When I saw Nile Rodgers speak on a panel at Moogfest, he took particular pains to refer to the anti-disco backlash and how it meant the end of CHIC in the marketplace. Their last smash single, “Good Times,” was released just a month prior to Disco Demolition Night, a strange baseball promotion done by the Chicago White Sox on July 12, 1979. Baseball fans could bring a disco record and get $0.98 admission to the baseball game and see WLUP-FM DJ Steve Dahl blow up the collected records on the field. The White Sox expected 20,000 attendees.
What they got instead was 50,000 people ready to see some disco records blow up reeeeeal good. The explosion damaged the field and a riot ensued afterward. The White Sox had to forfeit the game to the Detroit Tigers. Following that event, CHIC never had another chart hit, and they had three years of precious metal chart hits prior. “Le Freak” sold seven million copies. For his part, Rodgers took the anti-disco backlash very personally, and it certainly hit him in the wallet. It precipitated the end of CHIC but fostered his move into the even more lucrative production field, so it wasn’t the worst thing to happen to him.
But obviously, public sentiment had turned on disco, seemingly overnight. But by the summer of 1979, I had already gotten off of the disco bus for a year and a half. It was early 1978 when late on a Sunday night I chanced upon something on the radio dial that caught me ear. It was a radio show that only played comedy and novelty records’ the Dr. Demento show. I enjoyed the show but was amazed to discover FM Rock at the same time.
I had been an unadventurous radio listener throughout my childhood. Top 40, first on AM but then on FM from around 1975 or so. I listened to the FM affiliated station of my favorite AM channel as I got older. Better reception. The notion of album rock had not previously occurred to me, but here it was. In my face and wha…? No disco of any kind, so was I ever ripe for that change. They played all sorts of bands who may have had a single top 40 hit [or two] that I had known growing up [Yes, Bowie, Pink Floyd] but here were what seemed like lots of other songs by these people getting airplay.
At the same time, the school tribes were split into distinct Rock/Disco camps. Truth be told, I didn’t really fit into either, though having been suffocated by disco* during the last two years for what it was worth, I stuck in the anti-disco camp, even though I was not an abuser of quaaludes and in fact, I really liked getting an education! And I preferred more erudite art rock to The Nuge, or Molly Hatchet. Central Florida had two FM Rock stations, and I soon discerned that WDIZ-FM [where I had heard Dr. Demento] was the more “blue-collar” of the two, with WORJ-FM being more my cup of tea. But that’s not to say that it was all skittles and beer in my disco-free world.
I quickly sussed that no matter which FM Rock station I listened to, I was going to get really tired of a force-fed diet of the latest [weak] albums by The Stones and The Who, not to mention the elephant in the room, Led Zeppelin! Oh my goodness, I might have not had to contend with disco every other song on the radio, but “Stairway To Heaven” was just as bad. It was after about another year and a half of this that I came to the conclusion that what I really hated wasn’t disco, but a lack of variety! WDIZ-FM must have been trouncing WORJ-FM in the ratings, because the latter ended up closely following the lead of the dumber station, to my dismay. If I thought I was weary of disco, then brother, Southern Rock got just as insufferable and onerous in record time! Gaaah! The unholy alliance of heavy metal and country music was just about the worst thing I could have imagined! And even at this stage of the game, I still managed to hold a torch for Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” as the “one great disco song.”
Fortunately, in the summer of 1978, I begged my parents for my first stereo, and at that point could begin building my nascent Record Cell in earnest. By the time I had several dozen albums the time came, some time in early ’80 to cut free from the radio, since I realized that it was not going to give me what I wanted. In the meantime, the scant crumbs of commercially acceptable New Wave that had filtered into FM Rock illuminated a path that I wholeheartedly took to exploring to my unceasing delight. And then in 1981 I chanced to pick up a college radio station and then the rehabilitation of disco began in earnest as New Wave cross-pollinated with disco to create new and exciting hybrids. Ze Records plowed fearlessly into new realms they called “Mutant Disco.”
Nearly 40 years later, disco is just another color in pop’s palette. I can enjoy music of any stripe now because I have disengaged entirely from pop culture**. I have no idea what was in the charts for the last 20 years. No matter what they’re overplaying, I have not heard it, so that keeps me pure and naive in my listening. Because I’d probably dislike whatever I’m overexposed to.
– 30 –
* Did you like how I worked that title in?
** Editor’s note: I stopped watching all television 21 years ago, so no MTV for me, which was my last, dwindling tie to the popular culture by the late 80s – when by that time all that I could stand was 120 Minutes. I guess that dates me right there. MTV? Playing music??!