This post is my entirely non-humble entry for the Film Soundtrack Festival which is being tirelessly and lovingly curated by Bruce over at Vinyl Connection. It was/is a great idea and you can check out all the goodies right here from everyone involved.
Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
Since I was born
Dear friends, the time has come to finally lift the lid on precisely why disco became the unstoppable cultural juggernaut it was in the late 70’s. The world is now ready to hear the truth from me and so it goes.
Now the conventional story is that disco was birthed in the clubs of New York, a fantastic glitter-festooned fusion of Latin salsa rhythms and R&B/soul stylings, seized upon by the glitterati hipperatti and championed by a very few visionary DJs to provide an uptempo hedonistic high-energy soundtrack, predominantly in the city’s gay clubs initially. Word of mouth and word of foot propelling a strictly local craze appealing predominantly to the black and Latino scene into a national phenomenon. Then along came an initially low-key film based upon a brilliant short story by Nik Cohn* and suddenly it became the dominant expression of pop culture to the point where everyone and their grandma knew what it was and could wiggle and point their way through a half-decent Travolta impression.
Disco had landed.
And what had emerged down the gangway from the Saturday Night Fever flying saucer sporting some improbably tight satin trousers was a whiter, poppier, more hetero (despite the odd amusing falsetto), infinitely more suburban friendly and no less energetic version of disco. All of this tied in with a very good and surprisingly, to me at least, gritty film. Okay so there was plenty here to mock, bad Bee Gee impressions would remain a staple of all the 70’s and 80’s TV comedians I can remember growing up with but, tied in with Travolta’s brilliant dance sequences there was some seriously great pop hereabouts … and I can reveal what made it so good and, in the process, disco so vast.
I know, I know you think I’m a myopic patriot and the online equivalent of the heroine’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding** claiming everything was invented in Greece, but it’s true. Forget the Bee Gees themselves with their unholy MancuniAustralian origins, the real genius hereabouts clearly resides in the fingers of Dennis Byron and Blue Weaver, ex-members of 60’s Cardiff hit makers Amen Corner^ and drummer and organist respectively, it was their addition to the lineup that presaged the Bee Gees change from very-competent-if-unremarkable artists to snugly strided colossi. Quite simply they brought da Welsh funk, the spirit of which lives on in my totally boss dance moves; when I bust a move on the dancefloor, it is my proud boast, it stays bust. Their Welsh wizardry was clearly, to my mind, the missing ingredient from not only the Bee Gees music, but the world in general. True story, these hips don’t lie.
But let’s look at some non-Bee Gee related offerings on Saturday Night Fever first. Walter Murphy’s ‘Fifth of Beethoven’ remains utterly, monumentally, shit bitingly awful, no matter how many times you listen to it^^. I like Beethoven a whole lot, I like disco and if I met him, I’m sure I could like Walter Murphy – sadly the fusion of the three elements in 1977 led to the discovery of a hitherto undiscovered compound Shit-tonium. The novelty of which can surely be the only thing that propelled the US populace to buy it by the truckload, sending it to #1 in 1976. Mind you, in comparison to the same shit David Shire pulled with Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ was positively genius … ‘Night on Disco Mountain’ in-fucking-deed!
But it gets better, David Shire’s ‘Salsation’ is an excellent high-tempo track, showing us exactly where disco’s energy came from^*, ditto ‘Calypso Breakdown’ although I don’t detect any calypso in the mix at all. ‘Boogie Shoes’ by K.C & The Sunshine Band is lightweight crap and ‘Open Sesame’ by Kool & The Gang, isn’t too much better, but then we get to the total non-Bee Gee highlight of Saturday Night Fever, ‘(Burn baby burn) burn that mother down’ – yup, time for a bit of a ‘Disco Inferno’. Nice one Trammps, whatever they lacked in spelling ability they made up for in longevity as they smash us with the full 10:51 version as the last track on the soundtrack. It’s just a perfect dance tune, was then, is now. If you have any twitch in your hips, any glide in your stride any bounce in your buns then surely you can’t stay still to this track? I find it totally overwhelmingly great.
‘Overwhelmingly great’ of course brings us back to Wales’ greatest Trojan horses, the Bee Gees. Given that their manager Robert Stigwood produced the film, it was always a cinch that they might play a bit of a part on the soundtrack released on his label, the enticingly modest, RSO*^. Including 6 original songs and three of their songs performed by other artists, you could say they and Mr Stigwood got the best out of them. Look past the impractical trouserage and listen past the daft falsetto vocals and what you are left with are an utterly compelling series of pop masterclasses, precision-tooled hip shakers designed to get you up and moving and good enough to have become part of the cultural fabric of the times*^*.
The daftest track on Saturday Night Fever is the opener ‘Staying Alive’ and it is just perfect brilliant nonsense from the first bar to the last, it just makes me happy and, yes, I do have a whole routine mapped out for it which I do not hesitate to break out at office parties. I have learned to love ‘How Deep is Your Love’ over the years, although I shall coyly plead the fifth in relation to the answer, if that’s okay with you. I feel that ‘Night Fever’ being simultaneously slick, funky and smooth is probably the Welshest track on offer here and hence beyond most superlatives. ‘Jive Talkin” and ‘You Should Be Dancing’ were two older tracks repurposed by the chaps for the soundtrack and again, both make great listens, the speed and energy of the latter being capable of going toe-to-toe with 1537 disco fave ‘Mighty Real’.
So there we have it, you now know the secret of the second best selling soundtrack in history, the rumours are that it was originally going to be called Swansea Night Fever are undoubtedly totally true. Now, you know what I wanna do? strut.
706 (Get) Down.
*if you’ve never read it, seek it out. It’s worth it and he’s always a really entertaining writer.
**see, two film references! That’s what I bring to the party, Bruce.
^also home to the very talented Andy Fairweather Low, who I have seen play with Roger waters and is the gent doing the backing vocals on the Who’s ‘Who Are You’, amongst all manner of other stellar things.
^^four times in two days so far; remember, I do this so you never have to. Don’t thank me, it’s my mission.
^*not Wales this time, but wherever Salsa comes from – Salvania? Salsastan?
*^Robert Stigwood Organisation.
*^*apart from ‘More Than a Woman’ which is unutterably vile and something I wrote in Mrs 1537’s birthday card this year.