Disco music had become so ubiquitous by 1979 that a backlash from fans of punk and rock & roll was inevitable. They did not, however, envision something as insane as Disco Demolition Night, which took place in Chicago’s Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. Here’s the scoop…
Forty years ago, the Detroit Tigers beat the Chicago White Sox, 4-1 on a July night in front of 50,000 fans at Comiskey Park in Chicago. No one who was there will remember the ballgame, because this was the night they blew up disco.
The event was, in fact, billed as Disco Demolition Night. In between games of a twi-night doubleheader, the promoters planned to detonate a giant crate filled with disco records, and the resultant shards of vinyl would be testament to the disgust toward what seemed like an unstoppable musical kudzu that had swallowed up the Top 40 and nearly drowned out the sounds of punk.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans: they go FUBAR.
In this case, Disco Demolition Night went FUGAZI.
Local coverage of Disco Demolition Night:
The event was the brainchild of Steve Dahl, a rock deejay for WLUP (97.9) in Chicago, who detested disco and railed against its very existence on the air on a regular basis. Dahl had been fired the previous Christmas Eve by WDAI, when that station switched its format from rock ‘n’ roll to disco. He was hired by WLUP, however. And, fueled by his own bitterness over his firing and a disgust with the staying power of disco, he found a readymade audience of rock fans receptive to his renegade message.
On the air all through early 1979, Dahl upped the ante on his anti-disco crusade by parodying hit disco songs on the air. Rod Stewart came in for particularly vicious attacks, largely due to the fact that he was once, as a member of the Small Faces, a serious rock ‘n’ roller and was seen as something of a traitor to the cause. Dahl even worked up a salty and Mad Magazine-style version of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” that briefly cracked the Billboard charts and was regularly featured on the Doctor Demento Show. (“My shirt is open…I never use the button / So I look hip…I work for E.F. Hutton…”).
Here is Dahl’s parody of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. “Do Ya Think I’m Disco”:
Here’s the original video by Rod Stewart, which Dahl was parodying (along with the “song”). The video co-stars Bebe Buell:
More than two years earlier, another deejay, Rick Dees in Memphis, had cut his own disco parody that became a minor hit, “Disco Duck.” Not nearly as biting as Dahl’s single, “Disco Duck” even garnered Dees an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Oddly, Dees was fired by his station (WMPS-AM) for a “conflict of interest” by playing the hit single on the air. Dees was hired by the rival Memphis station (WHBQ) and never looked back.
Further stoking the anti-disco spirit, while also mocking the music and scene, was the March/April 1979 issue of Punk Magazine. The cover of that issue featured a masterful satiric “cartoon jam” by John Holmstrom, Bruce Carleton and Kein Weiner; inside, was a multi-page comic called “Disco Maniac,” the climax of which looked a bit like what happened three months later at Comiskey Park.
But, getting back to Steve Dahl, soon enough because of his on-air antics, he and his WLUP partner Garry Meier had amassed a posse, which they dubbed the Insane Coho Lips. The simple, pointed and effective rallying cry of the Cohos was: “Disco sucks.”. Their manifesto: “The eradication of the dreaded musical disease known as DISCO”.
Disco Demolition Night was just the climax of Dahl’s anti-disco campaign. Prior to that ill-fated July night at Comiskey Park, he had organized other public events of a similar nature. For example, when a former rock ‘n’ roll club in Indiana became a disco, Dahl led a group of “Cohos” to the venue in protest and the police had to be called when the crowd grew unruly. At another event, only a week before Disco Demolition Night, a group of Cohos, unable to get inside a sold-out promotional event in suburban Chicago, started a brawl outside the venue. On July 6, to commemorate the sudden death of disco legend Van McCoy, Dahl destroyed a copy of McCoy’s biggest hit, “The Hustle,” on the air.
