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updated 7/10/2009 9:53:17 AM ET 2009-07-10T13:53:17

“Disco sucks!”

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It was a catchphrase you couldn’t avoid hearing three decades ago when a backlash started to develop against the ’70s dance music genre that dominated Top 40 radio stations. The resentment culminated in an unexpected riot July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. It was there fans charged onto the field during a promotional event called “Disco Demolition Night,” after Chicago DJ Steve Dahl blew up a box of disco records.

Smashing up disco records was a stunt Dahl did at area bars, but he got to bring his shtick to a wider audience when White Sox management started arranging publicity stunts to boost attendance. Over the years, the event has come to signify something larger in the culture — a point at which the implicit musical divide between whites and African-Americans became uncomfortably explicit. It also helped kill disco as a viable genre.

The hostility towards disco came to a head less than two years after the movie “Saturday Night Fever” was released, mostly because radio listeners grew tired of how dominating disco had become. Additionally, the music got associated with the lifestyle of the rich and famous because of its connection with New York’s swanky disco Studio 54. That’s ironic, because disco was forged much the way rock music was — by people who were considered outsiders.

“Disco was gay, black and Latin in spite of the fact that probably many of the people who made it happen in a very big way were white,” says Vince Aletti, the first music critic to write about disco. “Many, many people perceived it as a kind of undermining force, like rock ’n’ roll was, in a way.”

The music evolved in New York clubs (“disco” being an abbreviation of the word discothèque), where DJs would get crowds moving with exotic import records. When early club hits like Manu Debango’s “Soul Makossa” crossed over to the pop charts, a trend began to emerge. Before long American artists picked up on it and crafted music to fit the new market. One such artist was Gloria Gaynor, who had two of the first disco hits with “Honey Bee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

“(Those records) were a conscious decision to supply the up-and-coming disco market,” explains Gaynor. “I was working in clubs up and down the East Coast and Midwest, and I was seeing these cabarets being turned into discothèques.”

Studio 54 fever
Soon, white artists picked up on the music. The underground rose to the mainstream when artists like KC and the Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees got Middle America to put on its boogie shoes. Even the sedate Barry Manilow was shaking it at the “Copacabana.”

“When black people dance, that’s regarded as normal, when white people dance it’s regarded as a phenomenon,” explains rock critic Dave Marsh. “Disco isn’t listening music. Disco is active dancer music. That’s what it’s for.”

With the release of “Saturday Night Fever” in late 1977, the trend became a craze. About the same time, Studio 54 became a tabloid fixture when it became the playground of celebrities like Jerry Hall and Andy Warhol and also barred non-beautiful people from entering. Disco was now being associated with social climbing and posh fashion — not exactly the qualities that brought smiles to the faces of metal heads or punk rockers.

According to Paul Natkin, who was assigned to photograph Dahl on Disco Demolition Night, disco became “a lifestyle thing — guys in white suits with their gold chains around their necks. Rock 'n' roll was kind of T-shirts and jeans.”

But Dahl (who did not respond to interview requests for this article) also had a personal stake in the matter, Natkin and Marsh note. He had been fired from his previous DJ job at a rock station when it changed to a disco format. “Here he was out on the street on Christmas Eve,” Natkin explains. “That’s the reason he hated disco as much as he did.”

In other words, one guy with a grudge changed the face of pop music in one night. And yet, radio stations that went disco were just pleasing the public. The “Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack” album sold 11 million copies and the Bee Gees scored four number one hits from it.

Shakedown, 1979
By the summer of 1979, disco was being supplanted as the music of choice among younger listeners by heavy metal, punk rock and new wave. The year started with disco hits by Gloria Gaynor, Rod Stewart, Blondie and Donna Summer holding the top spots — and it seems significant now that the Bee Gees scored their last-ever number one on June 9, 1979, with “Love You Inside Out.” Around this time, radio stations started advertising “Bee Gees-free weekends.” Discontent was in the air(waves).

A changing of the guard seemed to happen in late August when new wavers the Knack took “My Sharona” to number one for six weeks. It also became the top song of the year. Heralding this change was Dahl, who Natkin says used to hold promotional events in bars where he’d dress in a mock Army uniform and break disco records over his head.

The reason for the Disco Demolition Night promotion, Natkin says, is that the two worst teams in the American League were playing a doubleheader and stadium owner Bill Veeck wanted to attract more than the usual 6,000-person crowd. He got his wish. “We pulled up and there were lines around the block,” says Natkin.

After the first game, Natkin says, Dahl went onto the field, “gave his little speech” and offered a box of disco records to be blown to bits. After the explosion, “the whole place went nuts,” Natkin remembers. Fans charged out from the stands, wrecking the field and causing the cancellation of the second game (the first time a game was canceled due to a factor other than weather). Eventually, police were called in.

Dahl, says Natkin, thought the event might make the front page of the local papers the next day, but Disco Demolition Night ended up national news — and controversial news at that. Dahl’s intent might have been to mock the “disco lifestyle,” but his stunt was perceived as having racist overtones. Chic’s Nile Rodgers (who would go on to produce Madonna) later likened the event to “Nazi book-burning.”

“I was appalled,” remembers Marsh. “It was your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead. It was everything you had feared come to life. Dahl didn’t come from Top 40 radio, he came from album rock radio, which was fighting to heighten its profile.”

Gaynor, whose “I Will Survive” had become a disco anthem earlier in the year, agrees: “I’ve always believed it was an economic decision — an idea created by someone whose economic bottom line was being adversely affected by the popularity of disco music. So they got a mob mentality going.”

Disco’s decline was steep. Aletti remembers working at a record label around that time, and his entire department getting renamed: “We became the dance music department. Disco became a dirty word.”

Renaming disco didn’t kill it, of course. Donna Summer still had hits, as did Michael Jackson, Lipps, Inc. and others. But an era had ended. By July 1981, the new wave magazine Trouser Press noticed disco had caught on amongst the English bands that would soon dominate the newly-created MTV. “I hate to break the news, but disco isn’t dead yet,” wrote Robert Payes in a Spandau Ballet review. “It’s just changed owners.”

These days, disco’s echoes can be heard in the work of artists like Lady Gaga, Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head and countless songs. It’s also referenced in seminal works of art such as the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” and the films “Boogie Nights” and “The Last Days of Disco.” As for the music itself, Gaynor says one reason people still take to disco is that it delivered on the egalitarian ideals that early rock ’n’ roll only promised.

“Disco never got credit for being the first and only music ever to transcend all nationalities, race, creed, color, and age groups,” Gaynor observes. “It was common ground for everyone.”

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