Article Thumbnail

‘Stayin’ Alive’ Is Still Too Tough to Die

Both mocked and beloved at the height of the disco era, this ‘Saturday Night Fever’ hit made the Bee Gees superstars — and, for a while, made them hate everything associated with their song

Depending on when you spoke to them, the Bee Gees might have told you that they hated disco, Saturday Night Fever and/or “Stayin’ Alive,” three cultural totems that were awfully important to their career. Chalk it up to the occupational hazards that come with capturing the zeitgeist by writing an anthem that ends up taking on a life of its own — one far removed from the humble origins that inspired it in the first place. More than 40 years after it first conquered radio, “Stayin’ Alive” remains a monster — or, according to some, a punchline tied to a dated fad. It’s a song that reeks of dancefloor sweat but also came to symbolize the late 1970s and a specific kind of edgy New York attitude. It’s a song about survival sung by a man in a falsetto. A mixture of funk, pop, R&B and, oh yeah, disco, “Stayin’ Alive” struts with the energy of an underdog story, which is precisely the movie it was yoked to — not that the Bee Gees knew that when they wrote it. Even if disco eventually faded away — it didn’t, but you know how some people think — “Stayin’ Alive” isn’t going anywhere.

The Bee Gees had hits before the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack — tons of ‘em. The group consisted of three brothers — older sibling Barry Gibb and twins Maurice and Robin — who were born in England before the family eventually moved to Australia in the late 1950s. Just a few years later, they were churning out singles that echoed the influences of their homeland, paying homage to a rising new band called the Beatles with their psychedelic-tinged pop songs. By the time of 1967’s Bee Gees’ 1st — which came out just a few months after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the trio had moved back to the U.K., fully awash in the blissed-out melodies of the Summer of Love. A song like “To Love Somebody” was full of orchestral touches, heartfelt lyrics and a killer chorus about a man hopelessly besotted by his true love. These were gifts the Gibb brothers had from the start — they knew how to synthesize a universal sentiment into a musical grandeur that felt epic.

The group kept going strong through the early 1970s, although Robin left for a time to pursue a solo career. (“I just could not take the Bee Gees any more,” Robin later said. “Everyone has a point in his life when everything about them gets confusing. I felt like a prisoner, like I was in a whirlpool.”) Ballads like “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” suggested they still had a knack for going for the jugular, but midway through the decade, the Bee Gees seemed a little passé, their ornate pop aesthetic starting to sound stale. “In the mid-1970s, we didn’t surprise anyone anymore,” Barry said. “Our songs were starting to sound too much like each other. … The world was waiting for a new band to appear and take our place.” 

Because the brothers produced their own material, it was suggested maybe they needed an outside set of ears — specifically, those belonging to Arif Mardin, who had worked with everyone from the Young Rascals to Aretha Franklin. Initially, the Gibb brothers resented having Mardin overseeing their next record, 1973’s Mr. Natural. “Barry was always the professional and very easy-going one,” engineer Damon Lyon-Shaw recalled in The Ultimate Biography of the Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb, “but the two younger brothers were hard — difficult band! They were a problem in the studio. They were very grumpy with Arif Mardin, [but] he was fantastic trying to keep them together, he was a real gentleman.”

But what ultimately sold the Bee Gees on Mardin was a breakthrough that occurred on their follow-up album, Main Course. His suggestion was that Barry sing one of the band’s new songs in a way that pushed the vocalist out of his comfort zone. “I didn’t say ‘Hey, sing falsetto, I’d like to invent this sound for you,’” Mardin said in 2004, just a few years before his death. “But there was a melody in one of the songs — it might have been ‘Jive Talkin’’ — and I said, ‘Can you take it up an octave, please?’ And Barry said, ‘If I take it up an octave and shout like an opera singer, I’ll sound like a fool. Let me sing it in a soft voice.’ So he sang it in that voice and the brothers and everyone were saying, ‘That’s great, that’s great, keep that.’”

