July 12, 1979: 'The Night Disco Died' — Or Didn't

It was the summer of 1979, and disco was taking over the world. Donna Summer, Chic and Gloria Gaynor were at the top of the charts. Just a few months earlier, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had been named Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Radio stations were switching to all-disco formats.

Steve Dahl, then a 24-year-old disc jockey, was mad. He had been fired from a Chicago radio station when it, too, went all-disco. In his new job at a rival rock station, he took out his frustration by destroying disco records on the air.

"Back in the day when we had turntables, I would drag the needle across the record and blow it up with a sound effect," Dahl says. "And people liked that."

Pretty soon, station reps and Chicago White Sox promoters had the crazy idea of actually blowing up disco records. The team was averaging just 16,000 fans a game and would have done anything to fill Comiskey Park. So, on a muggy Thursday night doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, fans could bring a disco record and get in for less than $1. What transpired came to be known as "Disco Demolition" and is the subject of Dahl's new book Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died, co-written with Dave Hoekstra.

At the time, Jim Maines was a long-haired, working-class 19-year-old from the South Side. "We thought we'd be the only ones that showed up that night, but when we got there, it was unbelievable," he says. He was among roughly 50,000 rowdy fans, some of whom started using records as Frisbees. ("Oh, you can throw them very hard," Maines says. "It was like a big party in there.")

Also at the game was a teenaged usher named Vince Lawrence, who says he'd hoped to snag a few disco records to take home. Then an aspiring musician who was saving up money for a synthesizer, he says he was one of the few African Americans there that night. Soon, he began to notice something about the records some people were bringing.

"Tyrone Davis records, friggin' Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records," he recalls. "Records that were clearly not disco," but that were by black artists.

After the Sox lost the first game, a giant crate full of records was placed in the outfield. Dahl, the disgruntled disc jockey, donned a combat helmet and military jacket and led chants of "disco sucks." Then they blew up the crate. The explosion scattered records high into the air and left a crater in center field.

But Maines says the pitcher still started to warm up for the second game. "And then all of a sudden, somebody ran by him from the stands. And then once they seen one person run by, then everybody started going over the wall," he says. An estimated 7,000 people slid down the foul poles, lit things on fire and literally stole the bases. The White Sox had to forfeit the second game.

"I was faced with some guy rushing up to me, snapping a record in half in in my face and going, 'Disco sucks! Ya see that?'" Lawrence says. "Like an overt statement to me like I was inherently disco."

Over the years, Disco Demolition came to be seen as a not-so-subtle attack against disco's early adopters: blacks, Latinos and gay people. Dahl, who helped write the new book, calls this revisionist history.

"When you see the images of Disco Demolition, it looks like a book burning," he says. "But it really wasn't like that."

Lawrence isn't so sure. "I was in the crowd, and that was the mentality of the person who was coming," he says. "If Steve Dahl says he wasn't calling those people out ... funny how they came."

"I didn't know what I was tapping into, honestly," Dahl says. "It obviously threatened a certain group of rockers."

The subtitle of Dahl's book is "The Night Disco Died" — but disco never really died. In Chicago, it went underground and was reborn several years later as house music. Present at house's creation was none other than Vince Lawrence, who was still spinning records salvaged from Disco Demolition. He'd gotten his synthesizer, too, and ended up co-writing "On and On," one of the first Chicago house anthems.

"It's ironic, that while you were blowing up disco records you were helping to create [house music]," Lawrence says. "And I don't know, I kind of laugh because it's funny how things work out."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In the summer of 1979, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor were at the top of the charts. Disco was everywhere. Then, one night in July, something changed, and within two years, the music had faded from the charts. That night was known as Disco Demolition. And reporter Derek John takes us back to that time.

DEREK JOHN, BYLINE: Steve Dahl was mad. At the end of 1978, the 24-year-old disc jockey had been fired from a Chicago radio station when it switched to an all-disco format. Dahl took out his frustration in his new job at a rival rock station where he destroyed disco records on the air.

STEVE DAHL: Back in the day, when we had turntables, I would drag the needle across the record and blow it up with a sound effect, and people liked that.

