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Burn, Baby, Burn: A Look Back at Disco Demolition Night

“This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood.” — Chicago DJ Steve Dahl during Disco Demolition Night  which took place on July 12, 1979

It may be hard to believe given its presence on radio stations even today, but not everyone caught disco fever in the late 1970s. Like a lot of trends, it began to suffer from being too much of a good thing as it permeated every facet of pop culture. There were disco-themed movies, disco-themed TV sitcoms, and disco-themed albums by artists who had no business dabbling in the musical genre (The Ethel Merman Disco Album, anyone?) Fashion was influenced by disco. There was even an electronic Milton Bradley game called the Dizzy Dolphins Disco Game.

It didn’t help that rock and roll performers were dabbling in disco: Rod Stewart recorded “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, Paul McCartney experimented with “Goodnight Tonight” and The Rolling Stones had a big hit with “Miss You.” (Keith Richards admitted that he and Mick Jagger frequented disco clubs and were fans of the sound.) But most rock and roll fans were less than enamored with the musical crossover. At the 1979 GRAMMY Awards, many rockers lost out to disco performers, sparking rumors that rock and roll was in serious trouble and about to fade away for good. Thirty-five years ago this month, a Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl wrangled their angst to his advantage in what would become a disco inferno for real: Disco Demolition Night.

Tell us what you REALLY think of disco, Steve. (Image via Jaehakim.com.)

It’s important to note that not every rock fan was a disco-hater. Online forums on disco’s demise reveal that some people pretended to hate it to avoid friction (and teasing) from their friends. Others grinned and bared it because the discotheques were where the single ladies hung out. But a lot of music historians believe that the backlash against disco was at least partially motivated by racism and homophobia, as many disco songs became adopted anthems for the gay community, and were written and/or sung by African-Americans. 

Dahl had a personal reason to loathe disco. In 1978, his radio station changed its format from rock to disco and fired him (though some sources claim that Dahl quit). He then went to work at a rival rock station where he was vocal about his falling out with his former employer. Soon, he attracted a legion of listeners and fans that he nicknamed “The Insane Coho Lips.” The slogan for his fan club became the aptly-chosen “Disco Sucks.” 

“That’s where it really started,” Dahl would say in an interview years later. “While I was still on [WDAI], I would be talking about how ridiculous it was to have a 24-hour disco station. Like who’s going to dance to a 20-minute Donna Summer song in the car? Back then, disco was more of a cultural thing than it is today. It seemed like [disco] was trying to take the place of rock and roll, which is why I found it kind of irritating.”

Dahl also recorded a novelty song mocking the musical genre called “Do You Think I’m Disco?” (a parody of Rod Stewart’s hit) about a disco dancer named Tony who eventually converts to rock and roll and melts down his gold jewelry to make a Led Zeppelin belt buckle. The song poked fun at fans of the disco culture and the men who frequented disco clubs with their chest hair-baring open shirts and perfect hair and the “cold” women they hit on.

Dahl then organized several immature and smaller scale anti-disco rallies for his Coho minions. At one such event, Dahl’s followers hurled marshmallows at a promotional van for a newly-opened teen disco at a local mall, and even chased the vehicle into a nearby park. At least one incident ended in fisticuffs as police were called to disperse the crowds. When disco artist Van McCoy died suddenly on July 6, 1979, Dahl mocked his death by destroying his hit record, “The Hustle,” on the air. 

These antics were child’s play compared to what would become known as Disco Demolition Night. The anti-disco demonstration was to take place at Comiskey Park in Chicago on the evening of July 12, 1979 between a doubleheader game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. The White Sox agreed to Dahl’s demonstration because ticket sales were dragging that year and they wanted to fill seats. Attendees could get in for just under a dollar if they brought along a disco record they wished to see destroyed. The plan was to blow up the pile of vinyl on the middle of the field in between the two games, and the event received heavy promotion on Dahl’s sponsoring radio station, 97.9 WLUP-FM. 

The park’s capacity was just under 44,500 seats. Dahl and WLUP expected approximately 20,000 people to attend (for contrast, the previous night’s attendance had been a mere 15,520), and extra security was hired. What happened next has become a study in how a crowd can quickly get out of control. 

The event’s promoters couldn’t have predicted that nearly triple the estimated amount of attendees would descend upon the stadium the night of July 12, 1979. Those who didn’t have a ticket for admission did what anyone would do in the days before heavy security: they jumped the turnstiles, climbed over fences and took advantage of windows left open. 

