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Jul 08

THE BEE GEES – “Night Fever”

FT + Popular225 comments • 9,218 views

#422, 29th April 1978

Never having read Wuthering Heights may be philistinism, but never having seen Saturday Night Fever comes close to dereliction of duty. Of course, I’ve heard the soundtrack plenty of times, and SNF has become such a cultural cornerstone, so open to reference and pastiche, that I feel like I’ve seen it. But honestly I haven’t. Luckily, the Nik Cohn essay it was based on was completely made up anyway, so in that pioneering spirit I can safely say that “Night Fever” encapsulates the film’s vision of disco and dancing: anonymous glide punctuated by breathtaking, desperate release.

Barry Gibb’s addictive, unnatural falsetto gave the Bee Gees a fantastic USP, but it also made their music weirder – the high register garbles his vocals, turning the opening lines of “Night Fever”‘s verses into compressed bat-squeak bursts. The effect is thrillingly urgent – here, as on “You Should Be Dancing” and “Stayin’ Alive”, Gibb sounds unearthly, speaking in hedonistic tongues – it’s similar to the helium effects and timestretching tech used to create the druggy pleasure-boost vocals on rave hits.

For me, those two are better songs than “Night Fever”, which after the initial rush of each verse settles into a confident shagpile groove but doesn’t seize me like the best Bee Gees, and the best disco does. It’s a fine, fine record, but far from my favourite on the soundtrack. The Bee Gees’ huge success – in the US they’d eaten the singles charts alive at this point, we got a mere echo of that – was the crest of the disco wave, the imagery of the film and their videos a potent mix of neon and chest hair which defined a moment in popular culture. (“Medallion Man” – applied knowingly to certain teachers – was half playground insult, half sneakily admiring sobriquet.)

The Bee Gees’ disco makeover had another effect, of course. To the rock establishment they were, after all, one of us or something close to it – chart semi-regulars with reasonable pop pedigree, they’d paid their dues and had the Pepper-imitating concept album to prove it. And here they were, not only adapting to this new music but dominating it completely, and becoming staggeringly rich in the process. If they could do it, many a rock star must have thought, why can’t I?

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Comments

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  1. 211
    punctum on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Those second verse lyrics in full:

    “In the heat of our love
    Don’t need no help for us to make it.
    Gimme just enough to take us to the mornin’.
    I got fire in my mind.
    I got higher in my walkin’.
    And I’m glowin’ in the dark,
    I’m givin’ you warnin’.”

    So was this song an uncanny prophecy of Three Mile Island?

  2. 212
    mk on 20 Jan 2012 #

    To 198 #wichita lineman † on 12 August 2008 #

    Yes! That’s how I remember it too, for some reason. I remember the host (can’t remember who) calling them ‘tossers’, and even Barry saying ‘Pardon me?’ or something of the sort, and then all of them getting up and walking out. If there isn’t another interview like this, somewhere, I must be going bananas.

  3. 213
    Moarie on 3 Jun 2012 #

    BGs alleged it’s the first line out of Clive’s mouth that offended (“s/hit writers” reference – and BGs prided themselves on songwriting if nothing else), not the tosser bit.

    The 2001 Mojo interview quotes Maurice:
    We could see our fans in the audience and they were stunned, like, ‘How can they sit here and take that?’ Before I knew it, Barry was up, and I could feel the heat from his body. He was really angry.
    But some good has come out of it. Robin has changed since that night. He’s mellowed down. It’s like he got rid of all the garbage. People have been taking the piss for many years. Anderson was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was a turning point for us.

    Caveats (as observed from youtube clips – did my research, ta!):
    Bee Gees do have a sense of humor about themselves. Their primary function as child stars, and later appearances as MCs on American TV midnight specials, were all as silly pop buffoon types since their looks and composure were never gonna pass for Grade A teen idol like their youngest brother Andy.
    Maurice is especially a jokester (often “inappropriately” mocking his 2 bros on 70s stage, during “serious drama!” ballads. They let him ruin the mood, always.) Long before Clive, “To Love Somebody” was self-parodied as “To Lose Your Penis” for Howard Stern show.

