Disco Inferno Revisited: Disco Demolition Night, 30 Years On

By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García

DDN1

Thursday morning, I chanced upon an ESPN piece on Disco Demolition Night. Growing up a baseball fan, the phrase initially conjures up mostly chuckles: the last great Bill Veeck promotion; a well-meaning bust that it drew more than 59,000 people to watch a typically moribund Chicago White Sox team in some unsightly uniforms — but resulted in the home team having to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader.

But time and perspective change things a bit. DDN, which “celebrated” its’ 30th anniversary Thursday, now stands revealed as the flashpoint of an ugly trend.

Let me be blunt: see any POC in the picture up top? Okay, how about this picture?

DDN2

Thought not. The event drew in thousands of disgruntled or mock-outraged white rock fans. Most rock documentaries describe the disco era as one of rock under siege, with “real music” in danger of being overrun by hordes of fops in sequined jackboots. Disco represented not only the first popular music wave since Motown Records’ heyday to feature performers of color, but it brought gay artists to the mainstream. Somebody, obviously, had to “save the day” for those oppressed Ted Nugent fans.

Enter Steve Dahl. After getting fired from an all-disco station, he formed what he called his Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco Army on WLUP-FM. Now, every pop culture wave has its’ regular backlash, but Dahl hit back with a special kind of venom: he reportedly destroyed a copy of “The Hustle,” the morning after the man who recorded it, Van McCoy, died of a heart attack.

Beyond Dahl’s disgruntlement, other parties in the music industry had reason to fan the flame: album rock sales were indeed threatened by the rise of disco, so much so that acts like KISS and Rod Stewart recorded disco albums to keep up. And as Craig Werner wrote in A Change Is Gonna Come, the movement Dahl found himself providing the face for had a more sinister overtone:

The Anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. None the less, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia.

By the time the forgettable game – the Sox and the Detroit Tigers were roommates in the American League cellar at the time – came around, the Saturday Night Fever furor had died down, The Knack had overtaken the Bee Gees for the No. 1 spot on the charts, and the Colosseum of disco, Studio 54, was crumbling under the weight of its’ owners illegal excesses, with the club’s exclusionary entrance policies fueling, ironically, Chic’s “Le Freak,” one of the last disco hits, as well as what would become the first wave of hip-hop.

But before Chic and the Sugar Hill Gang could come in, DDN had to go off – with a bang: admission to the game was 98 cents if you brought a disco record, and after rallying the crowd of shirtless Foghat followers, Dahl detonated a crate full of records after the first game, which inspired most of the throng to hit the field and ignore subsequent pleas by Veeck and broadcaster Harry Caray to leave (though they did sing along with Harry on “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”) As mob scenes go, DDN was actually pretty mild: 39 people were arrested, but only minor injuries were reported – which, considering the Chicago Police Department was on the scene, is a surprise.

In the years since, Dahl, who has gone on to become a Chicago radio stalwart, has played the role of the overwhelmed Pied Piper regarding that night. His remarks in the ESPN piece echoed the ones he gave the Chicago Tribune: “I never thought that I, a stupid disc jockey, could draw 70,000 people to a disco demolition,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of our followers got a little carried away.” But this story from a local tv station alleges that DDN was only the largest of three such events he held that year – and that the first two also led to disturbances.

Regardless, the explosion on the field seemed to give radio the all-clear to drop disco from its’ playlists, as the backlash finally became the majority opinion … at least for awhile. Disco was quickly repackaged as Dance music after ’79, and its’ stylings survive to this day. For its’ part, the traditional rock scene faced an insurgency from within, as punk and metal popped up to mock it with increasingly dark imagery and cries of “NO FUTURE FOR YOU!” But those are stories for other days. The best punchline, for me, came from that ESPN story, which, even as it ignored the racial and pop-culture dynamics behind that hot night at Comiskey, noted that the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans rode to the championship … while being inspired by a disco song.