Album #45: “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” — Various Artists (1977)
“You should be dancin’, yeah” — The Bee Gees
A review in four part harmony
1) What the hell were we thinking? I don’t mean, “why did anyone ever like disco” but — “why did anyone hate this movie?” (Beyond Tom Wolfe and his somewhat-justified loathing.) Clearly no one who ever screamed “DISCO SUCKS!” actually saw “Saturday Night Fever” — a dark existential affair where the music served as much to ironically undercut the bleak, nihilistic lives of its characters as it did to get their asses out on the dance floor. Sure it had disco and dancing, but it also had a gang rape, ethnic violence and someone plunging to their death from a bridge. Are we having fun yet? Far from being some cheesy flick exploiting a craze (which, yes, it did eventually become) “Saturday Night Fever” had gritty cinematic aspirations born out of the ’70s auteurism of “Midnight Cowboy” and “American Graffiti” — in many ways an updated “Rebel without a Cause” for the Me Generation. If any argument remains, one of the fairest assessments of the quality of a movie is how easy it is to satirize, and “Saturday Night Fever” has been endlessly parodied —especially it’s cocky, strutting opening scene:
Then again, one of the reasons most of my 8th grade friends never saw the movie when it first came out was it’s R rating. In an effort to capitalize on both disco and the soundtrack’s popularity, “Saturday Night Fever” was eventually rereleased Rated PG with most of the violence and bad language left on the cutting room floor — and leaving it open to arguments of simply cashing in on the disco craze. “Saturday Night Fever” was the 1970s hitting bottom: It tried to have its quaalude and eat it too.
2) Spin the bottle. Whatever you thought about disco or this movie, there was no escaping the soundtrack. You couldn’t turn on a radio in 1977 or 1978 without hearing a cut from it. It was the No. 1 album for 24 weeks and spun off at least five #1 singles. Heck, even songs cut from the movie and the soundtrack — such as Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” — were Top 10 hits. Most of my friends had a copy, and I remember Side 1 was in heavy rotation the night we played Spin the Bottle (ironically, of course) down in Anne Dunlap’s basement. And if you ever needed an 11-minute cut of The Trammps “Disco Inferno,” you were set. The soundtrack also had one of my all-time Guiltiest Pleasures, the epically awful/awesome “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy. (If it pleases the court, let the record show that Walter Murphy’s LP was the first album I ever bought with my own money, and as it is nowhere on this final countdown, this is my only chance to play his one and only #1 hit. Number One, do you hear me? At some point in American history, this was the most popular song in the country. The only possible explanation is that everyone was on drugs.)
3) No escape. Of course, none of this explains why this album is in my 50/50 countdown, or why I still like it 35 years later. Quite simply, I was on drugs. In the spring of 1978, I spent several weeks hopped up on goofballs after tearing a muscle in my lower back trying out for the track team. The first week I spent recuperating at home — drugged out on the biggest muscle relaxers you’ve ever seen — with little to do except read “Lord of the Rings” and listen to the radio. The potent combination of pain killers, epic fantasy and Top 40 pop forever fused in my brain and that was that. When I think of Dungeons & Dragons or The Hobbit, even now, I don’t hear “O Fortuna” but Yvonne Elliman.
4) “Watch the hair!”
Goddamn could that Travolta boy dance. Seriously.