Hello there! This is a continuation of our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie.
Our second song in this series is Stayin’ Alive. This is one of the most memorable disco songs written by the Gibb brothers. It was featured in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham and starring John Travolta.
We will start with a brief review of the career of The Bee Gees. We will then discuss the movie Saturday Night Fever, with an emphasis on the importance of music in the film, and in particular the song Stayin’ Alive. We will then wrap up with two covers of this song, one by Bruce Springsteen and the second by NSYNC.
The Bee Gees, Stayin’ Alive:
The Bee Gees were an extraordinary pop group. Over their long career, there were arguably three distinctly different manifestations of this trio of brothers.
The Gibb family lived in Manchester, England. They had five children; the oldest was a girl, Lesley, then four brothers including Barry, fraternal twins Robin and Maurice, and Andy.
While they were in England, the brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice started a music group called The Rattlesnakes. Similar to The Beatles, this was initially a skiffle group that morphed into a rock and roll band. The Gibb family then moved to Queensland, Australia.
In Australia, the Gibb boys again performed as a trio. A Brisbane DJ re-named the boys “The BGs.” Although legend has it that The Bee Gees name stands for “The Brothers Gibb,” the initial name referred to the fact that the DJ Bill Gates, race-car driver Bill Goode (the boys used to perform at the Redcliffe Speedway in Brisbane) and Barry Gibb all had initials “BG.”
The group subsequently changed their name to The Bee Gees, and added lead guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen to the ensemble. Although the band developed a loyal following in Australia, they returned to the U.K. in early 1967 because of their inability to land a major record contract in Australia.
Below is a photo of the Bee Gees circa 1968. Back row from L: Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb, Barry Gibb; front row Robin Gibb, Colin Petersen.
They mailed a demo tape to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Epstein’s family owned a major record store, so Epstein passed the tape along to one of the record store employees, Robert Stigwood. Stigwood would become the group’s manager and promoter over the next several decades.
The Bee Gees’ first big hit was New York Mining Disaster 1941. That song was marketed using a bit of trickery: the record label was blank except for the title of the song.
As a result, a number of DJs assumed that the song was by the Beatles. This had both positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, the song received considerably more airplay than it would have from a new, unknown group.
The negative result was that the Bee Gees were constantly compared to the Beatles. This was unfortunate, as no group could live up to such standards. The Bee Gees were a fine ensemble – all of them wrote their own songs, their work was sophisticated and memorable, they had lovely voices and impressive harmonies – but they were not the Beatles.
For the next three years The Bee Gees enjoyed a successful run as a pop group. They developed a fan base heavily loaded with young teeny-boppers, and their songs and albums generally landed in the Billboard Top 20.
However, in 1969 tensions surfaced in the band. Initially, Robin Gibb’s beautiful high tenor voice had frequently been the lead in Bee Gees’ songs. As time went by, Barry became more frequently the lead vocalist, and Robin believed that producer/manager Robert Stigwood was favoring Barry.
In the Bee Gees, Barry and Robin were the most prolific songwriters, and Robin and Barry took most of the lead vocals. However, Maurice was by far the most versatile musician of the three: he played
bass guitar, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, harmonica, piano, organ, mellotron, keyboard, synthesizer and drums.
Later in the group’s career, Maurice became the musical director for the Bee Gees.
By 1970, the Bee Gees had disbanded, and it looked as though they might never re-form. However, one year later the brothers again hooked up and released a couple of successful albums.
But by 1973 the hits had again ceased and the group’s fortunes seriously declined. In 1975, Eric Clapton suggested that the band re-locate to Miami, where Clapton was then recording. It was here that the boys had an epiphany.
Barry Gibb discovered that he could sing falsetto really, really well. So the Bee Gees began recording disco songs, and they enlisted the services of producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson.
The first big Bee Gees disco song was Jive Talkin’; this was followed by You Should Be Dancing. At this point the Bee Gees began the second major phase of their career — as disco superstars.
