“Stayin’ Alive” is the Bee Gees’ most recognizable song, and arguably one of the most well-known dance tracks ever created.
The song was the first track off the hugely successful soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” and as used in the film provides the backdrop for one of the defining cinematic moments of the 1970s. It enjoyed 4 weeks at the top of the billboard charts and is widely credited for firmly cementing disco as mainstream phenomenon and the Bee Gees themselves as 1970s dance music icons.
And weirdly enough, that almost didn’t happen — “Stayin’ Alive” wasn’t originally written to be a dance club tune.
The song’s complicated history is explained in HBO’s new documentary “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” a biography of the legendary pop group.
“Very few people realize it’s to do with anything but dance, but the lyrics don’t talk about dance at all,” Robin Gibb said in archival footage included in the documentary (Gibb died in 2012). “The lyrics very obviously state the scenario of survival.”
Released in 1977, just over a year after serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz terrorized New York during the summer of 1976 with eight unprovoked slayings across the city, the song was produced during the time, aptly described by Irish writer Dermot McEvoy, when “New York’s grime was golden” and the lyrics reflect the uncertain state of things in America’s biggest city.
In fact, the Bee Gees wrote the song as an homage to New York’s gritty streets during that era, as to their influences from Black culture and R&B, as noted by the lyrical references to the plights of minority New Yorkers sprinkled in between the catchy chorus.
“‘Stayin’ Alive’ was the influence New York gave to us, and the energy level at that point in the late 70s was really survival,” Barry Gibb said.
“When you listen to the drum track on ‘Stayin’ Alive” by itself, it’s really this super rugged, tough thing,” producer Mark Ronson said during the documentary. “It’s not pretty or pop like you remember.”
The track’s famous drum loop came after the band’s drummer Dennis Bryon took a break to visit his sick mother, and two engineers working with the Bee Gees replicated a drum track by splicing bars from the band’s prior hit, “Night Fever,” into a half-inch four-track loop. After the drum loop came the iconic bass intro, followed by the guitar part and, of course, the Gibbs’ signature vocals.
As musician and Bee Gees fan Justin Timberlake pointed out later during the film, the Bee Gees could have relied on horns or other instruments to cement the catchy “AH, ha, ha ha” at the end of the song, but used their full range of vocal talent instead. “That could very easily have just been a horn line, but instead their voices are so sick, they’re like, ‘nah, we’re going to sing it,” Timberlake said.