WYEP's Disco Reclamation Night
Listen for two hours of classic disco this Friday evening from 6 to 8 PM, on the 40th anniversary of an infamous anti-disco fiasco.
Missed it? Listen here.
On July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago in between two games of a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader, a pile of records were exploded along with a few fireworks. And then as many as 7,000 rock fans stormed the field in jubilation.
“It was the sickest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” White Sox pitcher Ross Baumgarten told the Associated Press. “I didn’t know people could have such little regard for other people’s safety.”
“I think somebody got away with … second base,” Chicago sports reporter Bill Gleason intoned sadly during the broadcast, as he watched crowds pouring onto the field. “I noticed one of the ushers salvaged first base. He pulled it up and ran into the dugout with it.”
The explosion was part of a planned promotion, cooked up by the White Sox and WLUP, a local rock radio station. The melee on the baseball diamond by thousands of unruly young people was not anticipated.
And the whole event was capitalizing on—and feeding into—a growing rage against disco music.
Who could have seen this coming?
Over the course of the 1970s, dance music increasingly began to overtake the pop charts. This music often emerged out of clubs in New York and elsewhere with a diverse clientele. As one 1976 newspaper report on the phenomenon put it, “Disco music invariably breaks from being heard in discotheques—with New York City clubs leading the way … that are almost exclusively black, Puerto Rican, and gay.”
Songs like The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” (1974), Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1975), and Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” (1975) helped to popularize the disco sound beyond the discotheques and onto mainstream radio stations nationwide. It began getting so popular that by early 1976, past-their-prime singers like Frankie Avalon and The Lettermen had re-recorded past hits in a fresh disco style.
In 1977, disco took another huge leap forward into public consciousness with the December opening of the movie Saturday Night Fever. The low-budget movie about a working-class Brooklyn guy who uses his skills on the disco dance floor as an escape from his humdrum life (played, of course, by John Travolta) became the fourth highest-grossing movie released in 1977 and in the top 20 for all films from the decade. The movie scored three chart-topping U.S. hits for the Bee Gees, who became almost synonymous with the film.
Disco was just as popular here in Pittsburgh as it was in the rest of the country. In April of 1979, the Village People (with Gloria Gaynor opening) performed a sold-out show at the Civic Arena. ‘Burgh area dancers had plenty of venues to choose among, from the “stylish” Library disco downtown to the Disco Factory Lounge located in the Old Spaghetti Factory in Plum boro. Newspapers reported on Pirates pitcher Grant Jackson winning a disco dancing contest.
Rock fans all over the country were growing uneasy with the massively popular disco music. T-shirts and buttons bearing the inscription “disco sucks” began to appear.
And some of rock’s purveyors began to weigh in on the topic. In mid-1978, The Who released the song “Sister Disco” as a single. Although songwriter Pete Townshend later said the song was not a criticism of disco music, the band’s fans might easily have taken its lyrical intent differently: "Goodbye sister disco, with your flashing trash lamps/Goodbye sister disco, and to your clubs and your tramps."
Rolling Stone magazine wrote that Lou Reed fumed about disco onstage at a June 4, 1979 concert at the Bottom Line in New York. “I’m not saying this to be cool, but disco sucks,” Reed reportedly exclaimed. “Can you imagine some kid wanting to grow up and play on a Donna Summer album?”
But many rock artists and bands began to embrace disco, or at least elements of it. David Bowie’s “Golden Years” (released as a single in 1975), The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” (1978), The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” (1978), and Kiss’ “I Was Made for Lovin' You” (1979) all incorporated disco beats or stylings. “Miss You” was even released as an extended 12” single as the “Special Disco Version.”
Their bands “going disco” only fueled the rage that rock fans felt towards dance music. Rock radio stations across the country began expressing this antipathy their listeners were feeling. Some stations proclaimed “no disco weekend” promotions. Others incorporated into their station IDs positioning statements like “fewer commercials, and no disco!”
Many of these radio promotions had a distinct edge of violence to them. Some radio outlets began to stage on-air “disco demolitions.” Listeners would suggest disco songs they disliked, and the station would play a short segment of the song and then virtually blow them up, using sound effects.
A Detroit station issued fan club-like cards to listeners, showing the bearer to be a member of the D.R.E.A.D. club: “Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco.” They also held virtual on-air electrocutions of disco fans. The D.R.E.A.D. cards featured a drawing of a record being struck by a meat cleaver with the label “Saturday night cleaver.”
A rival Motor City station upped the ante and started a “Disco Ducks Klan.” They reportedly discussed plans to wear white sheets to a discotheque.
