Disco Demolition Night: Scenes from the Night Disco Died (or Did It?) at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, 1979

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­co Saves Lives: Give CPR to the The Beat of Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”

Rita Hay­worth, 1940s Hol­ly­wood Icon, Dances Dis­co to the Tune of The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive: A Mashup

Sat­ur­day Night Fever: The (Fake) Mag­a­zine Sto­ry That Start­ed it All

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.