Disco Demolition Night Was Not Racist, Not Anti-Gay
I’m worn out from defending myself, this event was just kids pissing on a musical genre
It was a very different time for Chicago than it was for London or New York City. This sturdy Midwestern town was not hosting late night clubs with red ropes. It was only rock and roll and that’s the way the young kids liked it.
They had their t-shirts and their ripped jeans, their long hair and their long neck beers. Their music heroes played rough and loud. Their parents had Paul Anka and Andy Williams. Mom and Dad had shaken their heads at Elvis with his gyrations. This was part two of the rock and roll playbook. Loud anthem music was functioning as a rite of passage: a sure way to push back from adults without burning every bridge. Every generation has its rebellion, and the music was providing a soundtrack for the 70s. These kids did not wish to be tamed or curated.
Then Tony Manero was created. He morphed from an article by a British writer (Nic Cohn, in New York magazine) who identified the disco world as the “New Saturday Night” in New York. The movie was a smash, the soundtrack exploded. Then the principle of crossing from being a nobody to a somebody, as pictured in the film, seemed to demand a repudiation of all things rough — like rock and roll and bar nights.
Chicago kids liked their Saturday nights just as they had been experiencing them. Dress up? No. Dance lessons? Hell, no. Cover charge? No. The Bee Gees had popped out a bouncy album, and the girls were ready to dress up, twirl and be twirled. The storyline seemed to demean the ordinary life that kids inhabited in favor of Manhattan glitz. No.
I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe for fronting Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park. This event was just a moment in time. Not racist, not anti-gay. Just kids, pissing on a musical genre… just as they pissed upon Perry Como. They were choosing to remain faithful to the bands that provided the backdrop to their lives.
If anything, the pushback from disco saturation was an act of self-preservation. No kid, just figuring out who he was and where he was going, would be prepared to have his assimilated rock and roll identity stripped from him. If the resistance was furious, it was because they were not prepared to shuck the rock and roll, which had sheltered them in their transition from kid to adult.
Annexing this event to today’s advocacy is lazy academically and inappropriate geographically. We did not have the scene that London and New York City had. No Studio 54. No secret venues for gay folks. The voices making social commentary were musicians in groups like The Village People. For them, the declaration for disco may have had an agenda of inclusion. For us, the push back was just an impulsive movement to declare that our music mattered to us, and we weren’t going to be lured into Disco DAI, or any club that did not honor our roots. It is the right of each generation to declare, “this is who I am.” And to dance to the beat they choose to dance to — even if it is only head thrashing. No harm was intended, none was conveyed.
And so, when Rod Stewart strutted to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Mick Jagger preened to “Miss You,” it seemed that the rock loyalty might be one-sided. Their heroes were appropriating disco beats and fancy dress codes. The ultimate rebuke to the Chicago rock and roll lifestyle happened in January, 1979, when legacy rock radio station WDAI fired me to become a disco-only station. I had only been in Chicago for twelve months, but Chicago kids had grown up with WDAI, from the British invasion to the present times. They felt stripped of something essential to their formative years. Any rage and resistance was undirected: no ethnic group or sexual orientation was part of the equation. The loss of the station was a repudiation of their still-evolving psyches.
I got a new job at The Loop, a rock and roll altar. Callers welcomed me with warm wishes and voiced the mantra “disco sucks!” They were passionate about their music and their lifestyles. I tapped into it, both as a response to being canned to make room for the disco format, and to build a community so I could keep my job. My take was always based in humor, pointing out the discomfort of having to dress a part to go to a bar.
It is important to me to have this viewed in the 1979 lens. It was an epic radio promotion that tapped into the precise audience it targeted. No one was harmed. My takeaway: I had company in my disco disenfranchisement. The fact is, I still cannot dance, and I am uncomfortable in a suit. That evening was just a declaration of independence from the tyranny of sophistication.
We were not quite ready to dress for success or give up our clattering soundtrack for disco beats. I never wanted to mount or lead a social movement. I wanted to entertain and to supply a pressure release for kids who had too little money and too much awkwardness for the dance world. It was a moment to say, “the music you revere is great, and you are okay just as you are. Don’t be pressured to wear a costume to win a girl or impress others. You’re fine.” Who doesn’t like to hear that?
It was a moment, quite a moment. I like to think of it as illustrative of the power that radio has to create community, share similarities and frustrations. It is for that magic that I wish to keep the memory severed from those who ascribe hateful motives to it.
I was there — overwhelmed, twenty-four, and just a little bit frightened by the masses. The visuals may have sparked an early demise for disco formats, and that was fine for me — no one can dance twenty-four hours a day, and I could not work in that glitzy format. And we old Coho Lips, we still need our rock and roll as the main dish, but we’ve mellowed. But we will never love Rod Stewart singing the standards. I’d break that record, too — if there were records.
Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died is a comprehensive oral history of the events preceding and following Disco Demolition, a look at Chicago culture circa 1979, and how Chicago house music followed disco. This book was written in the context of that period.
And everything is on the record.
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Excerpted from Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died by Steve Dahl with Dave Hoekstra and Paul Natkin, published by Curbside Splendor. Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and direct from Curbside Splendor other fine retailers.