'The War On Disco' — PBS documentary recalls Disco Demolition Night

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
Share this Post:
Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, Chicago Illinois, July 12, 1979.<br> (photo: Diane Alexander White)
Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, Chicago Illinois, July 12, 1979.
(photo: Diane Alexander White)

What cultural conditions lead to a rock shock jock blowing up disco records and starting a riot at a ballpark? That is the question that "The War on Disco," the October 30 American Experience documentary on PBS, seeks to answer regarding the "Disco Demolition" at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12, 1979.

One of the things the documentary has going for it is a wide range of interviewees discussing the topic. Rich King, a former sportscaster from WGN-TV in Chicago, discusses the 1970s and the origins of white working class unrest that lead to the riot at Comiskey Park.

"Everything changed. We're running out of gas, all kinds of economic problems, the Vietnam War ended poorly. Malaise was a perfect description of the '70s."

Professor Adam Green of the University of Chicago puts the incident in the context of conflicts that are all too familiar, saying, "This is an early episode in what we call the 'Culture Wars.' People were fighting over what is the kind of music that should be valued."

Professor Jefferson Cowie of Vanderbilt University adds further context.

"I think in many ways the '70s are the roots of our own time. All the questions that emerged in the 1960s; about race, about gender, about sexuality; those answers are being fought over in the 1970s. But in the 1970s it's a completely different economic and political climate than it is in the 1960s. The psychology of the 1970s is both a sense of loss and a sense of unknowing. What terrible thing is going to happen next?"

A scene from 'The War On Disco'  

Green further discusses white grievance in the rust belt due to the economic downturn related to the closing of auto plants and related industries:

"A young white male, seeing the closing of these plants and he's saying, 'Well what's going to be my future? Am I going to actually have a job?'"

Boogie fever
Joe Shanahan, former owner of the Chicago club Metro tells how a gay Black club led to the rise of disco music in New York in 1972.

"There was a club in New York called The Loft, an underground gay basically black club," he says in the film. "From The Loft we find out about a very important record called Soul Makossa. And Soul Makossa was this kind of African beat."

Ray Smith, a New York club patron, gives a feeling of the joy of disco. "With the trauma and the darkness of those early '70s years there was a clamoring for something light, something to happen. It was disco."

Felipe Rose of the Village People dances on a bar, 1980. (photo: Alamy)  

Smith also talks about the Firehouse, the Gay Activist Alliance dance club. "A few years after I moved to New York, the Gay Activist Alliance purchased an old retired firehouse in SoHo," he recalls. "It was the first club owned outright by gays — and it was ours, we owned it, we felt free!"

At this my ears pricked up, because here in San Francisco there had been clubs owned by both gays and lesbians since the 1950s. It was a sign of problems to come with "The War on Disco."

Daphne Brooks, Professor of African American Studies at Yale University, talks about the importance of disco music and liberation in the `70s.

"For Black and brown LGBTQ communities, where can you find the space to engage in everyday dreaming and to be able to collaborate in that dreaming with dance floor partners?" she asks. "Disco was finding joy in your body. So it made so much sense that in the '70s you would see this kind of turn towards pleasure and disco became kind of the sonic accompaniment to those joyous revolts against patriarchy and homophobia."

The 'Saturday Night Fever' album  

The film "Saturday Night Fever" was released on December 12, 1977. Cowie addressed its impact. "'Saturday Night Fever' surprises everybody by its scope and its power. Everyone responds; it's enormous. The soundtrack is enormous, the movie is enormous."

Studio 54, which opened on April 26, 1977, also provides a context for the coming backlash with its velvet rope and door policy. Green explains, "The idea that the doorman looks at you at the door and says 'You can go in. You can't go in' to the working class guy who goes to Comiskey Park, the guy who's wondering how he's going to make a living — to that guy that doorman outside the club is a sign of exclusivity and elitism."

The riot at Disco Demolition night, Comiskey Park (photo: PBS)  

Personal grudge
Steve Dahl had been a rock disc jockey at WDAI in Chicago. He was fired on December 24, 1978 when the station moved to a disco format. Hired by WLUP, he began using the phrase "disco sucks" on his radio station. Dahl thought up the Disco Demolition promotion.

Ayana Contreras, music director at Chicago NPR affiliate 91.1 FM, discusses the Bridgeport neighborhood where Comiskey Park is located.

"Bridgeport was sort of like a sundown neighborhood, where it was evident that you were not supposed to be there after dark if you were a Black person," she says.

Disco Demolition went wildly awry. They were hoping for 20,000 fans to show up (about 5,000 more than usual). More than 50,000 people showed up. Dahl made announcements over the loudspeaker like, "They're not going to shove it down our throats. We rock and rollers will resist, and we will triumph!"

After the first game, when the demolition occurred, fans streamed onto the field and a riot ensued. There were fires on the field and the second game was cancelled. There was an almost immediate reaction. Felipe Rose of the Village People tells of that reaction.

The crowd sets records on fire at Disco Demolition night, Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois, July 12, 1979. (photo: Chicago History Museum)  

"The event at Comiskey Park was the moment that set the fuse. And some of the radio stations stopped playing disco music. Not slowly — overnight."

Singer Linda Clifford relates the heartbreaking effects of this change.

"The bookings stopped," she says. "The phone calls stopped. There was no work. I don't think they thought about how badly they could hurt people — women especially, because this was a time when women were really moving into the music industry and having successes. My heart dropped. I don't know what the effect might have been for the average person out there to see it. I know what it did to me."

The major problem with The War on Disco is that it describes a thing that did not happen. Dance music did not go away after the Disco Demolition. I was working at a record store in East Lansing and my local gay bar in Lansing hired me to do a rock dance night in 1980 where I played music by Devo, the B-52s, OMD, Gary Numan, and Fad Gadget. Rock music, New Wave particularly, incorporated the dance rhythms of disco.

In clubs around the country, dance music continued to be wildly popular. Diana Ross had a gigantic hit with "I'm Coming Out" in 1980 — written and produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic, who did not stop working in the music industry.

"Funkytown" by Lipps Inc., also released in March 1980, was inescapable. "Celebration" by Kool & The Gang was released in 1980 and became a Billboard #1 hit in February 1981 — and if you have been to a wedding between then and now you have heard it.

The documentary also has an Eastern insularity to it. A certain San Francisco musician you may have heard of by the name Sylvester did not stop recording in 1979 after the Disco Demolition.

Still "The War on Disco" is interesting and well worth watching. It will spawn hours of debate. The music is fabulous, of course. They even manage to include a song by MFSB, a Philadelphia band that represents a disco sound from a city that somehow escapes mention in the documentary.


Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.