Forty Years Since ‘Disco Demolition Night,’ Disco Gets the Last Laugh

Posted July 9, 2019 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

In the wake of the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night, a different perspective emerges. So does the unexpected resurrection of disco

Calvin Harris, 2019

Calvin Harris, 2019

What’s old is new again. You can say that for disco. Today the disco inferno is back in the spotlight. It’s embedded into hit singles, mostly from young pop divas like Meghan Trainor, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. DJs and dance producers like Daft Punk (thanks to the throwback Grammy-winning Random Access Memories), David Guetta, Disclosure and Calvin Harris have all put out jams that fit within the confines of conventional disco – a 180 BPM-or-faster rhythmic force dominated by four-on-the-floor fever, hi-hat hisses, engaging funky grooves and the occasional bevy of strings or synths.

Even journalists are using the classic term to describe dance music again. And yet the term still bears a coat of mystery, in some pockets a residue of shame. For years after disco’s fall from grace, Harry Wayne Casey, frontman of the South Florida disco group KC & the Sunshine Band, wanted to be dubbed a R&B artist and didn’t like the box that disco presented him. Donna Summer, the late disco diva who was inducted posthumously into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, disliked being called a “disco singer,” feeling it was limiting of her talent.


Steve Dahl, photographed in front of bin of records. One of the identified records on the very far right is Gladys Knight & the Pips' Imagination, a R&B record released in 1973.

Steve Dahl, photographed in front of bin of records. One of the identified records on the very far right is Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Imagination, a R&B record released in 1973.

And that’s because Disco Demolition Night cast a shadow on the good times.

The televised event, staged by Chicago rock disc jockey Steve Dahl, was a loud and proud brutal invasion on an entire music genre, possibly the most aggressive protest ever made on a single genre. In his words, it was meant to only be a radio promotion, one that allowed WLUP-FM to allow fans to attend a double-header baseball game for only 98 cents if they brought a disco record to be used and abused in a volcanic bonfire experiment. But its aggression felt more like a silly teen temper tantrum with a deeper agenda. From the visuals, after seeing hundreds of young white men and women pouncing the fields with napalm, throwing cherry bombs, knocking over batting cages, waving manmade banners reading “Disco Sucks” and setting elements of the park ablaze, this felt like a modernized Klan rally. And all of this was led by the hands of Dahl, then 24.

Today Dahl claims the event gone awry was a big joke and was not meant to be taken seriously. But history paints something of a different picture. The event, culminated in the outer field of Chicago’s Comiskey Park with an explosion of 12” vinyl records in a giant bin, turned ugly real quick when fans jumped from the stands and stormed the fields, damaging it in such a way that the second game had to be canceled. The aftermath of the scene looked like a war zone.

Much of the anger, hostility and disdain on disco had everything to do with the rock formats suddenly converting to Top 40 playlists. Rock was fading from popular consciousness, and it was because disco had made its expeditious move to the top. Suddenly, every other song was something coming from Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, KC & the Sunshine Band, Chic or some one-hit wonder (Andrea True Connection, Alicia Bridges, Yvonne Elliman). Rock bands and artists like KISS, Chicago, Rod Stewart, Blondie, Queen, the Rolling Stones and ABBA were even taking plunges into the disco fever, usually resulting with solid gold.

Before dance music or EDM – an umbrella term used to describe all the offspring of disco that included synthpop, house, techno, New Wave, and a host of others – the word picked up to describe rhythmic uptempo R&B and funk or dancey pop was disco. And for a short but effective period from the mid ‘70’s and late ‘80’s, it was all the rage. After the bottom fell out, disco saw a resurgence due to reconstruction. The comeback came in stages. The peak? In the ‘90’s with mainstream house coming from C+C Music Factory, Black Box, CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters. But dance music has come and gone from the upper tier of the pop charts in the last two decades.

Today as Dahl celebrates his greatest contribution to the annals of American history, he seems to skirt around the criticisms that involved deeply ingrained racism. “It’s absolutely cool that it’s just part of the history, and not a shameful part of the history,” Dahl told the Chicago Tribune. ‘It’s just something that happened, and honestly, it was just about the music.”

He adds that an event that old shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. “First off, you can’t look at something that happened forty years ago through today’s lens,” Dahl said. “Maybe we weren’t woke, but we didn’t know we were asleep. I just wanted to rock ’n’ roll…That’s all.”

