Those Weird Post-Disco Bee Gees
March 12, 1979
For those of us who don't go to discos the Saturday Night Fever anthology was a much needed introduction. At the time disco records were still being boycotted by the radio, and people outside the scene weren't quite sure how to find their way into the music.
On three sides SNF provided a pleasing mish-mash of fake disco soundtrack music and disco oldies, most of which were old hat in the dance crowd while unknown to the rest of us. And it compounded the whole thing with the string of Bee Gees hits on side one. Disco maybe, but well built, interesting, easy-to-relate-to pop for sure. By a group that the record-buying public wasn't quite sure of, but vaguely remembered both for their Beatlesish hits in the late '60s and for their discoish hits just prior to SNF. All of which produced a reassuring feeling of continuity with the past, while the movie anchored the music to a clarifying context. We could visualize Karen Gorney and John Travolta swirling to the music when we heard it later and thereby relieve the disorienting sense of contentlessness other disco anthologies produced on first listen.
Unfortunately, neither John Travolta nor the Bee Gees have had a movie as good as Saturday Night Fever to work off since. Although their new album, Spirits Having Flown, is a hook-filled, hummable, well-sung, well produced pop record, the marginal Bee Gees fan may find it a little thin because it has nothing comparable to Travolta's Bay Ridge Brooklyn to evoke. In fact, it may have nothing to evoke at all, since on it the Bee Gees have abandoned the street-smart New York City persona of their reborn late-'70s hits from "Jive Talkin'" to "Stayin' Alive." On Spirits Having Flown there's not even a song with Dancing in the title. The whole record is just romance.
To cap it off it doesn't really have any disco songs on it. The prettiest, most memorable cuts are slow, romantic soul ballads reminiscent of the Stylistics or Stevie Wonder. The uptempo numbers, like the current hit "Tragedy," resemble disco in their beat and instrumentation, but are much more compact in structure. Unlike disco--with its sensuous build-ups, teases, long breaks, and climaxes -- these cuts move hard and fast from intro to verse to hook to chorus to break to verse like the pop hits they are. And so -- a group who symbolizes disco music to most people has released a hit record with no true disco on it that's selling well to almost everyone except the disco crowd.
Okay. Soundtrack for dynamic movie containing authentic but conservative dance sampler propels revitalized '60s balladeers to forefront of public consciousness. Group then releases record that isn't really disco. Normally all of this would make a nice conceit to hang a review of the new record on. Except.
In this case, Saturday Night Fever also happens to be the biggest-selling record in the history of the universe. And it wasn't just a lowest-common-denominator fluke. People who didn't usually buy Bee Gees, people who didn't usually buy disco, people who didn't usually buy pop, and even people who didn't usually buy records bought this one and really enjoyed it. It was big on AM, FM, pop, rock, disco, white, black, and easy listening. It was critically defensible. And the Bee Gees followed it by throwing off a hit for Samantha Sang and then brother Andy in the same style.
This built expectations for this record unlike those for the follow-up to any other big hit in history. Because this follows up THE BIG HIT. Which was so big the Bee Gees almost got beyond comprehension. Could the group that was popular with everyone top itself?
In the current spurt of writing and publicity about the relentless wave of disco and the universal appeal of the Bee Gees, few have bothered to stop and notice that both truisms aren't really true. And maybe this blindness is caused by the Bee Gees' incomprehensible success. But in truth, the Bee Gees didn't sweep the Grammy's as expected (Billy Joel cut in), their new hit is not especially popular with disco lovers, and their new album is not really an irresistibly bouncy all-things-to-all-people miracle.
Instead it's tight, disco and soul iinfluenced pop bordering on a nervous breakdown. It combines rigidity of arrangement and production, lyrics with no content or context, and group falsetto singing so stratospheric it's just about to pass from boyish innocence to a whole new kind of kinkiness. This can both produce a feeling of anxiety in those who begin to worry that they're listening to pure, tense nothing and delight those who are excited by its dazzling array of hooks, breaks, and builds.
Even the slick soul-influenced ballads betray a refinement so intense here it makes them oddly choppy, although not necessarily on first listen. The words to "Too Much Heaven," the first hit slow song off the album, are bitten off in clipped falsetto unison, not crooned or warbled. And the themes of romance, which I said earlier evoke less than the preceding themes of street life, nightlife, and dancing, do so not because they are cliches but because the Bee Gees' angle on romance is a peculiar and unexpected combination of distancing and drama.
Which comes very close to what they were doing at their best during their '60s ballad era, when they would take a sentimental emotion way past excess to a breathtaking brilliance, framed in the conventions of a well-constructed song. I've always loved that stuff, and one positive side effect of their resurgent success has been the legitimation-- if they're so good now they must have been okay then. The unbounded paranoia of "I Started a Joke," the impending death songs, and the heartbreak songs are all on Bee Gees Gold, a new anthology that recasts their old work more coherently by putting the very best on one record, the way Endless Summer did for the Beach Boys. What's left out, thank goodness, are the dead ends eventually reached with this approach--the slack, laid-back countryish posturings.
That they've reached another dead end with Spirits Having Flown is unlikely, but they have reached something. Is it a burnout, a breakthrough, or a crackup? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, we have already learned three things. (1) The Disco Monolith isn't as monolithic as it seems. The Bee Gees helped create it, but aren't part of it on this record. (2) Saturday Night Fever was a happy convergence of public need, good timing, a good movie, great songwriting, and a fairly responsible anthologizing that will be very hard to repeat. Mass culture ain't so simple, Spirits Having Flown will certainly sell--it is the follow-up. But I doubt that as many people will really tune into it. Some will buy it and ignore it, some will be annoyed by it, some will be intrigued by it, and some will hate it. But it won't cover the waterfront like SNF. (3) The Bee Gees are not all-knowing masters of the public taste. In their mainstream sort of way they are still just as peculiar as they ever were. Too peculiar, in this case, for disco. And maybe too peculiar for you.
Tom Smucker, Village Voice