Surely you’ve heard of Disco Demolition Night, when Chicago DJ Steve Dahl invited listeners to the 1979 White Sox double header against the Tigers at Comiskey Park, offering tickets for .98 cents if they brought a disco record he could blow up between games. The event drew thousands more than Dahl expected, turned into a riot on the field, and has since passed into history for its rallying cry of “Disco sucks!” and its heralding of the end of disco’s reign.
Disco died at the end of the 70s, the story goes. But many music fans know differently. Disco didn’t die. It mutated, became House music, New Wave, and other hybrid genres. It made its way into the music of the Clash, Blondie, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and others. Nonetheless, Disco Demolition Night represented a widespread backlash that drove disco off the pop charts and back where it came from—the mostly black, Latino, and gay clubs in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities.
Many people who have written histories of Disco Demolition have come to see it “as a not-so-subtle attack” against those groups of people, writes NPR, against “disco’s early adopters.” Dahl, who has co-authored his own book about the night, disagrees, but he admits that images of the event look “like a book burning.” Disco “obviously threatened a lot of rockers,” he concedes. Another witness to the event, an African-American usher named Vince Lawrence, saw evidence firsthand.
Lawrence—a disco fan and aspiring musician—tells the podcast Undone that he was actually looking forward to the event. He liked Dahl and “had strict intention of keeping records that were good that I didn’t have.” However, as he collected the records at the gate, he noticed among them Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder albums, “records that were black records,” he says, but not disco. He tells NPR, he saw “Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records…. Records that were clearly not disco.” He balked, but was told he had to take them and issue tickets.
After Dahl rolled onto the field in a Jeep and blew up the dumpster full of records, chaos ensued, and the stunt turned into “this zany, real life slapstick routine,” says Undone’s host Pat Walters, “until all the sudden, it’s just not.” Rioters set a bonfire, stole the bases (literally), and became a raging mob. On his way out of the park, Lawrence was attacked by fans yelling “Disco Sucks!” and breaking records in his face.
Columnist Renee Graham, a gay woman of color who was a teenager at the time, recalls seeing photos of the event and being reminded of White Citizens Councils smashing rock and roll records because they brought white and black kids together. “This wasn’t just ‘We don’t like this music,’” she says, “this was ‘We don’t like these people who listen to this music.’” By 1979, however, “those people” included many of the same kids’ classmates, siblings, parents…. Disco had gone mainstream after Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees’ breakout. “It was almost like musical gentrification,” says Graham.
The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, KISS—all of them appropriated disco. And the rock kids were furious. After the riot at Comiskey, “disco became a four-letter word.” Careers collapsed, radio stations changed format, record stores reordered, almost overnight. Had none of this happened, it’s possible disco would have fizzled out. Driven underground, back to its roots, it instead found new expression in the hands of pioneers like Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House,” and New York’s “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Ramirez.
Knuckles DJ’ed at Chicago club the Warehouse, which lent its name to the music—predominantly disco or disco inspired—he played. As house music evolved, “you could hear it fill in the space that disco had occupied,” says Walters. Vince Lawrence, too young to get into the Warehouse, began staging his own house parties, and these spread to cities all over the country, and eventually to Europe, where the music influenced bands like the Eurythmics and New Order, who discovered house on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Undone makes the case that Disco Demolition Night saved disco, in a way, so that it could emerge and influence many more appreciative crossover fans in the decades to come.