This harmless novelty single was presented to us recently as “something really cool” after we’d purchased someone’s collection of albums. It features a parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by WLUP FM radio host Steve Dahl, who is most famous as the personality behind a promotion at Comiskey Park on June 12, 1979 known as “Disco Demolition Night.”
Dahl’s vendetta against disco began the previous Christmas Eve, when he was fired by WLUP’s rival, WDAI when the later switched formats. His show, with bits like dragging a needle across a disco album, became so popular he organized a group called “The Insane Coho Lips” to protest disco’s dominance over the airways. This short documentary by EPSN tells the story of their infamous “Disco Demolition Night.”
What’s missing from this video about “Disco Demolition Night” is the underlying militarism of Dahl’s Cohos. Describing their cause as a war, and calling disco things like a “disease,” Dahl definitely tapped into racism, sexism and homophobia in a way which advanced his career. The same month as “Disco Demolition Night,” Dahl’s Cohos protested at an Indiana radio station when it switched formats, and occupied a teen disco in the Chicago suburbs. Coho supporters also chased a WDAI van and cornered its driver in a park, and another one of the groups events on July 1st required fifty police officers to restore calm.
Dahl’s military attire and Jeep add to the ominous appearance of the event. Nor did the account of one African American who was at the ballpark that night: “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.”
Criticism of the promotion in the general press focused on White Sox owner Bill Veeck, and the team’s poor management of the situation, but Dahl’s demagoguery wasn’t lost on music writers. In December of that year, Rolling Stone published a retrospective by Dave Marsh titled “The Flip Side of ’79” which is particularly critical of Dahl and WLUP:
…white males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.
It was years later that Nile Rodgers, guitarist from Chic, put it more succinctly. “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning,” Rodgers sighs [in story about Chic in The Independent from 2004]. “This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco’. I remember thinking – we’re not even a disco group.”
This is mostly true, although to provide full disclosure, we do put the Chic records in our disco section here at Hymie’s. The band’s rise coincides with disco’s, but Rodgers rightfully lamented that disco’s decline thereby became theirs as well. Posting on his own website ten years later, he says, “All we’d ever wanted was to be part of the pop music community, which despite the factionalism, it’s basically all rock and roll – the music that gives a voice to the voiceless – and power to the powerless.”
An NPR story from earlier this year captured Rodgers concerns when it included the recollections of a then-teenage Comiskey Park usher named Vince Lawrence, who was hoping to get a few of the records to take home. He believes he was one of few African Americans in the ballpark that night, and he describes the sort of records people were bringing: “Tyrone Davis records, friggin’ Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records. Records that were clearly not disco.”
That NPR story is covering Dahl’s new book, Disco Demolition Night: The Night Disco Died, which was co-written with Dave Hoekstra (who once wrote a story about our little neighborhood record shop). There isn’t a copy in the Hennepin County Library system yet, and we don’t feel comfortable giving Dahl a dime of our money, so we can’t say how the event is portrayed in the book. We can say we’re uncomfortable Dahl’s history of claiming that racism, sexism and homophobia didn’t play a significant role, and that to say otherwise is revisionist history.
Its difficult to not see the event the way Lawrence does in this Chicagoist story posted last month., particularly when he tells writer Stephen Gossett that “he ‘absolutely’ still feels the same way today, finding a corollary between Dahl’s ‘speaking in code’ rhetoric and today’s ‘xenophobic’ political landscape.”
Postscript: Whether or not disco ‘died’ on June 12, 1979, and whether or not Chic was even a disco band, Rodgers did did prove there is life after Dahl. His reunited Chic just received praise from The Star Tribune‘s Chris Riemenschneider, who saw them at the Xcel Center in St. Paul on their current tour opening for Duran Duran.