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Classic Tracks: The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”

Written while on vacation in Bermuda and recorded on a terrible console, the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" became a disco classic.

When the movie Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, it was one of those not-so-rare moments in American culture when Hollywood redefined and repackaged an entire musical movement, creating a celluloid version without the grittiness and with gobs of gloss. Like Urban Cowboy, released three years later, Saturday Night Fever was based on a magazine article, “The Tribal Rites of Saturday Night,” and the film, like the article, attempted to compress an entire sociological phenomenon into less than two hours or 10,000 words, something American corporate culture has become amazingly adept at. Both films starred John Travolta.

bee gees stayin alive The disco of Saturday Night Fever is not the disco of the culture that preceded it, embodied by Betty Wright and T.K. Records and drummers like Jimmy Yung and Yogi Horton, who created that between-the-beats, hi-hat figure that became both the signature and the parody of disco music—a subtle pair of cool-ribbed nylon socks slipped into slick alligator loafers and the dazzlingly white suit with open-to-the-navel black shirt all rolled into one. Disco music is black music; the white kids in Brooklyn that the magazine article focused on re-created it in their own image—Bensonhurst chic—and it was that second-generation iteration that Hollywood latched onto and refined into something they could figure out in Peoria. So it was perhaps appropriate that it was the Bee Gees, three very white brothers from England, who in 1955 became Commonwealth expats in Australia (although it could be argued that their native Manchester is the British equivalent of Bensonhurst), that created the soundtrack to this very accessible culture. Not that they came to this critical juncture in their musical careers without some soulful credentials; several of the group’s preceding records were produced by Atlantic Records’ R&B giants Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, the same production team that made Sam & Dave and Aretha Franklin records, and it was inevitable that some of that deep-fried flavor would become ingrained in the Bee Gees’ music.

The Bee Gees’ involvement in Saturday Night Fever was as much a collateral effect of corporate machinations as anything else. RSO Records owner Robert Stigwood, who along with film producer Alan Carr, had snapped up the rights to the magazine article and signed the group to his label, which was distributed via Atlantic Records, saw the economic synergy between owning multimedia content well before it became the no-brainer that it is today. However, it’s significant that a year earlier, Stigwood’s label broke away from Atlantic, thus rendering Mardin et al. unavailable to the Bee Gees. So Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, who had worked in the capacities of engineer and arranger, respectively, on some previous Bee Gees records, took over as co-producers, and the group continued to record with Miami rhythm sections for hits like “You Should Be Dancing” (a Number One hit in 1976) and a ballad, “Love So Right” (Number Three, 1976), which recalled such black vocal groups as The Spinners and The Stylistics, rather than the British pop band heritage of the Bee Gees.

The Bee Gees arrived at Le Chateau Studios, an hour north of Paris, several days earlier when their manager, Dick Ashby, called to tell them that the album they had just begun work on was now to be a soundtrack record for the film. Barry Gibb, the eldest Gibb brother and the group’s acknowledged leader, had spent the previous few months at Stigwood’s luxurious resort home in Bermuda, where he penned several new songs, one of which was titled “Stayin’ Alive.”

“Barry played it for me the first time at that studio on an acoustic guitar,” Richardson recalls. “It was around March or April of 1977, and I had gotten to the studio ahead of them and found it to be a disaster. The owner had gone nuts or something and burned down the stables where the studio had been. This was the same studio that Elton John had just done Honky Chateau in, and it was that record which had attracted Disk and the Bee Gees to the studio in the first place. [Along with an economic impetus, like other successful UK groups, for tax purposes the Bee Gees had to spend a certain amount of working time outside Great Britain and, thanks to all the work they had been doing at Criteria in Miami the previous three years with Mardin and Dowd, outside the U.S. as well.] They had quickly set up a studio on the second floor of the 13th-century castle on the property, but it was in pretty bad shape, too. I came in there and actually had to ground the place’s electrical system on my own before we could get to work.”

Actually, the song “Night Fever” was initially considered the front-runner for the film’s and album’s first single, and that was the first track worked on there; it was quickly Fed Exed out to Hollywood. But though it would go on to become a hit single in its own right, the song didn’t create the excitement everyone was hoping for. “Stayin’ Alive” was the next contender, but its realization had a few hurdles to clear first. Drummer Dennis Bryon’s father passed away in England just days into the sessions, and he flew across the Channel to be with his family. Hollywood was clamoring to hear “Stayin’ Alive” as the film’s production progressed. “And on top of the deadlines, this was the middle of France in the winter, not the best time and place to go looking for a great replacement drummer,” says Richardson. The solution came to him as the now-drummerless group and technical crew, including Albhy Galuten, played around with the rhythm machine in a Hammond organ at the studio. “It sounded terrible,” says Richardson. “This was before the days of a Linn Drum or Roland machines. But we could at least get a 4/4 beat out of it. It gave us something to work with.”

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But then Richardson and Galuten had an idea: Why not take the drum sounds from the previously recorded “Night Fever” and use them to create the drum track for “Stayin’ Alive”? This was 1977, and drum loops were still more conceptual than real. Richardson’s first instinct was to take two bars of the drums already on tape and then re-record them 100 or so times and splice them together until there was enough to make a new track. That was the plan as he and the band spent hours listening—over Auratone speakers, no less—to “Night Fever”‘s drum track, looking for the perfect two bars to make a foundation for “Stayin’ Alive”. By the time they’d decided, Richardson’s technical plan had evolved further: “I copied the two bars onto a piece of half-inch tape on an MCI 4-track deck we had there—kick, snare and left-right tracks. Then it got interesting: The tape was about 22 feet long—we were running at 30 ips—and I took a bunch of empty tape box hubs and gaffer-taped them to the top of microphone stands and set up a tape path that long between the 4-track deck and the [MCI] 24-track deck, using the tape guides from a 2-track deck to add some tension. And we were using the Hammond organ rhythm machine and the varispeed on the MCI to establish the tempo. This was kluge-city; it was total Rube Goldberg. And the drum tracks that were getting to the 24-track machine were third generation by now, and the tape heads were pretty badly worn to start with—the studio had had no maintenance. So I was tweaking the tracks, which already had Dolby A encoding, with even more high-end EQ from the old API 550-type console to get some brightness out of them. But we got about seven minutes’ worth of pretty good-sounding drum tracks that were the right tempo and groove for the song.”

“The other interesting thing about that drum loop was that it went on to have quite a career,” recalls co-producer Albhy Galuten, who had been part of the two-bar search with Richardson and Barry Gibb. “We wound up using that same loop on ‘More Than a Woman’ for the Bee Gees and ‘I’m a Woman In Love’ for Barbra Streisand. So in addition to it being a very seminal point in music, since it was the first hit record made with a looped drum part, it was also a loop that would have more lives to it. That’s what happens when you get a piece of playing that has a great feel.”

After that experience, the rest of the recording process for “Stayin’ Alive” was almost anticlimactic. Barry Gibb recorded the basic track with an acoustic guitar and a pilot vocal. Maurice Gibb played the bass guitar direct into the console, using a pick, as was his style. The lack of studio maintenance hampered Richardson all the way. “Someone had taken different-colored nail polish and repainted all the EQ knobs on the console—that should have tipped me off right there,” he recalls. “The faders were so bad that I had to mark the spots on each one where they would drop out as I moved the fader and try to get past those spots quickly so I wouldn’t lose signal.”

More amazingly, during all of this deadline-induced pressure to get the track done, Stigwood also asked Richardson to mix the tracks from a recent Bee Gees King Biscuit Flower Hour appearance, recorded at the Los Angeles Forum by the Wally Heider Record Plant mobile unit, so RSO could get a live double album out the door before the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack hit the record store racks. Using the same questionable console, Richardson got it and the soundtrack recordings done in the same short window that Ashby had booked for just the new studio recording. And all on Auratone speakers.

Subsequent tracks were added individually, with Bee Gees band members Blue Weaver playing electric piano, then an ARP string synthesizer, and Alan Kendall playing electric guitar. Upon his return, Dennis Bryon overdubbed tom fills, cymbal crashes and hi-hat parts.

Richardson recorded the Bee Gees’ vocals the way he had for previous recordings: setting up a Neumann U67 and having the three brothers sing harmony parts together first, before the lead vocal was laid down. “Though one thing we did differently this time was to have them sing the chorus harmony parts in unison, one part at a time, then stacking them,” he explains. Barry and Maurice Gibb sang the lead vocal in unison, as well. Vocals were run through a UREI 1176 compressor set at 4:1, with medium attack and a fast release.

With most of the recording done, the crew returned to Miami, where percussionist Joe Lala added timbales and the Miami String Section augmented the ARP parts. More strings were then added at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. The tape finally traveled back to Criteria Studios in Miami for mixing, but not before two more musical interludes. It seems the film’s director wanted a bridge to the song to support a moment in the movie when Travolta’s character falls in love on the dance floor in mid-song. The Gibbs recorded a completely new piece of music, a ballad, based on the song’s theme, and Richardson—who says he never met a razor blade he was afraid of—proceeded to splice the 2-inch multitrack, putting the new bridge in the middle of the song. “Me and Albhy were convinced that we had just ruined a Number One hit song,” he says, “but after we sent it off, we never heard from them again about it, so I spliced the piece back out of the track, and we went on from there.”

Just before the mix, in Criteria’s Studio B, Barry Gibb felt that the song’s tag needed some spice. So he came up with the tag vocal parts in the vamp. Everyone liked them, but still felt they needed some sparkle, which Richardson supplied by taking out the Dolby decoder, allowing the new vocals to play back undecoded and then boosting the high frequencies even more. “It sounded pretty psychedelic, but it worked,” he says.

The mix was one of the first automated ones at Criteria, using VCA grouping automation on the custom-made MCI console. Mastering was done at Capitol Studios. The record hit the Number One slot in February 1978 and continued the Bee Gees’ remarkable career resurgence. It garnered a Record of the Year Grammy nomination, and the soundtrack album, now regarded as the definitive document of the disco era, and which also included the Bee Gees’ hits “Night Fever” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” eventually sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

Providing his own coda to the experience, Richardson says simply, “After everything we went through to make that track, we were just happy we got it done.”