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.
As a movie, Saturday Night Fever is one hell of a downer. Brooklyn teenager Tony Manero — John Travolta, who will appear in this column pretty soon — is an electric dancer, a joy to watch, but his life is a mess. His parents don’t understand him, and he doesn’t understand them. He doesn’t like his friends much, and they don’t like him much either. He starts out the movie with a go-nowhere job; by the time it ends, he doesn’t even have that. The only place where he really comes alive is on the dancefloor. Pretty soon, he doesn’t even feel that escape anymore.
The film is one of those shaggy, downbeat ’70s character studies about people with deep, unresolved problems. Tony Manero attempts a date-rape. He sits by silently while his friends commit rape. He gets into a gang fight with a Puerto Rican crew, the culmination of a feud built on racism and mistaken identity. He watches his family fall apart. He watches his friend die for no reason. His big moment of triumph, winning a dance competition, is a total sham, and he knows it. It’s rough.
But that’s not how we remember Saturday Night Fever. If you see the image of Travolta, resplendent in a white suit, his finger pointed heavenward, you don’t think about the bleak realities of Tony Manero’s life. Instead, you think about the spectacle of Travolta peacocking around a lit-up dancefloor, making the entire club stop to watch. And you think of the Bee Gees.
Saturday Night Fever was a hit movie. It earned more than $100 million against a budget of less than $5 million. In the booming film year of 1977, it earned more than any movie that wasn’t Star Wars or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It made a star out of John Travolta, previously known mostly for playing a Tony Manero-esque kid on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Travolta was nominated for an Oscar, and he went on to star in 1978’s biggest movie.
But in terms of cultural impact, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack arguably had an even bigger impact than the movie. That album sold tens of millions of copies, and it remains one of the 10 biggest-selling albums of all time. It led the Bee Gees, already in their imperial era, to absolutely dominate the charts in 1978 to an unheard-of degree. The soundtrack spawned four #1 singles, more than any album ever had before. Weirdly, the first of those #1 singles isn’t one of the really iconic songs. It’s the end-credits ballad. Travolta doesn’t even dance to the song in the movie.
When we first hear “How Deep Is Your Love” in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero has just been through a hell of a night. He’s beaten, alienated, and depressed. Cops have fished his friend Bobby C’s dead body from the water beneath the Verrazano Bridge. Tony, at a loss for what to do, has jumped on the subway and gone to Manhattan, to see the girl who he’s just tried to rape earlier in the night. Cue “How Deep Is Your Love” for the train montage.
A few minutes later, Tony finds that girl at her apartment and asks if they can be friends. This is probably a bad idea. But she says OK, and we get something that, if you squint hard enough, almost looks like a happy ending. Cue “How Deep Is Your Love” again. Tony is not in love with Stephanie, the girl who he’s gone to find, though he might be in love with the better, more sophisticated life that she has come to represent for him. She’s damn sure not in love with him. But we get a love song in that moment anyway. It’s weird.
Saturday Night Fever was the brainchild of Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees’ manager and label boss. Stigwood, who’d previously produced the movie versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, optioned “Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night,” a New York article from the British music critic Nik Cohn. Cohn was writing about the scene around the Bay Ridge disco 2001 Odyssey. Later on, Cohn admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.
The Bee Gees weren’t originally a part of the movie. Stigwood was trying to get them to write songs for the film, but they’d protested that they were too busy. Finally, when Saturday Night Fever was in post-production, they agreed to write some songs, knocking most of them out in the course of a weekend at a French hotel. They hadn’t even seen the movie, and they barely knew what it was about. The Bee Gees originally intended for “How Deep Is Your Love” to go to the singer and Jesus Christ Superstar actress Yvonne Elliman, but Stigwood insisted that they sing the song themselves. (Elliman will show up in this column soon enough.)
Stigwood made the right call. The best thing about “How Deep Is Your Love” is the Bee Gees’ voices. There’s this concept known as blood harmony: The idea that people in the same family can take on a whole different vocal tone when they sing together. They’ve got the same genetics, and they grew up singing together, so something unearthly and mystical happens when their voices come together. The Bee Gees’ helium yowls are so distinct. They don’t sound like anyone else, but they all sound like each other. And when they’re all singing at once, something clicks.
Barry Gibb had already emerged as the group’s lead singer by the time they made “How Deep Is Your Love,” and he’s explored what he could do with his falsetto. And on “How Deep Is Your Love,” all three Brothers Gibb come together to hit some absurd upper-register harmonies. It’s a beautiful sound.
In anyone else’s hands, “How Deep Is Your Love” wouldn’t stand out the same way. It’s a warm, satisfying prom-ballad kind of thing. There’s some glowing Fender Rhodes and a nice little midtempo quasi-disco push to the beat. Lyrically, Barry Gibb plays a guy falling in love and wanting to hear that it’s a real thing, that she feels the same way he does: “We’re living in a world of fools/ Breaking us down when they all should let us be/ We belong to you and me.” It’s nowhere near the best Bee Gees song, but their vocals carry it and help push it skyward.
The Bee Gees released the “How Deep Is Your Love” single in September of 1977, before Saturday Night Fever came out. The movie opened in mid-December, and a week later, “How Deep Is Your Love” had finally pushed aside the “You Light Up My Life” leviathan, topping the charts just before Christmas. This was perfect timing. The song and the movie were able to elevate each other in the public consciousness. Together, the soundtrack and the movie became a cultural event, a touchstone. We’ll see a whole lot more Saturday Night Fever in this column in the next few weeks.
BONUS BEATS: The British boy band Take That scored a UK #1 with a cover of “How Deep Is Your Love” in 1996. Here’s their (pretty funny) video for it:
(Take That’s highest-charting US single, 1995’s “Back For Good,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Homer, Lenny, Carl, and Moe singing “How Deep Is Your Love” on a 2013 episode of The Simpsons:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Isobel Cambell’s hushed 2015 indie-pop cover of “How Deep Is Your Love,” recorded for a Bee Gees tribute compilation: