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On This Day In Music… May 6, 1978: 'Saturday Night Fever' Soundtrack Begins an 18-Week Chart-Topping Run

The songs that would come to define the Bee Gees' disco sound were written in a week after they 'hadn’t even looked at' the script.

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Source: mega

The 'Saturday Night Fever' double-album soundtrack would go on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide.

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Saturday Night Fever, the film released at the tail-end of 1977 featuring John Travolta as Tony Manero, a young working-class Brooklynite who escapes the hardships of daily life with weekends spent dancing in nightclubs, did not invent disco culture. But it did bring it shimmying and strutting firmly into the mainstream… thanks in large part to the movie soundtrack, which on May 6, 1978, began an astonishing 18-week run at No. 1 in the British album charts.

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was almost entirely the work of the Bee Gees, and until the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, would be the best-selling album in music history, with over 40 million units shifted. Three Bee Gees singles from the LP, “How Deep is Your Love”, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever”, would top the Billboard Hot 100, with a fourth Gibb brothers-penned song, “If I Can’t Have You”, performed by Yvonne Elliman, also reaching No. 1.

Saturday Night Fever established Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb as international superstars, and turned the formerly mostly-folk-minded troubadours into international figureheads for disco’s late-70s revival. But initially at least the Bee Gees were not even considered for the movie. And when they were eventually approached, they were hardly bursting with enthusiasm.

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Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2007, John Travolta remembered: “The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning. I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.”

There was, however, another song that had caught the ear of Travolta – the Bee Gees’ 1976 hit, “You Should Be Dancing”. And with the movie’s producer Robert Stigwood also moonlighting as the Bee Gees’ manager, it made sense that he should ask his group if they had any other tracks they could use.

In the 2011 book The Bee Gees by Melinda Bilyeu, Hector Cook and Andrew Môn Hughes, Robin Gibb recalled: “We were recording our new album in the north of France. 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.”

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Source: Mega

The Bee Gees had begun life as a mostly folk-minded group.

The Gibb brothers could hardly be blamed for their lack of enthusiasm. Tribal Rights of a Saturday Night (apart from being a terrible title) had a budget of just a few million dollars, and was shot with a cast of mostly unknowns. Even Travolta – at that time pre-Grease – was not yet a star.

Out of loyalty to their manager, the group agreed to at least meet with Stigwood and the movie’s music producer Bill Oakes, who duly flew out to their studio in France. At that point, Oakes told Billboard in 2022, the brothers “hadn’t even looked at” the script.

“What Robert did tell them in broad terms is it’s about a guy who works in a paint store and blows all his wages on a Saturday night, and he goes to a club and they do the hustle,” he added. “Robert’s mission was [to] get the Bee Gees to write a disco track that you cannot stop dancing to, with a great melody – and that’s how they came up with ‘Night Fever,’ for instance. These are great melodies that happened to be in the disco mold. That was the breakthrough. It was interesting: they just simply dropped the live album they were mixing and went straight into it.”

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Source: mega

'Saturday Night Fever' would see the Bee Gees crowned the kings of disco.

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Over the course of a week, the Bee Gees adapted some of the new material they had been working on, before playing the songs to Stigwood and Oakes.

Speaking to Rolling Stone after the soundtrack was released, Maurice Gibb said: “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.”

According to Barry Gibb, Stigwood also had instructions for the song that would become “Stayin’ Alive”: “Give me eight minutes – eight minutes, three moods. I want frenzy at the beginning. Then I want some passion, and then I want some w-i-i-i-ld frenzy!”

The brothers duly sat down and wrote the song that would become their signature track – according to some versions of the story, in just two hours.

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The Bee Gees would eventually contribute eight songs to the soundtrack, performing six of them, with Tavares covering “More Than a Woman” and Yvonne Elliman singing “If I Can’t Have You”. As well as their new tracks, two previous hits, “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing” were also included. The rest of the double album was made up of existing disco standards, including the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno”.

On December 16, 1977, Stigwood’s “little film, low budget” movie – now renamed Saturday Night Fever – was released. It became an instant smash, grossing ten times its $3 million budget within a month, and going on to take over $230 million worldwide.

It also – thanks in no small part to the Bee Gees’ soundtrack – brought disco, at that time seen as a spent force – firmly back into the mainstream. The album became the only disco album to win a Grammy, and one of only three soundtrack LPs ever to do so. Rolling Stone would later rank it at No. 132 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums.

For the men responsible for creating the music, however, it remained something of an oddity. In 1979, Robin Gibb told Rolling Stone: “To me, Saturday Night Fever sounds like some sleazy little porno film showing on the corner, second-billed to a film called Suspender Belts or something.”


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