Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The other day, I happened upon an article on a radio trade site, where a fairly well-known radio consultant talked about being a part of a "rock" station that orchestrated a big "disco sucks" night at Chicago's Comiskey Park in the summer of 1979.  It was a stunt that turned into a sort of cultural moment, drawing more people to a White Sox game than anyone could have reasonably expected. The White Sox were having a bad season, and weren't selling huge amounts of tickets, but this game sold out.

Here's the context: a DJ who got fired from a local station that went from rock to disco was hired by a different rock station, 'The Loop." He was leading the fight against the perceived threat of disco. Was disco really a threat?  Or was it the people who listened to disco?

The idea for this stunt was that you could get into the game for a dollar if you brought disco records that would be destroyed during the radio station's event, to be held between the two games of a double header.  The record burning got out of control, people rushed onto the field, and the second game was cancelled. It was a well-publicized event, and was seen as the beginning of the end of the disco era.

I can appreciate people being sick of an all-encompassing trend, as disco certainly was at that point in time.  And I can appreciate the "tribe-building" of uniting fans by rallying them against something else.  And I can admire being able to conceive of and actually pull off a cultural event.  But....

In the article I cited above, the radio consultant says "It was all very military in strategy, as disco was looked upon as the enemy, and Loop was the army that would liberate Chicago from this menace. Rock listeners viewed this with the same fervor as Europeans looked at the liberation of their countries by the American GIs in WW2. Some viewed this as a 'book burning,' but c'mon! It was radio theater at its best. It was all tongue-in-cheek. "

I'll first point out the obvious: annoying music is annoying.  I'm pretty passionate about music, but come on, you can't really compare the "oppressiveness" of having to hear music you don't enjoy to having your country invaded by Nazi Germany. That's an irritating overreaction, but I guess some people in the media are prone to overstatement and paint in broad strokes. That's a pretty broad stroke though., I'd be curious to ask  England's post-war babies - like the members of classic rockers like The Beatles or Black Sabbath - what they think about that analogy.

But writing off the "book burning" vibe of the whole thing, and saying it was "radio theater" is a bit disingenuous to me. I don't think that people showing up *only* because they didn't like the music. You can deny it, but there was a hell of a lot of racism and homophobia fueling the anti-disco sentiment, no one working in media during that era could have been blind to that.  To harness intolerance to promote a radio (or TV "news") outlet... who would do that (cough)?

Let me put it another way: if there had been a huge event where non-white people, or gay people, were destroying records by say, Supertramp and Styx (probably staples of "rock" radio in 1979), how would *that* have gone over?

I don't have a lot of disco records.  But I love the Chic and Bee Gees music of that era. Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" is one of the sexiest records ever. And, more to the point, it holds up at least as well as whatever Foreigner or Doobie Brothers records "rock" radio stations were championing at the time. But a big part of rock and roll is rebellion and upsetting your parents. I think "I Feel Love" had more of that spirit than most Foreigner songs. I'm not trying to rip on anyone here too much.

A lot of rock fans decided they hated Rod Stewart because his "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" was seen as a "sell-out" to disco, but other artists had much cooler disco influenced songs, like The Rolling Stones ("Miss You"), Queen ("Another One Bites The Dust") and Paul McCartney ("Coming Up").

A funny thing to point out about the disco era is this: Chic, arguably the most influential disco group (as a band and as producers, they had their hands in many disco hits of the day), started out as a rock band... but they couldn't get a record deal. As the story goes, the labels didn't feel they could sell a band with all African American members to a rock audience. So Chic changed their style.  In a weird way, if that story is true, the same racism behind the "disco sucks" thing is what led to the creation of a good amount of disco music. It is a funny thing that a form of music that came almost totally from African-American influences, has so few black artists on its playlist. That's true even to this day. Other than Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and maybe War, there are very few people heard on rock radio who aren't white.  To me, if you're playing Journey and The Eagles but not James Brown or Otis Redding, you're not really rocking.

A final thought: I wonder how some of the artists played on "rock" radio felt about the record burning thing.  Bruce Springsteen's reaction to the inherent and not-subtle racism of the "disco sucks" nonsense?  He wrote "Protection" for Donna Summer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What I've noticed with the disco sucks movement is that nobody on the side saying "disco sucks" associates their behaviour with discrimination; however, this behaviour in and of itself is a form of discrimination.

If you see the underlying message, "we don't want to hear anymore disco, even if some people like it". Why should people care that some people are listening to and enjoying disco? Is it really any of their business? Of course not! It is a form of social control to assert that disco should be banished because some people do not like it.

What really shows the hypocrisy in the disco sucks movement is that people proclaimed profusely that they hated disco, but euro disco was still over the next 20 years marketed to the youth (e.g. Hi-NRG of the 1980's) without the opposition of the North American disco of the 1970's. Is this because Europeans are white?

One can argue forever what is discrimination and what is not. There is always the defense of "we did not think we were doing this", which may ultimately be true for some. After all, humans are notorious for displaying a "herd effect" similar to animals.

In any case, this is not to say that everyone who participated in the movement was actively racist. There are many people (possibly the majority), who act without introspection, and never understand the bigger picture of their actions. If people were introspective, then why do we wage so many wars?