At left are Robin, Barry and Maurice in the midst of their disco era. There they are – gold tops; open shirts revealing hairy chests; and gold chains. And at this point, the Bee Gees’ story intersects that of the film Saturday Night Fever.
Saturday Night Fever and Stayin’ Alive:
In 1976, British writer Nik Cohn wrote an article for New York magazine called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night. It was ostensibly about the young people who frequented New York’s disco scene.
Cohn has now admitted that he fabricated that article.
A newcomer to the United States and a stranger to the disco lifestyle, Cohn was unable to make any sense of the subculture he had been assigned to write about.
The lead character in Cohn’s story, who became Tony Manero in the movie Saturday Night Fever, was based on one of Cohn’s acquaintances.
Cohn’s story was then turned into a movie script. The lead character, Tony Manero, has a dead-end job at a hardware store and lives with his parents. Tony’s major outlet is dancing at a local disco club, where he is a star.
A local girl Annette has a crush on Tony and is thrilled when he agrees to be her partner at a dance contest. However, at the contest Tony becomes attracted to Stephanie, who is an elegant dancer. Stephanie agrees to be a dance partner with Tony, but on the condition that their relationship remain strictly platonic.
Tony and Stephanie win the dance contest, but Tony is convinced that a Puerto Rican couple were better dancers, and that his victory was the result of a racially-tainted decision. After the contest, Stephanie and Tony get into an argument, and he attempts to rape her.
Meanwhile, Tony’s friend Bobby C is in desperate circumstances. His girlfriend is pregnant, and Bobby is trying to avoid being forced to marry her. Furthermore, Bobby and his mates are involved in an altercation with a Hispanic gang.
Tony, Bobby C and their friends frequently hang out on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge. The bridge has a symbolic function as it links Tony’s run-down neighborhood in Brooklyn with the more desirable suburban areas of Staten Island.
One evening, when the boys climb around the chains of the bridge, Bobby C undertakes some risky stunts. In an outburst, he relates his frustrations and berates Tony for abandoning his friend. Then he slips from the cables and falls to his death in the water.
At the end of the movie, Tony apologizes to Stephanie, and states his determination to move to Manhattan in an attempt to re-start his life. Stephanie forgives Tony and the two agree to be friends.
The Bee Gees’ manager Robert Stigwood was executive producer for Saturday Night Fever. He contacted the Bee Gees and suggested that they write some songs for his movie. The Gibb brothers were in Paris at that time, and that is where Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote Stayin’ Alive and several other songs.
Stayin’ Alive describes a macho fellow who has succeeded despite all obstacles placed in his way. However, the singer’s sense of desperation is highlighted by the lines “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.”
Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
Since I was born
And now it’s all right, it’s okay
And you may look the other way
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man
Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive
The disco beat is pulsating and insistent in this song, which features Barry Gibb’s falsetto lead vocals as well as the Bee Gees’ trademark close harmonies.
Here are the opening credits from Saturday Night Fever. They feature John Travolta (as Tony Manero) strutting down the street while carrying a can of paint, as the Bee Gees’ song Stayin’ Alive plays.
This iconic and memorable opening scene sets the tone for the entire movie. It vividly displays Manero’s determination and macho character, at the same time that it highlights the frustrations of his life.
A distinctive feature of Stayin’ Alive is the persistent, never-varying drum beat. This resulted from a “fix” to a problem that occurred during the recording of the song.
In the middle of the recording sessions, drummer Dennis Bryon’s mother passed away, and he left to take care of funeral arrangements. The Bee Gees and their producers lifted a few bars of the drum part from the already-recorded song Night Fever.
They created a “loop” from that drum part, and used that loop throughout Stayin’ Alive. This accounts for the unnaturally steady drum-beat in Stayin’ Alive. As a sly joke, the group listed the “drummer” for Stayin’ Alive as “Bernard Lupe.”
When the song became a smash hit, several other bands inquired after the services of “Mr. Lupe,” only to discover that he did not exist.
