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?