Even before the actual demolition event, the crowd got high and worked up. Large banners declaring that disco sucked were hung from the seating decks. The sweet smell of marijuana drifted into the stadium. Firecrackers, lighters and empty liquor bottles got tossed onto the field. The players were warned to keep their helmets on at all times. Mike Veeck, son of the park’s owner Bill Veeck and one of the event’s supporters, declared, “This is the Woodstock they never had.”

Fans from Disco Demolition Night. Hey Tom Petty, is that you on the right? (Image via Fangraphs.com.)

The first game ended at 8:15 PM. Less than a half hour later, Dahl took to the field wearing a helmet and army fatigues. He hopped into a Jeep and did a lap around the field, as his worked up Cohos showered him with beer and firecrackers. The box of collected disco records was in the middle of the field, rigged with explosives. 

Some attendees, fearing that events were about to escalate, tried to leave early with little luck. Stadium security padlocked gates in an effort to keep the intruders out.

Dahl detonated the records, leaving a damaging hole in the middle of the outfield. That’s when all mayhem broke loose, as thousands of disco-despising attendees stormed the field. The batting cage was ripped apart, and bats were stolen (one of the thieves that night was the late actor Michael Clarke Duncan.) Grass was ripped up and a bonfire started as the crowd ignored Veeck’s instructions to return to their seats. Chicago police were called in wearing full riot gear to get the situation under control. Though there were no deaths from the event, several people were injured and 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. 

One word: chaos. (Image via vice.com.)

The field was deemed unplayable, even after an hour of debris clean up. The second baseball game had to be cancelled due to the deplorable condition of the field. 

Local news stations covered the event. Dahl himself comes across as halfway funny and likeable when discussing why he dislikes disco so much in a pre-event interview:

The following day, Dahl downplayed the turn the event took, saying, “I think for the most part everything went wonderful.” His DJ career remained intact but Mike Veeck, as one of the event’s promoters, suffered repercussions and resigned the following year, and was unable to get another job in baseball for many years. 

Columnists writing about the incident heavily believed that homophobia and racism were the motivating factors behind the Cohos’ intentions. But it’s important to point out that Dahl himself has never said anything about disco that could be considered offensive in that respect. “The worst thing is people calling Disco Demolition homophobic or racist,” he said years later in an interview. “It just wasn’t…we weren’t thinking like that.” Even Harry Wayne Casey, singer for KC and the Sunshine Band, felt that Dahl was just behaving like an idiot, and meant no harm to anyone.

There is another way of looking at the event that took place in Comiskey Park that night. It was indicative of a time when music mattered, especially to youth, and when the public had more sway over the type of music that was being beamed across the airwaves in America.

Nonetheless, Disco Demolition Night proved itself to be the imminent first nail in disco’s coffin at that moment in music history. By the early 1980s, American radio stations had turned to playing New Wave, punk rock, reggae, dance-pop, and….good old fashioned rock and roll. But disco has never truly died. Its rippling effects can still be heard in music by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue and countless others. Flip through your local radio stations and you’re bound to find an oldies or easy listening station that still plays Donna Summer. Dahl’s event may have put a crack in disco’s mirror ball, but it still spins on. 

About Pamela Sosnowski
Pam Sosnowski's love of retro music and pop culture all started when she saw the Beatles cover band 1964 in concert in the early '90s. It wasn't long before her obsession with the Fabs led to an interest in all things 1960s, probably because she never actually lived in the decade. Today she is the author of Go Retro where she ruminates about the people, places, and things of the pop culture past and is also a budding copywriter. She hails from and lives in the Boston area.
  • David Plechaty

    My friends were there! Yep, they were some of the troublemakers! I was living out of state at the time and this event got national coverage. One of my friends said the actual demolition of the records was anticlimactic, it was the rest of it that was fun. Of course, they were Cub fans…

  • David Plechaty

    My friends were there! Yep, they were some of the troublemakers! I was living out of state at the time and this event got national coverage. One of my friends said the actual demolition of the records was anticlimactic, it was the rest of it that was fun. Of course, they were Cub fans…

  • SkeptiGal

    I never thought the hate of disco was racist or homophobic. To classic rock fans who were used to soaring guitars and music that had a message, disco seemed shallow. Sorry, but kinda glad it died.