Disco was an American phenomenon, but its greatest hits were recorded in France by an English band who were trying to play R&B...
Years after the '70s disco fad and subsequent backlash had subsided, Maurice Gibb told an interviewer that he'd like to dress up the Saturday Night Fever album in a white suit and gold medallion and set the whole thing on fire, such was the stigma that had been attached to him and his brothers Barry and Robin by press and public alike. One minute, they were the purveyors of 'blue-eyed soul', melding their pop roots, trademark harmonies and Barry's newly discovered falsetto with their love of early '70s Philadelphia funk, crafting heavily rhythmic dance music that was finding its way onto black American radio stations. The next, thanks to a soundtrack album that sold a then-record 25 million copies worldwide and topped the US charts for 24 weeks — where it spawned four number one singles, three of them their own — they were the Kings of Disco and all that encompassed, reaping the rewards and then the brickbats.
Still, as Barry later asserted, it did put food on the table, while the Saturday Night Fever album was a significant moment in the annals of pop culture; a moment when a trio of white Englishmen almost single-handely ignited a widespread mania for the disco music that had previously been the domain of the black and gay sub-cultures in America, and had been superseded by punk in Europe. In addition to the Bee Gees' recordings of 'Stayin' Alive', 'How Deep Is Your Love', 'Night Fever', 'More Than A Woman', 'Jive Talkin' and 'You Should Be Dancing', the two-LP set contained their compositions being covered by the Tavares ('More Than A Woman') and Yvonne Elliman ('If I Can't Have You'), alongside lesser material by the likes of Walter Murphy, David Shire, Ralph MacDonald, MFSB, the Trammps, Kool & the Gang, and KC & the Sunshine Band. Yet it is 'Stayin' Alive', which played over the movie's opening credits while John Travolta's Tony Manero strutted down the New York streets in his polyester suit, that best evokes the era and its promotion of sex, drugs and breathless boogying as some form of decadent compensation for a humdrum daily existence.
It is therefore interesting that this track, along with 'How Deep Is Your Love' and 'More Than A Woman', was originally penned for a completely different project: the follow-up to the Main Course and Children Of The World albums that had seen the Bee Gees reinvent and reestablish themselves as a chart force, thanks to hits such as 'Jive Talkin', 'Nights On Broadway', 'You Should Be Dancing' and 'Love So Right'. And there to assist them as a co-producer and engineer was Karl Richardson, a man whose impressive track record is one of the industry's better kept secrets.
A Miami native, Richardson began his studio career there in 1969 at Criteria, mastering a wide variety of mixes and popular hits of the day, not least because Atlantic Records block-booked Studio B for an entire year. So it was that he cut his musical teeth listening to Aretha Franklin, Dr. John, the Young Rascals, Brook Benton and whoever else was on the Atlantic roster at that time, as produced by Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. It was quite an education, and soon Richardson also found himself assisting as a recording engineer on albums by Eric Clapton, the Average White Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"It was a lot of ear training," he says. "We would try loads of different things with a lot of different microphones before using them on a client. Ron Albert and Chuck Kirkpatrick were already staff engineers at Criteria alongside [founder] Mack [Emerman], and I was the third guy."
It was while recording 'Nights On Broadway' for the Main Course album that Barry Gibb had discovered his falsetto voice, urged on by Arif Mardin who was looking for a chorus part to spark the song. "He wanted somebody singing up high or maybe screaming," Barry would later tell TV Guide. "So, I went out in the studio, and I found that not only could I scream in tune, I could sing a whole song in falsetto."
Thereafter, this piercing sound would become his — and hence the group's — trademark, along with the silver lamé shirts and toothsome smiles. Much imitated, often derided, it was undeniably a remarkable vocal attribute, and one that served the Bee Gees well on the Saturday Night Fever album and subsequent projects.
"I miked him with a U87, and I just remember at that point Barry was so confident in his falsetto, the sound of his falsetto, because he had more control over it," says Richardson. "He had great mic technique — he's as good as Michael Jackson any day of the week, and I've overdubbed both of them — and although Barry was always a little shy about his tenor voice, he had this command of the falsetto."