    Even ’80 Donahue interview with its “hardball” investigative interview style (constantly insinuating they were damaged by child labor working in Aussie nightclubs, racetracks, TV), still had them fielding question with earnest patience, relaxed retorts of savvy stage kids. In short, they enjoyed silliness until they caught up people really took them for nothing but a joke!

    But the disco backlash took its toll. Think constant media mockery of MJ’s vitiligo and social habits, albeit on smaller, invisible scale. It becomes a constant ribbing they could be buttressed from if their social circle included no such outright hecklers. But in the persona of Clive, who they pegged as a “supporter” due to 2-year courtship of Bee Gees appearance on the show, it was a bitter pill to swallow with the magistrate watching with hands cuffed on your back. The reality staring them in the face, that they really are “shit writers”, spoken so charisma-free that betrayed a belief statement rather than jovial jostling between “familiar friends”…it adds up quickly.
    Also Barry used to hold his ire like the best suffering monk in the world. Clive just happened upon a man who’s been much changed since late 80s by debilitating arthritis and osteoporosis. Those conditions call for regimented chemical changes to the body, folks. In consequence, it alters the suave resolve of the “Lion” from yesteryears much much…to delight of reality TV bust-up viewers.

  4. 214
    Moarie on 3 Jun 2012 #

    Mike @ #98:
    The “racism and/or homophobia” are a judgement clause, but basically they’re observing a sense of threat in perceiving an encroaching culture that is NOT rooted in the mainstream cultural tent-poles, NOR filtered to be safe versions of the outer fringes.

    Of course some will argue that Bee Gees white-washed “genuine” outsider disco just to maintain the negative spin, but it’s illogical because the stigma firmly in place always comes back to Bee Gees violating the good taste of masculinity, masculine codes in both SOUND and VISUAL – which again reverts back to the fear of the un-masculine, The Ghey.

    Having a messenger worthy of (messianic) worship or personal identification is rock’s major underpinning. Disco is about facelessness (Donna and Bee Gees remain interlocuters, emcees to usher you into an adrenaline-filled world of sweaty workouts), disappearing into a giant mass of dancing, sweating bodies (as social event per se, I’m even not hinting at the homophobic assumption by some that disco MUST be questionable compared to moshing or violent outbreaks at rock concerts, simply because straight sex that may transpire from bodies pressed together at weekend outings always trumps gay sex over the same nights elsewhere.)

    The real hubbub, was always about perceived overflowing of what should be ghettoized, contained – when in fact the actual extent of “infestation”, is only spoken of in individual perception that suggest distortion when the less threatened simply experienced wider acceptance of a kind of music-accompanied clubbing experience, than a complete overthrow of a rock business model and institution firmly entrenched FOR DECADES.

    Heading into Reganite 80s when Gays would die by truckloads while known symptom detection and awareness campaign were kept on lock down until the dam was finally broken by early 90s (Magic Johnson, Freddie Mercury to name 2 examples), AIDS-phobia, homophobia part of the cultural backdrop (when was Stonewall? When did Harvey Milk get killed?) — disco was but another symptom of greater things to come…(2012: The First Gay (endorsement by) President!)

    And spot on about the issue of authenticity of DIY-ers. There simply are too many contradictions within the “Rockist” camp. By late 70s, who can keep a straight face that Rock itself wasn’t a multi-million business? If all disco is producer-driven pap (ignoring the presence of e-music producers like Eno, or rock producers becoming godly figures over the years), then how to explain Bee Gees needing to work at all in songwriting and rethinking their vocal assembly? What of rock journalism who loved pitting the new against the old such as punk against glam/emerging stadium rock, just to hurry things along while fashioning their mini-thrones in the process?

