Over at Washington Monthly today, Ed Kilgore has been commemorating an anniversary:
34 years ago today the Chicago White Sox hosted the infamous Disco Demolition Night, in which fans were given a discount admission price at Comiskey Park for bringing a disco record to be destroyed in a dumpster between games of a doubleheader. The promotion worked a little too well, as a sold-out park erupted into chaos and the White Sox were forced to forfeit a game....In response to that moment in 1979, Kilgore has been ending every post with a video from a musical genre he clearly loathes -- as, perhaps, you do as well.
So we'll be honoring the Worst of Disco today....
But at the risk of going all Slate-pitchy, I'd like to make the case that Disco Demolition Night was an early harbinger of the right-wing backlash that had become obvious a year earlier with the passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13 in California, and fully took root a year later with the election of Ronald Reagan.
Even if you loathe disco, think about what it was. It was music that was black and white, gay and straight -- you could argue that the disco coalition looked like the Obama coalition thirty years later. It was, in part, the music of groups that had had second-class status in America and didn't want to take that anymore.
Now think about rock in 1979: what had once been a multiracial form of music, with Buddy Holly sharing the spotlight with Little Richard and Richie Valens (ne Valenzuela), had become virtually a whites-only club by the late 1970s. On album-rock radio stations, the only black performer you were likely to hear was Jimi Hendrix, and he'd been dead nearly a decade. Prince put out his first record in 1979, but you didn't hear it on rock radio.
To some extent, the disco backlash was understandable -- disco dominated top 40 radio, and a lot of it was schlock with a monotonous beat. But what seemed to piss a lot of rock fans off was the sense that it was an injustice for radio to play music that wasn't by white guys with guitars. Remind you of anything? The sense that whatever white people prefer should be what we get, with no one else allowed to express a preference?
And with those white people throwing a fit if they don't get their way, which is what happened on Disco Demolition Night?
In the warm air that night, baseball's routine and soothing sounds mixed with the tribal cadence of off-color chanting, the drifting scent of marijuana and the sight of vinyl records descending through the summer dusk like Frisbees.People call it "the night when disco died," but disco didn't die. Sure, it fell from the charts, but disco-ish records kept being made, and disco had already started working its DNA into other forms of music. You listen to the later Talking Heads music and you think, "Oh, that's not disco, that's African-influenced" -- but I read a David Byrne interview back when I was in college in which he raved about Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," so that was in there, too. You heard disco in the music of the Stones and Queen and the Clash and Blondie and Bowie and Joy Division; Prince and Michael Jackson and Rick James built on what disco had done; rap started as disco instrumentals with Americanized Jamaican toasting; and even to this day, the likes of LCD Soundsystem are unimaginable without disco.
"They would slice around you and stick in the ground," Rusty Staub said. "It wasn't just one, it was many. Oh, God almighty, I've never seen anything so dangerous in my life. I begged the guys to put on their batting helmets."
... Jack Morris, a Tigers pitcher, recalled "whiskey bottles were flying over our dugout" after Detroit won the first game, 4-1.
Then [shock jock Steve] Dahl blew up the records.
"And then all hell broke loose," [Jack] Morris [of the Tigers] said. "They charged the field and started tearing up the pitching rubber and the dirt. They took the bases. They started digging out home plate."
The batting cage was dragged out and trashed; fans burned banners and climbed foul poles. Above the field, Hemond's private box sheltered the wife and children of Don Kessinger, the White Sox' manager, but fans tried to climb inside....
Rock didn't permanently lose its place of privilege to disco, but disco started what rap pretty much finished. There's still good rock, but white guys don't dominate popular music anymore. Again, sound familiar?
I like rock, including classic rock, but classic rock is now a refuge for a lot of white guys who still haven't gotten over the fact that pop culture changed. Country music, too -- and country music these days basically sounds like '70s rock.
I'm glad we have a mongrel culture now. Disco Demolition Night was an American embarrassment. It seems more like modern Republican politics every time I think about it.