Some still call it pop music’s darkest days: the Disco Age. Its relentless beat was never louder, its white suits never whiter than on Jan. 21, 1978, when the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever boogied to No. 1 on the charts. It stayed at the top for 24 weeks and sold more than 30 million copies — the biggest-selling album before Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1983. It also spawned four No. 1 singles, won four Grammys, and made the Bee Gees — Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb — the startled kings of disco.
”We had never even heard the word disco when we wrote these songs,” Robin recalled in a 1989 interview.
”But all of a sudden,” added Maurice, ”we were the hottest disco band around.”
Although some might say that’s like being the best surfer in Wichita, disco’s thump provided a heartbeat for the Bee Gees’ failing career. The brothers had had tough times since their first hits in 1967, even breaking up briefly in 1969. Their comeback had started on 1975’s Main Course, when they layered their trademark falsetto harmonies over an R&B groove. But when their manager, Robert Stigwood, asked them for a few songs for the John Travolta movie he was producing, their temperature went off the charts.
Driven by singles like ”Stayin’ Alive” and ”How Deep Is Your Love,” the soundtrack seemed to be the only sounds allowed on the radio. During one week in 1978, 5 of the top 10 pop singles — 2 from Fever — were written or produced by a Bee Gee.
But inevitably, the tide turned back. The Bee Gees starred in Stigwood’s disastrous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie in 1978, and were parodied by an English band called the Hee Bee Gee Bees on an album called Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices. Pigeonholed as a disco act, they found their 1981 Living Eyes album stalled at No. 41 in the U.S. Though Barry was enjoying huge success writing and producing hits for Dionne Warwick (”Heartbreaker”), Kenny Rogers (”Islands in the Stream”), and Barbra Streisand (”Guilty”), the brothers’ new songs couldn’t ignite the 1983 Fever sequel, Staying Alive. The following year Maurice wrote music for the film Misunderstood, only to have it rejected. The Bee Gees didn’t release another album until 1987’s E.S.P.
The Gibbs are now recording their 28th album, still trying to break the disco hex. Asked to comment in 1988 on ”Stayin’ Alive” being named one of Rolling Stone‘s 100 top singles of the last 25 years, they wrote, ”We’d like to dress [the record] up in a white suit and gold chains, and set it on fire.”
Time Capsule: January 21, 1978
Player’s ”Baby Come Back” was the nation’s top single, while filmgoers said hello to Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. Fiction buffs were reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel Silmarillion, and Laverne & Shirley schlemieled and shlimazeled across millions of television screens.