  5. 215
    Brendan on 24 Sep 2012 #

    What let’s ‘Night Fever’ down for me is that the verses hint at a build-up to a rousing chorus only for it to turn out to be a damp squib. There’s nothing much wrong with it other than that but it makes it seem a little bit unmemorable especially, as everyone else has already pointed out, in relation to the other SNF tracks not least ‘Stayin’ Alive’. I’ll give it 6.

  6. 216
    punctum on 7 Oct 2012 #

    TPL on the soundtrack.

  7. 217
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2014 #

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4octJwjb7LE

    I’ll just leave this here. Springsteen does Folk Disco – though Tom Morello sounds well out of place.

  8. 218
    hectorthebat on 26 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 13
    BBC Radio2 (UK) – Sold on Song, a Celebration of Great Songs and Songwriting
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 9

  9. 219
    swanstep on 21 Nov 2015 #

    I’ve recommended DJDiscoCatV2’s ‘Disco Purrfection’ mixes to Popular before, but his/her just-released mix of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ is probably the best yet:
    https://youtu.be/DY7pipZGUkg
    You get to hear all sorts of structure to the track that was inaudible before (the re-mixer must have access to master tape stems or some such thing). Highly recommended (If you aren’t already convinced that the Brothers Gibb were both song-writing and studio gods, this will do it).

    Note that this remixer did ‘Night Fever’ a few weeks ago too:
    https://youtu.be/p8rIhf6Q1o4
    Not quite as revelatory in my view but your mileage may vary.

  10. 220
    Lazarus on 5 Jan 2016 #

    Seems as good a place as any to mark the passing of Robert Stigwood, a man who did pretty well out of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ as well as ‘Grease’ whose soundtrack also came out on his RSO label. Connected with various other chart acts, starting with John Leyton, but I imagine his name will always be most closely associated with the Gibb brothers.

  11. 221
    Tommy Mack on 10 Apr 2016 #

    Stuck Bee Gees’ Number 1s album on last night and this occurred to me: are the Bee Gees the best example of “were really successful at a particular pop thing and then completely changed direction really abruptly and were really successful at a completely different pop thing”?

    Michael Jackson, I guess but does it count if the change of direction is a solo thing from a group member (I know MJ did solo albums when he was in the Jackson 5 but it’s not quite the same) Dylan maybe but his ‘going electric’ doesn’t quite feel like the work of different people as say Massachusetts does from Stayin’ Alive.

  12. 222
    Paulito on 10 Apr 2016 #

    Was MJ’s solo stuff really that different in style from what he was doing with the Jacksons? It would seem to me that the transition in that instance was from fairly standard disco/R&B to a more advanced version thereof. He certainly created a unique sound with ‘Off The Wall’, and even more so with ‘Thriller’, but I wouldn’t describe either album as a major genre shift from the material he had been making with his brothers just beforehand.

  13. 223
    Paulito on 10 Apr 2016 #

    To answer your question, though, Fleetwood Mac’s enormously successful musical reinvention in 1975 (led, of course, by the two new members they had just drafted in) comes to mind. By coincidence, ’75 was also the year that the Gibbs changed their own template to enormously lucrative effect. It’s worth noting, though, that both bands had seen their commercial fortunes wane considerably in the preceding few years. In either case the stylistic shift was undoubtedly a commercial decision as much as an artistic one.

  14. 224
    Izzy on 11 Apr 2016 #

    New Order, if one interprets ‘really successful’ a little more loosely. U2’s eighties and nineties incarnations is another interesting contender.

    The Bee Gees are the most startling case though. One can make a case for some degree of progression with the other four, but with the Gibbs you can definitely see the join.

  15. 225
    Tommy Mack on 11 Apr 2016 #

    #222: you’re right: a big step forward rather than an unexpected lurch sideways.

    #223: Yes, forgot about Fleetwood Mac though as you say, practically different bands.

    #224: yep, definite progression with each of yr examples, even if you include Joy Division in the New Order Story.

    Bowie obviously but, again, I don’t count him because he was continuously reinventing himself from day one (and kudos that he didn’t let success stop him) rather than ballad, ballad, ballad, LET’S GO FUCKING DISCO!

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