Chateau d'Herouville studio assistant Michel Marie recalls being amazed by the way the Bee Gees recorded their harmonies. "When I learnt they would be three to sing, I set up three different headphones and three different mics. They said 'No, no!' and asked me for a single mic, and no headphones — just a little speaker close to them. They sang together around the same mic, looking at each other. And when I heard them, I knew what 'good singing' meant : even on the first take, they were perfect, in tune, in the rhythm... I was not used to that from French singers!"
Criteria had a rich history of technological innovation. Opening as a three-track facility in 1958, it boasted an eight-channel console as early as 1964 and four-track recording a couple of years later. Studio B was constructed in 1967, Studio C was added in 1972, and D and E were built towards the end of that decade, by which time everything was 24-track. Richardson, in the meantime, became Criteria's Senior Engineer and ran its disc mastering plant en route to amassing credits that include Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Lee Ritenour, Peabo Bryson, Michael Jackson, Andy Gibb and, of course, the Bee Gees. It's with the brothers Gibb that he's enjoyed his greatest success, earning nine Grammy nominations and winning two: Producer of the Year and Album of the Year for Saturday Night Fever.
With Karl Richardson behind the board, Arif Mardin had produced 1975's Main Course album, but Mardin was out of the picture once Bee Gees business manager Robert Stigwood ended his RSO label's distribution deal with Atlantic and went over to Polygram. Thereafter, the band, bolstered by Alan Kendall on lead guitar, Blue Weaver on keyboards and Dennis Byron on drums, ventured out to California for the Children Of The World project, and when things didn't work out with a new producer they turned to Richardson and asked him to collaborate with them back at Criteria.
"While I did all of the engineering, I wasn't really up to snuff in terms of my musical knowledge and how to communicate on that level," he admits. "My hands were too full, so I called my friend [keyboard player and producer] Albhy Galuten, who was in England at the time, working on an album for Dick James Music, and I said 'Albhy, listen: I'm sitting here, alone in the studio with the Bee Gees, and I'm trying to tell the drummer to not be so busy on the hi-hat, but he wants to know about eighth notes.' Albhy said 'Well, that's an amazing coincidence, because I've just listened to the final playback of the album I'm working on. I'll be on the next flight.' That led to the beginning of Karlbhy Productions and our association with Barry.
"Albhy had gone to the Berkeley School of Music, and his input about chord changes and so on would be invaluable — he was the only one of the team who could write string lines. Barry could sing them,
but Albhy could play piano and Albhy could play guitar, so he knew what would and wouldn't work. I, meanwhile, would take care of the engineering and I'd constantly be challenged by the guys to 'Make it sound better, Karl.' What's 'better' mean? The console doesn't have a 'better' knob. Still, the combination of Barry, Albhy and I worked in the control room, and the rest, as they say, is history."
This history would, in addition to the Bee Gees' Children Of The World, Here At Last... Bee Gees... Live, Saturday Night Fever, Spirits Having Flown and Living Eyes albums, also take in Andy Gibb's Flowing Rivers, Shadow Dancing and After Dark, Barbra Streisand's Guilty, Dionne Warwick's Heartbreaker, and the 1983 soundtrack to Fever sequel Staying Alive. All featured hugely successful Gibb compositions, yet back in 1977 the guys felt under pressure to deliver the goods for their follow-up to Main Course and its three hit singles.
"For tax purposes they needed to make records outside the UK and the United States," explains Richardson. "So, we were looking at Canada and their [personal] manager Dick Ashby was looking at other places, and Dick eventually booked a month of studio time at Chateau d'Herouville, where Elton John had recorded Honky Chateau. It was in a funky little village about an hour and a half north of Paris, and it was in a funky state, with a 24-track Studer tape machine, serial number 001 — the thing was barely on its last legs. In fact, after Elton John left there, the owner of the studio had smashed it to smithereens and rebuilt what was left of it in a second-storey loft within this castle. Well, it was ungrounded, and when I arrived there was a terrific buzz on everything, so I spent the first two days grounding the place.
"The console was an old API 550 on which someone had coloured all the EQ knobs with nail polish, and the other fun thing about it was that the faders had worn contacts in them, and there were holes where the audio would completely drop out. So, I had to mark all the faders with tape: 'Don't move across this line if there's any audio.' Even the monitors were horrible. We used headphones and a little set of Auratones."
All of which begs the question: Why stay there?
