Allow me the moment to pose a question to you. Think about this and take your time. What albums in history have been so culturally significant that the album alone changed things at the time of its popularity? Yes, it’s a pretty deep question, but I feel it is worth pondering.
As I sit here thinking about the question, some answers pop up. Let’s begin with the first album that went off like a nuclear bomb in society during the Fifties. I am talking about the first Elvis Presley album released on RCA, simply titled Elvis Presley. Before that album, there were handfuls of “race records” and afterwards there was this thing called rock ‘n’ roll that swept the nation and “corrupted” a generation of teens in the US, Britain and elsewhere.
Following that album, there was the Beatles’ first US album titled Meet the Beatles that set off Beatlemania in the States. Then, three short years later, the Beatles did it again by ushering in the Summer of Love in 1967 with their first foray into psychedelia with their masterpiece album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. After that album, rock ‘n’ roll became simply rock, an album oriented genre.
In the Eighties, there was Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Prince’s Purple Rain, both ushering in an era of black artists being seen as sex symbols and rock gods. And, then, in the early-Nineties, the alternative nation generally speaking and the world of grunge specifically entered the world’s conscientiousness behind Nirvana’s Nevermind. Unfortunately, after that album, the only thing that affected music stance within society significantly was Napster, a file-sharing computer program that totally leveled the music industry, from which the industry has yet to recover.
However, I skipped one album that just may be the granddaddy of cultural significance. Before its release, the music it was pushing may have just began to wane in popularity and may have even faded from memory if not for this album. After this album caught on with the public, the genre it was pushing was revived quickly and immediately entered a golden period of musical excellence and cultural significance. The phenomenon I am alluding to is that movie and its highly successful soundtrack called Saturday Night Fever. The image of a young John Travolta striking his famous one-arm-up-dance-pose may be the single most iconic image of the disco era. The movie was good enough to be nominated for an Academy Award, but it was the soundtrack that transcended everything in society, pushing disco out of the gay night clubs in New York City, Miami and San Francisco and into the clubs of middle America and the music onto most formats of radio and even finding its way into high school dances. The watered-down funk beats augmented with string sections was the sound of music beginning in late-1977 with the release of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and lasting through to the summer of 1979, when Chicago DJ Steve Dahl held his famous “Disco Destroyer” Night between games of a Chicago White Sox double-header, during which Dahl literally blew up thousands of disco records in centerfield. So much damage was done to the field that the second game had to be forfeited by the Sox. Although the disco hits continue for the next couple of years, Disco as a movement died that night in Chicago.
Although the Bee Gees had been changing their sound from the Beatles-like ballads toward the disco-fied sounds they released on their 1975 Main Course and 1976 Children of the World albums, it was not until they released a string of three classic songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack that made the trio into disco stars. That string of hits, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Stayin’ Alive” and the sublime “Night Fever”, became the new calling cards for the disco-movement. Additionally, the soundtrack yielded many more classic disco hits, such as Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” “More Than a Woman” by Tavares and arguably the greatest disco cut of all-time, The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno.” Not to mention that the album also included former disco hit songs like the Bee Gees’ own “You Should Be Dancing” and “Jive Talkin'”, Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” and KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” only solidified the street cred of the soundtrack. This album quickly became a cornerstone in nightclubs across the world. Unfortunately, since their reputations were so entwined with the album, the Bee Gees became poster children of the disco movement. Suddenly, the three brothers were blamed for all the bad disco music that was released during the waning days of disco. As if it were the Bee Gees’ fault that people released albums of disco music by the Muppets or Ethel Merman. Nor was it their fault that lame disco songs were released by the Beach Boys, Rod Stewart and KISS. But, the blame was placed on the Bee Gees because they helped revive disco with Saturday Night Fever just as it seemed the genre was about to collapse.
Today, disco is insidiously everywhere. You can hear it used in commercials. It pops up during movies and television shows. Even 21st century musical artists like Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Madonna, Lady Gaga and LCD Soundsystem all have incorporated disco into their sounds. Even hip hop artists have been known to sample disco songs in their own hit songs. So, disco never really died. It went back underground, exactly where it belonged, and actually started back in the Seventies.
So, the genre know for excesses of all kinds, be it sex, drugs, clothing, fashion, music, etc., is alive and well. And, now that we are forty years past those peak-days of Saturday Night Fever, the music is alive and well. Long live Disco!