What Does Disco’s Demolition Tell Us About Music’s Current State?
The demise of disco in the late 1970s was as dramatic as it was culturally and socially devastating. What did it all mean? And are we destined for a repeat?
Summer, 1979. Steve Dahl wasn’t happy. As a DJ he was watching his beloved Zeppelin and Stones falling away from radio airplay. Listener demand had shifted. The Village People, Donna Summer and CHIC – these were the names they wanted.
Dahl wasn’t having it. But when his station jumped formats, the 24-year-old was out of a job. Disgruntled though he was, he quickly found another.
Back on air, he began a new segment. It went by the name of ‘Disco Sucks’. The premise was simple. Listeners would phone in and tell Dahl the name of a disco song. In return, he’d destroy the single live on air. Melodramatic sound effects would be thrown in too, of course. Just to liven it up.
Behind it all was the sentiment that something wasn’t right. While disco’s success was unequivocal, a growing community of listeners felt disconnected. As the music was being shoved down listener’s throats, a movement was catching fire. An anti-disco revolution.
With growing support, Dahl would take his crusade further still. He teamed up with a partner in crime. The co-conspirator was Bill Veeck, owner of local sporting team the Chicago White Sox. It turned out that the Veeck also ran the Sox home stadium too.
An agreement was struck. In the lead up to two back-to-back matches on the 12th of July, it would be announced that anyone bringing a disco record to the park would receive a discounted ticket. The low fee of 98 cents was expected to boost attendance by a couple thousand. In exchange, Dahl was permitted to detonate a crateload of records on the field.
But the why and how wasn’t so important, just so long as Steve didn’t damage the turf. “Not a problem!” And what a neat little publicity stunt it would be, they thought.
This is where things got out of hand. Even with Dahl’s anti-disco acolytes the stadium was only expecting an attendance of around 16,000.
59,000 turned up.
On cue, Dahl appeared following game one. Wearing a combat helmet and military fatigues he tore across the field in an open-topped jeep. Disembarking he stood before his crowd. From a megaphone he led a war cry, “Disco sucks!” The appreciative crowd pelted him with beer, small fireworks and snacks.
A giant crate of records was hauled on field. It contained some 100,000 discs collected earlier in the night. Cue the explosives. BOOM. Debris flew in all directions. Vinyl carnage.
It was then that all hell broke loose. The congregation was incised. Before the second match could begin a mob of several thousand stormed the pitch. Gleefully they continued the chant. “Disco sucks!”
They caused havoc, many creating roaring fires. Their fuel? Mountains of molten disco. It was bedlam. Then came the riot police.
Dahl had lit a funeral pyre. But it was no isolated event. Lower-key rallies and publicity stunts were springing up all across the USA. ‘Disco Sucks’ had become a graffiti slogan. Why were these people so worked up? What was it all about?
Times were tough. The US was in a recession. It had just come out of a confusing and unpopular conflict in Vietnam. Cold War paranoia hang heavy. All the while disco was reaching critical mass. Radio stations were jettisoning older formats for all-disco rotation. But the rock generation was still wondering whatever happened to the Sixties Dream. Many still believed that music could make a difference, yet what they were seeing was rock’s heroic quest – it’s freedoms – curtailed.
There was a darker shade to it too. As the popular narrative goes, disco was viewed as a threat. It was seen as the domain of homosexuals and ethnic minorities: deviant elements in need of control.
As many observers of Dahl’s caper noted, the records disposed of at disco’s demolition weren’t disco at all. Witnesses had sighted the names of Cutis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Tyrone Davis and Otis Clay amongst the discs slated for destruction. Those who had rallied against disco weren’t just disavowing a genre but Black American art. In a country scantly holding onto its newfound Civil Rights, there was a genuine fear.
But many weren’t looking past the surface. How could they? Disco came accessorised with a dazzling attire. Platforms, pina coladas, jewellery and fancy suits! To the rockers, it was slick and inauthentic. They saw it as an embodiment of social climbing, high fashion and tabloid culture. To them, its derision was justified, a backlash against elitism from a middle-class who were being squeezed.