"Management had already committed us," comes the reply. "Of course, we showed up there in the winter, and there was an outside window behind us in the horizontal control room, so we'd put the Heineken bottles there to keep them cold. It was great, and another fun thing about the expedition was the fact that, while some of the guys brought their wives, there were only two showers on the premises that worked. This meant everybody had to line up for the bathroom, and the result was that we'd probably start recording at about two in the afternoon and stay up until about three or four in the morning. It was really stupid, but that was the only way we could get all of the showers done in the morning."
The control room overlooked a live area whose ceiling had less-than-ideal wooden beams, and it was there that Karl Richardson recorded the four-piece setup of Maurice on bass, Dennis Byron on drums, Blue Weaver on keyboards and Barry on acoustic guitar.
"Afterwards, Maurice might do a couple of touch-ups on the bass," he recalls, "Alan Kendall would overdub a guitar track and Barry would make me double up the acoustic."
Richardson can no longer recall exactly how the drums were miked, but he does know they were condensed to four tracks — bass, snare and a stereo track for everything else — because this was his preferred method for many years. And he also has a clear recollection of how he first came to hear 'Stayin' Alive': "I distinctly remember Barry saying 'Boy, Karl, have I got a song for you,' and sitting down to play 'Stayin' Alive' on an acoustic guitar. It was like a chant and it was unbelievable. I said 'Barry, don't forget that rhythm. That's a number one record.' I knew, five bars in, no questions asked. You couldn't get past the intro without knowing it was a smash."
Together, the Bee Gees, Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten created what most of us think of as the sound of disco, but it was not their intention to invent a new style. "We never knew about disco and we didn't think about disco. We thought we were making rhythm and blues records. It was all about R&B. We loved all that stuff, we just couldn't figure out how to do it! 'Oh man, that sounds great, but it sounds like a room full of studio musicians.' 'Yeah, well...' The sound we came up with was therefore our sound, and for the Saturday Night Fever album we recorded all of the tracks in France, and overdubbed and mixed in Miami, while overdubbing in LA too. 'More Than A Woman' was given to the Tavares brothers, and their track came in sub-standard so we were asked to go out to LA and finish the Bee Gees' own demo. That's what we did, adding congas and strings before mixing at Criteria.
"'Night Fever' was cut live in France. Maurice was playing DI'd bass with his pick, Dennis Byron was playing drums, Blue Weaver was playing keyboards, Alan Kendall was playing rhythm guitar, and Barry was playing rhythm and singing the pilot vocal. The drums were the only thing retained from this live track — it was a complete take, not comped — and all the other parts were overdubbed, like the keyboard part that was carefully crafted. I mean, many parts weren't there from the start. Blue, Barry, Albhy and I would sit down and say 'That chord sounds great there, but how about when the guitar player goes "dang, wa-tang"? Do you want the seventh in the chord or do you want to leave that hole there?' Those were the kinds of things that had to be worked out.
"It was all very orchestrated. It was a process and it was all about 'head charts'; creating in the studio. You know 'Gee, OK, that's the part of the verse for the keyboards.' Then we would go for the performance. All of the arrangements were done on the spot and then the performance was executed until it felt good. That was the standard. It didn't matter how we got there — whether something was thrown together or it was one take — our concern was that it felt good, that it made a statement. How it's done, I don't know. I mean, how do you make a Mercedes-Benz? Do you start with the tyres? All I know is the end product. If that's accepted, then how it came to be is just detail.
"We had no guidelines. The only rule was there were no rules, so we could do anything. It didn't matter if it was a bass drum or a synthesizer sound — we would talk about it and say 'Well, why don't we do this?' And I can't recall anything specific because this took place almost on every song. Plus the fact that everything was at least second-generation, most of it third. On the next album, Spirits Having Flown, we discovered 48-track, so everything at that point was multitracked, Dolby, bounced, bounced, bounced, whereas the other stuff was 24-track. However, to get it to 24 a lot of it was hand-sync'ed and we'd overdub forever. Again, those sounds were probably limited to what we had available at Criteria in terms of reverb chambers, processing, MCI consoles. Who knows?
