“One revolution is like one cocktail, it just gets you organized for the next.” – Will Rogers
“I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Disco Demolition Night took place 30 years ago today at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The brainchild of WLUP DJ Steve Dahl and White Sox promotion man Mike Veeck, this gimmick – which encouraged fans to bring unwanted disco records in exchange for 98 cent admission to the ballpark – took place between games of a doubleheader between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers. The offending records were blown up in the outfield, but the blast ripped a huge chunk from the outfield grass and started a small fire, hundreds of fans stormed the field and tore out the bases and pitching rubber, and the second game was eventually forfeited to the Tigers (no American league team has forfeited a game since). It’s no stretch to say that Disco Demolition Night was the most disastrous promotion in the history of baseball.
Some have cited the evening as the final nail in Disco’s coffin, and Dahl himself has claimed that July 12th, 1979 was “the day that disco died.” But Disco didn’t die in the outfield grass at Comiskey Park on that chaotic evening – it was already losing sales, and in the process of splitting itself off into two different genres which are still going strong today. Here are five reasons why Disco survived its demolition, and lives on:
1) Music genres don’t die, they mutate. No genre is built to last for 20 years – popular music by its very nature is ever-changing – so to suppose that Disco was some vampire that needed to have a stake driven into its heart is just promotional bluster. The innovations of Disco DJs in the New York clubs would inspire and inform the technique and sound of both hip-hop and electronica, two genres which have themselves mutated multiple times since the 80’s. Music is a many headed hydra – when it’s cut off at one point, it grows in many new and different directions. To his credit, Dahl has backtracked from some of his earlier statements, and seems to regard the incident as little more than a joke. “[Disco] was a fad, and it was probably on its way out, but [DDN] hastened its demise,” he told Keith Olbermann on the 25th anniversary of the event. “I don’t want to take credit for killing it.”
2) Disco has actually aged well. I love artists who wade into the fray for a social cause, or risk their career (or at least a portion of their audience) on behalf of a political movement, but songs tied to current events age at approximately the same speed as milk. Neil Young’s ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ was a bold, invigorating musical statement two years ago, but now it sounds like ancient history. Meanwhile Donna Summer, KC & The Sunshine Band, Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes, and their Disco brethren still – and always will – sound like a dance party. And who, besides a Chicago White Sox fan, doesn’t love a good dance party?
3) The Midwest wasn’t exactly a Disco hotbed. Steve Dahl thinks he hastened Disco’s demise, but did he really convince even one true Disco fan that the music actually sucked, or was he preaching to a very stoned choir? On Disco Demolition Night, even as Sox fans were doing their small part in helping their team to a fifth place finish, I guarantee that crowds of people were dancing their asses off in discos all over NYC. Disco just wasn’t built for the Midwest of the 1970’s, and people in that part of the country weren’t going to warm to it (at least until it reappeared as House Music in the mid-80’s). Let’s just say that Disco didn’t really catch fire in the Midwest until July 12th, 1979, so DDN represented more of a regional movement than a national barometer.
4) Memories outlive fads. Musical allegiances aren’t based on current Billboard charts, they’re based on life experiences. What you’re doing when you hear a particular song can effect how you hear that tune for the rest of your life. I was 10 years old when Disco Demolition Night took place, and at that point I’d been enjoying Disco for about three years – when it faltered as a commercial proposition, it didn’t die in my heart. Popular music changed and I started listening to other things (it always does, and I always do), but Disco will always be there for me in the form of KC & The Sunshine Band’s Part 3 & More, the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack and other favorites. And all it takes to bring music to life is one avid listener…
5) Disco speaks a universal language. “Disco is just jitterbug,” claimed Fred Astaire. Which was his way of saying that dance music is as much about the dancing as the music, and regardless of what you call it, people have been doing it for ages. Disco was also one of the most democratic forms of music – if people weren’t responding to it by dancing, it wasn’t going to be a hit. According to none other than Barry White, “Disco deserved a better name, a beautiful name because it was a beautiful art form. It made the consumer beautiful. The consumer was the star.” This consumer-first culture was carried forward by hip-hop’s breakdancers and electronica’s rave scene, but the spirit of Disco lives on wherever there’s a dancefloor full of people working up a sweat and putting a long week behind them.
Watch the local Chicago coverage of Disco Demolition Night:
Check out ESPN’s coverage of the 30th anniversary of DDN.