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When Disco Music Became A Threat And Someone Tried To Burn It

by hridika ahire
When Disco Music Became A Threat And Someone Tried To Burn It

February 18, 2021

Black, Feminists, LGBTQ+ - these communities have seen it all. People in society have looked down upon them and suppressed them for centuries. They've been denied fundamental rights, and they still face injustice in some way or another. While the allegedly "unconventional people" face discrimination based on their identity worldwide, you'd be shocked to know why people hated one of the most popular music forms – Disco, for racial reasons!

Rock and Roll music was the most famous music genre in America in 1950. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, a new genre came to light. It became increasingly popular amongst African Americans, Hispanic and Latin Americans, Italian Americans and the gay community. Many guessed the reason behind it to be the flashy clothes and gold chains used in disco music (textbook case of stereotyping).

And this new rising genre didn’t sit right by the “true” American audience because of, well, underlying racist tendencies.

Disco-Demolition-Night-Causes-Riot-at-Chicago-White-Sox-Game-scoolbuzz
Fans storm the field at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on Disco Demolition Night, July 12, 1979.

Popularising Disco Music - That 70s Groove

While the hate against disco was there, its popularity was acknowledged and cashed in on by many artists and filmmakers, as they amassed money in popularising the Disco music. Disco became so popular in the 70s that night clubs like Studio 54, a prominent club for celebrities, started playing it.

Disco was often more associated with the gay community, but movies like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Thank God It’s Friday (1978) made it more popular and more inclusive of straight people. The Saturday Night Fever album was named Album of the Year at the 1978 Grammys.

The Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost” are recorded as the first disco songs which came out in 1973. Major hits in the 1970s disco industry were Peaches and Herbs’ “Shake Your Groove Thing“, Sylvester’s “Mighty Real“, and Donna Summers’ “Love to Love You Baby“.

Disco-Demolition-has-been-described-as-racist-and-homophobic-scoolbuzz
Disco Demolition has been described as racist and homophobic. After all, it was a mostly white working class men raging against a style of music that was enjoyed in the African-American, Latino, and gay communities.

Rock v/s Disco Music - Battle of a Lifetime

But as you know, when something becomes immensely popular, there are always those who criticise it and try to tarnish its popularity. The same thing happened with disco music at the time.

As disco music emerged, the previously loved Rock n Roll music faced a considerable downtime. Artists and record labels could not sell their rock music like before, which fuelled the rock lovers’ hatred toward disco.

The diverse rocker Frank Zappa mocked this dancing art and its wardrobe infatuation with songs like “Disco Boy” and “Dancin’ Fool“, the last including verses like:

Yowza, Yowza, Yowza

I got it all together now.

With my very own disco clothes

My shirt’s half-open to show you my chains

And the spoon for up my nose

The “spoon” in the lyrics indicated cocaine, which allegedly was a part of the disco scene of the 1970s, along with ‘promiscuous sex’. However, neither of these activities can be, and have been, limited to the disco or any particular period.

Disco Sucks - Steve Dahl's Ban Disco Movement

The most famous movement to ban Disco music started when Steve Dahl, a disc jockey (DJ), was fired from a local radio station in Chicago- WDAI. The reason for firing – Dahl had a Rock n Roll show, and the radio station wanted to scrap it to gain some clout by replacing it with a Disco show.

Dahl started a ‘Disco Sucks‘ movement soon after that. He gained a lot of popularity from it as racism and homophobia thrived in 1970s America. The ‘Disco Sucks’ movement became so popular that they even had t-shirts printed for it.

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In 1979, rock DJ Steve Dahl donned a combat helmet to blow up a crate of disco records, a stunt now known as Disco Demolition

Do You Think I’m Disco​?

To mock disco and its artists, Dahl released a parody named ‘Do You Think I’m Disco‘ for the Rod Stewart song ‘Da’ Ya’ Think I’m Sexy‘. This parody became so popular that it reached Billboard’s top 100s list.