"I do know this: 'Night Fever' is the rough mix. We mixed that song in 10 minutes. We had overdubbed all these synthesizer pads, extra guitar notes, little percussion instruments and so on, and we kept mixing it again and again and again, and then finally we played the rough mix and everybody said it felt better. You see, it was all about feel at that time. It wasn't about trying to impress people. And that was the key to the music. As a matter of fact, we had a demo of 'How Deep Is Your Love' from France, with the brothers singing, Blue playing keyboards and Mo playing bass, and right up until the final mix we would play that rough mix from France to use as a guide, because the feel was everything to us. "
One thing that distinguished the Bee Gees from traditional R&B was their characteristic rhythms. "A lot of that was Barry's right hand," Richardson says. "I mean, every one of those records has some form of acoustic guitar with Barry going ching-ching-ching. Whether it's hidden or not, it's there, driving the track along."
Barry and Robin had written the song while they were staying at Robert Stigwood's house in Bermuda, and it was shortly after the composition of 'How Deep Is Your Love' and 'More Than A Woman' at Chateau d'Herouville that Stigwood called to inform his boys that these songs weren't for a studio album after all. Instead, they would form part of the soundtrack to a low-budget movie that he was producing, Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night, based on a New York magazine article penned by British journalist Nik Cohn.
'Stayin' Alive' was tracked live in the studio, vocals were added and a rough mix was done, but nobody was overly impressed with the end result. "It didn't sound steady enough," Richardson recalls. As a result, 'Night Fever' was quickly penned and recorded with a view to it being the film's banner waver and accompanying album's first single. "Everbody was real happy with the way 'Night Fever' turned out," Richardson states. "It had spark and it sounded wonderful."
However, when the Hollwood honchos were not quite so enthused, attention was refocused on 'Stayin' Alive'. Unfortunately, by this time Dennis Byron had had to fly back to England when his father passed away just days into the sessions, and with no replacement drummers happening to wander by the remote studio in the middle of winter, Barry asked if there was any way they could use the rhythm machine inside the facility's Hammond organ to make the track sound more steady. In the days before Linn Drums, this was quite a request, prompting Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten to suggest that it might be workable if augmented by Barry's own rhythm guitar.
"We were able to get a 4/4 beat out of the Hammond, but when Barry played along to it we didn't like the result," says Richardson. "Then Albhy and I came up with the idea of finding two bars [of real drums] that really felt good and making an eternal tape loop." In fact, the engineer's initial intention had been to take two bars of the four-track drums from 'Night Fever', re-record these about 100 times and then splice them together in order to create a new track. It was only while he, Galuten and the band listened and listened and listened to the song over the Auratones in order to find the best couple of bars that Richardson then decided to copy these onto the half-inch tape of an MCI four-track machine and create the aforementioned loop.
"The drums from 'Night Fever' basically consisted of two bars at 30ips," he says. "The tape was over 20 feet long and it was running all around the control room — I gaffered some empty tape-box hubs to the tops of mic stands and ran the tape between the four-track machine and an MCI 24-track deck, using the tape guides from a two-track deck for the tension. Because it was 4/4 time — just hi-hats and straight snare — it sounded steady as a rock, and this was pre-drum machine. For the tempo I used the varispeed on the MCI four-track, so the drums that ended up on the 24-track were at least third-generation, and because the tape heads were so badly worn I brightened the tracks that were already Dolby A-encoded with high-end EQ from the API console."
The drum loop would go on to have quite a career in its own right, serving as the backbone to not only 'Stayin' Alive' and 'More Than A Woman', but also Barbra Streisand's 'Woman In Love'. "That steady, steady track gave us the groove we wanted, and we then overdubbed everbody to it," Richardson continues. "The guys did their vocals, Alan played the guitar riff, Blue played electric piano and an ARP string synth, and when Dennis returned he overdubbed the toms, crash and hi-hat. He loved it. A case of a lot less work. And the fun thing was, when we listed the credit on the record, the drummer on 'Stayin' Alive' was listed as Bernard Lupé; a sort of French version of the famous session drummer Bernard Purdie. Well, we received an unbelievable amount of calls looking for this steady drummer named Bernard Lupé. You know, 'This guy's a rock! I've never heard anyone so steady in my life!'"
Barry and Maurice's lead vocal was laid down after they and Robin stood around a Neumann U67 to record their harmonies, compressed with a Urei 1167. "They just went out into the studio and nailed it," says Richardson. "It didn't take long at all. In other cases, if they didn't get the execution or the balance, it was easier to do it again. It would take longer to argue about it than to redo it, as they were all natural vocalists. The key was that Barry Gibb doesn't really have vibrato, he has tremolo, so his intensity changes but not necessarily his pitch, whereas Robin has very fast vibrato and there are lots of pitch changes. Mo was somewhere in between. Depending on where he was in his range, he either had a little bit of vibrato or just straight tone. So, the distinctiveness was all three voices combining to make this unusual blend that you'd never get anywhere else. Nobody was tracking each other's vibrato, I can tell you that."
