Making music history: “Night Fever” enjoys two-month run at No. 1 in 1978

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Regardless of individual opinion about it, the cultural relevance of “Saturday Night Fever” is almost indisputable. While the movie’s 40th anniversary was worth marking, the movie’s soundtrack was the star of the show. Australian band, The Bee Gees, had several songs on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. One of them, “Night Fever,” along with “Stayin’ Alive,” also by The Bee Gees, captured the spirit of the movie. Clearly “Night Fever” was important to audiences at the time, as the song spent two months at No.1.

About “Saturday Night Fever”

Disco is the backdrop for the restless desperation of 19 year-old Tony Manero (John Travolta). The movie contains the larger themes of class, questions about the future, male chauvinism, social conventions, abortion, among few others. Travolta’s Manero is determined to escape the constraints of his Brooklyn world. He is the best dancer, or one of the best, in the area. But, he still works at a paint shop and has to put clothes on layaway.

“Saturday Night Fever” has a gritty feel, and ends up creating an unapologetic examination of working-class life, what it means to live it, and what it potentially takes to escape it. The movie put disco as the backdrop and people in the forefront. There could have been a number of hobbies that consumed a young man so that he became the best at it. But few skills make better cinema than dancing. So the sounds and the moves of “Saturday Night Fever” became a national, if not international hit.

“Night Fever” vs. “Stayin’ Alive”

“Saturday Night Fever” is a movie with more than one theme. It is clearly Tony Manero’s story, but he interacts with other people, who invariably impact his life. The movie opens with Tony walking around Brooklyn on an errand from his paint store job. He stops for pizza. Around him, the gray and beige world of 1970’s Brooklyn bustles with crowds of people. Tony is given a look by two young women, and he looks at the back of them when they pass. In part because the protagonist is a 19 year-old young man, there are some moments of comic relief as audiences are shown exactly how young 19 is. As Tony struts around his world, “Stayin’ Alive” plays.

The song’s intention is partially found in its use of pronouns. This is Tony’s song. “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk/ I’m a woman’s man/ no time to talk.” Tony is aware of being watched, he knows that “you” are watching.

But “Stayin’ Alive” also shows the anxiety that Tony has about his life. “I’m going nowhere/somebody help me/ I’m stayin’ alive…” the phrases are contradictory, but they capture Tony completely.

“Night Fever” on the other hand, is more of a celebration of the life Tony and his friends live at night. And, tellingly, the pronouns change. In addition to the “I” and “you” of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” puts its focus on “we.” “Feel that night fever, night fever, we know how to do it.”

There is something confident about the assertion that “we know how to do it.” Also, “Night Fever” doesn’t devolve into Tony’s cries for help. It does indicate the romance he seeks with Stephanie.

In terms of instrumentation, “Night Fever” is similar to “Stayin’ Alive.” However, “Night Fever” is a bit more nuanced. As it builds up to the chorus, the vocal notes go up, there is a tiny, dramatic pause, and the strings hit their chords almost as hard as guitars. The sound is almost triumphant. Listeners can believe each word.

“Saturday Night Fever” was released in December 1977. “Night Fever” was released in February 1978. The song ended up at No. 1 for two months.

 

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