When Saturday Night Fever was released at the end of 1977, no one could have predicted what would happen next. John Travolta was a TV sitcom actor with an adoring teenage fanbase but almost no chance of making it in Hollywood. The world was already moving on from disco as its early flair fizzled out, and the Bee Gees’ popularity was dwindling.
“The Bee Gees were broken,” Kevin McCormick told Vanity Fair in 2007. He was then an assistant to the film’s producer and the band’s manager, Robert Stigwood. “They were touring Malaysia and Venezuela, the two places where they were still popular. They were a mess. Everybody [in the group] had their own little soap opera.”
Nor did the trio of brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb have much interest in recording the soundtrack to their manager’s pet project. The film was to be based on an article published in New York magazine in June 1976, describing the exploits of a group of young Italian New Yorkers who hit the dancefloor every Saturday night. Written by music critic Nik Cohn, the story was presented as fact, although the journalist would later confess – two decades after the film’s release – that it had, in fact, been a largely fictional account.
It was enough to impress Stigwood and he bought the rights to the article. The Australian music mogul had turned his attention to film production in the early 1970s and had already scored hit films with his adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy. He had worked with the Bee Gees since early 1967, when the band returned to the UK from Australia, where they had emigrated with their family as children. Stigwood, then the managing director of Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises, signed the teenagers within a week of their arrival, hoping to replicate the Beatles’ phenomenal success.
The Bee Gees didn’t let him down with a subsequent string of hits including To Love Somebody, I’ve Just Got to Get a Message to You and Massachusetts. Yet by the mid-70s, following a brief split, their career seemed all but over.
“You’ve got to remember, we were fairly dead in the water at that point…” Barry later said. “We needed something new. We hadn’t had a hit record in about three years. So we felt, Oh jeez, that’s it. That’s our life span, like most groups in the late Sixties. So, we had to find something.”
At Eric Clapton’s suggestion, they decamped to Miami, where the city’s sun-soaked energy and vibrant nightlife inspired them to try a more upbeat sound. They had soon written Jive Talkin’, which Stigwood sent to radio stations in 1975 without the band’s name hoping it might then stand a chance of being played. Both Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing the following year went straight to the top of the US charts.
But album sales were slower. Main Course, featuring Jive Talkin’, stalled at Number 14 in the US, while neither that record nor its follow-up, Children of the World, was released in the UK at all.
The brothers were working on their next album in Château d’Hérouville in France when Stigwood called to ask them to write some tracks for his new film.
“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’,” Robin said later.
“We didn’t know what the film was about,” Barry later said. “We didn’t know there was a conflict of images which could perhaps hurt us later on. In those days, you didn’t think too much about images.”
Instead, the band hurriedly put together some tracks that might work without even asking to see the film’s script. It’s claimed they wrote Stayin’ Alive in just two hours, a song which featured on the eventual soundtrack alongside Night Fever, More Than A Woman, How Deep is Your Love and If I Can’t Have You, performed on the record by Yvonne Elliman. The band’s previous singles Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing were also included.
“I can’t think of any other composers you could have asked for and had them come back with that, having not read the script,” said Bill Oakes, then head of the band’s label.
The film’s eventual release in December 1977 breathed new life into the dying days of disco and turned it from musical genre into a bona fide cultural phenomenon, with the Bee Gees as its inescapable soundtrack.
“The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning,” John Travolta said later. “I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.”
But the band’s music worked its magic regardless. How Deep is Your Love immediately topped the US charts, quickly followed by Staying Alive and Night Fever. The Saturday Night Fever album itself stayed at Number 1 for nearly six months, eventually selling 40 million copies worldwide. It remains one of the Top 10 best-selling albums of all time and is the second biggest-selling soundtrack in history, behind The Bodyguard.
“Fever was Number 1 every week,” Barry has said. “It wasn’t just like a hit album. It was Number 1 every single week for 25 weeks. It was just an amazing, crazy, extraordinary time. I remember not being able to answer the phone, and I remember people climbing over my walls. I was quite grateful when it stopped. It was too unreal.”
For two short, intense years, the Bee Gees were the biggest band on the planet, as charted in a new documentary How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. But the Bee Gees’ white suits, whiter teeth and instantly recognisable falsetto vocals also made them easy targets when the inevitable backlash bit.
“It was almost like people were angry with us,” Barry later suggested, “and it was more interesting to make fun of us than to actually try and understand or appreciate what we had done.”
Overnight, radio stations refused to play the band’s music, TV comedy sketches ridiculed them and Chicago DJ Steve Dahl even hosted an anti-disco event attended by 10,000 people where Bee Gees records were burned on a bonfire.
By the time the Bee Gees finished their mammoth tour across the US in 1979, disco’s glitterball was well and truly shattered. Audiences had abruptly turned their back on the genre and the Bee Gees were damned by association. Twenty-five years after first performing together at a Manchester cinema when twins Robin and Maurice were just six years old, they were also burnt-out and disillusioned.
Maurice checked into rehab to treat an alcohol problem, and the band retreated from the spotlight to lick their wounds. Perhaps wary of public scorn, they turned their attention to song-writing for other artists instead, penning huge hits including Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, Woman in Love for Barbra Streisand and Islands in the Stream for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
The brothers didn’t release another studio album as the Bee Gees until 1987’s ESP, featuring the chart-topping single You Win Again. Following those final concerts at the end of the 1970s, it was a decade before they would tour the world together again and begin to move on from the bittersweet triumph of Saturday Night Fever: the album that established the Bee Gees as cultural icons but nearly damaged their career beyond repair.
Only time – and a whole new generation of fans – could prove that the music would last long after the stigma of disco had faded.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is available on DVD and digital download