It turns out that the beat frequency in Stayin’ Alive (104 beats per minute) is very close to the 110-120 beats per minute recommended for people performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
As a result, Stayin’ Alive is commonly used when teaching CPR. Apparently it has been shown that people administering CPR perform better if they hum Stayin’ Alive as they apply chest compressions. Do they also need to sing falsetto and wear gold chains?
Here are the Bee Gees in a live performance of Stayin’ Alive.
This took place in 1989 at the National Tennis Center in Melbourne. Barry Gibb sings the entire song in falsetto except for the line “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.” The audience is extremely appreciative of their Aussie mates.
Well, the Bee Gees rode the crest of the disco wave during the late 70s. In fact, they could be called the crew of the Good Ship Disco. At one point, the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart consisted of three Bee Gees’ songs, and two other songs from the Saturday Night Fever album that were written by the Gibb brothers. This had never happened before.
The Saturday Night Fever album stayed at #1 on the album charts for 25 consecutive weeks. But eventually the public tired of disco music, as well as the gold chains and the excessive drug use at disco clubs such as New York’s Club 54.
And at that point the Bee Gees’ career went down with the ship. People even seemed to hold the brothers Gibb responsible for the excesses of the disco era. Although that was patently unfair, after the heights of their career during the period 1975-1979, the Bee Gees did not place another single in the top 20 until 1989.
Fortunately, the boys continued to find commercial success during this period, but as solo artists, or as songwriters and producers for artists such as Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Rogers.
In the early 1980s, the Gibb brothers released solo albums and continued songwriting and producing. In 1987 they re-united and produced an album that was a big hit in the U.K. and Australia but had disappointing U.S. sales.
The Bee Gees issued several compilation albums, including two Greatest Hits albums that became colossal best-sellers. In 1997, the Bee Gees performed a live concert called One Night Only at Las Vegas. It was intended to be their final performance, as Barry was suffering from serious back and arthritis problems, and believed that he would no longer be able to play guitar.
However, that concert was so well received that the Bee Gees subsequently reprised that concert in London and Sydney. Also in 1997 the Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2002, Maurice died of a heart attack while awaiting emergency surgery for a strangulated intestine. This was a great shock to the brothers, and they subsequently retired the name Bee Gees.
Brothers Barry and Robin continued with occasional solo performances over the next few years, but in 2009 they returned to performing together. However, in 2011 it was revealed that Robin was suffering from liver cancer.
Robin subsequently died in May, 2012. Since that time Barry has performed occasionally, sometimes accompanied by his son Stephen Gibb.
So, the Bee Gees had three very different careers. The first was as folk-pop rockers, much like the British Invasion group The Hollies. The second was as disco superstars, in the Saturday Night Fever days. Later in life, they returned with more pop songs, but they also performed oldies from earlier eras.
My most vivid memory of the Bee Gees will be from their disco phase, with Barry blasting away in falsetto while the brothers contributed their incredible close harmonies. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive …
Bruce Springsteen, Stayin’ Alive:
Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. We discussed Bruce and his career in an earlier blog post on the song Brown-Eyed Girl, so here we will provide a short bio of his life and career.
Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.
Springsteen was raised Catholic and attended a parochial school through middle school. Although he rebelled against both the religious doctrine and the discipline enforced by the nuns, this upbringing made a lasting impression on him.
Here is a photo of Bruce Springsteen performing in the mid-70s. From L: Clarence Clemons; Bruce Springsteen; Steven van Zandt; Gary Tallent.
After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.
Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just like Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.
Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Furthermore, he developed a cult following due to the energy and exuberance of his live performances.
This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were somewhat disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.
His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.
I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing, with a great climax. And the lyrics were terrific, bringing to mind some of the best work by artists such as Bob Dylan and Billy Joel.
Furthermore, the album was packed with similar songs that have become staples of “classic-rock” radio stations. However, I thought that the production values on the record were third-rate, and I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.
