The 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack turns 40 years old

What would the world have been like with Boz Scaggs instead of the Bee Gees?

In 1978, there were approximately 75 million households in the United States. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever sold 15 million copies. That's simple math. One in five people had access to the album. 

Honestly, that figure somehow feels low. Judging by the garage sales of the last four decades, it is nearly impossible to come across a used record bin without a dog-eared copy of Saturday Night Fever. You know the image. John Travolta in a white suit, standing atop a nightclub floor lit up like a symmetrically scrambled Rubik's Cube, right index finger pointed to the sky — or, well, pointed to Maurice Gibb. The Bee Gees hang above him like a museum masterpiece. Under a glittering disco ball, naturally.

It wasn't the original plan.

When Travolta was filming his iconic, much-copied-by-dads-at-weddings dance routine, he was not boogying to the Bee Gees. During production, the disco scenes were filmed to tunes by Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. The rehearsal scene between Travolta's Tony and Donna Pescow's Annette was intended to be choreographed to "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs.

It's a funky number, with foot-shuffling flutes, but it's just not… "Stayin' Alive." Fortunately for history, and the Brothers Gibb, Columbia Records refused to allow clearance for the use of "Lowdown."

Cue an emergency phone call from the film's producer Robert Stigwood in Hollywood to the Bee Gees' studio in France. The disco trio was asked to come in and rescue the movie. That they did, and more. 

The Gibbs claim to have penned the tunes for Saturday Night Fever over the course of a weekend, which if true has to be the most fruitful two days of jamming for any bunch of musicians in memory. We mentioned the sales figures up top, and the LP stayed on the Billboard bestselling albums chart from its released on November 15, 1978, until 1980.

The Bee Gees' six cuts on the record are each singular smashes — "Stayin' Alive," "How Deep If Your Love," "Night Fever," "More Than a Woman," "Jive Talkin'" and "You Should Be Dancing." Barry Gibb's unbelievable falsetto may have been hard to fully comprehend, but these were universal tunes. They also overshadow the rest of the tracks.

KC & The Sunshine Band, who were already disco titans, kicked in a couple older album cuts. Philadelphia club kings like the Trammps and MFSB were musts to properly capture discotheque scene of the northeast. And of course, a little piece of classical music, Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," added drama with an epic disco makeover courtesy of David Shire.

Saturday Night Fever became a phenomenon largely on the back of its music. The soundtrack has popped up on "Greatest Albums" lists over the years, but it still seems heavily underrated considering its impact, especially as it is critically regarded alongside groundbreaking 1970s acts like Pink Floyd and Bowie. Part of that is because it is somewhat of a promotional tool for a movie. Part of that is because it is a compilation. Part of that is because, well, it was just so darn popular.

Soundtracks get the short end of the stick. Each decade and each generation has one of these soundtracks that perfectly captures the era. (Right now, it might be The Guardians of the Galaxy, which oddly captures the 1970s era.) Let's hear it for the soundtracks. Even those who claim to loathe disco have likely done a little finger dance to "Stayin' Alive."

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