Depending on one’s point of view, the Disco era was either the summit of world civilization or the unwashed cultural butt-hole of the Seventies. This current commentator has always tended towards the latter view, as much because of the music’s mindless simplicity as because of the sort of people it attracted—and the fact that I possess two left feet.
However, I am a contrarian by nature and the era’s outré status has become its most endearing traits. Several things have converged recently to cause me to ruminate on the late Seventies era and Disco; call it coincidence or synchronicity, they have led me to reassess my unremitting negative views of the era and its music.
One thing leads to another, as they say and Jimmy Fallon’s hosting of Saturday Night Live in December as a sort of self promotion prior his taking the helm as host of the Tonight Show in February, featured one segment where he did a spot-on impression of Barry Gibb with Justin Timberlake—which featured a cameo by the real Barry Gibb. The fact that Barry bought the Johnny Cash estate in my home town as a summer residence a few years back has nothing to do with my admiration of Mr. G and his brother’s music—but it also doesn’t hurt. Vectoring in this harmonic convergence at a tangent was also having just seen a rerun of Saturday Night Fever.
I must confess to have always hated Disco with a passion and the era of its floruit almost as much. The late Seventies: that nether realm between Watergate and the advent of Zippo the Pinhead as President in 1980—not that the subsequent decades have been all that better, but their saving grace has not having to put up with Disco Fever.
I know there are some of you out there who disagree adamantly who regard it as a veritable Golden Age—or at least a Gold Lamé age. Judging from a number of his funniest hit movies, Will Ferrell numbers among this crowd. His new movie Anchorman 2 is a reprise of his earlier homage to Seventies sensibility, Anchorman, replete with white boy afro’s, wide lapel shirts, leisure suits and Super Fly attitudes. Equally enmeshed in Seventies nostalgia is his sports comedy Semi-Pro, as funny as his newsman chronicles.
Of course the greatest exemplar of the late Seventies zeitgeist is far and away Saturday Night Fever—both the movie and the soundtrack by the BeeGees (see, here is where I sneak in Mr. G). Much as I detested it at the time, I am forced to concede that, looking back at it with a less jaundiced eye (but now more bloodshot) that both the movie and the album, each in its own way were masterpieces.
Mind you, if Seventies Disco seems kitschy to some today, it was then as well; but Saturday Night Fever, while devised by Hollywood to exploit a hot pop trend, nonetheless managed to transcend time and place and render both art and some insight into a cultural trend of the time.
Of course a major component of the movie’s success was the stunning BeeGee’s soundtrack. From the opening sequence showing John Travolta strutting down the street, the Brothers Gibb nailed the whole sensibility, as well as writing a battery of catchy songs. A masterpiece in its own right, the SNF album works with and independently of the movie, even more than three decades later.
The SNF soundtrack album was a runaway hit for the BeeGees and justly so. On Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon’s impression of Barry Gibb typically portrayed him in full Disco regalia; funny but to the point. To a certain extent, the BeeGees were a victim of the album’s success. As the Fates would have it, Saturday Night Fever marked not only the pinnacle of Disco’s success, but also its demise. Shortly after the movie and album, the Dark Legion of Disco haters arose and drove a stake through its Disco Ball heart and it came crashing down. It crashed and burned as rapidly as the Graf Zeppelin in a Lightning Zone. Oh! The humanity!
While I shed no tears for the demise of Disco, then or now, I do regret that the BeeGees were sucked into the black hole its demise created. Too many people came to think of the BeeGees as “Disco” (not I Sir; not I), rather than a very good band who created a Disco album. Starting in the late Fifties and continuing on through the Sixties, Gibbs Frere recorded hit after hit on the Rock charts, with nary a hint of the simplistic beat and moronic lyrics which characterized Disco. Indeed, the BeeGees songs, while popular, were often off beat: "New York Mining Disaster 1941” or say a romantic song about a man about to be electrocuted. True, when the late Seventies hit full force after Watergate, the BeeGees, keeping up with the times, penned a number of Disco beat songs; but they were always a step above the rest when it came to quality. Indeed, at one time, when the Lights All Went Out in Massachusetts, there was serious talk in Boston about making it the official state song.
So when someone sneers at Barry G and his group as “Disco” I protest; their Disco album ranks as one of the greatest, but I assert they were a great group doing Disco, not a Disco group. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill: tomorrow, Madam I shall be sober, but tomorrow you will still be ugly and the BeeGees will still be one of the greatest Rock groups ever.