The day disco was demolished
By Chris Vognar
The plan was simple enough: Gather a bunch of disco records, put them in a crate and blow them to smithereens in between games of a doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers at Comiskey Park. What could possibly go wrong?
This was the thinking, such as it was, behind Disco Demolition Night, a July 1979 radio promotion that went predictably and horribly awry. The televised spectacle of rioters, mostly young white men, storming the field in Chicago, sent shock waves through the music industry and accelerated the demise of disco as a massive commercial force. But the fiasco didn’t unfold in a vacuum, a fact the new “American Experience” documentary “The War on Disco” makes clearer than a twirling mirror ball.
“The War on Disco,” which premiered earlier this week on PBS, traces the rise, commodification, demise and rebirth of a dance music genre that burned hot through the ’70s, and the backlash against a culture that provided a safe and festive place for Black, Latino, gay and feminist expression. Originating in gay dance clubs in the early ’70s and converted into a mainstream sensation largely through the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever,” disco engendered simmering resentment from white, blue-collar kids who weren’t cool enough to make it past the rope at Studio 54 and other clubs. The film details disco’s role as a flashpoint for issues of race, class, gender and sexuality that still resonate in the culture wars of today.
“These liberation movements that started in the ’60s and early ’70s are really gaining momentum in the late ’70s,” Lisa Q. Wolfinger, who produced the film with Rushmore DeNooyer, said in a video call from her home in Maine. “So the backlash against disco feels like a backlash against the gay liberation movement and feminism, because that’s all wrapped up in disco.”
When the Gay Activist Alliance began hosting feverish disco dances at an abandoned SoHo firehouse in 1971, routinely packing 1,500 people onto the dance floor, the atmosphere was sweaty and cathartic. As Alice Echols writes in her disco history book “Hot Stuff,” gay bars, most of them run by the mob, traditionally hadn’t allowed dancing of any kind. But change was in the air largely because of the ripple effect of the Stonewall uprising in 1969, when regulars at a Greenwich Village gay bar fought back against the latest in a series of police raids. Soon discos were popping up throughout American cities, drawing throngs of revelers integrated across lines of race, gender and sexual orientation.
“The club became this source of public intimacy, of sexual freedom, and disco was a genre that was deeply tied to the next set of freedom struggles that were concatenate with civil rights,” said Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American studies at Yale University who is featured in the film, in a video interview. “It was both a sound and a sight that enabled those who were not recognized in the dominant culture to be able to see themselves and to derive pleasure, which is a huge trope in disco.”
All subcultures have their tipping points, and disco’s began in earnest in 1977. The year brought “Saturday Night Fever,” the smash hit movie about a blue-collar Brooklynite (a star-making performance from John Travolta) who escapes his rough reality by cutting loose on the dance floor. Inspired by the movie, middle-aged thrill seekers began dressing up in white polyester and hitting the scene. The same year saw the opening of Studio 54 in Manhattan, which became famous for its beautiful-people clientele and forbidding door policy.
“There was this image of the crowd outside the door on the news, with people being divided into winners and losers,” said DeNooyer. “And the majority were losers because they didn’t get by the rope. It was an image that spoke powerfully, and it certainly encouraged a view of exclusivity.”
At least one man had reason to take it all personally. Steve Dahl was a radio personality for Chicago’s WDAI, spinning album rock and speaking to and for the white macho culture synonymous with that music. On Christmas Eve in 1978 Dahl lost his job when the station switched to a disco format, a popular move in those days. He didn’t take the news well. Jumping to WLUP, Dahl launched a “Disco Sucks” campaign and, together with the White Sox promotions director Mike Veeck, spearheaded Disco Demolition Night.
Organizers expected around 20,000 fans on July 12, 1979. Instead, they got around 50,000, some of whom sneaked in for free. Admission was 98 cents (WLUP’s frequency was 97.9), leaving attendees plenty of leftover cash for beer. Located in the mostly white, working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport, Comiskey Park had a built-in anti-disco clientele.
During the first game of the doubleheader, fans threw records, firecrackers and liquor bottles onto the field. By the time the crate of records was blown up, the place was going nuts, with patrons storming the field and rendering it unplayable. The White Sox had to forfeit the second game.
There were other anti-disco protests around the country in the late ’70s, but none so visible or of greater consequence. As the film recounts, reaction was swift; radio consultants soon began steering toward nondisco formats. “Disco Demolition Night was a real factor, and it did happen very quickly,” DeNooyer said. “And we hear from artists in the film who experienced that.” Gigs started drying up almost immediately.
Commercial oversaturation didn’t help. Disco parodies were becoming rampant, including a memorable one in the 1980 comedy “Airplane!,” and novelty songs had been around since Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” in 1976 (followed up by the lesser-known “Dis-Gorilla” in 1977). But the film makes clear that the Disco Demolition fiasco and resultant coverage was a major factor in the death of disco’s mainstream appeal.
It’s also important to note that disco didn’t die so much as its more mainstream forms ceased to be relevant. The music and the culture morphed into other dance-ready genres including house music, which ironically emerged in Chicago. When you go out and cut loose to electronic dance music, you are paying homage to disco, whether you know it or not. The beat is still pulsating. The sexual and racial identities remain eclectic. The Who may have bid “Sister Disco” goodbye in their 1978 song, but the original spirit lives on. As Brooks put it, “Its vibrancy and its innovations just continued to gain momentum once the spotlight moved away from it.”
The culture, and its devotees, outlived the clichés. Disco is dead. Long live disco.