he resurfaces above the water, strangely exultant, looking out for tomorrow, revolt not yet superseded by passivity.