Disco Demolition Night marks 35th anniversary of ‘disco sucks’ movement

By Gillian G. Gaar

Hand in hand with disco’s popularity came its backlash, as rockers in particular led the rallying cry against the genre they perceived to lack redeeming musical value altogether. The “disco sucks” movement reached its apogee on the evening of July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the site of Disco Demolition Night.

Steve Dahl DO You Think I'm Disco picture discIt was Christmas Eve 1978 when Chicago radio station WDAI changed formats from rock to disco, and 24-year-old deejay Steve Dahl lost his job as a result.

Although Dahl soon landed a position at station WLUP, he wasn’t about to forgive and forget how disco had done him wrong. Dahl and fellow deejay Garry Meier preached an anti-disco gospel over the airwaves. Dahl even recorded “Do You Think I’m Disco?” a parody of Rod Stewart’s disco anthem “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” While Dahl may have exacted some revenge through the record, Stewart gets the win for long-term value. The 12-inch single featuring Stewart’s “Sexy” and “Scarred and Scared” (WBSD 8727) is valued at $12 in NM condition; its royalties were more than enough to keep him comfortably ensconced in tight pants. Dahl’s Ovation 1132 (with “Coho Lip Blues” on the flip) is only worth $5, and that’s for the most valuable picture sleeve version, according to Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records” 8th edition.

Still incensed, Dahl made plans to blow up a pile of disco records at a local shopping mall during a live broadcast, which drew the attention of Mike Veeck, Chicago White Sox promotions director (and son of team owner Bill Veeck), who was always on the lookout for novel promotions. Why not hold the event at Comiskey Park? The Sox were set to play a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. Destroying a bunch of disco records would be a great way to fill the time between games, he thought.

Dahl agreed, and plans for Disco Demolition Night were made. Anyone who brought a disco record to add to the pile set for destruction could buy a ticket to the games for just 98 cents. Organizers hoped the promotion might attract around 20,000 people to the ballpark, which had a capacity of more than 40,000.

Organizers seriously underestimated the public’s disdain for disco.

An overflow crowd turned out. Every seat in the park was filled, and hundreds were left outside, trying to get in. Gate crashers quickly overwhelmed security. Meanwhile, those inside the park who were antsy for the Disco Demolition portion of the evening continually disrupted the first game by throwing their records onto the field, soon followed by bottles, lighters, fireworks, trash — anything they could get their hands on. The scent of grass (that had nothing to do with the state of the grounds) shifted the atmosphere from ballgame to rock concert.

Once the first game finally ended — Detroit won 4-1, by the way — Dahl, Meier and a model named Lorelei came onto the field for the Disco Demolition, first circling the field in a Jeep to the cheers of the crowd, then arriving at center field where a large box of records had been set up, complete with explosive charges. Dahl led the crowd through the obligatory chant of “Disco sucks!” and proudly proclaimed the event to be “the world’s largest anti-disco rally.”

“Now listen,” he said, “we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up real good!”

And … boom! No sooner had the smoke begun to clear than mayhem erupted. Thousands of fans invaded the field. Some ran to pitch their records onto the bonfire; others set their own records on fire. A few enterprising attendees took the opportunity provided by the chaos to collect souvenirs – all of the bases disappeared. Others left their own stamp on the event, much to the chagrin of the team. Chaos reigned. The batting cage was demolished. The field was torn up.

Staff pleaded in vain for people to return to their seats, and a similar message flashed on the scoreboard. Ensconced in the press box, Dahl, Meier and Lorelei watched the melee in amazement. Soon, riot gear-clad cops took the field. That was enough to prompt most revelers to flee; only 39 were arrested. The field itself was such a mess that the second game had to be cancelled, and the Sox were forced to forfeit the game to the Tigers.

The event is considered one of the most memorable radio station promotions ever, second only, perhaps, to the Thanksgiving live turkey drop depicted on “WKRP In Cincinnati”.

Had organizers consulted White Sox pitcher Rich Wortham, they might have saved themselves a big headache. “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night,” Wortham said. GM

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