And as its anniversary quickly nears (July 12th), the Chicago White Sox invited Dahl back in June to throw the first pitch at a Thursday night Sox-Yankees game…during LGBTQ Pride Month. Highlights (or should I say, low points) from the forty year-old event were beamed on the screens for today’s generation to behold. Sadly, this event – although historic for making headlines – shouldn’t come packaged with a celebration of cake and champagne. Dahl claims his attacks were only meant for the music and not against a race or group of people, but history notes that disco was dominated by black, Latino and gay fans and in most cases were made by queer producers, songwriters and artists. At the time, it was the only genre where openly gay artists like Sylvester and the Village People could fully express themselves without receiving a ton of backlash. The boogie wonderlands that disco dominated – New York’s Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, Chicago’s The Warehouse, even David Mancuso’s groundbreaking invitation-only Loft, were black, gay or both. If not, they were safe havens for the underground where queer allies and harmonious believers intermingled and mixed with very little incident. When describing the environment of The Loft, sound system pioneer Alex Rosner wrote in the 1999 book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life that “it was probably about sixty percent black and seventy percent gay…There was a mix of sexual orientation…a mix of races, mix of economic groups. A real mix, where the common denominator was music.” In these discotheques, Sister Sledge’s mantra literally was gospel: “Here’s what we call our golden rule/Have faith in you and the things you do/You won’t go wrong, oh no/This is our family jewel/We are family, I got all my sisters with me.”

Mattera, in a piece for The Guardian, wrote that the “mass detonation of piles of vinyl on a baseball pitch may have been couched in anti-disco sentiment, but it’s infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ slogan betrayed its not so subtle homophobic subtext.” During the press for the Disco Demolition Night tribute, The Chicago Tribune tried to paint a different narrative about the dark night, possibly trying to bury the mood with a gesture of reconciliation, letting bygones be bygones.

And that’s to be expected. Even in the face of courageous journalism, a hometown paper doesn’t ever enjoy retelling narratives that paint an ugly picture of them on the national level. A lot of times they dumb the stories down, putting hometown pride before their allegiance to truth. The Chicago White Sox also underplayed the event by passing out commemorative t-shirts of the event to patrons, stating that the 2019 promotion was “only meant to mark the historical nature of the night 40 years later.”

Rock jock Steve Dahl puts out his parody on Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy."

Rock jock Steve Dahl puts out his parody on Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”

In their reporting of Disco Demolition Night, beat journalists gave off a stench of epic whitewashing. The goal was to make an aged Dahl – once a celestial radio institution and now living within the perimeters of podcasts – appear forgiven and redeemed. And, of course, there’s another reason why the criticisms of Disco Demolition Night and Dahl were dumbed down; Dahl was once an employee of Chicago Tribune, writing columns regularly for the paper up to 2011. The paper failed to write that when “The Hustle” songwriter and producer Van McCoy died, he broke one of his records while on the air. The paper forgot to mention the history of racism of Chicago and how even in the ‘70’s up to now, large segments of communities were racially divided – to the point that some historians note that the Windy City is the most racist city in America. The paper forgot to mention that Dahl created a silly parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” that featured lyrics making snide remarks that discotheques were overpopulated with effeminate men and frigid women while creating a protagonist based on Tony of Saturday Night Fever who converts over to rock, melting down his lavish gold chains to create a Led Zeppelin belt buckle. The studio single, a recording with Teenage Radiation, even charted on the Billboard Hot 100, landing at number 58. And in one interview, Dahl confessed “it’s an intimidating lifestyle, it’s an intimidating culture and at some point, it was being forced down out throats.” And on another occasion, Dahl dropped a heavier ball about his rage with disco. “I hate disco because I can’t find a white three-piece suit that fits me off the rack that hangs well and I can’t dance,” he said. To further complicate the viewpoint hailed by Dahl and his supporters, many of the records collected weren’t even disco records. In the bin were records by black acts, mostly R&B and funk. If it was a black artist, even if it was jazz, Al Green, Gladys Knight, it exploded on that field.

And like a nasty dog whistle to the hateful, Dahl’s actions at the time spoke to aggravated, privileged middle America, giving them the green light to revolt on an entire genre and culture using a riot-like aggression. And none of this was mentioned during the milestone anniversary as Dahl continued to be airbrushed with praise. Oh, Vice put out a really good opinion piece about it, poking holes at the celebration, but Vice isn’t the hometown paper.

