Stayin’ Alive (B R&M Gibb) and How Deep Is Your Love (B R&M Gibb) – The Bee Gees 1978
Stayin’ Alive was an integral part of the musical behemoth that was the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, it sparked the disco phenomena, launched the Bee Gees into the hyperspace of fame, ultimately sold 40 million copies and won five Grammy awards including the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1978. It remains one of the most culturally significant albums in music history, and over forty years later it is still the second best-selling movie soundtrack in history, just behind The Bodyguard.
Robert Stigwood the Bee Gees manager had contacted the brothers when they were in Paris at the Chateau d’Herouville studios working on their upcoming album to follow-up Children of the World.
Stigwood had acquired the rights to an extended, largely fictional essay, by Nik Cohn, entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night, which he intended to make into a film, and he needed at least four songs from the Bee Gees for the film score.
Without reading Cohn’s essay or the screenplay, the brothers assured Stigwood that they had already written songs that would be perfect for the movie, but they had only written two, which had been previously released – Jive Talkin’ (1975) and You Should Be Dancing (1976).
They set to work that weekend around the kitchen table composing songs using an acoustic guitar, and at the end of this impromptu session they had also written Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, More Than A Woman, Night Fever and If I Can’t Have You – which brought the Bee Gees contribution to the movie soundtrack to seven songs of which the group sang six, and Yvonne Elliman recorded If I Can’t Have You. To further highlight the prodigious output of the brothers at this time, they also wrote three more songs for the movie soundtrack which were recorded but not used, although they became hits for other singers – Emotion for Samantha Sang, Warm Ride for Graham Bonnett and (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away for brother Andy.
By now the Bee Gees had embraced funky dance grooves and produced a genuine dancefloor anthem, their higher harmonies and a surprisingly sustained and confident Barry Gibb falsetto ensured that Stayin’ Alive would hit #1 around the world, it did in the USA, Australia and seven other countries and sold six million copies.
Yet the shine of the mirror ball and the euphoria of the dance grooves obscured a deeper and darker dimension of this song. The main protagonist in the film, young Brooklynite Tony Manero is not living the high life, quite the contrary, he is alienated, abused, depressed, possibly suicidal, his swagger and libidinous persona conceal his daily battle for survival, and the escapism of the dancefloor at Club 2001 Odyssey, so integral to his existence, and the bolstering of his self-esteem.
Tony is withdrawing from drug abuse without family support “I’ve been kicked around since I was born” – life is not a celebration for him, he is just trying to “stay alive”, it is the redemptive power of the dance that is Tony’s therapy of choice. The film does not shy away from the darker side of life around Tony, it does include a rape scene and examples of racial discrimination, and Tony’s battle with substance abuse problems.
He is still self-medicating, he has a problem and is still working on it “I get low and I get high /And if I can’t get either I really try”, but he does admit he has a problem “Life goin’ nowhere/ Somebody help me/ Somebody help me, yeah”. Lyrically Robyn had begun to develop the song’s lyrics on the back of a Concorde air ticket, during a flight between the UK and the US, and Maurice borrowed a bass line from Clean Up Woman, a song released by local Miami singer Betty wright.
This song also reveals the musical influences of Stevie Wonder’s Suspicion as well as MFSB’s TSOP (The Sounds of Philadelphia), it also includes a recycled drum loop that had already been used on one of the Bee Gees earlier hits, Night Fever, due to the fact that their drummer Dennis Bryon had lost his mother during the recording sessions and couldn’t be replaced. Barry and producer Albhy Galuten put the drum loop together, it was very insistent but not machinelike, and was the perfect accompaniment to John Travolta as he strode down 86th Street in Brooklyn in the opening scene of the movie.
This drum treatment was so effective that it was also used in the recording of More Than A Woman, and subsequently on the Barry Gibb composition for Barbra Streisand, Woman in Love.
Stayin’ Alive also namechecks the famous newspaper The New York Times, with the enigmatic line “We can try to understand/The New York Times effect on man”, but what was it the brothers were really saying?
Under the influence of their former producer Arif Mardin, and his colleague Albhy Galuten, Stayin’ Alive emerged as a substantial message song within a danceable groove, it’s remarkably clever and defies categorization, which may have contributed to the identity crisis that people experienced with disco music in the years post-Saturday Night Fever, yet it was recognised by the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one off the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Barry Gibb has said of this song “People crying out for help. Desperate songs. Those are the ones that become giants. The minute you capture that on record, it’s gold. Stayin’ Alive is the epitome of that…everybody struggles against the world, fighting all the bullshit …it really is a victory to survive…but when you climb back up on top …that’s something everybody reacts to.”
The promotional video for this song has become equally memorable for the great song it showcased, which cleverly melded dance grooves with a rock sensibility, as well as the somewhat weird staging of the video on what appears to be an abandoned movie set, complete with a train carriage and dilapidated buildings, the brothers in tight shirts, white flares, striding along a deserted railway platform and popping up inside various window frames like gurning peek-a-boos.
How Deep Is Your Love was a return to the romantic ballad template which had been the Bee Gees formula for success early in their career, Barry and Robin share the lead vocals, Maurice delivers impeccable harmony backing, Denis Bryon (drums) and Maurice (bass) combine with drummer Alan Kendall and percussionist Joe Lala to deliver a euphoric mix that won the Grammy Award for Best Group Vocal, and took the song straight to #1 in the US and six other countries, #3 in Aust and # 3 in the UK, and sold over four million copies.
Lyrically the song revolves around the fundamental power of love as an anchor and foundation in life, it was one of Robin’s favorite Bee Gees songs, revived by British boy band Take That in 1996, it went all the way to #1 in the UK.