by Kevin Burton
Silly me, I was just listening to the music.
I was young for sure, but not that young. Still, I had to have it all spelled out for me, after the fact.
The first person I ever heard utter the phrase “disco sucks,” years later turned out to be one of the slobbering, worshipful Trump people.
So sometime between July 12, 1979, which was “disco demolition night” at a Chicago White Sox doubleheader and today, I‘ve had the blanks filled in.
If you weren’t around for the 70s music scene, here’s the short version. The Beatles broke up. Then you had singer/songwriters (James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon, many others). Then disco became a thing.
Then disco became the thing. You could not escape it. Right around the time disco became a verb, even on Burger King commercials, a backlash started.
But why? Was it the music, or the people making the music?
Then, I couldn’t see it for what it was. Last December, the disco sucks thing was explained by Michelangelo Signorile, writing on www.signorile.substack.com.
“It was a cultural backlash within pop music not unlike the political and cultural backlash all these years later to the first Black president, Barack Obama, and the rise of Donald Trump, who tapped into racial fears and triggered racist and violent responses by those who felt emboldened and given permission,” he wrote.
“At that time, disco, emerging out of R&B, had been throbbing through urban Black, Latino and gay communities for nearly a decade in nightclubs, and was rising to the surface of American culture,” he wrote.
Disco exploded on radio and began to dominate the top 40.
“Of course, rock & roll was in no danger of dying, and some of the greatest bands and singer/songwriters of the century, from Fleetwood Mac and Queen to Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, created brilliant mega-hit albums during the 70s,” Signorile wrote.
“But a lot of White, heterosexual, predominantly male Americans were immensely threatened by the rise of disco.
That was clear from the backlash.”
“It’s one thing not to like a music genre — and plenty of people found disco uninteresting and repetitive, and just didn’t connect with the dance groove culture. But it’s quite another to organize behind leaders whose intent was to demolish that genre under the banner of ‘Disco Sucks.’”
Enter DJ Steve Dahl.
In Chicago, WDAI switched from a rock format to disco, and fired the 24-year-old Dahl on Christmas Eve in 1978. He was hired by another rock station, WLUP, and soon continually mocked WDAI as “Disco DIE.”
The disco sucks theme took off nationally.
“The Chicago White Sox worked with Dahl to create a ‘disco demolition night’ during a doubleheader, in which they would use explosives to blow up disco records. Dahl urged listeners for weeks to attend,” Signorile wrote.
A ticket cost just 98 cents if you also brought a disco record. Fans dumped the records into a large bin, which was later brought onto the field to be blown up.
The White Sox were flatlining, averaging 16,000 fans per game. The disco demolition promotion filled their 45,000 seat stadium and then some, with some reports estimating that 55,000 people were there after fans started storming the gates.
Visiting Detroit won the first game 4-1 amid a circus atmosphere.
“Without a doubt it’s the worst conditions I’ve ever played in,” Tigers outfielder Ron LeFlore told WBBM radio. “They were throwing golf balls out there.”
“After the first game ended, Dahl came onto the field and told the crowd: ‘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,’” Signorile wrote.
“The crowd broke out in chants of ‘Disco sucks!’ Dahl ignited the explosives, sending shards of records everywhere and ripping a huge hole in the outfield.”
An estimated 5000 to 8000 fans then ran onto the field, breaking through security. They tore down the batting cage, ripped out the bases, and lit a bonfire in center field. Chicago police in riot gear eventually arrived to disperse the crowd on the field and around the stadium.
The second game of the doubleheader was cancelled because the field was unplayable. The next day baseball ruled that the White Sox had to forfeit the game.
“Vince Lawrence, a Black house music pioneer who, at that time, worked at Comiskey Park as an usher and witnessed what happened, says that it was equivalent to “a racist, homophobic book-burning,” Signorile wrote.
Lawrence said people brought records by Black artists not necessarily disco artists “Tyrone Davis records, Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records,” Lawrence recalls. “Records that were clearly not disco but that were by Black artists.”
Disco sucks as a means of ethnic cleansing of the pop charts appears to have been successful. Disco didn’t die but it certainly stopped dominating the charts.