“Burn Baby Burn/Disco Inferno!” was the ubiquitous chorus of disco fever that emanated from nightclubs and radio stations across the country in the late 1970s. Seemingly everywhere you looked, people were “gettin’ down” for the “Y.M.C.A.” and “You should be dancing” was the rallying cry on a typical weekend night. “Disco inferno” was a metaphor for the “musical heat” on the dance floor that disco produced, but one fateful summer night at the ballpark in Chicago it took on a very different connotation, thanks to a baseball promotion gone awry.
On July 12, 1979, during a night-time doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers at Comiskey Park, the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night opened a lens into a simmering malaise that had enveloped American life. White Sox owner Bill Veeck was essentially the P.T. Barnum of baseball due to his penchant for outrageous ballpark promotions. His track record already included stunts such as the installation of an “exploding” scoreboard at Comiskey that lit up and shot out fireworks, a game in which his players wore shorts, and sending the 3 foot 7 inch Eddie Gaedel in to bat. But nothing could prepare anyone for Disco Demolition Night.
The promotion was the brainchild of a local pioneering radio “shock jock” Steve Dahl, of WLUP-FM 97.9, who had been recently forced out of his job at rival station WDAI. “Chicago’s Best Rock WDAI became Disco DAI at midnight in 1979,” Dahl recollected, “They closed out their rock ‘n’ roll tenure with ‘American Pie’ and kicked off the new format with the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’. I was collateral damage.” Dahl was on a fast track to revenge. Collaborating with Veeck’s son Mike, the White Sox’s promotional manager, the tandem came up with the idea for a giant anti-disco protest to be staged, featuring the destruction of thousands of disco records. The call to fans was straightforward: Bring a disco record to the doubleheader in exchange for a 98 cent ticket (corresponding with WLUP-FM’s frequency). The records would be dumped into a giant crate to be exploded in the outfield in between games of the double-header. It had the makings of a classic Bill Veeck prank and he readily agreed to the idea as a way to improve fan attendance during what had been a lackluster decade for the club.
What Dahl and Veeck could not have even predicted, however, was how big the turnout would be. Attracted by the promise of a discord-record burning, throngs of predominantly young white males who normally did not attend games overwhelmed Comiskey. The stadium was quickly filled to its 59,000 seat capacity, making it the highest attended White Sox home game in over a decade. Some ten thousand fans deposited records at the entrance gates, but thousands more brought their records into the stadium. This would later prove to be disastrous. Meanwhile, an estimated 15,000 fans gathered outside the stadium trying to force their way in. Many snuck in by climbing over the stadium walls. Compounding the situation, the game had originally been billed as “Teen night,” which caused even more young and drunk rowdies to rush the gates. Many regular ticket holders were subsequently denied admission. Another ten thousand fans were stuck in traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway caused by the mass influx.
The pandemonium outside the stadium was trumped by the developing chaos inside. Dozens of banners reading “Disco Sucks” and depicting obscene gestures replaced the patriotic bunting. Anti-disco chants reverberated throughout the stands and the stench of marijuana and other drugs filled the air. The first game had to be stopped several times to clear the field of fireworks, trash, and disco records that fans began to toss around the stadium like frisbees. Players and managers on both sides began to grow concerned about their own safety. After the first game, White Sox players were locked in their clubhouse for protection.
During the intermission, Dahl, dressed in military fatigues and wearing an army helmet, drove onto the field in a military-style jeep. In firm control of the stadium’s PA system, he began his emceeing of Disco Demolition Night. He led the crowd in chants of “Disco Sucks” and announced, “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.”
He then initiated the fireworks explosion of the crate filled with disco records, which is when the real trouble began. Excited by the explosion and infused with drugs and alcohol, an estimated seven thousand fans stormed onto the field, slid down the foul poles, tore up the turf, lit bonfires, destroyed the batting cages, dug up and stole bases, and continued to fling records. A full bore riot had commenced with fire, litter, shrapnel, drugs and alcohol pervading the grounds. Police arrested thirty-nine people and dozens reported injuries. Harry Caray, the White Sox broadcaster, attempted in vain to encourage fans to return to their seats. By the time order was restored, the grounds were effectively destroyed and the White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game.
