July 12, 1979. The night that disco died, or as some people have claimed, was murdered. Shortlived, flamboyant, and controversial to this day, disco was a cultural phenomenon that we’re still coming to terms with. Before digging into the whodunnit, we need to look at the crime scene, as it were.
When the more formalised dance music of the late big band era began to fade away in the 60s, early rock started to take its place. As time passed, early rock acts like Elvis and the Beatles gave way to folk-rock and psychedelia, music that better reflected the mood of the era. This was a good expression of the zeitgeist, of course — but could you dance to it? Woodstock footage would indicate that with the right encouragement people can dance to anything, but was it dance music ? Increasingly, no.
Folks gotta boogie
As mainstream rock moved towards more stylization and bigger shows and the big band generation got older, social dancing as a form of recreation was on the wane. In the US, music written specifically for dancing was only common in less mainstream, minority communities — Latino partnered dancing and the evolving styles of soul and the newer, poppy Motown sounds.
All of this led to a confluence of aesthetic and beat that found a home in the urban, gay communities of the Northern US. Starting with David Mancuso’s The Loft, these new forms of dance clubs began to gain traction, promoting positivistic, soul-derived beats that encouraged a new form of partnerless dancing. This in turn increased disco’s budding popularity, as same-sex partner dancing was still illegal in many states, and disco was a genre that embraced the urban gay community.
At this time in the early 70s, disco was still not the disco we all remember from Saturday Night Fever. It was far less commercialized, and far more related to soul and R&B than anything coming from the mainstream record labels. This relationship can be easily seen in seminal TV dance show Soul Train, which popularized many of the dances and styles that came to represent the disco era.
By the mid-70s, disco was everywhere, and moving a long way from its roots. No longer dominated by soul (but still fuelled by soul culture), disco as a standalone musical genre was pushing hard into the mainstream. It broke through in 1977 following Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and the release of Saturday Night Fever and its chart-topping soundtrack album by the Bee Gees, disco music — and disco culture — were very close to dominating the airwaves, but the old guard weren’t giving up the fight.
A sad tale of high heels and higher revenues
This rise of disco had a couple of interesting knock-on effects. The most entertaining one were the attempts at disco by non-disco acts — Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and (remarkably) KISS — although KISS did claim they wrote I Was Made For Lovin’ You to prove how easy it was to write a disco hit. Seeing stodgy performers trying to get their boogie on was mildly entertaining, but smelled of a cash grab, and didn’t win over listeners on either side of the discussion.
The other aspect — the impact of the backlash — is less savory, and shows up when we take a look at the charts for the decade. In the US, where airplay was closely related to the big labels, disco only hit the top of the charts once in 1978, with Saturday Night Fever. However, across the pond in the UK, soul and disco dominated from 1975 (the Stylistics) to 1980 (ABBA). Obviously, disco was big and getting bigger — so why did the tide turn in ‘79? If disco died on July 12th, who killed it?
This is where the narrative gets murky, and the investigator locks the principals in the drawing room to discover the killer. However, as we can’t arrange that, we must rely on history. What is known is that while a backlash against disco had been brewing for years, it had gained in fury and taken on a new mantra and a new figurehead. “Disco sucks!” was the word of the day, coined by Steve Dahl, a prototypical shock-jock who had been fired when his station abruptly went all disco in 1978.
Angered by his firing, disco’s increasing popularity, and perhaps taking the lyrics to Disco Inferno a bit too literally, Dahl arranged with radio station WLUP to host Disco Demolition Night. This was a promotional spectacle where fans were asked to bring disco albums for destruction in exchange for cheap admission to a Detroit Tigers/Chicago White Sox double header at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
It was Colonel Dahl, in the ballpark!
July 12, 1979. The Disco Demolition Night started strong, with 50,000 people attending (instead of the usual 20,000) but didn’t end quite as planned. Most of the fans had come to support Dahl instead of watching the game, and soon began to make trouble. This went over the top when Dahl’s detonation of the collected records blew a hole in the field and the fans rioted, ripping out seats and setting fires. The White Sox had to forfeit the second game, but for better or worse, disco died on Comiskey’s field.
Some say that it was just backlash against an overly popularized form of music. Others believe it had as much to do with race and politics as music:
Also at the [Disco Demolition] 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.
A third opinion is that disco was killed for financial reasons — as a form of music dominated by smaller, more independent publishers it didn’t bring as much money in to the major labels, who still carried a lot of weight in the industry and encouraged (or bribed) DJs to badmouth disco. This was the Queen of Disco Gloria Gaynor’s opinion:
It was started by someone who felt the popularity of disco was dipping into their pockets. Because, let’s face it, young people …were buying my music instead of someone else’s. Certainly some record companies or producers may have been getting miffed, and I always believed that that whole thing was started by them.
Back to the house parties
By the early 80s, disco was effectively dead in the mainstream of US and Europe. New forms of music rose to prominence, and rock regained some of its stature. But the dance club was here to stay, and the ideas sparked by disco didn’t die, they just went underground. Soon, in Chicago, the city where disco met its end, DJs like Frankie Knucklesstarted to play a style of remixed dance music to an underground scene of predominantly black, gay clubbers.
Soon known as “Chicago House” or just “House,” it was a stripped down, remixed homage to disco and everything it had stood for. Called “disco’s revenge” by Knuckles, house set the stage for a string of dance hits and genres that continues to evolve to this day. Disco may have died, but a new, stronger genre was born from its death, as the spirit of disco came back as a cyborg creation of drum machines, synthesisers, samplers, and turntables.
One of house’s creators was none other than Vince Lawrence, who’d witnessed disco’s death just a few years earlier:
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.
Apparently the pundits were right, and we can’t stop the boogie.
Finding fairness in the music industry
There’s a lot to deconstruct from the history of disco, and the charts and data only tell part of the story. We’ll never know what happened, because we can’t know what was programmed, and what was heard. We don’t know what the people on the street were really listening to, and the question of who — or what — killed disco can never be answered.
That was then — now, we have the technology to find the truth behind new trends and what’s popular. At Utopia Genesis we’ve developed the blockchain technology to distribute payroll fairly and thanks to Utopia Music’s data we can monitor and log all plays of music, on all channels — ensuring that artists are treated equal and labels know what’s popular, making music better for everyone.
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