In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
A disembodied voice calls it out: “Look out! If he gets on a roll, he’s taking over again!” And then he gets on a roll, and he takes over again. In his everyday life, Tony Manero is nothing. He’s a 19-year-old Italian kid from a working-class Brooklyn family. He has no ambitions, no prospects. His family doesn’t respect him. Neither does his boss at the hardware store. But when he gets on the dance floor, Tony Manero becomes pure human electricity.
Manero slides his way onto the lit-up dancefloor. The crowd knows what’s coming, so everyone moves out of the way. They stop dancing. They become spectators instead. And for two minutes, young Tony slides and bumps and rolls and air-humps and ass-twitches his way around this dancefloor, turning it into his house. Every time he looks at the crowd, people erupt. For those two minutes, Tony Manero is a star.
That scene, from director John Badham’s monster hit Saturday Night Fever, is high on the list of iconic 1977 film moments, right up there with Princess Leia’s holographic image suddenly appearing on a young dreamer’s mechanical-hut floor, or with the alien spaceship bleeping its friendship song at the American authorities. Even after decades of parodies and references, that Saturday Night Fever scene still has a certain primal power to it. It’s certainly the defining moment in the career of young John Travolta, a man who will eventually appear in this column.
Plenty of longtime disco partisans hated Saturday Night Fever in general and that scene in particular. Disco was supposed to be about communal release for people — gay people, black people — who were denied that feeling at every other point in their lives. It was not supposed to be about everyone clearing out to watch one straight white outer-borough dude peacocking his way around the floor. And yet that scene helped turn the already-exploding disco sound into a global phenomenon. And it’s all set to a Bee Gees song that had hit #1 more than a year before the movie came out.
By the time they recorded “You Should Be Dancing,” the Bee Gees had already firmly remade themselves as a disco sensation. Plenty of older pop musicians were playing catchup to disco by 1976. The Bee Gees, meanwhile, were inhabiting the sound, remaking themselves in disco’s image while they remade disco in their own image. They were naturals. And where “Jive Talkin’,” their 1975 comeback hit, had basically been a rhythm-charged white R&B song, there’s no mistaking “You Should Be Dancing” as anything other than straight-up disco.
For a minute there, the Bee Gees were worried. They’d discovered their own disco power under the tutelage of Arif Mardin, the legendary Atlantic Records producer. But shortly after they came back with the Main Course album, Robert Stigwood, their manager and label boss, switched the distribution of his RSO label from Atlantic to Polydor. Mardin couldn’t work with anyone who wasn’t signed to Atlantic. He was contractually barred from producing the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees tried to work with the Nilsson/Carly Simon producer Richard Perry, but that ended after a couple of days. Finally, the trio figured out that if they couldn’t work with Arif Mardin, they could at least work with the people who worked with Mardin.
Almost as a loophole, the Bee Gees hired Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, two young producers who had worked as engineers for Mardin. And they got to work on Children Of The Universe, the album that would solidify their comeback, co-producing it with Galuten and Richardson. For “You Should Be Dancing,” the members of the group, who had no formal musical training, would sing the parts for the different musicians to play — the horn players, the keyboardists, everyone.
When the Bee Gees were recording Children Of The World at Miami’s Criteria Studios, Stephen Stills was there, too, and he was impressed. Stills and the Stills-Young Band were making the Long May You Run album, and Stills ended up playing percussion on the massive “You Should Be Dancing” break. “I’d heard some of that Saturday Night Fever stuff, and I knew it was totally unique and going to be a monster,” Stills told The Independent years later. “I played timbales, and for a long time, that was my only platinum single. If I’d got royalties from that I’d still be in that house in Surrey now.” (As a solo artist, Stephen Stills has never had a top-10 single. His highest-charting track, 1970’s “Love The One You’re With,” peaked at #14.)
Stephen Stills is obviously a smart guy. But can you imagine hearing “You Should Be Dancing” for the first time and not knowing that it was going to be huge? The song has a ferocious forward energy, a sense of abandon that goes way beyond even “Jive Talkin’.” The Bee Gees understood, pretty early on, that disco could sound colossal, and that this would only make it hit harder. They built “You Should Be Dancing” as a sort of symphony of adrenaline. All these little things happen during the song, but they all exist to help push that beat forward.
“You Should Be Dancing” moves with its own logic. It’s fully of tiny little hooks: the squelchy synth riff, the perfectly timed guitar scratches, the euphoric explosion of horns. With every passing moment, the song seems to jump a little bit higher. Most pop songs are organized around the idea of tension and release. “You Should Be Dancing” starts with release, and then it gets to more releases, bigger releases.
Barry Gibb had only just begun singing in falsetto with any regularity, but he sings the fuck out of “You Should Be Dancing,” nailing that piercing screech again and again. He barely ever dips on the song, remaining in unearthly feral-cat-yowl mode throughout, somehow making it sound cool. The lyrics are borderline gibberish about how much Barry likes the woman in his life: “She’s juicy and she’s trouble / She gets it to me good / My woman gives me power / Goes right down to my blood.” And then he brings it all up to the conclusion: “You should be daaaaancin’! Yeaaaah!” (Why should I be dancing? I should dance because Barry Gibb’s girlfriend is really hot? Whatever, sure. Fine. I’ll dance.)
It wasn’t until the next year that the Bee Gees would agree to get involved with Saturday Night Fever, the movie that their manager Robert Stigwood was producing. That movie took them to a stratospheric level, and it solidified the cultural place of “You Should Be Dancing.” But “You Should Be Dancing” had lodged itself into the collective unconscious long before the movie. In fact, John Travolta reportedly insisted that the song be included in the movie. He’d been practicing to it, and he wanted the real thing, not a substitute, in the movie. This worked out nicely for everyone. The Bee Gees will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Jungle Brothers sampling the “You Should Be Dancing” horn break on “Tribe Vibes,” their 1989 KRS-One collab:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Todd Terje’s unofficial 2010 12″-single remix of “You Should Be Dancing,” which hammers the “horn break” button again and again:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gru dancing to “You Should Be Dancing” at the end of the 2010 movie Despicable Me:
(The Despicable Me franchise will eventually appear in this column.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Lou Rawls’ slow-building disco fantasia “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” peaked at #2 behind “You Should Be Dancing.” It’s an 8.