The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Bee Gees’ “Night Fever”

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.

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The Bee Gees – “Night Fever”

HIT #1: March 18, 1978

STAYED AT #1: 8 weeks

For one week in April of 1964, the top five singles on the Billboard Hot 100 were all Beatles songs. It’s the only time a single artist had ever occupied the entire top five. It’ll probably never happen again. But in March of 1978, the Bee Gees came closer than anyone else, ever.

The week that the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” hit #1, “Stayin’ Alive” was the #2 song in America. Those two songs held down the top two spots for five weeks in a row. The Bee Gees were the first post-Beatles artists to seize #1 and #2 at the same time.

If you include the songs that the Gibb brothers wrote and produced, the Bee Gees were responsible for four songs in the top five that week. (One was baby brother Andy Gibb’s previous chart-topper “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water.” The other was Samantha Sang’s “Emotion,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) The Beatles’ achievement is still totally singular in pop-chart history, but the Bee Gees had their own perfect storm. March of 1978 was when that wave welled up and crested.

“Night Fever,” the longest-reigning #1 hit of 1978, was a strong enough single that a major motion picture had to change its marketing plans. Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees manager and label boss who produced Saturday Night Fever, originally wanted to use just plain Saturday Night as the title. The Bee Gees didn’t like that title, and they tried to get him to change it to Night Fever, since they already had the song. Stigwood split the difference. It was the right call.

The true classic dance scene in Saturday Night Fever is the one set to “You Should Be Dancing,” a Bee Gees chart-topper from 1976. But “Night Fever” gets its own big sequence, too. Tony Manero, a Brooklyn teenager whose life is falling apart whenever he isn’t dancing, steps into the 2001 Odyssey club, sidles right between two girls, and twirls both of them. One of them immediately demands that he kiss her. Tony hesitates for a second, and then he does it. She responds with total ecstasy: “Oh my God, I just kissed Al Pacino!” This is all Tony Manero has ever wanted to hear.

Tony and the other dancers then fill up the floor, immediately falling into geometric formation, as if by instinct. They all do the hustle in lockstep. It doesn’t look like much fun. Really, it looks stressful — clubbing less as a form of escape or individual expression, more as a heavily choreographed ritual. The men don’t even smile. But the camera glides over the crowd, everyone bathed in red light and moving with total confidence through fog-machine smoke. It’s basically a musical number. The people in this scene look cool. “Night Fever” plays a huge role in that.

“Night Fever” is a nightclubbing song. The Bee Gees were not above a song like that. But the Bee Gees didn’t write novelty songs. (There is a Bee Gees song with the word “boogie” in the title, but it’s not one of the hits.) Most of the time, the Bee Gees wrote about love and attraction and desperation. And one of the things that sets “Night Fever” above so many of the other disco songs about disco dancing is that “Night Fever” is full Bee Gees. It’s a song about love and attraction and desperation. It’s also about dancing.

“There’s something going down, and I can feel it,” Barry Gibb sings in the opening moments of “Night Fever,” while the storm clouds are still gathering. He’s completely in on this disco phenomenon. Later on, Barry is in the club, helpless before the sight of a beautiful lady: “That sweet city woman, she moves through the night/ Controlling my mind and my soul.” For Barry Gibb, this moment in the club is a psychedelic, almost religious experience. The music has as much to do with that as the woman does. It’s a fleeting instant but a transcendent one: “Here I am/ Praying for this moment to last/ Living on the music so fine/ Borne on the wind, making it mine.” That’s poetry.

The Bee Gees didn’t know much of anything about Saturday Night Fever when they wrote their songs for the soundtrack. But instinctively, they figured out one of the film’s main themes: A night in a dance club can totally overwhelm you. It can make every other moment in your life feel like drab nothingness. If you’re the right age, in the right moment, spending your life in the right place, then it starts to feel like your entire life revolves around those few stolen nightclub hours every week. The club becomes the 2001 monolith at the center of everything.

Plenty of disco partisans still hate the Bee Gees. Here they were, these already-rich white rock stars, teetering on irrelevance, seizing on this underground phenomenon centered around gay and black clubs, taking that sound and themselves to new commercial heights, irrevocably changing it in the process. In his definitive disco history Love Saves The Day, Tim Lawrence accuses the Bee Gees of presenting disco as “another incarnation of shrill white pop.” I get all that. But “Night Fever” stands as towering proof that the Bee Gees fully threw themselves into disco — not just the genre of music but also the idealistic notion that the club could be a site of salvation.

“Night Fever” has its roots in another melodramatic movie-soundtrack blockbuster: Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place,” a chintzy easy-listening instrumental that had gone to #1 for nine weeks in 1960. Bee Gees keyboardist Blue Weaver had been trying to figure out how to do a disco cover of “Theme From A Summer Place.” Barry Gibb heard him working on it in the studio and built the whole song around that string figure. The synth-strings on the “Night Fever” intro are only a slight variation on that old “Theme From A Summer Place” melody. But there’s a lot more than that string figure to “Night Fever.”

“Night Fever,” like a lot of Bee Gees tracks from the same period, is a minor studio miracle. It’s lush and complicated and symphonic. Guitars do funky chicken-scratches, fuzz-pedal booms, and loungey bossa nova rhythmic things. Keyboards flutter and glow. Barry Gibb sing-screams the whole thing in a near-impossible falsetto. The drums keep up a simple, monstrous four-four stomp all throughout, anchoring the song and keeping the various embellishments from floating off into ear-candy nothingness. Between those drums and Gibb’s voice, “Night Fever” remains hard and urgent. It demands to be heard.

For me, the magic moment of “Night Fever” is the post-chorus bridge. “Here I am!,” Gibb howls. And a vrooming guitar drone answers him back. All the vaguely cutesy melodic bits briefly drop away, and Gibb sounds like he’s duetting with the echoing void. It gives me goosebumps.

After eight weeks of “Night Fever” at #1, you’d think the American public might’ve had enough of this Bee Gees boom period. “Night Fever” probably represented the group’s peak, and it would’ve made a great capper for this stretch of absolute chart hegemony. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Bee Gees and their various songwriting clients will be back in this column very soon.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the mostly-unrecognizable hardcore cover of “Night Fever” that the Dicks released as a B-side in 1980:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s evil disco henchman Eddie Izzard dancing to “Night Fever” in the 1999 movie Mystery Men:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dom Kennedy rapping over a “Night Fever” sample in the video for his 2007 track “Who Rollin Wit Me”:

(Sadly, the 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch “Samurai Night Fever,” which features John Belushi dancing to “Night Fever,” is not embeddable, but you can watch it here. It is a rich text. I may or may not have been ready for Belushi speaking fake Japanese in a fake Italian accent. I was definitely not ready for OJ Simpson saying that he’s tired of being black.)

Tags: The Bee Gees