The most famous–and perhaps only–public execution of a music genre happened on July 12, 1979 at a baseball stadium in Chicago. There, between two games of a doubleheader, Steve Dahl, a local rock DJ who had been fired from his previous station when its format changed to disco, led a promotion called “Disco Demolition Night.”
Disco had always had its detractors, but by the middle of 1979 the anti-disco crowd
had become bold. “Serious” rock fans were vocal critics, citing the genre’s exuberant fluffiness in the midst of such “heavy” times. Central figures from the rising punk subculture, such as the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, criticized disco not only as empty, superficial pop culture, but as a potentially dangerous distraction reminiscent of the cabaret music of Weimar-era Germany.
Dahl, with a new job at a rock station, preached daily against disco. His rallying cry…”Disco sucks!” Dahl took his grudge into the real world through a series of promotional events at bars during which he would physically destroy disco records. The anti-disco “movement” grew.
That fateful July day in 1979, Dahl and his co-promoter Garry Meier, along with Mike Veeck, son of the owner of the Chicago White Sox, invited fans to bring their unwanted disco records to
Chicago’s Comiskey Park in exchange for a reduced admission fee–just 98¢ (in honor of Dahl’s station 97.9). The fans gave their records to Dahl and Meier who took them into the middle of the field after the first game of the scheduled doubleheader. Dahl, dressed in a combat outfit, led a chant of “Disco Sucks!” and then detonated the box. It exploded and started a small fire in the
outfield. Dahl hopped into a waiting jeep and triumphantly departed the field.
The anti-disco crowd was overjoyed–so much so, that over a thousand, then two thousand, then several thousand more, rushed onto the field. While most danced and screamed, hooted and hollered or just wandered aimlessly about, some in the crowd lit small fires while others fought, destroyed the batting cage and tried to steal the bases. The White Sox announcers used the public address system and the stadium’s famous “exploding scoreboard” to plead with the audience to leave the field, but to no avail. Eventually Chicago riot police arrived and ended the mayhem, arresting 39 fans. The field was too much of a mess for the second game to start; the White Sox forfeited. [Watch an ESPN report about Disco Demolition Night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CP1751wJA&feature=related]
Disco Demolition Night accelerated the anti-disco trend so substantially that within months many pop radio stations stopped playing their disco selections or even changed their formats entirely. Dahl and his anti-disco army declared victory.
But what kind of battle had really taken place? Dahl and most of anti-disco crusaders criticized disco for its musical quality, or a perceived lack thereof, as well as for the genre’s lack of political insight. Disco’s supporters, touting their music as the sound of America’s minority youth–of African-Americans, Latinos, of people of many sexual orientations…–noted that most of the vocal disco haters were white. When radio stations pulled their disco records they also removed other music by minorities from their rotation, just in case listeners would think it too was disco. Rock critic Dave Marsh said of the Disco Sucks movement, “I was appalled…It was your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead.”
Though Dahl and his supporters took credit for demolishing disco, the winds of change were blowing against the genre in other ways as well. The all-night partying lifestyle of disco’s most active fans had not only started to wear the crowd down, but also provided fuel for the fire of the conservative backlash that helped Ronald Regan win the presidency in 1980. By then ’60s counterculture had fragmented into special interest movements–gay rights, women’s rights, Latino rights, etc.–and had increasingly less political clout. Losing political power definitely didn’t inspire everyone to dance.
Whatever ultimately did it–pure music criticism, political critiques, racial bias or just the changing times–by the early ’80s Dahl and his followers saw their wish fulfilled. By the early ’80s, disco was dead.