On July 12, 1979, Chicago White Sox were scheduled to play a double game at the Comiskey Park against Detroit Tigers. The then promotor, Bill Veeck, was very famous for his tactics. He would often arrange free haircuts, showers, and many things to fill the seats.

Veeck and his son heard about the increasingly popular Disco Sucks movement and its leader Steve Dahl. Bill’s son suggested using Dahl to bring more crowd for the game this time, and they approached Dahl.

Veeck announced that people would have to pay as little as 85 cents if they brought a ‘disco record’, which Dahl himself would then burn in the field’s centre (crowd-pulling technique 101).

Rod-Stewart–Da-Ya-Think-I-m-Sexy-scoolbuzz
Disco Lab #18: Rod Stewart – ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ (1978)

Cat Got Out of the Bag for Disco Sucks

What Veeck and his aides didn’t realise was just how big the Disco Sucks movement had gotten. The organisers made arrangements for 20,000 people, which was already more than the standard figure. However, 50,000 people arrived at the park with disco records in their hands, waiting to burn the music quite literally.

That wasn’t all. People who could not get in the stadium lined ladders to the park walls and climbed over them to witness Dahl and support his burning cause against disco, and not the actual game.

Dan Petri, a rookie pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, was playing on Disco Demolition Night. Petri said “I thought these fans in Chicago were the best because they’re saying ‘Let’s go, Sox! Let’s go, Sox! But they were chanting, ‘Disco sucks! Disco sucks!'”

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Chicago police disperse crowd in center field of Chicago's White Sox Park after hundreds of disco records were blown up between games of a double-header between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, July 12, 1980. Some 7,000 fans of a 50,000-fan crowd jammed the field during an Anti-Disco promotion sponsored by a local radio station. Second game had to be called when umpires ruled the field unfit for play.

Literal Riot Against Disco

After the first game, it was showtime! Dahl came to the centre of the field, and the staff had collected some record from the crowd, but they were severely outnumbered.

What started as a promotional event, soon turned into a riot. Dahl burned the collected records, and the records that weren’t collected were used as frisbees by the people! The event turned into a riot when people started running toward the field to capture the record-turned-frisbee.

The late Rusty Staub, a then player representative for the Tigers, remembered how the fans were climbing the foul poles and using vinyl albums like frisbees.

They would slice about you and stick in the area. It wasn't just one. It was many. Oh, God almighty, I've never witnessed anything so serious in my life. I requested the guys to put on their batting helmets.

- Rusty Staub, Player representative for the Tigers Tweet
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Some of more than 7,000 fans of a 50,000-crowd at Chicago's White Sox park storm the field following the first game of a scheduled doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, July 12, 1979. The second game had to be called off when umpires ruled the field unfit for play. Melee followed a burning of disco records on the field by an anti-disco radio station.

The Disco Demolition Night Turned Riot - A Light on Race Relations

If you google images for the Disco Demolition Night, you’ll see that 99.9% of the people involved in the rampage were White. It was apparent that they were trying to destroy an essential part of music for the black and gay community.

This showed inherent the racism and homophobia that was very prevalent in this so-called anti-disco movement. It had very little to do with actual music and almost everything with the people who were associated with the new genre.

This riot went on for quite some time and died only when police were called, and 39 people were arrested — 39 out of the 50,000 people that were present. The night was so horrible for disco lovers that it came to be known as the ‘Disco Demolition Night’.

Following Disco Demolition Night’s events, the music faced a low time and later came back as ‘House Music’. House Music then gave birth to electronic dance music and hip-hop, which are now one of the most famous music genres.

This look back at the history of disco music shows how fragile the lines of society’s civil harmony are when one powerful section gets unsettled by a mere music genre that tries to give a platform to those who have been suppressed for centuries.

Well, let’s hope that we don’t see any more riots in this century that originate from our music choices – one can only hope.

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