On this day in 1979, the pop-music genre Disco was “killed” by an organized public backlash with the infamous “Disco Demolition” night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. That incident, which led to at least nine injuries, 39 arrests and the cancellation and forfeit of the game to the Detroit Tigers, is widely seen by some as dealing disco its death blow. Undaunted, the annoying form, based on 120 beats per minute, simply changed its clothes and hairstyle, and slyly set up shop in the 80’s.
Disco as a musical style emerged in the mid-1960’s to early 1970’s from America’s East Coast urban nightlife scene, where it originated in house parties and makeshift discothèques, and reached its peak popularity between the mid-70’s and early 80’s. Disco’s initial audiences in the U.S. were club-goers, from the African American, Italian American, Latino, gay, and psychedelic communities in Philadelphia and New York City beginning in the late 1960’s.
Disco may be seen as a reaction to both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period; several dance styles were also developed during this time, including the Bump, Hustle, Funky Chicken, Disco Finger, Robot, Lawnmower, and YMCA Dance. Disco dance contests profligated at local clubs, school dances, Bat and Bar Mitzvahs; your humble scribe came in second to Lenny Barnes at the Levy Family function in the Fairlane Hyatt, c.1978.
The disco sound often has several components, a “four-on-the-floor” beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) open hi-hat pattern on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. In most disco tracks, string and horn sections, electric piano, and electric rhythm guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is far less frequently used in disco than in rock. Many disco songs use synthesizers, particularly those of the late 1970’s.
Discothèque-goers often wore glamorous, expensive and extravagant fashions for nights out at their local disco club. Some women would wear sheer, flowing dresses, such as Halston’s offerings, or loose, flared pants. Other’s wore tight, revealing, sexy clothes, such as backless halter tops, “hot pants” or body-hugging spandex. Men would wear shiny polyester Qiana shirts with colorful patterns and pointy, extra wide collars, preferably open at the chest. Men often wore Pierre Cardin suits, three piece suits and double-knit polyester shirt jackets with matching trousers known as the leisure suit.
Well-known disco performers include Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Village People, Thelma Houston, and Chic. While performers and singers garnered much public attention, record producers working behind the scenes played an important role in developing the “disco sound.” Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco’s popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Thank God It’s Friday (1978) contributed to disco’s rise in mainstream popularity
Disco sparked a strong backlash from rock music fans. This opposition was prominent enough that the White Sox, seeking to fill seats at Comiskey Park during a lackluster season, engaged Chicago shock jock and anti-disco campaigner Steve Dahl for the promotion at the July 12 doubleheader. Dahl’s sponsoring radio station was 97.9 WLUP, so attendees would pay 98 cents and bring a disco record; between games, Dahl would destroy the collected vinyl in an explosion.
White Sox officials had hoped for a crowd of 20,000 or so, 5,000 more than usual. Instead, at least 50,000 fired-up, disco-hating Chicagonians, including tens of thousands of Dahl’s angry adherents, packed the stadium, and thousands more continued to sneak in after gates were closed. Countless records were not collected by staff and flew dangerously from the stands like flying discs; general mayhem held sway. After Dahl blew up the collected records, thousands of fans stormed the smoking field and remained there until dispersed by riot police.
The second game was initially postponed, but forfeited by the White Sox to the Detroit Tigers the next day by order of American League president Lee MacPhail. Disco Demolition Night preceded, and may have helped precipitate, the perceived decline of disco in late 1979.
Some scholars and disco artists have described the event as expressive of racism, homophobia and proto-Trumpism. Disco Demolition Night remains well known as one of the most extreme promotions in sports and music history, and yet, the genre that would not die nimbly lives on the pop charts to this day. And the racist, homophobic, and ignorant impluses of millions of white men remain with us as well.