Well, Bruce succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, seven of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 list. Furthermore, the advent of music videos meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s energy in live performance.
Moreover, on the Born In The U.S.A. album the production values were superb. Springsteen’s E Street Band was in great form, and the album sold like hotcakes, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.
A delicious irony is that politicians tried to jump on the bandwagon, by saluting what they believed to be the patriotism expressed in the title cut Born in the U.S.A. For example, Ronald Reagan stated that
“America’s future rests in … the message of hope in the songs of … New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”
Had Reagan ever actually listened to the song, he would have realized that Born in the U.S.A. contained no such “message of hope.” The song described a disillusioned American veteran returning from Vietnam to find that no one cared, and unable to land a job.
So here is Bruce Springsteen in a live performance of Stayin’ Alive.
This took place in Brisbane, Australia on Feb. 26, 2014. Bruce brings the Aussies his own version of the great Bee Gees disco song, which is more of a jazzy re-mix. The song begins with a trumpet cadenza, features solos in the middle from trumpet, trombone and saxophone, and also includes a string section presumably borrowed from a local symphony orchestra.
Bruce’s voice is in great form here, and he gives his audience the large-orchestra treatment that perhaps only he can afford to provide nowadays.
At this point, Bruce Springsteen is a living American treasure. He continues to release albums, varying between hard-rocking records backed by the E Street Band, and folk records inspired by artists such as Woody Guthrie.
Springsteen’s live performances also tend to be epic events. He and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic concerts last up to three hours or more.
The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce, my hope is that you continue “stayin’ alive” for a long, long time!
NSYNC, Stayin’ Alive:
NSYNC was a “boy band” created by the notorious con man Lou Pearlman, who was also the creator of The Backstreet Boys. Before discussing NSYNC, we will briefly review Pearlman’s career.
Lou Pearlman was born in 1954 in Flushing, NY. He was the cousin of Art Garfunkel. Pearlman had a deep interest in flying, and started various air charter companies.
At left is a photo of Pearlman hanging with his musical group The Backstreet Boys.
For those of you familiar with boy bands, note that the Backstreet Boys look more or less exactly like New Kids On The Block, who in turn have an amazing resemblance to NSYNC.
Pearlman’s most lucrative scheme was an airline and travel service company called Trans Continental Airlines. Pearlman managed to persuade a large number of investors to purchase shares in this company.
Unfortunately, the company existed only on paper. To mislead investors, Pearlman created falsified statements from the FDIC, AIG and Lloyd’s of London. He also used financial statements from the auditing firm Cohen and Siegel to obtain bank loans. Alas, Cohen and Siegel did not exist.
In 2007, the state of Florida charged Pearlman with operating a massive Ponzi scheme. In response, Pearlman fled the country, and was subsequently arrested in Indonesia. Pearlman eventually pled guilty to a series of charges, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Although Pearlman’s sentence included reduction in time served for every million dollars that was returned to investors, very little money from Pearlman’s scheme was ever recovered. Pearlman suffered a stroke in prison, and later died in 2016 from cardiac arrest at the age of 62.
Although Lou Pearlman was a notorious fraud and con man, he had a genuine interest in music and used a substantial amount of money from his Ponzi scheme to create a couple of boy bands.
Pearlman’s bands, The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, were formed in exactly the same manner. Pearlman copied in considerable detail the methods used to create and merchandise the boy band New Kids On The Block. The creators of that band had themselves had taken a page out of “The Monkees” playbook.
Pearlman hooked up with Johnny and Donna Wright, who had previously worked with “New Kids.” They set up a highly-publicized search for members of a new boy band, and signed five previously-unknown young men. The Backstreet Boys were then rigorously trained and groomed, and their record releases were heavily publicized.
Although Lou Pearlman’s air charter companies were pure fiction, his boy bands turned out to be solid gold. The Backstreet Boys became the best-selling boy band of all time; they sold some 130 million records in 45 different countries.
