The Best Radio Promotion Ever was also The Worst.
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Okay - so there won't be a huge celebration or a big cake; and you won't find the date on any calendar. But it's an important day to mark: The 30th anniversary of the day disco died.
The last of the great rock songs was released in 1974. Go ahead - ask Marty Forbes and Homer Simpson. The subsequent years for rock music featured follow up records from Skynyrd, and Zeppelin. Queen was kinda cool. Boston was overplayed. Bad Company was just Bad Company, and AC/DC had not quite found their footing in North America yet. Meanwhile, some of the best that rock had to offer had died. (Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, all died in their mid to late 20's) The birth of disco is tough to track. Seriously, who would want to lay claim to creating the first disco song? Suggestions about who is responsible for the first disco song range from Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll Part II to the Hues Corporation, and that piece of junk "Don't Rock the Boat". Donna Summer was already a household name by 1975 with the disco-like "Love to love You baby". But this could have been passed off as urban funk. As disco grew, she was anointed as the queen of disco. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.
By the time the format was at its peak, even Yvonne Elliman could get a song played on the radio simply by singing what the Bee Gees put in front of her. No one disputes that disco's peak was Saturday Night Fever and the #1 double album soundtrack that got played everywhere in summer of 1977. That movie kept John Travolta a one-hit wonder until 1994's Pulp Fiction.
Chicago Rock DJ Steve Dahl was fired from a station that had flipped to the disco format. He spent the next few years venting his frustration by smashing disco records on the air. Mike Veeck, son of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, loved the on-air antics and invited Dahl to be the master of ceremonies at Disco Demolition Night between games at a doubleheader between the White Sox and the Tigers on July 12, 1979. The promotion was designed to attract an extra 5 thousand people: Anyone with a disco record would get in for 98 cents. (98 being the location of WLUP on the FM band) But the organizers misjudged how many people either hated or had grown weary of the Bee Gees. Paid attendance will show that 47,000 went to the game, but over 75,000 people showed up at the door.
An interview with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC on the 25th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night with Steve Dahl tells what happened next. The end result : The White Sox forfeited the second game to the Tigers after failing to provide an adequate playing surface.
Beyond the Olbermann interview, there is some great Chicago news coverage of the event on YouTube; including Bill Curtis throwing to Gene Siskel and Greg Gumbel doing the local sports. The event is significant because it can be dissected in many ways. Radio people can't agree on whether this was the best or the dumbest radio promotion ever. The answer is that it's the worst promotion on July 13th, the best after that. Baseball executives agree that it ranks up there with Cleveland's ill-fated ten cent beer night. Fans storm the field.
July 13th wasn't any easier if you were in the music business. Disco was dead, and Rock music was so lost that some of its core artists had resorted to infusing disco into their catalogue. (The Rolling Stones' Miss You, and Rod Stewart's Do you Think I'm Sexy come to mind) Any music executive who got out of bed to see the national news of Disco Demolition Night, went to work facing declining vinyl sales, the failure of Quadrophonic stereo and 8 Tracks as its subsequent technological bust. What happened next in the music world is well documented in books like APPETITE FOR SELF-DESTRUCTION: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age By Steve Knopper. (CD's, MTV, Michael Jackson, the 80's - the [counter]parts that created the Golden Age for the music industry. This post-disco period also gave way to Alternative as a commercially viable format. (Touched on great detail in Alan Cross' book, Over the Edge: The Revolution and Evolution of New Rock) I thought I might be one of a handful to commemorate the event, but it turns out the New York Times also thought the anniversary was significant. Fitting considering New York and Philadelphia was disco's hotbed; fitting that Chicago provided its funeral given its strong blues and rock and roll roots. In a recent episode of the Ongoing History of New Music, Alan paid tribute to the city with mention of bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Chicago. Personally, I always thought Urge Overkill never got a fair shake. Disco went away, but it came back as dance in the late 80's and early 90's; led by Technotronic, C&C Music Factory and Robin S. And now we have Lady Gaga. So here's to a great radio promotion - even if it didn't feel that way the next day at WLUP. Here's to the death of Disco. May it never rise from the ashes.
[This article was originally written on my Facebook page on July 11, 2009 in recognition of the anniversary of Disco Demolition Night. My son Daniel asked me to reprint it so his Rock History class could read it without having to fish through the "notes" section fo Facebook]