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 25 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 ever, 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, loosely based on the Brooklyn dance club scene, 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 in reality they had only written two, which had been previously released – Jive Talkin’ (1975) and You Should Be Dancing (1976), so technically these two songs, released two to three years before the Saturday Night Fever phenomena, and included on the movie’s soundtrack as re-releases, were the true historical precedents for the rise of disco music in the late 1970’s.
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 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 (below with Barry), Warm Ride for Graham Bonnet and (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away for brother Andy.
By now the Bee Gees embraced a funky set of R&B grooves and with Stayin’ Alive they had produced a genuine dance floor anthem, with drum fills, weaving violins, surging strings, punchy horns, and an irresistable tempo that underscored their higher harmonies and a surprisingly sustained and confident Barry Gibb falsetto. Stayin’ Alive would hit #1 around the world, as it did in the USA, Australia and seven other countries and sold six million copies, it has been featured in a brilliant collage of scenes from Rita Hayworth movie musicals, and this has become a YouTube sensation, with over 9.5 million hits.
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, which was 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, as well as 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”.
Robin 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, and once he heard where Robin was taking the song lyrically, the Gibb brothers creative process evolved from there.
This song also revealed the musical influences of Stevie Wonder’s Suspicion as well as MFSB’s TSOP (The Sounds of Philadelphia), and included 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 for Night Fever, and he 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 namechecked the famous newspaper The New York Times, with the enigmatic line “We can try to understand/The New York Times effect on man”, which was probably inspired by the fact that Robert Stigwood had got the idea for the film from a New York Times magazine article about the Brooklyn club scene.
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.” In the time of COVID 19 the song has been cleverly re-imagined and parodied as Stayin’ Inside, as social distancing and quarantine become realities of life in a pandemic world.
Under the influence of their former producer Arif Mardin, Stayin’ Alive emerged as a substantial message song within a danceable groove, it’s remarkably clever, it almost defies categorization, yet it was recognized by the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one off the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Stayin’ Alive may have become the “disco” monkey on the back of the Bee Gees, who always claimed that this song was really blue-eyed soul and not disco, and years later that they would have liked to “dress it up in a white suit and burn it”, but it was a landmark record, and is particularly inspiring to us in the time of COVID-19.
The song’s medicinal value has long been recognised, a team from the University of Illinois medical school suggested that it would be an ideal song to listen to on an iPod while performing chest compressions on someone who has just suffered a heart attack. The American Heart Association has confirmed that the optimum tempo at which to perform CPR is 100 beats per minute, and the research team highlighted that Stayin’ Alive at 103 beats per minute, has almost the perfect rhythm to help jump-start a stalled heart. It’s also true that Another One Bites the Dust by Queen has a similar beat, but they agreed that this song wouldn’t be an appropriate musical accompaniment to CPR. The Bee Gees were aware that they were creating a heart-thumping rhythm “We thought when we were writing it that we should emulate the human heartbeat”, Robin Gibb explained, “So we got our keyboard player Blue Weaver to lie on the floor and put electrodes on his heart and we sent the sounds through to the control room. Then we got our drummer to play the heartbeat, and that’s how we created that distinctive drum loop.”
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, Blue weaver was responsible for developing the melody after Barry had asked him “What’s the most beautiful chord you know”, and Blue replied” E flat”. Barry had Blue play the chord and Barry’s lyrics literally tumbled out, however Blue was not given a writing credit on this song.
Barry and Robin shared the lead vocals, Maurice delivered impeccable harmony backing, Denis Bryon (drums) and Maurice (bass) combined with guitarist 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; and when revived by British boy band Take That in 1996, it went all the way to #1 in the UK.