The History Thread Tries to Demolish Disco

24 December 1978, Chicago: 24-year old radio DJ Steve Dahl was fired from radio station WDAI as part of the station’s switch from AOR to disco. At his new workplace – rival AOR station WLUP – Dahl indulged in both his and other’s frustration with the rising, if not nigh-omnipresent, genre, especially playing off the publicity surrounding his firing – blowing up disco records via sound effects and striking a chord with other like-mindedly disaffected rock listeners. It wouldn’t stop there: Dahl would help organise numerous anti-disco public events, many which would turn unruly. The “Insane Coho Lips”, an anti-disco army consisting of his listeners would target disco venues and concerts, in one decidedly unsubtle instance urging listeners to throw marshmallows at a WDAI promotional van at a shopping mall where a teen disco had been built.

Steve Dahl and His Gang of Unruly Idiots

Less than 7 months later from Dahl’s unceremonious firing that Christmas Eve, his anti-disco outings would ultimately culminate in his brainchild with Chicago White Sox promotions director Bill Veeck: Disco Demolition Night.

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History has now been kind to disco, certainly much kinder than it is to DDN, with the current generation having two of their biggest genres 1 owing their lifeblood to this humble (if kitschy) genre, not to mention greater focus of its PoC and queer roots endearing it to more socially conscious folk. Yet in the last few years of the 70’s, you’d never have guessed it, with it being a cultural juggernaut and consequently incensing backlash.

The beginning of the decade would mark multiple crossover hits would pave the way for disco’s eventual virtual omnipresence – The O’Jays’ “Love Train”, The Love Unlimited Orchestra’s 2 “Love’s Theme”, Chakachas “Jungle Fever”. The series “Soul Train” would help broadcast disco to the masses, especially with its most famous theme and eventual #1 hit “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”

Throughout the 70’s, disco would creep in mainstream recognition (Motown going Disco! The rise and popularity of Eurodisco acts like ABBA!) until what might possibly be its biggest breakthrough: Saturday Night Fever, a working-class film in the vein of Rocky that arguably did for disco what the latter did for boxing: romanticisation and commercialisation for a mainstream audience. Yet the framing of it would be an uncanny metaphor for how disco would now be marketed: away from the actual democratic dance floors, John Travolta’s Tony Manero was more akin to a rock star – almost macho and authoritarian in image – as the people in the film would gawk and admire his moves. To say nothing of how divorced it was from its PoC and queer roots; disco could now be enjoyed by Straight White America.

The biggest musical beneficiaries from the film, Bee Gees, were perhaps reflective of this: the trio of white (Australian!) boys would be the poster boys of the genre, a glossy far cry from its underground roots. There would still be acts like the Village People not founded (strictly) in the Straight White hegemony that’d still find mainstream success, but amidst other white ventures like “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Miss You” (and perhaps most bizarrely “Shakedown Street”) it was obvious which faces would be selling the most records.

The bandwagon would not stop there. Other media would tie in ‘disco versions’ of their themes, perhaps most famously this obscure sci-fi epic. Legacy acts would try their hands at the genre with one of the most infamous cases being The Ethel Merman Disco Album. And of course, there’d be the obligatory novelty hit that would try to capitalise on this new fad taking the nation by storm:

An interesting conundrum was arising: disco at its commercial peak was now far divorced from his underground, perhaps subversive roots, yet even with white superstars, it was still seen with the reputation as the domain of PoC and queer artists (most notably with the aforementioned Village People). And criticism was not limited to disillusioned white listeners either; critiques would arise in opposition to at least the watered down commercial form – from Black artists (George Clinton famously calling it a bastardisation of funk – “disco was like fucking with one stroke. You could phone that shit in. Disco itself was funk. But all they did was take one funk beat and sanitize it to no end”) to queer leftists, as noted by gay critic Richard Dyer:

left-political activists and scholars criticized disco for its apparent endorsement of capitalism through materialism, its embeddedness in capitalist modes of music production, its apparently superficial and escapist utopianism, its lack of a clear and oppositional political message, its overweening emotionality, and its “inauthentic” musical aesthetics, which seemed to celebrate artifice and glossy studio production over the “authentic” sound of folk or rock music

Richard Dyer, “In Defence of Disco” (1979) by Luis-Manuel Garcia

Ultimately as with most movements (‘movements’), the anti-disco backlash would be characterised by their loudest voices – disaffection born out of rockist reaction. Beyond Dahl’s aforementioned (and later) anti-disco dalliances, there’d also be other prominent anti-disco incidents in the first half of 1979 alone: hundreds of rock fans attacking a mobile dance floor in Seattle, or when a disc jockey destroyed a stack of disco records with a chainsaw to thousands cheering in Portland. Merely playing disco, let alone expressing affection would be met with derision, as a rock DJ in New York would find out when receiving protests from listeners for playing Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”.