JOHN: He even created a parody song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU THINK I'M DISCO?")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) My shirt is open. I never use the buttons. Though I look hip, I work for E.F. Hutton. Do you think I'm disco 'cause I spend so much time blow-drying out my hair?

JOHN: Pretty soon station reps and White Sox promoters had the crazy idea of blowing disco records up for real. The team was averaging only 16,000 fans a game and they'd do anything to fill old Comiskey Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Saturday night's going to be Irish Night.

JOHN: So on a muggy Thursday night doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, fans could bring a disco record and get in for less than a buck.

JIM MAINES: We thought we'd be, like, the only few that would show up that night. When we got there, it was, like, unbelievable.

JOHN: Jim Maines was a long-haired, 19-year-old working-class kid from the south side. He was among roughly 50,000 rowdy fans, some of whom started using records as frisbees.

MAINES: Oh, you can throw them very hard. It was like a big party in there. There was a lot of pot smoking. I mean, it was the '70s again, you know?

JOHN: Also at the game was a teenage usher named Vince Lawrence.

VINCE LAWRENCE: When I got there, I got myself assigned to the gate in hopes of snagging a few disco records to take home.

JOHN: Lawrence was an aspiring musician saving up money for a synthesizer. He says he was also one of the few African-Americans there that night. And he began to notice something odd about the records people brought.

LAWRENCE: Tyrone Davis records, and [expletive] Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records, records that were clearly not disco.

JOHN: Records by black artists. After the Sox lost the first game, a giant crate was placed in the outfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAHL: (Chanting) Disco sucks. Disco sucks.

JOHN: Disc jockey Steve Dahl donned a combat helmet and military jacket and led chants of disco sucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAHL: All right, you ready? We're going to count to three and then go boom, and they're going to blow up. (Unintelligible) I'm telling you, it's going to be hot. One, two, three, boom.

JOHN: The explosion scattered records high into the air and left a crater in center field. But Jim Maines says the pitcher still started to warm up for the second game.

MAINES: And then all of a sudden, somebody ran by him from the stands. And then once they seen one person run by, then everybody started going over the wall.

JOHN: An estimated 7,000 of them sliding down the foul poles, lighting things on fire and stealing the bases for real.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I hope they don't let you people see what's going on here at Comiskey Park. One of the saddest sights I've ever seen at a ballpark in my life. This garbage of demolishing a record has turned into a fiasco.

JOHN: For ushers like Vince Lawrence, there was nothing they could do. The White Sox had to forfeit the second game.

LAWRENCE: I was faced with some guy rushing up to me, snapping a record in half in my face, going disco sucks. You see that? Like, you know, an overt statement to me like I was inherently disco.

JOHN: Over the years, Disco Demolition came to be seen as a not-so-subtle attack against disco's early adopters - blacks, Latinos and gays. Steve Dahl, who helped write the new book, calls that revisionist history.

DAHL: When you see the images from Disco Demolition, it looks like a book burning, but it really wasn't like that.

JOHN: Vince Lawrence isn't so sure.

LAWRENCE: I was in the crowd. And that was the mentality of the person who was coming. If Steve Dahl says he wasn't calling those people out, funny how they came.

JOHN: To literally bash disco.

DAHL: I didn't really know what I was tapping into. I mean, honestly. I mean, it obviously threatened a certain group of rockers.

JOHN: The subtitle of the new book is "The Night Disco Died," but disco never really died. In Chicago, it went underground and was reborn a couple of years later as house music. And guess who was present at the creation. None other than Vince Lawrence, who was still spinning records, salvaged from Disco Demolition.

LAWRENCE: Records that I couldn't afford, I got them for free that night.

JOHN: Lawrence got his synthesizer too and went on to co-write one of the first Chicago house anthems.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON")

JESSE SAUNDERS: (Rapping) These things inside my soul, they make me lose control. Goes on and on. Just flap to the beat, this Jesse (unintelligible) is neat. Goes on and on.

LAWRENCE: It's kind of ironic. While you were blowing up disco records, you were actually helping to create it. And I kind of laugh because it's funny how things work out.

JOHN: And who gets the last laugh. As one DJ famously said, house music is disco's revenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON")

SAUNDERS: (Laughter).

JOHN: For NPR News, I'm Derek John in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON")

SAUNDERS: (Rapping) Goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.