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How the world got disco fever

The groundbreaking 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack was released 40 years ago


Lord of the dance: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

Lord of the dance: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

Lord of the dance: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

David Shire cut his movie composer teeth on some of the great paranoia thrillers of the 1970s. It was his spooky, piano-based score that helped elevate The Conversation - directed by his then brother-in-law Francis Ford Coppola - into one of the great films of the decade. And he also was instrumental in shaping the sound of two of the era's defining movies, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and All the President's Men.

But in 1977, he worked on a completely different film - one that required an altogether different score. That picture was Saturday Night Fever, a career-defining movie for John Travolta. Directed by British filmmaker John Badham, it was an attempt to capture the disco scene that had swept the globe in the preceding couple of years, and was based on a New York magazine article by the English rock critic, Nik Cohn, that had aroused considerable attention the previous year.

Shire got to work on the music and even when filming was ongoing it was thought that Boz Scaggs's songs would feature prominently. His 1976 album, Silk Degrees, was a crossover sensation and it was hoped that its most defining song, the urbanely sophisticated 'Lowdown', would soundtrack a key part of the film. But Scaggs was tied to another dance movie project and forbade use of his work.

It left Shire - and Badham - with a considerable pain: just what disco star or stars could they use to give the movie the authenticity they were seeking? Enter the Bee Gees. The Gibb brothers' songs are now so synonymous with Saturday Night Fever that one might have imagined they were there at the film's inception. Far from it. The Isle of Man-born, Australia-raised trio only became involved at the post-production stage.

"The Bee Gees weren't even involved in the movie in the beginning," Travolta later remembered. "I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs."

Having enjoyed huge success in the 1960s - especially in Australia - the Gibbs had been having a poor 1970s. They had gone from topping the charts to playing working men's clubs in the north of England.

But their fortunes would change when their old manager Robert Stigwood got in charge. He had ventured into the movie business in the 1970s and had had success with Hair! and Jesus Christ Superstar. He was one of the producers on Saturday Night Fever and it was he who made contact with the brothers.

"We were recording our new album in the north of France [at the celebrated Château d'Hérouville studio]," Robin Gibb recalled. "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."

It didn't take much to persuade them and Bee Gees legend has it that they wrote the songs over the course of a single weekend. Barry Gibb later spoke about the reaction of Stigwood and music supervisor Bill Oakes when they first heard the demos. "They flipped out and said these will be great. We still had no concept of the movie, except some kind of rough script that they'd brought with them."

Maurice Gibb recalled, "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."

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The soundtrack, majoring on Bee Gees songs, was released a full month before the movie - this weekend 40 years ago. The movie was released in the US on December 16, 1977 and became an instant success. It found a huge audience everywhere on release the following year, including an Ireland, which was itself in the throes of a disco inferno. It first hit cinemas here on March 24, 1978.

It's tempting to think that punk swept all before it at the end of the 1970s, but the truth was disco had a far greater reach at the time and Dublin clubs like Zhivago's and Barbarella's were packed out every day of the week. The latter even featured exotic dancers - "our lovely water nymphs" - who cavorted in the club's pool.

The six Bee Gees songs that appeared on the resulting soundtrack album were machine- tooled to appeal to the widest possible audience - and as dancefloor classics, they remain undimmed in their brilliance. One need only think of the number of cocksure types who've strutted their stuff to 'Stayin' Alive' through the years.

Little could the Gibb brothers have imagined when Stigwood made that call that it would go on to become one of the biggest-selling albums ever, shifting an extraordinary 40 million copies. As soundtracks go, only two others come close: The Bodyguard (1992) and Dirty Dancing (1987).

In an illuminating review of a 30th anniversary edition in 2007, critical tastemaker Pitchfork noted that "disco's most popular document was, at the time of its release, also one of its least representative: Saturday Night Fever is disco for straight, white males... [that] escorted the music out of gay discotheques and black nightclub and into the glare of the mainstream. However, it did so by diluting disco's more extreme elements to create a safer, more marketable package."

It would be remiss not to acknowledge some of the other artists who helped make the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack such a huge success. The 10-minute closing track 'Disco Inferno' remains every bit as iconic as the Bee Gees' anthems and made stars of the Philadelphia collective, The Trammps. The song had appeared on their self-titled fourth album in 1976 but had made little impact into the mainstream.

Elsewhere, KC and the Sunshine Band's brass-tinged 'Boogie Shoes' would also be lapped up in 1977 - a full two years after the song had been originally released.

And David Shire would have his music in millions of homes too: three instrumentals from the album were penned by the composer.

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