Listen to the ground…there is movement all around…
Saturday Night Fever didn’t invent disco…but in many ways, it epitomized the genre. With the December 1977 release of the John Badham-directed drama and its soundtrack album, the onetime underground dance movement which had been rising to the mainstream since at least 1974 became the mainstream. Disco’s alluring blend of the gritty and the glamorous gained a face in the form of John Travolta, whose tough yet tender Tony Manero of Bay Ridge, New York found solace in his escape each Saturday night to the dancefloor. On records, the faces of disco became those of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb – the Beatle-esque baroque pop artists who had recently transitioned to funky R&B. Saturday Night Fever made instant icons out of Travolta and the Gibbs, changing their lives forever, and permanently emblazoning an extraordinary string of songs – “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep is Your Love,” “If I Can’t Have You,” and “More Than a Woman” among them – in the international cultural consciousness.
On the occasion of the film and soundtrack’s 40th anniversary, Saturday Night Fever has been reissued by Capitol Records and UMe in a Super Deluxe box set, featuring the original album on 1 CD and 2 LPs, a bonus CD of remixes, the original movie and bonus features on Blu-ray, an LP-sized book, and a host of swag. The box is of appropriate magnitude for an album that was certified 15x platinum, remained on the Billboard album charts for 120 weeks (24 of them consecutive at Number One), and yielded four No. 1s on the Hot 100. Yet the set doesn’t add up to the sum of its remarkable parts, in large part because of what’s not included.
Saturday Night Fever was based on Nik Cohn’s magazine account of the burgeoning New York disco scene, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” (later revealed to be fictional), and launched John Travolta (Oscar-nominated for his performance) from television star to bona fide superstar. The film took in $94 million domestically on a $3.5 million budget, earning considerable critical acclaim as well. With music and dance occupying such a central role in the fabric of the picture, a tie-in soundtrack was an inevitability.
The original, 17-song Saturday Night Fever soundtrack released on RSO Records and assembled under the supervision of producer/label owner Robert Stigwood, is presented here on one CD as newly (splendidly) remastered by Wally Traugott at Capitol Studios, and on a 180-gram vinyl, 2-LP set replicating the original double album format. (This is the same vinyl released in April 2017.) It remains a thrilling sonic journey that can’t help but conjure the electric yet graceful scenes of the lithe Travolta finding, and saving, himself on the disco floor. The Bee Gees dominate as writers, producers, and artists, naturally. Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb defined the sound of a generation with the incendiary pair of “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” the exquisite “How Deep is Your Love,” and “More Than a Woman” (also included in its rendition by Tavares, which charted in the U.S. Pop and R&B top forty) – not to mention their shimmering production of “If I Can’t Have You” performed by Yvonne Elliman, and their two “oldies” reprised on the soundtrack, “Jive Talkin'” (1975) and “You Should Be Dancing” (1976).
But the Brothers Gibb weren’t the only talents featured on the groundbreaking album. Walter Murphy’s classical adaptation “A Fifth of Beethoven” had already been a chart-topper by the time it was included on Saturday Night Fever. “Disco Inferno” from the Philadelphia-based Trammps, however, had only reached the zenith of the Billboard Dance chart. Its inclusion on Fever saw it burn, baby, burn to No. 11 on the Hot 100. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes,” MFSB’s Philly-flavored “K-Jee,” featuring some of the same veteran musicians as The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno,” Ralph MacDonald’s “Calypso Breakdown,” and Kool & The Gang’s “Open Sesame” all added further authentic flavor. While Saturday Night Fever may have exploded disco – born of the lush “Philadelphia sound” of R&B and nurtured in clubs by African-Americans, Latinos, Italian-Americans, and gays, among others – into suburbia, its sounds weren’t watered-down. That the Bee Gees’ now-classic songs were born of necessity, i.e. “Stigwood needs songs for a movie,” proved irrelevant, as the trio delivered some of their most inspired and powerful music.
One of the unsung musical heroes of Saturday Night Fever is composer David Shire. The accomplished veteran of stage and screen was invited by his intermittent collaborator John Badham to compose the original score as well as adapt the Bee Gees’ tunes into instrumental cues. Of his work, the evocative and atmospheric “Manhattan Skyline,” Mussorgsky adaptation “Night on Disco Mountain,” and “Salsation” all made the soundtrack album. The remainder of Shire’s work (at least five additional cues) all remain unreleased.
The 40th anniversary might have been a suitable occasion to bolster the famous soundtrack – still one of the best-selling, most familiar LPs of all time – with additional material, such as Shire’s additional cues. In the box set’s booklet, music supervisor and soundtrack producer Bill Oakes writes of receiving the Gibbs’ demos of their five original songs; what a treat it would have been to finally share those historic, early recordings. They, too, are absent from this set, along with virtually any of the bonuses that would have made a deluxe edition of the soundtrack so desirable.
The only audio bonus is a second CD of Serban Ghenea’s new mixes of “Stayin’ Alive” (previously issued in digital form only), “Night Fever,” “How Deep is Your Love,” and “You Should Be Dancing.” Ghenea’s mixes, in and of themselves, are fine inclusions. The eight-time Grammy-winning mix engineer hasn’t added any new elements to the original multi-tracks; rather, he’s remixed them with faithfulness to the familiar structures, instead bringing out parts that were previously buried. What’s missing, however, are the original extended mixes of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” and “You Should Be Dancing.” (Rhino released these in 2015 on vinyl only under the title Bee Gees: Extended, leaving all but the promotional 12-inch version of “Stayin’ Alive” curiously unavailable on CD.) These club mixes were an integral part of the success of Saturday Night Fever, and a part of the story that deserved to be addressed on this lavish package. This new 2-CD edition is available today as a standalone release, as well.
The movie itself fares a bit better, as this set includes John Badham’s Director’s Cut on Blu-ray as first released as a standalone title in May 2017. This 1080p Blu-ray release finds the film impressively restored in 4K from the original camera negative, while the audio has also been upgraded with a new mix presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Both the original theatrical cut and slightly extended director’s cut are included, along with Badham’s commentary, a pop-up trivia track, and almost 80 minutes of featurettes. Most of the supplements from past editions have been carried over for this release.
In the attractive, 24-page, LP-sized paperback booklet which accompanies this set, The Story Behind the Music, various perspectives are offered in new, individual essays by Barry Gibb, John Badham, David Shire, and Bill Oakes. The booklet is illustrated with photographs and memorabilia images, but the set doesn’t stop there. The sturdy box also houses a set of five large, glossy photos of the band and star Travolta, plus a turntable slip mat with the Saturday Night Fever label emblazoned on it, and a foldout replica of the original movie poster. The Blu-ray is housed in a compact paper sleeve, while the CDs are held in one slim digipak with a small booklet.
How deep is our love? A Saturday Night Fever box set should easily be the crown jewel of any Bee Gees reissue campaign, celebrating one of the most popular albums of all time in any genre. While this set delivers on its handsomely-designed appearance and will look terrific on any shelf, it’s lacking the essential components that were greatly hoped for, and would have made a hardcore fan or collector salivate: never-before-heard music that would illuminate and further contextualize the tremendous legacy of The Bee Gees as well as of disco itself. If you’re one of the fans who don’t already own the soundtrack or the Blu-ray, this set certainly makes one-stop shopping. Yet without rare audio, it doesn’t pack considerably more punch than the individual releases of those seminal items would. For such a landmark collection, the feeling is bittersweet rather than euphoric.
Saturday Night Fever is available now from Capitol/UMe at: