(Above, L to R: Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb meet the press in 1979.)
(A draft of this post has been sitting in my files for something like four years, so here it is, for the 40th anniversary of “Stayin’ Alive” hitting #1.)
The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is a record I have adored from the first time I heard it—and in fact, I can remember precisely where I was the first time I heard it, the street I was on and the approximate block I was in when it came blasting out of my car radio. Take your experience out of it, where you’ve been since 1978 and what you know, and try to hear it with none of that baggage attached: “Stayin’ Alive” is one damn great record.
The Bee Gees’ band doesn’t usually get much love for the work they did, but they clearly deserve it. A few years ago, the isolated vocal track for “Stayin’ Alive” surfaced online, and it’s pretty difficult listening. But when melded with the band, alchemy happens. Dismissed as disco in its time and since, it’s not, really—every rock band in the world would like to write an opening riff that arresting, or hooks so enormous.
I remember “Stayin’ Alive” as something that zoomed up the charts, but when I dug into its chart profile, I didn’t find quite what I expected to see. (We’re going full geek here, so buckle up.) It debuted at #65 on December 10, 1977, and went to #52 the next week. It reached the Top 40 at #39 for the week of December 24. There was no chart for the week of December 31, and for January 7, 1978, it made a modest move to #28. From there, it steadily moved up: 17-10-3 and finally #1 on February 4, 1978—40 years ago this week. It would stay at #1 for four weeks before falling to #2 for a week, then to #6. But for the week of March 18, it moved back to #2, coinciding with “Night Fever”‘s move to #1, and it would stay there for five of “Night Fever”‘s eight weeks at #1. So “Stayin’ Alive” was either the #1 or #2 song in the land for 10 out of 11 weeks in the winter and spring of 1978. Another indication of its popularity was its slow move out of the Hot 100: #2 to #13 for two weeks, then 26-28-40 to #71 for two weeks to #98 (for the week of June 10) and out.
By chart guru Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on weeks at #1, in the Top 10, Top 40, and Hot 100, “Stayin’ Alive” was the #4 song of 1978 (behind “Night Fever,” Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing,” and “Le Freak” by Chic). Other records charted longer but weren’t #1 as long: Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Andy’s “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder. According to Whitburn, “Stayin’ Alive” ranks as the #20 song of the 1970s. If you expect it to be higher, so did I. Its four weeks at #1 put it well down the list, although only one of the records clocking in ahead of it had longer runs on the Hot 100 and and in the Top 40: Andy’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.”
Barry, Robin, Maurice, and Andy Gibb, who sang on four of the top five Hot 100 hits during a single week in March, were so ubiquitous that spring that I wonder if their proliferation of records may have tamped down the performance of any one of them. Strange to say given that the brothers spent 14 weeks at #1 in February and March alone (and 17 out of 20 weeks if you count “How Deep Is Your Love” as 1977 turned to 1978), but what if the record buyers’ Bee Gees mania had been concentrated on a single 45, instead of several? They’d likely have outdone Debby Boone for the longest-running #1 single of the 70s, and it could have been done with either “Night Fever” or “Stayin’ Alive.”
But if the Bee Gees didn’t win the battle, they won the war. Both songs, but especially “Stayin’ Alive,” have persisted from 1978 into a fifth decade as shorthand for all of 70s pop.