Following the recording of vocals at the Chateau, the timbales on 'Stayin' Alive' were overdubbed by Joe Lala at Criteria, where the Miami String Section also embellished Blue Weaver's ARP synth parts, and more strings were added at Capitol Studios in LA.
"We knew we had a smash track," restates Karl Richardson. Nevertheless, the path to true happiness is never straightforward, and the bug in this case was a request from the movie's director, John G Avildsen, to write a bridge section for 'Stayin' Alive' that would momentarily slow it down for a scene where the two main protagonists fall in love on the dance floor. Then the song, and the characters, could return to the up-tempo disco beat. Do you get the picture? Barry and Robin tried to...
"They did write a bridge," Richardson says, "and there is a version of 'Stayin' Alive' where the song actually changes key and turns into a slow ballad for 16 or 32 bars, before there's a big drum break and everything reverts to normal. Well, after that had been recorded and I'd spliced it into the track, Albhy and I stared at each other and said 'Boy, we just ruined a hit record.' We then turned to Barry and said 'We can't use this. We've just screwed up a number one record,' and Barry said 'Yeah, we have.' So, we put the tape back together without the new bridge and called Stigwood to say 'This is bogus. We're not doing it.' And that's when Stigwood fired the director."
John G Alvidsen departed the project shortly before the commencement of principal photography and was hastily replaced by John Badham, who was happy to use 'More Than A Woman' for the pesky dancefloor love scene. So it was that any 'creative differences' were resolved, and 'Stayin' Alive' was ready for mixing once Barry augmented the fade-out with a vocal chant on which Karl Richardson boosted the high frequencies.
In the meantime, there were the other original numbers, including 'How Deep Is Your Love', a soulful, heart-rending ballad that was closer to the Bee Gees' folk-pop days of the late '60s and early '70s in terms of its compositional structure. "Again, I knew from the start that song was going to be a hit," says Richardson. "The songwriting was exquisite, and so at that point all we could do was screw it up. It was Barry who came up with the initial idea, and he and Blue Weaver then developed that. Blue was on electric piano, Barry was on acoustic guitar, and in an afternoon they wrote 'How Deep Is Your Love'. The music was written, I guess, in a couple of hours, and then Barry, Robin and Maurice kind of huddled together and came up with most of the lyrics later that day. I think the second verse still needed to be written — there was a lot of 'hummeny, hummeny, hummeny' — but three or four days later we were doing the vocals."
In all, the Chateau d'Herouville sessions lasted just under two months, which was all the more remarkable since Robert Stigwood also kept Karl Richardson busy there mixing the Bee Gees... Live double album, culled from an appearance at the Los Angeles Forum that had been recorded by the Wally Heider Record Plant mobile unit. Stigwood knew all about cashing in on a good thing, and RSO scheduled the live album for release before the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
After overdubbing in LA and Miami, the mix sessions for Saturday Night Fever took place at Criteria. And whereas a rough mix sufficed for 'Night Fever', that for 'Stayin' Alive' was a good deal more complex and, consequently, the first one on which Richardson ever used automation. "It was only 24-track, and in those days the same pair of tracks would jump from strings to percussion to guitar to strings to percussion," he explains. "There was a lot of moving around in the mix, so automation benefited that."
Released as a single in late 1977, 'Stayin' Alive' spent four weeks at number one in the US, remained on the charts for over six months, and has come to represent the best or worst of musical times depending on people's personal preferences. In either case, its significance cannot be ignored, and neither can its impact on many of the late'70s generation.
"In those days we were just having an awful lot of fun," says Karl Richardson, who would go on to do sound design for Broadway musicals from the late '80s through to the late '90s, before returning to Miami and basing himself at the Audio Vision Recording facility of Steve Alaimo and old Criteria colleagues Ron and Howard Albert. "There wasn't too much concern about making a hit record. It was all about cracking jokes, having fun in the studio and making music. There was no pressure. That would come later. Instead, we just thought it was normal to go to the studio, mess around for awhile, have some laughs, get on an airplane, do this, do that and produce a number one... Little did we know."