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Disco Demolition Night

In the 1989 film Dead Poets’ Society, English teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams, utters the line, “How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand”?  ‘I like Byron.  I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it.’”  The film was set in 1959, when American Bandstand was where many teenagers of the day tuned in to catch the newest musicians and records.  The “I give him a 42” line referred to the show’s vaunted Rate-a-Record segment, when host Dick Clark would ask two teenagers in the audience to rate two records on a scale of 35 to 98, and to then justify the ratings they gave.  Clark would then average the scores.  When the teenagers gave their justifications for the scores, they would try to sum things up neatly for the TV cameras, so there was a tendency to give stock phrases.  “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” became one of the famous phrases associated with the show.  (It’s likely that no teenager ever said such a thing on American Bandstand, but it sounded like something one might say, so what’s likely an apocryphal comment acquired its dubious infamy.)

Williams’ Keating was making an analogy: literature is going to touch you or it isn’t, and you can’t give a simple ranking system that will apply to everyone equally.  Byron might stir one person’s soul, and it might fall flat for someone else.  Bandstand’s Rate-a-Record system does not apply to the Romantic poets.  But Keating does something else that might be easier to miss.  By dredging up that “I can’t dance to it” line, he trivializes music with a rapid, danceable beat, suggesting that it’s ephemeral, that it’s insufficiently weighty.  Dead Poets’ Society doesn’t focus on this, but this sentiment was very real, and a growing one.
American Bandstand, circa 1960.

What that line refers to is the growing desire for music to mean something.  There was a desire for authenticity, for songs to tell a story, to express something important.  Such songs were not new.  Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? taps into the desperation people felt during the Great Depression; John Brown’s Body is a powerful anthem celebrating the cause of the Abolitionists in the 1850s.  And throughout much of the 20th century, Woody Guthrie sang folk songs celebrating the American worker and exploring the hard times that many people struggled through from the Dust Bowl into the Cold War.  Bob Dylan intended to pick up where Guthrie left off, with songs that placed a greater premium on lyrics than on meter, or even on the tune.  People were no longer hanging on the latest book of poems from Byron or Tennyson or Wordsworth; they wanted the latest record from the singer-songwriter, Dylan and Donovan and Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill and many others.  The poets of the 1960s gave us lyrics, and by the time the dust settled, the word “lyrics” could no longer be thought of without music.  Turn on top 40 radio in 1970 and you’ll hear gritty, folky caterwauling, or blues-infused hard rock.  This new sound was Woody Guthrie’s legacy.  Kids could rock, but who danced anymore?

Dance music never really went away, but it did suffer.  For a while in the 50s and 60s, there was a mania to identify the latest dance that all the kids were doing.  The twist?  The mashed potato?  The frug?  Eh… just move while the music’s playing.  Leave the waltzing and the jitterbugging to your parents.

That wasn’t good enough for everyone, though.  There were still plenty of folks who liked to dance, and in some alternative reality that didn’t get the same attention from the radio deejays, dance music continued to evolve into something else.  Pulling elements from soul music, funk, pop and salsa, a reaction to folk rock, hard rock and progressive rock developed quietly: disco was born.

In the 1970s, disco burst into the popular consciousness.  The music was more about the beat.  No one was really trying to change the world with their lyrics; it was all about having a good time.  Disco clubs grew in popularity around the United States and around the world.  One could argue that rock has largely American roots, but the development of disco was truly international.

For some reason, disco inspired a certain resentment among rock fans.  Maybe it was because dancing had gone out of style.  Maybe it was because the smoother, more rhythmic sound was just too different from the driving, more abrasive rock music.  Or maybe it was because the disco scene attracted gays and minorities more than rock did, and some rock fans felt threatened.  Whatever was going on, it had to be more than just a matter of preferring Led Zeppelin IV to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Disco clubs are known for outlandish clothes.  The iconic white disco suit worn by John Travolta in the film Saturday Night Fever is the first thing many people think of when they remember this era, but all sorts of bright, loud colors on polyester were the uniform of the disco club-going peacock.