What they couldn’t see was that disco was changing the world for the better. Occupying an implicit gulf between white mainstream sensitivities and black, gay and Latino communities, it had begun as the music of the marginalised. It provided a sense of tribalism and identity. It was a space for outsiders and an opportunity for those who would never have been recognised otherwise.
As it ascended, disco danced to liberation, challenging the colligate hegemony of rock and even celebrating the career of the first openly homosexual star Sylvester. It was popular music directly shaped by gay taste. An unprecedented cultural shift.
But while disco’s fall from eminence came fuelled by testosterone and fragile masculinity, its ultimate end may be more complex. There was also the simple matter of what had gone up necessarily coming down. Its onset was incremental. It had started around ’74.
At first it was a new craze. It gestated in Black American dance music. Scenes were raging in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby kicked things into overdrive in ’75 and from here disco continued to climb to the charts with a succession of million-selling hits. Gaining speed its inferno blazed into clubs across the USA and further abroad. ‘76 through to ‘77 it hit the big time. Names like Patti LaBelle and Mick Jagger were lounging around New York’s elite nightspots.
Then in ’78 came an utter breakthrough.
Saturday Night Fever was a peculiar thing. As a blockbuster film, it didn’t exactly document what was happening in clubs. In all truth, the screenplay developed from rock writer Nick Cohn’s own reflections on England’s Mod culture during the ‘60s and the better part of its million-selling soundtrack came from a marginal Australian outfit on the verge of collapse, the Bee Gees.
It crossed over. The Bee Gees became immortal and disco itself seized mainstream dominance. The sound which had been courting charts was now flooding them.
Total fallout saturation. Everything went disco crazy. Whether motivated by art or commercial necessity it seemed like every musical figure was cutting disco flavoured tunes.
Kiss, The Grateful Dead, Paul McCartney, Blondie, The Stones, Queen, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Dolly Parton, and Shirley Bassey – everybody was hustling for a disco hit.
Stereos became flooded. But for those who never viewed it as more than a novelty it got old fast. Disco became a dirty word. The glitz ‘n’ glamour came to fade as the movement spiralled into some of the most disposable records of the period if not all time.
But any way you cut it there was a backlash. It was palpably real. From 1979 to 1980 record sales in the US fell by 10%, 20 in the UK. The decline of disco is often attributed as a definitive cause.
Yet this demise was a symbolic death. Deftly manoeuvring the backlash, labels jettisoned the disco tag. It was now ‘dance’. Its biggest stars continued unabated. Donna Summer continued to have hits well into the ‘80s and disco continued to pave the way for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
What’s more, the club scene remained. People still wanted to dance. Cities like Chicago and Detroit remained holdouts and when the flow of hits stopped coming DJs started making their own. They didn’t have access to elite studios, orchestral backings or crack session-musicians. This was firmly DIY. Alongside smaller labels and artists they kept the dancefloors pumping.
From ’81 to ’85 disco went alternative. As the drum machines, synthesisers and sequencers which had formed part of the disco sound became more readily accessible artists began experimenting. Some innovated over its form, leading to the post-disco movement, a constellation so loose it ranges from New Order to Arthur Russell.
A spiritual successor emerged with house. Stripping it down to the bare breaks this minimal strain of music caught on in Chicago and Detroit around ‘84. Before long, it was spreading.
Others took disco’s inspiration to new places. Ian Dury’s Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick and M’s Pop Muzik kick-started new wave. But influence filtered elsewhere too. Disco sparked the fires of Hi NRG, techno, electro, freestyle, second wave industrial, electro funk and hip hop’s formative grooves.
In Europe, it continued unabated. Disco flourished while becoming ever more entwined with mainstream pop. ABBA had, after all, been one of their great musical exports during the height of the disco craze. The evolution of Italio disco remains a particular fixation for modern fans.
