THE GREAT DIVIDE: DISCO DEMOLITION NIGHT

Thirty-five years ago, the biggest threat to music was music itself. An argument was brewing and culminated in what was forever known as Disco Demolition Night. The events on the 12th of July 1979 were one of the most symbolic and prolific in dividing people within music.

Steve Dahl, a 24 year old popular rock DJ, was disgruntled at the recent loss of his job at his radio station which was switching to an all-disco format. Once he found a new station, he decided to curate a show where hating Disco was a core feature, mocking and ridiculing those who enjoyed the music. For special effect, he would pull the needle across disco records and follow this with an explosion sound throughout the show. With the idea to create an event to “end disco once and for all” he organised a rally of “disco-haters” to attend a double-header baseball game at Comisckey Park in Chicago. 

The Chicago White Sox were struggling to gain an audience and thought the rally would be a perfect promotional tool for them. People could gain entry for the small cost of 98 cents – so long as they bought along one disco record that would be blown up in the middle of the game. Dahl and the Sox were hoping for a turnout of around 20,000; instead over 50,000 came with thousands more sneaking in. During half time, as promised, Dahl drove onto the field in a Jeep, and as the huge crowd chanted “Disco Sucks, Disco Sucks” he blew up the huge bin filled with disco vinyl. Thousands of fans charged onto the field leading to a riot, the field was destroyed and the police called. 

It is hard to imagine that one subculture of music-lovers could hate another genre with such force and intensity that it would motivate one to take part in an event akin to “Nazi-book burning”. After the event, Dahl brushed it off and said “It was just something to do”, however the motives that lead to such a large-scale rally could not have been centred around sheer boredom. A more valid explanation is that the event was at the centre of the division between rock and disco lovers; Dahl even saying he had “tapped into a deep hatred for disco”. On deeper inspection of the motives, it seems disco and its subsequent identity was challenging traditional ideologies and identities of middle-class America, leaving many rock music fans and musicians feeling uncertain and threatened. 

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Disco Demolition Night, 1979.

Tracing back nine years to 1970, excess wealth and decadence was apparent within the rock industry – album sales were huge, and financial returns were great. However, by the end of the decade, the 25-year growth of rock was coming to a halt and the Anglo-American music-market was consolidating. Conversely, disco popularity was growing. Private parties were being held in small venues in New York in the early 70s where DJs such as Francis Grasso were presenting a new way of listening to records – a seamless flow of music which people would continuously dance to. It was a safe haven for oppressed minorities such as LBGT communities, African-Americans and Latinos.The music was a positive force, bringing people together under one roof with common love for it, where they were accepted and free to be themselves.  People would dance to the sounds of latin, soul, and funk with a 4×4 drum pattern that would eventually be labelled disco.The disco sound was initially ignored by radio, and its significant exposure lay within the underground clubs where DJs were a major creative force.

Disco started to move beyond the clubs and onto the airwaves in the mid-1970s and was rapidly gaining popularity amongst white, straight, middle-class people. Everyone from The Rolling Stones to Frank Sinatra was recording disco-themed tracks. Radio stations were switching from rock ‘n’ roll to all-disco formats, and disco dictated everything. Nothing matter more than disco on a Friday and Saturday night.

While disco had been vilified and stigmatised in the beginning, Saturday Night Fever  had “straightened” disco culture. The film focused on the life of a straight-white male (John Travolta), and his obsession with dancing, preoccupation with looking good, and sleeping with attractive women. The film had created a male heterosexual market for disco, confirming it as ‘safe’ and ‘approachable’. The soundtrack for the movie became one of the greatest selling LPS of all time, featuring disco songs from an all-white male Australian group, The Bee Gees. At the same time however, strong resistance was beginning to form against disco.

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Francis Grasso at Café Francis. Courtesy of Steve D’Acquisto.

Their were debates regarding disco’s authenticity. It was argued that in order for music to be ‘genuine’, one needed to identify with, and physically see, the performer/artist. The anonymity of disco music frustrated rock fans as they were accustomed to seeing the creator. This, in conjunction with the way the music was constructed and manipulated in the context of the disco (seamlessly blending from one track to the next), made it even harder to identify its origins. Rock ’n’ roll fans felt they could identify with issues that rock musicians were singing about – such as capitalism, imperialism and war. A music genre such as disco centred around dancing didn’t seem “genuine” to the counter culture of the ‘60s. Disco’s roots were indeed genuine and authentic – it was just in a way that rock fans weren’t identifying with. 

Disco was labeled in the media as “crossing over” and “taking over”, suggesting that there were boundaries being broken. To many, disco music with its roots in LBGT, African-American and Latino communities, was seen as threatening to traditional white, male, heterosexual culture. Rock music had traditionally been associated with masculinity and aggressiveness – with the guitar promoted as a phallic symbol for its shape, and technique for playing constituting a series of masculine meanings. In contrast, within disco music the guitar was associated with the rhythm and assisting in driving the record along. Rock music fans saw disco as essentially ‘feminine’. There was the romantic swelling strings, euphoric long breakdowns for dancing, and a standardised rhythmic structure. There was usually no ultimate climax or true direction with disco songs, which was in complete contrast to rock ’n’ roll which embodied a progression and climax. Disco was more about being soft, lively, and something to get lost in while dancing too.

Many in the disco community felt that the Disco Demolition represented white, middle-class hatred for the musical genre. Many said the Disco Demolition spectacle reeked of homophobia, with the popular discourse at the time “disco sucks” on bumper stickers and t-shirts having the association with homosexual men. It was labeled as a racist event, a backlash at the influence and dominance of African-American singers, performers, and artists in disco music. There was a strong feeling of displacement of identity with white, straight, male Americans, and this had subsequently led to great hostility, aggression and a enormous division between rock and disco lovers. Rock music and its subsequent identity had dominated popular culture for years, and disco was a ‘threat’ to that dominant groups identity, which they felt needed to be abolished.

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Disco Demolition Night, 1979.

Even today, preferences in music align us with a certain identity and subsequent culture. The solidification of African-American, Latino and LBGT identities during the disco era was a positive movement, and one that the dominant music culture took as a threat.  Rather than being open-minded to emerging music and alternative identities from fellow music-lovers, instead it was met with strong resistance and anger from many. Thinking about what lead to Disco Demolition Night, it’s important to remember one point about identity; when developing and furthering our identities, it is not just about recognising our similarities, but also appreciating and accepting our differences.

Differences in opinions had escalated and led to the division of tens of thousands of people, with music turning on itself. Disco clubs closed, record sales dived, and airwaves changed their music literally overnight. Frankie Knuckles, the late Godfather of House, said it hit Chicago’s disco club “like a tonne of bricks”.

However, Disco lived on. It went underground, evolved, and another form of dance music was born. Knuckles began to mix European disco, and re-edit old disco and soul records with the help of an early drum machine.

House music was born, Knuckles said, and “it was disco’s revenge”.

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(L to R) Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Tee Scott. Courtesy of Resident Advisor.

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Words by: Andy Ukhtomsky
Edited by: Georgie Thompson
Featured cover photo: Fred Jewel, July 12, 1979 

 

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