“Jive Talkin’” went to No. 1, showing off a funkier sound and Barry’s falsetto vocals, which were about to become his trademark. And the song seemed to tap into this emerging new musical form known as disco — the keyboards were neon-bright, and the rhythm track was incredibly danceable. After sounding like the Beatles for most of their career to that point, the Bee Gees were suddenly grabbing from James Brown and other Black R&B artists, emphasizing percussion and groove in a way they never had before. But beyond that, it was Mardin’s encouragement that the Bee Gees rethink their approach to how they make music. “Arif taught me that music is something you see in your mind and in your heart,” Barry said this year, “it’s not just something on the radio.”

This new direction would become incredibly important when, a few years later, the Bee Gees began work on a new album in a chateau in France. Their longtime manager Robert Stigwood, who was producing a film about disco in New York, encouraged the band to contribute songs for the soundtrack. The history of this fecund period is nicely chronicled in the new HBO documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, which underlines just how little the Bee Gees thought of this project. (For one thing, they were sent the script and didn’t even bother reading it.) But the Gibb brothers, who were in the middle of a burst of creativity for their upcoming record, responded with a handful of tracks that would end up being immortalized on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. (Maybe it was the vibe of the chateau that inspired the Bee Gees’ fevered songwriting. “You know, years ago there were so many pornographic films made [there],” Robin told Rolling Stone in the late 1970s. “The staircase where we wrote ‘How Deep Is Your Love,’ ‘Stayin’ Alive,’ all those songs, was the same staircase where there’ve been six classic lesbian porno scenes filmed.”) 

“We weren’t looking at Fever as a career vehicle,” Maurice said. “We just got caught up in the Robert Stigwood syndrome. Anyone he managed, he also wanted involved in his film projects as opposed to keeping them separate.” As Maurice remembers it, Stigwood had liked the material but requested a song that was “more disco-y,” which prompted them to write a song called “Saturday Night,” “but there were so many songs called ‘Saturday Night,’ even one by the Bay City Rollers.” After some adjustments, it became “Stayin’ Alive.”

Because Saturday Night Fever (the movie and the soundtrack) is so closely linked to disco, it’s natural to assume that the Bee Gees were trying to write in that vein. According to the Brothers Gibb, though, that wasn’t the case. “I didn’t know that anyone was going to call it disco, but they did,” Barry admitted. “It certainly wasn’t in our minds, and we certainly wouldn’t have called it disco, we thought it was R&B.” The lyrics to “Stayin’ Alive” were prompted by New York’s hellscape reputation in the mid-1970s thanks to killer David Berkowitz wreaking havoc across the city. For the Bee Gees, who by then had moved to America, the chorus was an act of defiance for those who refused to be terrorized.

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breaking and everybody shaking, people
Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive

But the lyrics personalized this existential anxiety at the top of the song, with Barry informing the listener what a hardscrabble stud he was:

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  

Sometimes, a musician writing a song for a soundtrack will have a sense of the plot — or at least an idea of what kind of person the main character is. Barry, Robin and Maurice had none of that info, and yet in the opening moments of Saturday Night Fever, which is when we meet John Travolta’s cocky, restless Tony Manero walking down the street, “Stayin’ Alive” told us everything we needed to know about the guy, even before he said a word.

Another Bee Gees song, the shimmering ballad “How Deep Is Your Love,” was actually the first single off the soundtrack, going to No. 1, but when “Stayin’ Alive” followed soon after, it also landed at the top of the charts. Whether or not the Bee Gees considered their music disco, the fact that it was associated with the film phenomenon, which thrust disco into the mainstream, automatically made the band the musical style’s unofficial spokespeople. Suddenly, they were as big as the Beatles had been.

But whereas the Fab Four had proven to be a timeless band, the Bee Gees found themselves defined by a sound that left them pigeonholed. “At first, we were amused,” Barry admitted, “but then we realized that this hysteria had erased our past. All the songs we had written were forgotten, swept away by this madness, and we had become kings of a genre we didn’t particularly like.” 

For all their complaints, though, the Bee Gees rode Saturday Night Fever to global success and endless industry hosannas, including the Album of the Year Grammy. When the band followed it up with 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, a record that folded disco into other pop styles, they were rewarded with three more No. 1 singles, for “Tragedy,” “Too Much Heaven” and “Love You Inside Out.” But a backlash was brewing. Their attempt to adapt their heroes’ Sgt. Pepper’s record into a movie was a catastrophe, and by the 1980s, the culture had turned on disco so angrily that, once again, the Bee Gees felt like old news. Look no further than 1980’s classic spoof Airplane!, which featured a lengthy parody of Saturday Night Fever and “Stayin’ Alive,” to see how both the band and disco suddenly seemed like a joke.