Further in their pieces, The Chicago Tribune did mention a handful of tweets coming from critics, bringing up the homophobic and racist undertones of Disco Demolition Night, but the writers tried to stay neutral in their coverage. The present-day interviews with Dahl gave us ho-hum quotes, with most walking around the elephants in the room, that is racism and homophobia. Asked if it could happen again today, Dahl gave them a kinder, gentler response. “Times are different. It could not happen again,” Dahl told them, as if the flavor of wokeness in the era of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and diversity and inclusion has somehow hit a marvelous brilliantly apex and white privilege has been reduced to putty. The saddest truth is that even with the immediate public being aware of social injustices all over, what happened that fateful night in 1978 could very easily happen again. Dahl only told the press what they wanted to hear. After seeing what happened in Charlottesville, the laughable threat of a Straight Pride Parade expecting to hit Boston, and as the insurrection of hate groups and white nationalism continues their rise across the country,

It might not happen again with Dahl behind the mic and podium, but while cheerleaders of hate continue to multiply at record paces, undoubtedly encouraged by Trumpmania, history is bound to repeat itself again. The question now isn’t would it happen; it is when will it happen.

Epilogue: Disco’s Last Laugh

Back in 2012, The Guardian’s Adam Mattera wrote that disco had changed music forever and that its influence lived on. “As anyone who’s cocked half an ear to club music over the past three decades will tell you, disco didn’t die – it simply changed its haircut, made a few new friends, occasionally popped the odd funny pill,” he wrote. Fast forward seven years later to headlines today, and disco is still winning.

Linda Clifford, Martha Wash and Norma Jean Wright - veterans in classic disco - team up for First Ladies of Disco. They have a Top 20 hit this year on the dance charts.

Linda Clifford, Martha Wash and Norma Jean Wright – veterans in classic disco – team up for First Ladies of Disco. They have a Top 20 hit this year on the dance charts.

Even the stalwarts of the time are still packing heat. In a piece for Forbes, Steve Baltin wrote that KC & the Sunshine Band was getting the last laugh, all thanks to a new single (“Give Me Some More (Aye Yai Yai)”) and a flurry of mixes powered by DJ Tony Moran and Chic’s Nile Rodgers that has shot him back into the Top 20 on the Billboard dance charts. As for Nile, he’s busier than ever showing off the new-and-improved Chic on new material and as an opening act for Cher and dropping collaborations with Adam Lambert, Duran Duran, Keith Urban, Pitbull and Janelle Monae. Disco darlings Martha Wash, Linda Clifford and former Chic singer Norma Jean Wright have teamed up as a mighty trio perfectly named the Ladies of Disco and are strutting their stuff with a Top 20 dance hit, “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which peaked at number 14 on the chart.

Even as urban hip-hop invades today’s Top 40 and rock music seems to be shaded from the public eye*, disco music and its EDM children are still using its charm on the masses. Years ago, I mentioned a major comeback arising for disco due to works like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and the rise of acts like Hercules & Love Affair, Escort, Chromeo, Major Lazer, Clean Bandit,
Betty Who and dozens more. I was afraid the momentum would wither away — as if the once cursed fad was back in the cards. But the disco inferno is holding up quite well and shows no signs of burning out.

The Disco Amigos Birmingham performing on the illuminated plexiglass dancefloor at The Club. This Birmingham feature, erected in 1951, inspired the producers of Saturday Night Fever. Photography by Sarah Finnegan.

The Disco Amigos Birmingham performing on the illuminated plexiglass dancefloor at The Club. This Birmingham feature, erected in 1951, inspired the producers of Saturday Night Fever. Photography by Sarah Finnegan.

And all the way in Birmingham, Ala, the home where Rick Dees’ cartoony Number One hit “Disco Duck” got its first shot at regional success, in a Deep South city known for its own ugliness with racism and backwards politics during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, a mid-size city with very few nightclubs pumping out today’s dance music, the community performance dance krewe Disco Amigos shook their groove things on the grounds of the Birmingham Barons’ Regions Field for Disco Night.  With crowd favorite songs like “Boogie Shoes” and “You Should Be Dancing,” the 130-member troupe has become an unshakable presence on the Birmingham scene, appearing at functions left and right. The Mardi Gras-inspired co-ed chapter group meets for rehearsals at a Levite Jewish community center and takes their act wherever the music takes them; parades, fundraisers, community events, corporate parties, even pop-up appearances. A week prior, a large cluster from the group dominated the city’s LGBTQ Pride parade. And although the group leans on the edges of camp and plays with the easy edibles of traditional disco, it goes to show you that not all baseball fans or people living in Trump country have a negative disposition on disco. Disco must not suck after all.

NOTE: Only Imagine Dragons, Panic! at the Disco and Portugal. The Man, Twenty One Pilots have had number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 from 2016 to 2018. So far, no rock artist has topped the chart in 2019.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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