Saturday, April 07, 2012

When the Boogie Started to Explode

I was reminded the other day of an idea for a book that I pitched a few years back on the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. I just dug up the proposal off an old hard drive and, as the publisher decided to pass on the project a long time ago, I thought that I may as well sling it up here on the blog for your amusement / entertainment / derision. Here it is...
 “…Where do you go when the record is over…”

That was the tagline on the poster for Saturday Night Fever when it came out in 1977. This proposal is about exactly where you go next.

My proposal uses the original movie sound track to Saturday Night Fever to travel through time and space using scuffed black vinyl as a magic carpet. Because the book isn’t really about disco or New York or the Seventies or even about three blokes with big teeth and falsetto voices from Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester.

It’s really a book about the protean quality of lasting pop music. Music that changes with the passage of time, with history, with shifts in popular culture, with trends and fashion. Music that represents different things to different listeners. The music itself is static and unchanging. It's just the ears that hear it are constantly shifting and processing the sounds with all the baggage of perception, wish-fulfilment and misplaced nostalgia.

The music of Saturday Night Fever has gone from cool to loved to reviled to kitsch and back again. Sometimes at the same time. It’s a complete finite piece of work that seems to be perpetually in flux. It’s evocative of a very specific time and place, and yet it appealed to the broadest demographic imaginable, becoming the greatest selling album of all time (until Michael Jackson’s Thriller came along). It’s a chaos of contradictions.

The seed of the music came from an article by a British journalist, wrapped around a film from an Australian producer set in Brooklyn. As the years pass, the soundtrack transcends the details and minutiae of its creation or even its raison d'etre. It’s become something else, and it keeps on becoming something else all the time.

On July 12th 1979, there was an event in Comiskey Park in Chicago. It was called “Disco Demolition Night”. It was designed to mark the Day That Disco Died. But railing against anything, regardless of intention, shows that it still has the power to trigger an emotional response. Piles of records were blown up. There were riots and arrests. An indirect side-effect of the event even cost the Chicago White Sox a big game due to forfeit.

Blowing up records doesn’t work. Because music doesn’t really exist in the grooves of an LP, or in the coded 1s and 0s on your computer’s hard drive. That’s just the medium. It isn’t the thing. Because the music really lives in our minds, where it can be anything we want it to be, whether we love it or hate it.
No music died that night. I can prove it. Case in point: Another son of Chicago, Barack Obama. In late 2008, during one of his presidential debate rehearsals, one of the lights blew, flickering on and off like a strobe light in Tony Manero’s beloved 2001 Odyssey. Standing quietly at the podium, under his breath, the 44th President of the United States began to sing the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno.” Burn, baby, burn…

See? The music never changes. The context always does. Saturday Night Fever has defied trends and fashion long enough to become part of the pop culture establishment. If you endure for long enough, rightly or wrongly, you get branded a “classic”. Who’d have imagined 30 years on that the music and images would be referenced like they were in the 2005 family animation Madagascar with Marty the zebra strutting like Travolta, the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive high on the soundtrack.

And Saturday Night Fever doesn’t just travel forwards in time from 1977, it echoes backwards into the past too. Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” is a wah-wah remodelling of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, believed to have been written between 1804 and 1808. In the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, A Fifth of Beethoven pops up again over footage of 1974 New York and the story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. From Vienna to Brooklyn in the space of a few short centuries…

And as much as Saturday Night Fever has become the emblem of all that was good and bad about disco, it arrived at a time when the whole disco fad was starting to wind down. The phenomenon ended up giving disco one last surge of life, didn’t it? Did Saturday Night Fever decisively kill disco forever? Or is it one of the only genuinely enduring pop culture artefacts that is going to survive from that era?

Not just an emblem of a time or a movement. It’s bigger than that, too. At the post-9/11 Grammys, the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive played over footage of the towers of the World Trade Center. A song about growing up as a scrappy rebellious Brooklynite becomes an anthem about defying terrorism. It doesn’t matter what it’s supposed to mean. It can mean anything you want it to.

And the weird contextual disconnect was there from the very beginning. The music was already at odds with the story of the film. Saturday Night Fever must be one of the most fondly misremembered movies ever made, conjuring memories of dancing and joy. But that’s not right. It's a harsh and brutal coming-of-age story about rootless city kids who live to fight and fuck, and who can't see beyond the next Saturday night. No one listens to the album thinking about black eyes or gang rapes. They think of white polyester suits and glitter balls and a multi-coloured, brightly lit phantasmagoric nightclub.
Considering that it is first and foremost dance music, it’s accumulated a reputation as easy listening pap - elevator music (or should that be “elevator shoe” music?) which, come to think of it, would be a fitting tag as Saturday Night Fever's credibility has gone Up and Down so many times over the decades.

The book would be structured to look at the album and the strong emotions and responses it has garnered, both positive and negative, and how the image of the album has altered many times down the passing years, using anecdotal and historical context to make my points. Ultimately, it would be a book about an album that works as personal memory and history and collective memory and history. And it’s never the same thing for long, or even in the same place.