NSYNC followed exactly the same formula. Chris Kirkpatrick had unsuccessfully tried out for the Backstreet Boys, and contacted Pearlman with the idea of creating a second boy band. Pearlman agreed, provided that Kirkpatrick could come up with viable candidates.
Eventually Kirkpatrick enlisted Joey Fatone, former Mickey Mouse Club alum Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass and J.C. Chasez. The name of the band supposedly came from a remark by Timberlake’s mother that the boys were really “in sync.”
Another story was that the group’s name consisted of the last letter in the first name of each member. That worked for an earlier lineup that included Jason Galasso. Once Galasso was replaced by Lance Bass, they created a nickname “Lansten” so the acronym would still make sense, e.g. justiN, chriS, joeY, lansteN and jC.
Below are the members of NSYNC at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. From L: Justin Timberlake; Joey Fatone; Lance Bass; Chris Kirkpatrick; J.C. Chasez.
NSYNC subsequently became major pop stars. Every artificially-created boy band is a “synthetic” product, designed to capitalize on an authentic phenomenon. So for example, The Monkees were constructed to resemble The Beatles.
The template for the later boy bands was probably the Jackson 5. The singing and dancing are strongly reminiscent of the Jacksons. However, while the Jacksons played their own instruments, boy bands such as New Kids, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were strictly singers and dancers.
NSYNC’s second album, No Strings Attached, released in 2000, became the best-selling album of the first decade of the 21st century. It sent the group to the top of the charts, and propelled them to big stadium tours.
Here are NSYNC in a live Bee Gees tribute.
This is a very enjoyable a capella contribution from the boys. It took place at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony. NSYNC riff through a series of Bee Gees favorites, including Good Morning Mr. Sunshine; Lonely Days, Lonely Nights; How Can You Mend a Broken Heart; How Deep Is Your Love; and finish off with Stayin’ Alive.
Listening to NSYNC gives a new appreciation for the sophisticated melodic schemes of Bee Gees songs. This tribute by NSYNC is quite impressive.
With his boy bands, Lou Pearlman struck it rich in the music business. Unfortunately, the con man in Pearlman also surfaced in these venues. Nearly every group that Pearlman created ended up suing him for ripping them off.
In 1998, the same year that they scored their first big hit, NSYNC filed a lawsuit against Pearlman and his record company. They claimed that instead of taking 16% of the NSYNC income, Pearlman had defrauded the group out of half their earnings.
Pearlman counter-sued for $150 million, plus he asked for the group to forfeit the rights to the NSYNC name. The suits were settled out of court, but NSYNC subsequently switched record labels.
NSYNC issued a third album in 2001. Once again, it enjoyed tremendous record sales, and the group went on two high-grossing tours promoting that album.
However, following their 2002 Celebrity Tour, the group announced they were going on hiatus. A subsequent album was cancelled, and the group has now dissolved.
Of the band members, Justin Timberlake has gone on to a highly successful solo career, and has also turned out to be a fine actor. He has appeared in such films as Bad Teacher, The Social Network, Friends With Benefits and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Since they disbanded in 2002, NSYNC have issued a couple of “greatest hits” compilations, and they re-united for a single performance at the 2013 MTV Video Awards.
For a band formed by Lou Pearlman, it is no surprise that NSYNC participated in a raft of marketing gigs,
including board games, microphones, lip balm, marionettes, books, key chains, bedding, clothing, video games, and various other articles.
The boys also had marketing agreements with McDonalds (commercials with the group and Britney Spears) and Chili’s (commercials for the restaurant chain, plus Chili’s sponsored an NSYNC tour).
I have to admit to a deep prejudice against “boy bands.” I think this has a lot to do with the fact that they were assembled using a “cookie-cutter” formula, and that they were so aggressively merchandised.
Having said that, one has to be impressed at the immense success of these groups. New Kids, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC each made a ton of money. And despite the crass commercialism, each group ended up producing music that was technically impressive and rather appealing. Not high on my personal list of music favorites, but probably well-received by my grand-kids.