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Forty Years On, Disco Demolition Night Is Still Making Headlines

Fans of DJ Steve Dahl at the Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers game which ended in riots over disco records
Fans of DJ Steve Dahl at the Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers game which ended in riots over disco records

On July 12, 1979, a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers ended with riot police fighting through crowds and an explosion which damaged the field and stands. What could have caused such an apocalyptic scene? Records - and disco records at that.

Forty years on, all this may sound like the ramblings of a dream diary after eating too much extra mature cheddar before bedtime. But it did happen and every year that passes makes the whole episode more ridiculous and incomprehensible.

It gets worse. This bizarre evening - Disco Demolition Night - will be celebrated on the occasion of its 40th birthday despite it being dogged with accusations of homophobia and racism. 

From here, it’s difficult to imagine disco inciting such extreme behaviour. In 1979, disco music was the dominant genre of the time. Two years earlier, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever became one of the biggest albums of all time - a celebration of all things disco led by the Bee Gees with a track listing which was the very definition of all killer, no filler.

Fans of rock music hated disco and everything that went with it so much, that under the guidance of Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, they attended a White Sox game paying a bargain 99 cents to get in as long as they brought along a disco record which would be destroyed at the end of the night. Dahl’s previous radio station had changed its output policy from rock to disco to cash in on the genre’s popularity. We should also note here that he was sacked on Christmas Eve, 1978.    

As part of his shows on a station called The Loop, he would encourage his listeners to attend anti-disco events some of which ended in chaos. What started off as a low-key protest with around 20,000 fans expected turned into a near sell-out with around 50,000 disco haters packing into the stadium and many more sneaking in. With ground staff overwhelmed by the number of visitors, many of the records went uncollected and were instead thrown like frisbees onto the playing field. The crowd chanted “disco sucks” as records reigned down from the stands.

Dahl reveled in his shock-jock persona. He arrived in the stadium on the back of a convertible jeep dressed like an army general. He blew up an overflowing box of records causing a pitch invasion and a fire which caused damage to the stadium. He had previously stated that he wanted to blow up a stack of discs at a shopping mall but the White Sox’s front office promoter Mike Veeck (the son of White Sox owner Bill), having heard about the plan and worried about a low crowd for a nothing game against the Tigers, persuaded him to hold the demo at their home, Comiskey Park.

As the box of vinyl was blown up, it tore a huge hole in the outfield grass. The batting cage was destroyed as riot police arrived and there were 39 arrests as the crowd tried to break into changing rooms. 

Broadcasting a day later, Dahl made fun of the coverage the event received, downplaying the event saying “some got wild which you shouldn’t have done… I think for the most part everything was wonderful”.   

At the height of this “war” on disco, some media coverage argued that the music promoted gay culture and lifestyle while others played on the perception that rock music - and its link to white male masculinity - was dying. The majority of disco music was made by black and gay artists and the idea of destroying it was branded “shameful” by critics.     

Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh was at the event which he described as “your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead.” Legendary musician Nile Rodgers who was behind some of the greatest disco music of all time, later likened the event to Nazi book burning. 

Dahl, who continues to broadcast and podcast, has always played down the significance of the event and rubbished arguments it had any homophobic intent.  

Sales of disco music slumped after the event as record labels became twitchy about their output though the legacy of the genre is as strong as ever.

This week, at the game closest to the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition, the White Sox will hand out commemorative t-shirts. Dahl will also be present on the night, given the honour of throwing the first pitch. Such a celebration does not sit well, especially in Pride month, and it turns the spotlight on an event where essentially the burning of art was celebrated.     

In a statement, the White Sox argued: “This year's Disco Demolition T-Shirt giveaway was intended to recognize the anniversary of a historic off-the-field moment that has been connected to the organization over the past 40 years. 

“It is a recognizable part of Chicago baseball history. We recently were made aware of comments criticizing the T-Shirt giveaway and are in the process of reviewing feedback.

“We have been communicating with our community partners who have raised concerns to make it clear that the intent of this giveaway was only meant to mark the historical nature of the night 40 years later.

“We have reinforced that the White Sox organization is dedicated to advocating for a safe, welcoming ballpark experience for all people and communities, and will continue to engage in important, informative discussions with our fans and partners to build toward positive change through sports. We remain proud of our franchise's longstanding record on advocating for inclusion and diversity.”

Whatever the franchise argues, this is an event which one can hardly believe is still be talked about in such glowing, nostalgic terms by so many.  

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