Staying Alive: The Disco Inferno of the Bee Gees
By Simon Spence
After scoring a string of hits in their native England (where they were born), Australia (where they moved), and the United States (where they really wanted to go) in the ‘60s, the barely-adult aged Bee Gees were has-beens by the mid-‘70s. Stuck in a rut, with no record sales to speak of, and playing to bored older cabaret crowds, they were written off as finished by much of the music industry and many former fans.
But a desire to pursue a funkier, R&B sound that was happening in America, the discovery of Barry Gibb’s falsetto, and the prodding of manager Robert Stigwood to provide a few tunes for this disco dance movie he was producing turned things around for the Gibbs. And in a way so big that it would both enrich and entrap them in a flurry of cash, fame, satin shirts, and an image that was forever both eschewed and embraced.
This book is actually multiple bios in one. For while the Bee Gees and their creation and association with the Saturday Night Fever movie and soundtrack is the main course, there are also some tasty side dishes.
They include chapters on the band’s early career, brother Andy Gibb, colorful and exotic manager Robert Stigwood, John Travolta, producer Arif Mardin (credited with pushing Barry to use his falsetto voice), and the making of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie.
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There’s much about the Gibb brothers’ sometimes dark family dynamics, inter-sibling rivalries, and various personal issues. Readers will also find out more than they bargained for about Maurice and Andy Gibb's problems with alcohol and drugs respectively, or Robin's sexual proclivities and bizarre beliefs.
Spence includes lots of choice nuggets about the making of the Saturday Night Fever. Like how a poster of then-hot sex symbol Farrah Fawcett was pinned on the wall of Tony Manero’s room because actor John Travolta clad only in black bikini briefs and preening in front of his bedroom mirror was deemed “too homoerotic.” Or how the dancers and staff at 2001 Odyssey – the real Brooklyn disco of the same name where the movie was filmed – were mostly their real customers and staff. That includes the topless dancer in the bar side room.
No, those are not Travolta’s legs and feet walking down the street during the famous opening scene to “Stayin’ Alive,” but that of his body double. The inevitable parodies and tributes? The kiddies got a record by their favorite furry Muppets called Sesame Street Fever while their parents’ inevitable porn parody was called Saturday Night Beaver.
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But the most fascinating side trip is on the English music journalist Nik Cohn, whose lengthy New York magazine article “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” formed the basis of the film’s script. Only years later did Cohn admit that what he passed off as straight journalism was actually a composite piece or wholly fictional.
History, of course, has been much kinder to the Bee Gees and their music than those who blew up their records at the famous “Disco Sucks” rally. And their songs – mostly from the mid-to-late ‘70s – are now ubiquitous. A recent Chick Fil-A commercial is largely based on the original recording of “Stayin’ Alive” (cha-ching!).
It’s also worth noting that of the 17 tracks on the film’s soundtrack, only six are from the Bee Gees, and only four of those written specifically for the movie.
Overall, this book is clearly part clip job/part original reporting and does not have the depth of story that two other Gibb tomes have (Tragedy: The Ballad of the Bee Gees by Jeff Apter and The Bee Gees: The Biography by David Meyer). But while it repeats many of the same stories, it is a breezier, more fun read with dollops of Spence’s humor and commentary.