The ensuing decade wasn’t kind to the group, who struggled to be relevant in a new era. (It didn’t help that the 1983 sequel to the Saturday Night Fever movie, Staying Alive, although commercially successful, was terrible.) Their albums were largely ignored, although 1987’s “You Win Again” was a No. 1 hit in the U.K. But by that point, the Bee Gees were desperately trying to extricate themselves from their past. When the brothers were asked for their feelings about “Stayin’ Alive” in the late 1980s, their response was, “We’d like to dress it up in a white suit and gold chains … and set it on fire.” They didn’t just hate their hit — they hated the fashion and style that Saturday Night Fever represented. 

There were plenty of reasons people hated disco back then. The music didn’t “rock.” It wasn’t “real” music, using “artificial” gimmicks like loops and keyboards rather than guitars. And then, you had the sexist, racist and homophobic rejections of the sound: Basically, the objections were that it was music that wasn’t the domain principally of straight white men. You could see that reaction in the way people responded to Barry’s falsetto. Apparently, no “real” man sings like that, which made his proclamation at the start of “Stayin’ Alive” that he was a “woman’s man” confusing. In an age of hard rock and punk, Saturday Night Fever wasn’t “hard” enough. 

What’s ironic, of course, is that while disco catered to a gay and more ethnically diverse audience than rock ‘n’ roll did, the Bee Gees were three straight white dudes making millions off the genre. Regardless, those close-minded attitudes about disco — while certainly still in existence today — no longer drive the culture like they once did. Just as poptimism has done away with the narrow views of what constitutes “significant” popular music, so too have prominent acts like Kylie Minogue, Robyn and Dua Lipa demonstrated disco’s longevity. 

And in an age of heightened gender fluidity, the Gibb brothers’ un-macho swagger now no longer seems peculiar. As fashion writer Helen Walmsley-Johnson put it in 2012, “The Bee Gees took glam rock’s feminized masculinity one step beyond, gave it a disco spin and became synonymous with glitter balls, illuminated dance floors and enough man-made fibre to light up Manhattan with the static discharge.” To her mind, the Bee Gees represented “hardcore glamour for men. An impossible romantic ideal, drenched in Aramis aftershave.”

Not that the artists who cover “Stayin’ Alive” necessarily consider that nuance. Whether it’s Lizzo or Les Claypool, their takes on the Bee Gees hit tend to run away from the original, almost as if they want the listener to know that they know that the Saturday Night Fever song is kinda cheesy. This isn’t always the case — Wyclef Jean gave it an electric hip-hop spin on “We Trying to Stay Alive” — but too often, the covers don’t have the nerve to embrace the earnest, emphatic strut that Barry and his brothers brought to the song. 

In some ways, that’s fitting. “Stayin’ Alive” was written as an underdog anthem about refusing to give in to a city that was crushing the souls of its citizens. Four decades later, it still sports an attitude — “Stayin’ Alive” is insanely iconic but was never given its due. 

And now, it’s also laced with melancholy. Barry Gibb has lost both of his musical brothers. (Maurice died in 2003. Robin died in 2012. Their other brother, Andy, who wasn’t in the Bee Gees, died in 1988.) Barry still makes music, but not as the Bee Gees. Recently, he recorded a duet with country-rock artist Jason Isbell, who adores Gibb’s old band. “I think you guys were way ahead of your time,” Isbell told Gibb, “because you were making music that affected people in the same way that Black R&B records did, but you didn’t sound like you were ripping off Black artists. You sounded like yourselves.”

Such appreciations should only continue to pop up thanks to the new HBO documentary. But Barry Gibb has observed the staying power of his group’s music through a new generation. Earlier this month, he talked to The Guardian about a time when his daughter was driving and “Stayin’ Alive” came on the radio. “They turned the volume up and opened the windows and people on the street started dancing,” Gibb said. “It’s not explainable how it happened, but those things seem to have penetrated the culture to the point that I don’t think this music’s going to be forgotten.”

Forgotten was never the issue. Being properly appreciated, that’s the goal.