By the 80s’ midpoint, pop music had a disco resurgence. Names like The Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, and Erasure conquered charts with disco-tinted sounds. David Bowie hit his greatest commercial peak with Let’s Dance, a song produced by Nile Rodgers of CHIC.
Then, suddenly, house rose to prominence. In ‘86 MARRS’ Pump Up The Volume hit number one in the UK. Acid house struck and two years later Manchester was going mad. It was another ground zero. Enter rave culture.
Arguably by the time the ‘90s rolled round music had come full circle. Grandchildren like drum ‘n’ bass, popified techno, house and trance struck big. Dance music remained a mainstay of the commercial sound while continuing to proliferate underground all the same.
As the dance music of the ‘90s cascaded into the mainstream it culminated with nu-disco and immortalised Daft Punk. This side of Y2K, new rave flourished. Then EDM. All the while house and techno continued spawning endless mutations.
Music comes and goes. But of all its movements none seemed to quite possess the evocative narrative of disco’s heroic rise and rapid demise. Its life was – in a word – dramatic. Even within this cutthroat world of music, its end was abrupt. No sooner had its triumphant moment moved in did it all slip away.
Disco lived on, of course, as all genres do. It didn’t end but went to ground, spilling outward. Disco wasn’t a dead-end but a springboard for new possibility.
Love remained the message. Even when the bubble burst, the music never lost its pulse. Disco extended a decades-long invitation to hedonism. Many got funky others got loose. But just as equally it’s flash and glamour offered empowerment and liberation. Its resilience marks a dogged determination to fly in the faces of prejudice and inequality.
But where are we now? Could something like disco’s demolition happen again today? Surely there’s a lesson.
Strange days have found us. After a loosely analogous gestation, hip hop dominates the charts. It’s on the rise and challenging the status quo. Could we be heading for saturation? Rock has led a longer life than most but once again critics are placing it somewhere between dead and diminished. Maybe it’s ready for a disco-like dive before resurgence can come again.
Perhaps we’re on the verge of another blowback. But this time it isn’t the record labels and radio pushing the music forward, but Big Tech. Many fans were notably disgruntled to wake up earlier this year to find images of Drake plastered over their ‘advertising free’ Spotify accounts in order to promote his fifth album, Scorpion. And how long before Apple decides to gift us with another Songs of Innocence?
As disco’s demolition illuminates, forcing music upon people, even when it’s proven to be massively successful, can breed contempt. To industry, music is nothing more than money but fans have always thought it as something more. Commerce and popular demand often tend to run in the same direction, but disco’s ending demonstrates what happens when a grassroots movement pivots in opposition. It’s a silver bullet.
There’s a limit to hype. Disco wasn’t music’s first over-commercialised musical folly, and neither is it the last. In the ‘60s it was The Boston Sound. Label MGM thought it could emulate the grassroots psychedelia of San Francisco but all it managed to achieve was bringing itself to financial ruin in an attempt to convince the American youth that a band called Ultimate Spinach could be bigger than The Grateful Dead. They weren’t. Countless other sensations have followed.
History always repeats yet never in the same way and all that, but the point is here is that industry mechanisms do have an outward limit when it comes to tempering consumer taste. The wool can only be pulled down over the consumers’ eyes so much. One day they wake up and see the forest from the trees.
We’re living in an era of populist movements. Neither media nor experts fully understand them, yet they wield a real power. Disco’s demolition is a chilling reminder that – what’s the saying? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
It demonstrated that something as innocuous and innocent as a fevered passion for rock ‘n’ roll can carry an undertow of oppression. Disco’s demolition sent more disturbing ripples than its good-hearted but less-than-enlightened participants conceived. A potent torrent of hate lay hidden within its seductive logic. Even if those who were there don’t care to admit, the prejudice was sitting there all along. It was sitting there in plainest sight.
What a downer of a note to end it on. But forget it all for just a minute. Flick on some Donna Summer.