Disco Demolition: the night they tried to crush black music

When a DJ called on listeners to destroy disco records in a Chicago stadium, things turned nasty – and 40 years on, the ugly attitudes behind the event ring out loud and clear

In the summer of 1979, Vince Lawrence had got himself a part-time job as an usher at Comiskey Park baseball stadium, home to the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t an ideal job for a black teenager. Comiskey Park was next door to Bridgeport, a neighbourhood of the city where, as Lawrence puts it, “it was common knowledge that you might not want to be hanging around after dark, because there were people there who for sure don’t like you based on your colour”. The area was so notorious for racism that even one of the White Sox’s star players, Thad Bosley, had found his car surrounded by a mob after taking a wrong turning driving home after a game, the situation only defused when one of them recognised him.

Still, Lawrence’s job had perks. Punters rich enough to sit in the stadium’s boxes would tip well, you could get a good view of the game and there were regular special promotional events, often with music: country nights, Elvis nights. Tonight, he was looking forward to seeing a band called Teenage Radiation, fronted by loudmouth local radio DJ Steve Dahl: they had recorded a parody single called Do Ya Think I’m Disco, part of Dahl’s ongoing campaign against the commercially dominant genre in late 70s America. Embittered by the fact that he had been fired by a station called WDAI when it switched formats from AOR to disco, Dahl had been endlessly mouthing off on air at his new station, WLUP, also known as The Loop: snapping disco records or dragging the needle across them, encouraging people to join his anti-disco organisation, the Insane Coho Lips. He had worked out a promotion with the White Sox: turn up at Comiskey Park on 12 July with a disco record and you would get in for 98¢. Dahl planned to fill a dumpster with the records and blow them up as a publicity stunt.

Lawrence realised something wasn’t right: people weren’t just turning up with disco records, but anything made by a black artist. “I said to my boss: ‘Hey, a lot of these records they’re bringing in aren’t disco – they’re R&B, they’re funk. Should I make them go home and get a real disco record?’ He said no: if they brought a record, take it, they get a ticket.” He laughs. “I want to say maybe the person bringing the record just made a mistake. But given the amount of mistakes I witnessed, why weren’t there any Air Supply or Cheap Trick records in the bins? No Carpenters records – they weren’t rock’n’roll, right? It was just disco records and black records in the dumpster.”

Steve Dahl says he is ‘worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe’.
Steve Dahl says he is ‘worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe’. Photograph: Paul Natkin/WireImage

Things turned uglier after Dahl’s demolition took place and the crowd – estimated at 50,000 – rushed the field. Unable to cope with the surge of people the ushers were told to go home and that the police would have to deal with what was degenerating into a riot. “Someone walked up to me said: ‘Hey you – disco sucks!’ and snapped a 12in in half in my face,” Lawrence says. “That’s when I started feeling like: ‘OK, they’re just targeting me because I’m black.’ I’ve got a Loop T-shirt on – what’s the difference between me and the next usher trying to get back to his locker? I was one of the few African American people in the stadium. Steve Dahl said it wasn’t discriminatory, he was an equal opportunities offender or whatever, but Steve didn’t invite no brothers to Comiskey Park.”

Forty years on, Disco Demolition Night remains one of the most controversial events in pop history. Last month, when the White Sox commemorated its anniversary, it attracted widespread criticism from Billboard to Vice and the Economist, of a kind that was absent in 1979. Then, only Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone suggested that there was something distinctly ugly about the vast crowd of white men publicly destroying music predominantly made by black artists, dominated by female stars and with a core audience that was, at least initially, largely gay. “White males, 18 to 34, are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and … to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.”

Dahl remains defiant. He didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this feature, but made his position clear in the 2016 book Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died. “I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe,” he wrote. “The event was not anti-racist, not anti-gay … we were just kids pissing on a musical genre.” Moreover, he was defending “the Chicago rock’n’roll lifestyle” from an unwanted musical invasion. The rise of disco to mainstream success on the back of Saturday Night Fever’s unexpected success was “a repudiation of all things rough – like rock’n’roll and bar nights” and “demean[ed] the ordinary life that kids inhabited”.

To understand Disco Demolition Night, you have to understand how commercially dominant disco had become in the US at the time. Of the 16 singles that made the top of the US chart in the first half of 1979, only three were not disco tracks. The previous year, disco singles had been No 1 for 37 weeks out of 52. “In any big city in America, you could turn the radio dial and catch disco on as many as five or more stations,” says Alice Echols, cultural historian, academic and author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. “It had pushed AOR not to the margins precisely, but classic rock didn’t have the dominance on radio that it once had. Live music venues were increasingly switching over to disco.”

