Thursday, April 28, 2011

SONG #148: How Deep Is Your Love?

Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, 1977

Got back to basic blog format for this one.  Turned on the iPod, hit shuffle, and just committed.  And what a tune!

I am a little too young to have emulated Saturday Night Fever, but I'm just old enough to have been influenced by it.  I was eight when it came out, and there was NO way I was seeing that film with my parents' consent.  They actually went to see it (got a babysitter and everything) and Dad came home completely traumatized.  I still remember vividly his movie "review" the next morning at breakfast:

Dad:  It was HORRIBLE.  Nothing happened.  At all!  It was a movie about a bunch of vulgar idiots.  

Me:  Like what?

Dad:  Here's the whole movie in thirty seconds:  "Hey, jerk!  Eat your f'n breakfast!"  "F you!" "F yourself!" "Waaaaaaahhhhhhh!"  The end. (It's important to note here that I'm not censoring.  Dad said "F."  He curses like a woodland creature.)

Mom:  Craig!  (For Mom, "F" was some seriously strong language.)

Dad: Well, that's what happened!

Mom:  But the main person, what's his name... the dancing one...

Dad / Me (simultaneously):  John Travolta.

Mom:  Yes.  WOW, can he dance!  Goodness!

Dad:  Yeah, but who cares?  It was awful, son.  You're not missing ANYTHING.  Awful.

When I finally saw the movie years later and got to the breakfast scene ("Ma-- he hit my hair!") I died laughing at my Dad's hilarious synopsis.

There's all this feelgood nostalgia about Saturday Night Fever, but have you seen it lately?  It is some dark, miserable business.  Classic late 70s.  The characters do some heinous things to one another, and the ending is hardly happily ever after.  It's more "What are you gonna do?"  It's hard to believe that it blew up the way it did.  It was the Forrest Gump of 1977 (huge film, huge soundtrack) without any of the uplift.  SNF shares more in common with A Clockwork Orange.  If Forrest Gump had assaulted Jenny "Of Mice and Men" style and ended the film in an adult home for the handicapped playing ping pong against himself, Forrest Gump would be similar to Saturday Night Fever.

One of these things is not like the other...

No wonder all the teenagers in my neighborhood who were obsessed with the movie seemed so sad.  THAT was their role model?  Hardly a "you can accomplish anything" message.  It was more "If you can coat yourself in an impervious, narcissistic shell and overcome your empathy for others, and you can dance, there's a good chance that you can take advantage of weaker prey."

Contrasting all that darkness and oil crisis and recession and hostages and Battle of the Network Stars malaise was, of course, the music from the film, which was EVERYWHERE for two years.  From my young perspective, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the soundtrack of planet Earth.  You went nowhere without hearing it.  Everyone knew it.  So, like a good American, I received for Christmas the Saturday Night Fever 8-track tape.  I am not making that up.  The ULTIMATE 70s time capsule relic.

For my younger readers-- the 8-track was easily the worst way to listen to music.  Wikipedia can explain better than I can.  The rest of us will wait for you:

I gravitated to the fast numbers (especially The Trammps' Disco Inferno-- to this day, I can't sit still to Disco Inferno), but I will always, always have a soft spot for this simpering, cloying love ballad, based on two really vivid moments of hearing it.

The first moment came in the car.  We were driving home from somewhere, and it was bitter cold outside, and the Volkswagen Bug didn't exactly have a killer heating system, so I was shivering on the vinyl seat in the back looking out the window when the moon came out and illuminated everything so perfectly: all of the scraggly  bare winter trees, the few clumps of unmelted snow, the water of the Severn river as we went over the bridge.  At that moment. "How Deep Is Your Love" came on the radio, and that image of winter moonlight and this song are indelibly linked for me.

The second was listening to my clock radio late at night in the summer of 1978.  After I was sent to bed, I could never fall asleep right away as a kid, and that summer I figured out that if I tunred on my clock radio at the lowest setting and lay down on the speaker itself, I could hear the radio without my parents hearing it.  So I fell asleep about thirty nights in a row to Q107 (the only station I could get).  In 1978, Q107 played the same 25 songs over and over all day and night, so there were many nights when my last conscious memory was the intro to "How Deep Is Your Love."  I would wake up around 4 am with grill marks on my face from the plastic pattern of the clock radio, and an urge to wear polyester.

As for the song itself, it's actually nice to hear the boys sing in a normal register instead of the chipmunky one that made them famous.  It also is one of the most floaty tracks ever recorded-- it goes by so quickly and effortlessly that it's easy to forget that you just heard it.  It has all of the 70s tonal giveaways-- Fender Rhodes piano, strings, jazzy passing chords-- but it feels a little more timeless than other music from the period.  The lyrics are just what you'd expect (I especially cringe at "You come to me on a summer breeze") but they're also innocuous enough to be forgotten for the most part.  Finally, the song has just enough of Tony's aggressive character ("It's ME you need to show how deep is your love") to be accurate while injecting some much-needed softness into the film.  People hear this song and think they remember something touching about the film's "love" stories.  They're wrong, but that's the power of the Bee Gees-- they make us think we miss a time we don't by hearing music we think we like but don't.  That is a pretty neat trick.  Hopefully Donald Trump is not taking notes.


  1. I've never seen this movie or heard this song (terrible, I know) but you've inspired me to move it to the top of my list. Good to see the blog is back!

  2. Awesome post. When they first released the AFI 100 best movies Indya and I sat down and watched all of them and were AMAZED by how weird and dark the seventies movies were. Amazing to think that Saturday Night Fever was a major studio release AND a huge hit. It's just slightly more cheerful than Mean Streets, grim, grim, grim. The misogyny and overall human cruelty is really, really hard to watch, let alone the disco dancing. If this movie came out today it would be an indie release for sure.

    All of that said, can't really say much good about this song. I do count "Stayin' Alive" among my top 700 songs, but this one is a bridge too far.