“I just figured the guy was an idiot.” – Harry Wayne Casey
In short, the blood was in the water prior to that baseball game at Comiskey Park. And yet, somehow Dahl convinced the Chicago White Sox that it would be a great way to fill some seats in its often half-empty stadium during a season when the team sucked. Actually, the White Sox organization had already been receptive to the idea because their one-time owner, Bill Veeck, was famous for off-the-wall promotions. Veeck, the author of the classic baseball book Veeck– as in Wreck, once stated, “you can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence”.
Bill Veeck’s son, Mike, was the promotions director for the White Sox in 1979; he possessed his father’s appreciation for the absurd. Two years earlier, he’d promoted a “Disco Night” at Comiskey Park that had gone smoothly. By 1979, he thought an “Anti-Disco Night” would be a good idea, and approached WLUP to talk about a collaborative promotion. Veeck had heard that Dahl was planning to blow up some disco records on the air at a shopping mall and thought he could do that just as well, for the benefit of the White Sox and the radio station, at Comiskey Park in front of a baseball crowd.
And so it was ordained. And so it transpired. Promoting the July 12 event on his radio station ahead of time, Dahl and the White Sox were nonetheless surprised when the stadium was filled to capacity for the first game of the doubleheader—nearly 50,000 fans, only a small percentage of whom came to see a baseball game. (Attendance at Comiskey Park the night before barely cracked 15,000). Not only had the game sold out, but 20,000 more fans were milling around outside the stadium, carrying anti-disco signs and generally being rowdy. The Chicago police closed the off-ramp from the nearby freeway to keep more people from coming.
Many of the attendees also brought their own disco discs, which they hurled like Frisbees onto the field during the first game. The baseball players, terrified of being injured by the projectiles, wore batting helmets on the field and one player was quoted, after the game, “Oh, God almighty, I’ve never seen anything so dangerous in my life.”
Needless to add, many of those inside and outside the stadium also imbibed copious amounts of overpriced draft beer while the first game of the doubleheader was being played. The smell of marijuana wafting through the air was so powerful that the baseball announcers mentioned it several times during the course of the game broadcast. Somehow, that game was completed, and the two teams happily retreated to their respective clubhouses.
Then the giant crate of disco records was hauled out to centerfield. Dahl led the crowd in chants of “Disco sucks!” before announcing “This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! We took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeel good.” On a signal from the deejay, the crate was blown up, sending pieces of vinyl flying and ripping a hole in the centerfield grass.
Those 50,000 fans? No, they did not remain in their seats as the management had requested. Instead, they ran onto the field in an orgy of anti-disco madness, smashing the pieces of vinyl into the turf and moshing and barfing and who knows what else-ing. Someone lit a bonfire, other fans entered the dugouts and looted whatever was sitting around—bats, balls, hats, cleats. They pulled the bases from off the field, and they climbed the foul poles. It was gleeful mayhem to some and sheer anarchy to others.
Riot police were called in to disperse the crowd, and 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. By then, the field was too damaged to play the second game of the doubleheader, which was postponed. The next day the game was forfeited by the White Sox to the Tigers, under orders from American League president.
Disco Demolition Night backfired, on more than one level. Not only did it lead to the destruction of a baseball field, the event itself was accused of being racist (most of the rioters were white) and homophobic.
It was gleeful mayhem to some and sheer anarchy to others.
“Serious” rock critics derided the event. Dave Marsh, in Rolling Stone, humorlessly opined that Disco Demolition Night was “your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead”. Later, he reprised this self-righteous nonsense by proclaiming “white males, 18 to 34 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…”
Come now, Dave! Let’s not get carried away here. At worst, Disco Demolition Night was an ill-advised, not very well thought-out, baseball game promotion. And, as a result, the parties responsible (Mike Veeck and members of his staff) were reprimanded. Veeck himself claimed to be “black-balled” for years because of it.
Dahl later said, “The worst thing is people calling Disco Demolition homophobic or racist. It just wasn’t … We weren’t thinking like that.”
Harry Wayne Casey, front-man of KC and the Sunshine Band told ESPN Chicago that he saw nothing discriminatory in Dahl’s anti-disco crusade.
“Who thinks of that stuff, anyway? I just figured the guy was an idiot.”