Saturday, January 27, 2018

When An Epic Case of 'Night Fever' Proved Fatal

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, the epochal soundtrack to the landmark movie, took the number one spot on the Billboard Top 200 on January 21, 1978, stayin' alive there for 24 weeks. Buoying the late 70s cultural phenomenon that was disco, the album also catapulted its primary artists -- the Bee Gees -- to global superstardom.

But even titanic waves crash after they crest, and this one was no different.

Disco's origins, European, urban, black and gay, challenged conventional orthodoxies. It was rhythmic, sexual, sleek, and often symphonic. It enticed entries from non-disco acts as diverse as the Rolling Stones, the EaglesRod Stewart and Kiss. While it turned many people on, many others were turned off.

The number one album in the U.S. for 24 weeks in 1978
The ensuing backlash was vicious.

Just a year after Gerry Rafferty's City to City dislodged the award-winning multi-hit, multi-platinum double LP from the top slot, disco was not only no longer tres chic, it was literally under assault, morphing from Disco Duck to Disco Sucks seemingly overnight. 

Nothing epitomized the change in mood more than Disco Demolition Night, an ill-conceived July 1979 Chicago White Sox promotion that turned into a game-forfeiting riot.

Conceived by Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl with the blessing of Sox promoter Mike Veeck, the idea of blasting to bits a crate full of vinyl disco records in centerfield between games of a Comiskey Park double-header drew a raucous crowd. Admission was 98 cents and a sacrificial record. After the pyrotechnics, attendees stormed the playing field and wouldn't leave until police descended.

At least 37 people were arrested. The field, wrecked. The second game, canceled.

Between the soundtrack's ascent to the top of the charts, and the era's catastrophic end, the hedonistic disco lifestyle became the stuff of legend, epitomized by a pair of Manhattan night spots, the drug-laden danceteria Studio 54 and the steamy sex playpen, Plato's Retreat.

The Bee Gees -- brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb -- had hit the charts a decade earlier crooning melancholy songs with titles like To Love Somebody, I Started a Joke and I've Gotta Get A Message To You before fading from view. They re-emerged in 1975 with the edgy rhythmic Jive Talkin' and the riff-heavy, falsetto laden Nights on Broadway.

When impresario Robert Stigwood summoned them to lay down tracks for his new film inspired by a 1976 New York Magazine article titled Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night, they were primed and ready. And so was the world.

The Brothers Gibb
The Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack, tossed off a torrent of hits. The brothers wrote and performed four, Stayin' AliveNight Fever, How Deep Is Your Love and More Than a Woman, and composed Yvonne Elliman's If I Can't Have You.

Suddenly -- and with no apologies to the Beatles -- the Bee Gees were here, there and everywhere, their sound simultaneously inimitable and ubiquitous.

Saturday Night Fever, the film, made a bankable star out of John Travolta, an actor whose high water mark had previously been a TV sitcom where he played one of four high school degenerates known as the Sweat Hogs. Within a year, he'd portray Danny Zuko, male lead and top greaser in Stigwood's Hollywood adaptation of the hit Broadway show Grease. Fever had made $237.1 million at the box office. Grease was bigger still, raking in $395 million.

Still, for a segment of the public, Travolta's Tony Manero was un-relatable. Disconcerting even. He was a proto-metrosexual, a nice pretty boy obsessed with his hair, his clothes, his shoes and with dancing. Manero may have worked in a paint store, scraping together money to buy a blue shirt he spied while window shopping, but he wasn't blue collar.

Manero's ups and downs forecast Travolta's long career
Other musical forces spoke directly to that ethos: country and punk. The latter being everything disco wasn't: loud, discordant, deliberately abrasive and ugly. It's practitioners wore leather jackets and ripped clothes. They pierced their faces for shock value. And they were angry.

Disco Demolition Night, which drew an estimated crowd of at least 50,000, put that same kind of latent hostility on public display.

Late 1970s, popular music -- particularly American pop -- had become big, corporate and toothlessly inoffensive. Punk stripped away all that, returning it to its rebellious roots. Trailing close behind it was another reconstructionist format, new wave. Suddenly disco was worse than dead, it was passe´, relegated to a nostalgic purgatory from which it never quite returned.

Four decades down the road, the soundtrack and the movie have been archived at the Library of Congress as cultural museum pieces, time capsules, artifacts from a short-lived empire long since vanished.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

2 comments:

  1. Great column! And thanks for writing it. Don't forget that what also really helped fuel Disco Demolition Night in Chicago were the 10 cent beers they were selling! This just stirred up the crowd into an absolute drunken frenzy. It appeared to a friend who was watching it live on TV that night, that very few actual baseball fans were in attendance; but it looked like EVERY SINGLE Heavy Metal and Punk enthusiast in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin had found their way to that "special" doubleheader that evening! Very funny in retrospect, however, but a bit scary if you were in the crowd at the time. And the people that were there because they liked baseball never got to see the scheduled second game!

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    1. I wasn't yet in Chicago (and gone from there now), but I remember it was all over the news. Thanks for your note and for being a reader.

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