July 13, 1979 – Disco Demolition Night
Chicago radio disc jockey Steve Dahl was mighty pissed when his station WDAI changed format from Rock to Disco and fired him. He decided to wage war on the genre. His new station WLUP helped him come up with a publicity stunt to blow up a bunch of Disco records in the middle of Comiskey Park during a baseball doubleheader between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, stirring up a culture war still being fought today.
There were great Rock albums that year: Van Halen, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and AC/DC released classic albums, yet most Rock acts were struggling. Even the bestselling successes felt a change: Led Zeppelin added synthesizers with In Through The Out Door, and Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, a huge smash, it wasn’t really hard rock, plus Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk just confused fans. Rock music became slick and much less rebellious and dangerous. Punk was moving into that place, along with New Wave.
In the late 1970s, dance-oriented Disco became even more popular, most especially after being featured in the influential hit film Saturday Night Fever (1977). And, one thing the fans of all the other genres agreed: They Hated Disco.
Time magazine called Disco: “…a diabolical thump-and-shriek”. Many music fans hated it for the lifestyle associated with it, feeling that in the Disco scene, personal appearance and the clothing were too important. The media emphasized its roots in gay culture and emphasized and cultivated a widespread perception that Disco was taking over. Performer such as The Village People, described by Rolling Stone as “the face of Disco”, did nothing to put away those perceptions, and fear that Rock music would die out increased after Disco dominated the 21st Grammy Awards in 1979.
Disco sparked a backlash from so many music fans; so prominent was the pushback that the White Sox, seeking to fill seats at Comiskey Park during a lackluster season, brought in anti-Disco Dahl for the promotion for the doubleheader. Dahl’s radio station WLUP sponsored the event by asking the baseball fans to pay just 98 cents and bring a Disco record, and between games, Dahl would destroy the collected vinyl in a big explosion.
With parallels to our own era, the poor aggrieved-white male anger was part of a backlash by thousands of future Reagan voters and Trumpers who were against the idea that the most popular music in the USA was black or Latin or gay or feminine. Rolling Stone published an issue in 1979 with a piece that claimed:
White males, 18 to 35, are the most likely to see Disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and therefore they’re most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.Dave Marsh, December 1979
White Sox officials had hoped for a crowd of 20,000, 5,000 more than usual. Instead, at least 50,000 packed the stadium, and thousands more continued to sneak in after gates were closed.
The Chicago Police Department closed off-ramps from the Dan Ryan Expressway near the stadium. Attendees were supposed to deposit their records into a large box; once the box was overflowing, many people brought their discs to their seats. Many of the records were not collected by staff.
The first game began at 6 pm. A model named Lorelei who did public appearances for WLUP and who was popular in Chicago that summer for her provocative poses in the station’s advertisements, threw out the first pitch. As the first game began, thousands of people were trying to get into the park without tickets, and security guards were sent to the stadium gates to stop them. This left the field unattended, and fans began throwing the uncollected disco LPs and singles from the stands. Tigers batter Rusty Staub wrote that the records would slice through the air, and land sticking out of the ground. He urged teammates to wear batting helmets when playing their positions:
It wasn’t just one, it was many. Oh, God almighty, I’ve never seen anything so dangerous in my life.
The crowd threw firecrackers, empty liquor bottles, and lighters onto the field. The game was stopped several times. Banners with such slogans as “Disco sucks” were hung from the ballpark’s seating decks. Famed White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray saw groups of music fans wandering the stands. Others sat intently in their seats, anxiously waiting the explosion. The crowds outside the stadium also threw records or gathered them and burned them in bonfires.
The second game was postponed, forfeited by the White Sox the next day by order of American League. Disco Demolition Night remains well known as one of the most extreme events in Major League history.
Where did the attendees even get the Disco records that would earn them discount admission to the White Sox doubleheader? Were they even Disco albums? One of those ushers, a black teenager named Vince Lawrence, a future music producer, noticed that a lot of records were by black artists like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations.
Nile Rodgers, the great producer and guitarist for the Disco-era band Chic, likened the event to Nazi book burning. Gloria Gaynor, who had the biggest Disco hit I Will Survive, stated:
I’ve always believed it was an economic decision—an idea created by someone whose economic bottom line was being adversely affected by the popularity of disco music. So they got a mob mentality going.
Disco Demolition Night remains one of the most extreme events in Major League history. One of the best things about Disco Demolition Night is that the two baseball teams, the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers played for the two American cities most responsible for reinventing Disco dance music in the 1980s.