It was clear that stations and their DJs were tapping into not only racist but homophobic reactions to disco. “We’re the Village People,” several voices declared in one radio station’s mocking promotion ID. “We decided to—“ [slight pause] “—straighten up and fly right through the no disco weekend on 99X!” The emphasis given to “straighten” makes plain the spot’s intended “joke.”
Steve Dahl on WLUP in Chicago was known to affect a lisp when he said the word “disco.” He gave away tickets to a Village People concert at Chicago Stadium in June 1979 and requested that ticket winners attend and pelt the band with marshmallows. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to the baseball game on Disco Demolition Night, at least one of the attendees screamed a homophobic slur at the singer.
It’s a volatile mixture when a public person presents a group of people as target of humor and then mixes in violent or destructive ideas.
A week or two prior to the Disco Demolition Night, Dahl told his listeners to show up where a rival disco-formatted radio station’s van was going to be and then to not only pepper their staff with marshmallows but to plaster their vehicle with WLUP bumper stickers. Listeners then followed through on that request. The general manager of the disco station told the Chicago Tribune, “Then a few carloads of ‘Loop’ fans followed our van into a forest preserve and threatened the driver. That’s what concerns me. Just because these people are taking advantage of a disco backlash, there’s no reason for somebody to get hurt.”
Dahl fantasized on the air about buying “a fleet of DC-10s,” an airplane model that had horrifyingly crashed in Chicago in May of 1979, “and offering half-fare coupons for disco artists.” He further mused about how to assist the decaying orbit of the Skylab space station to ensure it would crash into famed discotheque Studio 54 in New York City.
On July 1, 1979—less than two weeks before the riot at Comiskey Park—Dahl held an anti-disco rally at a nightclub in Hanover Park, IL. 4,000 rock fans showed up to the venue which could only hold 1,000. Those unable to enter ended up throwing bottles and breaking windows. Eight people were arrested and one was injured.
Later that summer, in suburban Arlington Heights, a series of incidents began escalating between patrons of a rock night spot and a nearby discotheque. Disco fans began converging on the rock venue with clubs and metal pipes before being rebuffed by bouncers. Weapons were seen being stashed in bushes, and people were vandalizing the venues. A local newspaper said that both patrons and employees of the venues said that Steve Dahl’s campaigning against disco was responsible. “What started as a joke has turned into an excuse for fighting,” a bartender at one of the clubs told the newspaper.
As Jimmy Piersall, one of the Chicago White Sox broadcasters lamented in the middle of the Disco Demolition fiasco, “We’ve got the greatest country in the world, but you know what? We have become followers. So many people [are] insecure. They don’t know what to do with themselves and how to have a good time. They follow someone who is a jerk.” It’s unclear as to whether he was specifically directing his ire at the first patrons to run out onto the field at Comiskey Park or criticizing Steve Dahl for the debacle, but the message works in either instance.
Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone analyzed Disco Demolition in late 1979, “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 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.”
“It felt to us like Nazi book-burning," Nile Rogers of the band Chic said later.
A little more than a week after the baseball-promotion-gone-awry took place, the Baltimore Sun writer Eric Siegel published perhaps the most deeply introspective column questioning the phenomenon. “Rock has traditionally been regarded by its admirers as synonymous with rebellion,” Siegel wrote. “Disco is, in a sense, rebellion, too, but disco’s rebellion is not against society but against the growing excesses of rock: disco’s simplicity versus rock’s growing artistic pretension; disco’s upbeat sentiments, perhaps best exemplified by the recent hit ‘I Will Survive,’ versus rock’s increasingly dark vision.”
Siegel pointed out that the rage against disco was almost unparalleled. Many styles of music have been disliked, but few—if any—inspired such negativity. “There seems to be,” he concluded, “underlying traces of anti-gay, anti-women and anti-black prejudice.”
Many of disco’s detractors, however, protest that they are just judging the music on its own merit and finding it lacking. Fair enough, as far as it goes. Musical opinions are subjective and personal.
But as legendary singer-songwriter Randy Newman said about disco in an interview with Rolling Stone after his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, “The records were kind of great. What the Bee Gees did was kind of great. I didn’t even understand the knock on it, exactly. That big bass drum never went away.”
As the name “disco” started to vanish after the backlash, people still went out dancing. Only it was called “club music” or “technopop” or any one of the many strands of dance music that emerged from the disco era.
And, as we look around the musical landscape today, we see the increasing dominance of DJ culture, where fans pay rockstar money to go see a celebrity DJ spin music so they can dance their cares away.
Disco may have lost a battle forty years ago, but it may yet have won the war.