Enter Comsikey Park, 12 July 1979.

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Like most baseball promotion events, the goal of DDN was simple: get butts on the seats. The Chicago White Sox were not having a good year, with only 15,200 in attendance the previous night. Dahl was relentless in his promotion of the event in the coming weeks, asking them to bring records they wanted to see destroyed in exchange for both momentary pleasure and (ostensibly?) more importantly a ticket discount to 98 cents. Even then, expectations were modest, with the White Sox and WLUP hoping for an attendance of 20,000 in their twi-night doubleheader with the Detrotit Tigers and Veeck hiring security enough for 35,000 in a stadium with a capacity for 44,492.

The attendance reported was 47,795, with owner (and Mike’s father) Bill Veeck estimating that it might’ve been anywhere higher from 50,000 to 55,000.

Whatever the cause of underestimation – 98 cent tickets for a doubleheader, Chicago’s hatred of disco and/or the loyal following of Dahl – one thing was for certain: absolute chaos, easily the largest crowd in Bill Veeck’s second stint as the White Sox owner (1975-1979, not long after this incident he’s be forced to sell ownership). After the first game, Dahl dressed in army fatigues and a helmet announcing to the crowd:

This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood.

With most of the security personnel still watching the gates per Mike Veeck’s orders, there was almost no one guarding the playing surface. Soon, the first of 5,000 to 7,000 attendees rushed onto the field, causing Kravec to flee the mound and join his teammates in a barricaded clubhouse. Some climbed the foul poles, while others set records on fire or ripped up the grass. The batting cage was destroyed, and the bases were pulled up and stolen. As Bill Veeck stood with a microphone near where home plate had been, begging people to return to the stands, a bonfire raged in center field.

39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct and estimates of injuries ranging up to over 30. The field was so badly torn up even after 1 hour of cleaning debris that the second game that night was never played and eventually it was forfeited to the Tigers.

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Almost overnight, disco’s reputation was gutted, and it wasn’t hard to point to this incident as a catalyst. Artists like the Bee Gees who enjoyed disco hits just the past few years would struggle to maintain their success into the new decade. Those that’d continue in spite of the backlash such as Kool & The Gang would have to make more refined sounds for the rest of the decade, with disco very well being a four-letter (uh, five-letter) word. Most unceremoniously, the Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording would be discontinued after just one year, when the industry saw the writing on the wall for disco’s demise. 3

Yet already contemporary reaction was noting the ugly undercurrents of the event. Dave Marsh would deem it “your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead”:

white males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium

“The Flip Sides of 1979”, Dave Marsh – a year-end retropective published in Rolling Stone

Even prior to DDN, Robert Christgau was characterising the “Disco Sucks” movement as a ‘pathetic homophobic rebuttal’, characterisign adherents as “such fanatics […] they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar–hell, the first lilt–as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco”. Nile Rodgers of Chic (and later producer extraordinaire) was even more scathing, likening DDN to a book burning. Gloria Gaynor was perhaps more charitable – seeing the Chicago crowd as resentment born off ‘an economic decision—an idea created by someone whose economic bottom line was being adversely affected by the popularity of disco music. So they got a mob mentality going’. Henry Wayne Casey – (white) lead singer of multiracial disco band KC & The Sunshine Band – was even more forgiving, believing Dahl to have no (overt) discriminatory motive and the event, merely describing the latter as ‘an idiot’.

With the passage of time though, it was clear that it was merely a Pyrrhic Demolition at best that night, with big acts of the next decade – Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince – being virtually disco in all but name. New wave and the burgeoning genre of rap owed their success in part of the genre’s aesthetics, if not style, influencing them. And now, twenty years into this young century, disco’s influence just grows stronger, if not more noticeable, with artists from Adele to Justice, from Dua Lipa to Phoenix all having hits growing in the mold. Perhaps this is how the conversation surrounding disco has now swung hard to the other side, with the participants in DDN now ironically having to dealing with their own bad optics, as Dahl remains adamant that he was no bigot and defending it as merely “a romp, not of major cultural significance”.

Regardless of how much bigotry (conscious or unconsciously) might have factored into the equation, one thing remained certain: disco rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the burnt records that Night.