Menswear from the J.C. Penney catalog, 1973.

Rock fans eventually felt the need to push back, for some reason.  T-shirts and bumper stickers announcing “Disco sucks” enjoyed a certain popularity.  Disco, too, enjoyed a lot more airplay in the late 1970s after it hit the mainstream of American culture.  Americans have always risen when their country needed them, or when they thought their country needed them; it never made much difference.  It was time to kill disco.

The movement to kill disco was spearheaded by Steve Dahl, a shock jock in Chicago who was famous for his on-air anti-disco rants.  Dahl was very popular, and was able to whip up a good number of his listeners into a frenzy, and he channeled that energy to take disco down.  Dahl got together with his station, WLUP-FM, and the Chicago White Sox for a special promotion he dubbed Disco Demolition Night.  On July 12, 1979, the White Sox were playing a double-header against the Detroit Tigers at home, in Comiskey Park.  Anyone who came to the game with a disco record could get in for the special admission price of 98¢.  Then, between the two games, the disco records would be collected, stacked in the middle of the field, and blown up.

It sounded like it would be a good promotion for the baseball team.  White Sox management said they could normally expect a crowd of about 15,000 for a game like this, but expected Disco Demolition Night to grow that number to 20,000.  As it turned out, approximately 50,000 people showed up to the game, most of them bringing disco records.  This was far more than could be collected and demolished, so eventually the promoters stopped collecting them.  Many of the uncollected records wound up being thrown like frisbees in the crowded stadium, causing injuries to people hit with the flying vinyl.  The White Sox had hired enough security to handle a crowd as large as 35,000.  The gates were closed when the stadium hit its capacity of 44,492, but people kept sneaking in anyway.  

The records started flying during the first game (which Detroit won 4-1).  Players from both teams kept their helmets on at all times to protect themselves from flying records.  Some of them came in at enough velocity to lodge themselves in the dirt on the field, so the players were rightly nervous about injury.  Some of the uncollected records were destroyed in bonfires created by attendees in the stands.  Besides the reek of burning vinyl, the smell of marijuana was everywhere.  Mike Veeck, the son of the White Sox’ owner Bill Veeck, observed of the attendees, “This is the Woodstock they never had.”  It was a violent, scary Woodstock, with a very different attitude toward peace and music.

At 8:40 PM, Dahl’s voice came over the loudspeaker, promising, “We’re gonna blow up them records reeeeeealll gooooood!”  Sure enough, they did.  A large box full of disco records and rigged with explosives was placed in the middle of the ballfield, and blown up, as promised.  When this happened, attendees rushed the field, and wouldn’t leave.  It’s estimated there were between 5,000 and 7,000 people on the field.  The teams barricaded themselves in the locker rooms while people outside made more bonfires of records, tore up the field, and stole the bases.  Announcer Harry Caray pleaded with them to return to their seats, to leave the field, but to no avail.  Holy cow.

They wouldn’t leave until they were finally dispersed by riot police at a little after 9:00 PM, to the applause of the fans who expected to be able to see the second game.  Most of them fled upon seeing the police arrive.  In the end, 39 people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.  The field had been torn up so badly that it was impossible to play the next game.  The White Sox were forced to forfeit the game to the Tigers.

Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, July 12, 1979.

The next day Dahl returned to work at WLUP, claiming that everything “went wonderfully”, and chided “the few” attendees who’d gotten out of hand.  Mike Veeck, who was responsible for putting the promotion together, was out of a job the next year when his father sold the team.  As to disco… well, it declined.  And it disappeared—in America, at least.  Sort of.  It’s more like it went underground for a while, and then came roaring back.  It’s seen revivals, and today, disco elements remain part of popular music worldwide.  You probably won’t see anyone strutting around in a white disco suit, though.  Some trends just aren’t coming back.

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, 1977


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