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.
Do you know how hard it is to look cool while carrying a can of paint? A can of paint is heavy. It’s ungainly. It bangs into your knees if you don’t hold it right. The handle digs into your fingers. You have to contend with the abstract worry that the thing is going to explode all over your clothes. But in the opening-credits scene of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta’s Tony Manero makes a can of paint look like the coolest accessory anyone could possibly possess.
In that opening scene, we see Travolta’s feet before we see the rest of him. He’s wearing impeccably shiny red leather platform joints, which can’t be all that practical for his hardware-store job. Travolta’s red shirt collar is splayed over his jacket. His hair is perfect. He struts down a Bay Ridge sidewalk, taller than everyone else around him, in no particular hurry. He eats two slices of pizza stacked-up, one-handed, not even remotely stressed about dripping grease or tomato sauce on his clothes. He pops into a store to put a shirt on layaway. He literally chases girls. He’s the man, and we know this before he even says a word.
That opening scene of Saturday Night Fever establishes Tony Manero as some kind of white-ethnic masculine ideal — a peacocking prince of Brooklyn. The next two hours of the movie work overtime to break down that image, to burn it to cinders. And yet the Travolta that everyone remembers isn’t the pathetic go-nowhere kid, the inarticulate slob who can’t recognize celebrities’ names, or the attempted date-rapist. It’s the Travolta of that opening sequence.
That image didn’t just hang over the rest of the movie. It continues to hang over Travolta’s entire decades-long career. Thanks to the pulsing soundtrack, it hangs over the entire career of the Bee Gees, too. It hangs over the entire history of disco music. It’s an indelible cultural hallmark. None of that happens if that opening scene is set to any song other than “Stayin’ Alive.”
“Stayin’ Alive” wasn’t supposed to be a single. Months before Saturday Night Fever hit theaters, the Bee Gees had already released the gleaming ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” as a single, and it had already been a hit. But when the Saturday Night Fever trailer came out — before people even got to see the movie — the world heard “Stayin’ Alive.” People called radio stations and asked for it. As a result, RSO, the Bee Gees’ label, put out “Stayin’ Alive” as a single three days before Saturday Night Fever made it to theaters.
Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees manager and label boss who produced Saturday Night Fever, wanted the group to record a song called “Saturday Night,” since that was the original title of the movie. But the Gibb brothers thought “Saturday Night” was a stupid, corny, overused title, and they refused. They were right to do it. “Stayin’ Alive” — both the song and the title — transforms Saturday Night Fever simply by existing. It helps establish the stakes of the story, the desperation that might be underneath that Travolta strut. It’s a strong title. In 1983, when Sylvester Stallone directed the long-awaited Saturday Night Fever sequel, that movie was called Staying Alive.
The Bee Gees wanted to write a song about New York survival, and there’s a duality at work in the lyrics. Half the time, Barry Gibb is flexing, talking shit. You can tell by the way he uses his walk, he’s a woman’s man, no time to talk. He’s got the wings of heaven on his shoes. He’s a dancing man, and he just can’t lose. But the rest of the time, he’s lamenting his own hardships. He’s been kicked around since he was born. He feels the city breaking, and everybody’s shaking. His life’s going nowhere. He needs somebody to help him. When he says that we can try to understand the New York times’ effect on man, he’s not talking about the newspaper.
It’s a beautiful, heady combination. Without that deep need, that insecurity, Gibb wouldn’t strut through the song the way he does. Gibb’s vocals are an electric-shocked falsetto yip, a squeal of pain. After the second chorus, Gibb lets loose with a full-on drawn-out terror-screech, like a teenage girl in a horror movie who’s just tripped over a dead body. But there’s a predatory grace to the way he and his brothers ride that colossal beat. They’re not just threatened. They’re threatening, too.
Stretching back to their earliest hits, the Bee Gees always had a mordant, gothic streak. “Stayin’ Alive” is as death-haunted as, say, 1967’s “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” With “Stayin’ Alive,” the Bee Gees truly figured out how to use that dark paranoia in the service of sweeping, populist dance music. It’s something Michael Jackson would soon come to understand: Dance music does not have to be light and fluffy. It can be mean, intense, heavy. “Stayin’ Alive” is all those things.
To this day, I don’t think anyone’s ever used falsetto better in pop music. Barry Gibb and his brothers wail hard, in perfect harmony. Like Frankie Valli before them, they used the squirmy tension between unearthly, androgynous vocals and preening-macho lyrics. (Frankie Valli, incidentally, will soon reappear in this column with a Bee Gees collab.) It takes an astonishing level of confidence to sing about being a woman’s man when you sound like neither a woman nor a man.
The genius of “Stayin’ Alive” lies in the way it stirs in fear and need and bravado. It should be incoherent. They should sound like they’re contradicting themselves. They never do. Instead, the Bee Gees understand that those feelings all spring from the same place, that they feed each other.
It works in part because “Stayin’ Alive” is just a perfect pop song. There are all sorts of tiny flourishes through “Stayin’ Alive” — the backing-vocal panting on the chorus, the way the strings sigh and stab on the bridge, the perfectly timed cymbal-splashes. I can’t imagine one single production tweak that could make “Stayin’ Alive” work better. Everything is exactly where it should be. “Stayin’ Alive” is one of those songs that sounds like it’s always existed. It’s crazy to think that human beings had to make it up out of nothing.
They did make it up, of course. Like so many other perfect pop songs, “Stayin’ Alive” owes at least some of its power to pure happenstance. During the recording, for example, session drummer Dennis Bryon couldn’t be there; his mother had just died. Rather than hire another drummer, co-producer Albhy Galuten spliced together a few bars of drums that Bryon had already recorded for “Night Fever,” another Bee Gees song that will soon appear in this column. Those looped-up drums, combined with that perfectly wormy bassline, keep “Stayin’ Alive” moving at an unrelenting pulse. That thump, a product of personal tragedy and studio experimentation, is what makes “Stayin’ Alive” such a foundational disco song.
“Stayin’ Alive” was one small part of the Bee Gees’ dominant 1978 run, but it’s come to tower over the rest of their catalog and to dominate their legacy. The Bee Gees’ career took a tremendous nosedive after the disco boom ended, and the omnipresence of “Stayin’ Alive” probably had a lot to do with that. They resented it. They’d been a group long before disco, and they’d be a group long after, but this one song was the one thing that everyone knew about them. In a late-’80s statement to Rolling Stone, the Bee Gees had this to say about “Stayin’ Alive”: “We’d like to dress it up in a white suit and gold chains and set it on fire.”
But “Stayin’ Alive” outlived Saturday Night Fever, disco, and at least two of the three Bee Gees. It’s a part of our shared cultural heritage now — one of those pop miracles that just never gets old, never wears off, never loses its charge. It remains alive.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Stayin’ Alive” soundtracking the incredible nightclub scene from the stupid and wonderful 1980 movie Airplane!:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Happy Mondays’ shaggy, sloppy, barely recognizable 1991 B-side cover of “Stayin’ Alive”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The British dance duo N-Trance and the rapper Ricardo Da Force (the guy from those KLF singles) released a version of “Stayin’ Alive” in 1995. Their take on the song only made it to #62 in the US, but it was a UK #2 and a hit all around Europe. Here’s the video for that version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Wyclef Jean built his 1997 solo-debut single “We Trying To Stay Alive,” a collaboration with his protege John Forté and his Fugees bandmate Pras, around a “Stayin’ Alive” sample. “We Trying To Stay Alive” peaked at #45. Here’s the extremely good video:
(Wyclef’s highest-charting solo single 1998’s “Gone Till November,” peaked at #7. It’s a 10. As a guest rapper, Wyclef will eventually appear in this column more than once.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Stayin’ Alive” cover that Lizzo contributed to the soundtrack of the 2019 movie Happy Death Day 2U:
(Lizzo will eventually appear in this column.)