This didn’t please everyone. “Even though record labels were making a lot of money off disco, they were holding their nose,” she says. “They were worried about it crashing, but they wanted it to crash so they could go back to classic rock. There was also a grassroots anti-disco movement, a national effort on the part of people involved with AOR. There were people who thought it threatened their livelihoods, because of its gobbling up of live venues; there were people who just thought it sounded plastic and synthetic and commercial; there were people who were just nakedly racist and homophobic.”

Nichols says that disco’s dominance was, for some of the haters, inseparable from issues such as busing and affirmative action, initiatives designed to reduce racial segregation in US schools and colleges. Fear of disco, she says, was partly “the fear that American identity was no longer synonymous with whiteness. DJs in Detroit formed a disco vigilante group called the Disco Dux Klan. Originally, their efforts were going to involve wearing white sheets and robes – they got rid of that part of it. And then there were people like Steve Dahl, for whom disco represented a sort of emasculation: you couldn’t wear a scruffy T-shirt and jeans, you had to get dressed up and, worst of all, your girlfriend or wife expected you to humiliate yourself by fucking dancing. Some of the push back against disco also had to do with feminism.”

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount/Sportsphoto Ltd

Whatever the reasons behind it, Disco Demolition Night had a startling and immediate impact. Radio stations that had switched to disco switched back to rock. The Grammy awards cancelled their best-disco-recording category after only one year. Chic, who as Echols points out, “had made millions of dollars for Atlantic Records since 1977” – Le Freak was the biggest-selling single in the label’s history – found “suddenly no one at the label would take their calls”. Even disco labels were changing the designs of 12in-single sleeves to make their products look less like disco records. In the second half of 1979, only one disco single – Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough – made US No 1, for a solitary week.

“I didn’t take it seriously at all, which obviously was a mistake in retrospect,” says Vince Aletti, who in 1979 had just quit his column in Record World – which had assiduously documented disco’s rise – in order to work at Warner Bros’ disco label, RFC. “The higher-ups at the label did. There were a lot of rock’n’roll stalwarts in the music industry who were not just unhappy but angry and felt that rock’n’roll was being ignored because black pop was dominating the charts. Within a short period of time, Warner Bros decided there was no longer a disco department. We became the dance music department – disco was a dirty word. Virtually every record label did the same thing.”

In some senses, the after-effects of Disco Demolition went on for years. As Echols notes, the Rolling Stones had frequently toured with black artists, including Stevie Wonder and Ike and Tina Turner, who were warmly received by their audience, but when Prince supported them in 1981, he was booed offstage.

In others, it proved an entirely pyrrhic victory. Retreating underground to its original audience, disco became arguably more adventurous and creative than ever: the immediate post-Disco Demolition years were the era of Arthur Russell’s extraordinary avant-disco (Loose Joints’ Is It All Over My Face? and Dinosaur L’s Go Bang); of the electronic experimentation and eclecticism of the sound pioneers by DJ Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in New York; of the ferocious, explicitly queer hi-NRG sound pioneered in San Francisco by Patrick Cowley.

House pioneer Frankie Knuckles.
House pioneer Frankie Knuckles. Photograph: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ironically, the most revolutionary development took place in Chicago, the city where disco had supposedly been killed: inspired in equal part by the raw disco edits of DJ Frankie Knuckles and European electronic music by Fad Gadget and Kraftwerk, former Comiskey Park usher Vince Lawrence and Jesse Saunders co-wrote the first house single, On and On, in 1984. Lawrence went on to co-write Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s Love Can’t Turn Around, the first house single to achieve mainstream success in the UK. Meanwhile, the two biggest stars of the 1980s – Michael Jackson and Madonna – were disco acts in all but name.

“I don’t think anybody at the disco level was thrown into deep despair,” says Aletti. “They had to adjust to how the record companies now worked, but it just meant that there was a lot of really interesting music still coming out that was danceable, which is kind of where disco started – a lot of oddball danceable records that didn’t need to be called anything.” Still, the 40th anniversary commemoration of Disco Demolition left a peculiar taste. “It baffles me,” says Lawrence. “We live in a different world – Dahl’s either incredibly naive or dishonest.”

Commemorating Disco Demolition Night in the US political climate of 2019 makes a strange kind of sense, though. There’s a weird correlation between the way Dahl has defended Disco Demolition – standing up for the “rock’n’roll lifestyle” of straight white men in the face of disco’s dominance – and the language of the alt-right, where Milo Yiannopoulos claims that those taking part in a “straight pride” parade represent “America’s most brutally repressed identity”. “It’s fascinating that this has happened now,” agrees Echols. “It does sound very much in line with politics over here. It’s very … Trumpist.”

• This article was amended on 22 July 2019 because an earlier version described a situation being diffused, when defused was meant.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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