Some people love disco music. Others hated the disco movement. Put me in the latter column. It collided with punk rock, my mid-teens, and a desire for rebellion and change, particularly within popular music. So why am I reviewing Simon Spence’s Staying Alive: The Disco Inferno of The Bee Gees? Good question.
Nik Cohn was the author of a 1976 story that appeared in New York magazine, entitled “Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night.” It is ground zero for the disco explosion, the Bee Gees’ incredible resurgence and radio dominance, and the blockbuster film, Saturday Night Fever. It is this story about Cohn in the prologue that hooked me, and the answer to the question posed above as to why I read a book on a music style and band I have zero interest in and actively dislike. That Cohn’s story, purported to be non-fiction, would turn out to be wholly made up matters little. Twenty years later, Cohn admitted, “I knew nothing about this world, and it showed. Quite literally, I didn’t speak the language. So I faked it. I conjured up the story.” The English writer would go on to reveal that the young man he observed briefly at the Brooklyn disco 2001 Odyssey and who was the genesis of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero, was mostly based on a mod named Chris he’d met in London in 1965. That’s one hell of a tall tale, and one that blew up culturally bigger than anyone could have imagined.
Author Simon Spence then pivots his book to the The Bee Gees circa 1974, playing a weeklong engagement in a shitty, half-filled cabaret hellhole in Northern England. The experience put the brothers Gibb — with Maurice’s constant drinking and Robin on amphetamines — at a career-defining crossroads, closer to calling it quits than soldiering on. The Bee Gees were much bigger much earlier in their careers in Britain than they were in the States. While not a full-on detailed bio of The Bee Gees, the book does provide crucial insight into the early incarnation of the band, and the brothers' personalities. Barry is, by far, the most talented and driven. Robin has a one-of-a-kind voice, and a martyr complex to match. Maurice, as mentioned, is mostly drunk, but can contribute on bass and guitar when he’s not.
The real star of this story, in my opinion, is Robert Stigwood, who would begin managing the band in 1969 and guide them through the explosive success of their disco years. It was he, after several failed albums, who would book Criteria studio and suggest listening to the radio in Miami to hear what was going on musically, and then hire Arif Mardin to produce what would become their definitive musical statement. He also signed Welcome Back, Kotter’s John Travolta to a contract, primarily to star in the upcoming production of Grease, but decided to start him out in Saturday Night Fever. Shrewd move. Stigwood seems kind of an old-school Hollywood-studio style impresario, with a very modern strategy of utilizing all forms of media — albums, publishing, musicals, concerts, films and television — to create a synergy for both his larger-than-life concepts and his artists. Ironically, he comes across very much as “the man behind the curtain” from the classic film The Wizard of Oz.
The stars — literally and figuratively — would align when the Bee Gees composed those smash hits that would drive both the Saturday Night Fever film and soundtrack to astronomical heights. The disco craze, however, would be short-lived and the Brothers Gibb would struggle (and fail) to remain musically relevant. Surprisingly, they would bash disco after it became an albatross (and made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams), saying “We’d like to dress Stayin’ Alive up in a white suit and gold chains and set it on fire.” Not surprisingly, with a '90s resurgence in disco and interest in all things ‘70s, they then would call Stayin’ Alive the “national anthem of the 70s,” and recreate the cover of Stayin’ Alive for the One Night Only retrospective.
One final note: Jawbone Press has been consistently releasing some of the most interesting music books out there. I’ve started (and finished!) several of their titles I knew little about, or on artists that I did not care for at all. This is decidedly not the definitive Bee Gees biography — I would not have read that book — but rather a snapshot of a moment in pop music and pop culture. Punk historian Jon Savage notes in the last pages of the book that “the hedonism propagated by disco was more immediately more subversive” than punk. Perhaps. I prefer punk rock, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Spence’s book about a style of music and a band that I normally avoid.
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