My favourite album: the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack
Tuesday 2 August 2011 19.03 BST
In the latter part of their career, the Bee Gees became known for walking out of interviews at the slightest provocation, but one sure-fire way to get rid of them was to mention the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, with particular comic reference to medallions, chest hair etc. It's perhaps incumbent upon multi-millionaire superstars to laugh at themselves occasionally: nevertheless, if people kept mocking you for releasing an era-defining, implausibly successful album packed with consummate pop songwriting, you might be inclined to get a bit chippy as well.
It's hard to see how an album as good as this became so freighted with negative associations. The Bee Gees were hardly the first band in history to change their musical style to fit with changing times, nor the first to wear faintly daft clothes while doing so. The problem may have been that Saturday Night Fever made disco, reviled by 70s rock fans as much for its gay roots as its sound, unstoppable because the songs they contributed to it were utterly undeniable: perfectly formed, tightly constructed, melodically rich.
The argument that the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack somehow watered down disco from its black roots for mass acceptance carries no weight. On the most basic level thing, if it featured veteran Broadway composer David Shire, it also contained plenty of black artists: Tavares, the Trammps, Kool and the Gang, Philadelphia International house band MFSB. There's a novelty track on there – Walter Murphy's A Fifth of Beethoven – but it had already been a huge hit a year before the album came out. Beyond the Bee Gees tracks at its core, Saturday Night Fever did nothing more outrageous than hold a mirror up to disco at its zenith.
More importantly, opportunistic bandwagon-jumpers or not, the Bee Gees had an innate understanding of disco's complex emotional dynamic, the undertow of melancholy lurking beneath the dancefloor euphoria: their songwriting had always tended to the lachrymose. You can hear it on Yvonne Elliman's version of If I Can't Have You – the gloomy minor chords that open and the lyrics that start out contemplating suicide and get progressively less optimistic from thereonin – and, perhaps most brilliantly, on Stayin' Alive, which, in the film, undercuts the iconic image of John Travolta's macho strut through Brooklyn with a set of lyrics that can't decide whether the song's protagonist is worth celebrating, or just a subject for pity. The idea that anyone should be ashamed of writing a song as brilliant as that may be the only truly laughable thing about Saturday Night Fever.