“I never thought that I, a stupid disc jockey, could draw 70,000 people to a disco demolition,” Dahl said in a Chicago Tribune interview. “Unfortunately, some of our followers got a little carried away.” Disco Demolition Night was the last anti-disco rally for WLUP, but it had already made Dahl a legend and established him as a radio superstar in Chicago. Not everyone was amused however. Besides the ire drawn from most baseball fans due to the mischievous behavior, backlash from many in the disco community was naturally strong. For example, Nile Rodgers, producer and guitarist for the disco group Chic of “Le Freak” fame, deemed the event akin to Nazi book burning. Indeed, Dahl’s 10,000 strong anti-disco followers stylized themselves as the “Insane Coho Lips Anti-disco Army,” with a directive from Dahl to engage in a war “dedicated to the eradication of disco dystrophy in our lifetime.” Coupling the book burning image with their militant tones, the Coho Lips conjured additional uneasy comparisons to the Hitler youth.
The riot is also viewed by many historians and social critics as inherently racist and homophobic, because disco was traditionally associated with the African-American, Latino and gay communities, from where the genre originated. As Gillian Frank argues, “If rock music popularly was understood as the music of rebellion and liberation in the 1960s for the youth movement, disco was framed similarly as the music of liberation for gay white men in the early 1970s.” The disco fever that swept the music genre and lifestyle into the mainstream was effectively “a symbolic call for gays to come out of the closet and dance with each other.” For many gay men, disco’s ascendance to the top of pop culture helped promote their cause for civil liberty, giving them a voice and adding to the momentum of public affirmation of their rights in the years succeeding the watershed Stonewall Riots.
The generic classifications of disco as homosexual and rock as heterosexual thus deepened the resentment of many white heterosexual males, who ultimately participated in Disco Demolition Night. They felt increasingly disenfranchised in society and popular culture by disco. They feared a takeover by disco culture, and thus in their eyes, synonymously gay culture. The 1977 film Saturday Night Fever uncorked further frustration by successfully crossing disco over to their own demographic by appealing to straight white middle-class Americans represented by the main character Tony (played by John Travolta) and featuring many songs written and performed by the Bee Gees. But just as important to understanding why Disco Demolition Night elicited such a stark reaction is examining how the economic and societal malaise of the 1970s bridged anti-disco and anti-gay rhetoric.
America had gone through its “long national nightmare,” in the words of President Gerald Ford, in the early 1970s. The disgrace of President Richard Nixon’s Watergate chicanery and a long, failed war in Vietnam had shattered American trust in government. By 1979, terrorism and violent crime were on the rise with President Ford even dodging multiple assassination attempts. Catastrophic events such as the Three Mile Island meltdown and the American Airlines Flight 191 crash further put people on edge.
Most of all, an oil and energy crisis exacerbated the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. This was the backdrop for President Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise Speech” on July 15, 1979. Carter outlined his concern for a growing “crisis of confidence” in the American spirit, bruised by the setbacks of the era. Although a coincidence, the timing of the speech three days after the debauchery at Comiskey remarkably seemed to classify the feelings of the average disco protester.
Insecurities about employment and stagnant wages among blue collar America were aggravated by disco’s ascendance. Not just a threat to their preferred form of music, rock ‘n’ roll, or a threat to their racial and sexual identities, disco represented a challenge to the status quo and thus the relative power of their demographic. As Jefferson Cowie states, “The protest was not simply about racism or deviance; it was about something far more threatening…impotence.” In other words, it can be argued that the Chicago rioters reacted predominantly out of a fear of socioeconomic and political marginalization and a crisis of confidence in their own individual empowerment. Through this lens Disco Demolition Night was an anti-disco protest overlapped by deeper issues than musical preference. It was a cry out for attention and relevance by a generation increasingly at odds with itself.
Disco was the last mass popular music movement that was driven by the Baby Boomers. Boomers had been part of the generation of love, civil rights advancement, and sexual liberation during the 1960s. The economic stagflation and subsequent malaise of the 1970s, however, stripped away their innocence and longing for a communal society. Their disillusionment thus escalated from a simmering flame to a raging fire, manifesting itself on an explosive scale during Disco Demolition Night. The disastrous promotion has been credited as the “day disco died,” but it should be further evaluated as the day the counterculture movement of the baby boomers as a whole died. On this night, what originated as a simple prank by a disgruntled employee, ended with Comiskey Park becoming “The Wasteland” of the “Me Generation.”
Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie