One of the greatest and worst promotions ever.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Disco demolition: Bell-bottoms be gone!
By Andy Behrens
Special to ESPNChicago.com
[Editor's note: This story ran August 11, 2004, as part of an ESPN.com series on the relationship between music and sports.]
They arrived in Dodge Darts and Chevy Novas. They jammed the Dan Ryan Expressway and filled the side streets near Comiskey Park. They had disco records in their hands and half-pints hidden in their pockets.
They were the Insane Coho Lips, and they were headed to Disco Demolition Night. It was July 12, 1979.
The Cohos were fans of Steve Dahl, a 24-year-old disc jockey at WLUP-FM in Chicago. Their nickname referred to a local street gang, "The Insane Unknowns," and a local fish, the coho salmon. Dahl and his wry, subordinate co-host, Garry Meier, organized the Cohos around a simple and surprisingly powerful idea: Disco Sucks. The Cohos scrawled it on the banners they brought with them to Comiskey.
"Steve was really taking control of Chicago back then," says Jeff Schwartz, former head of promotions at WLUP. "At the time, we didn't really know how big he was.
If you were young and shiftless -- and repulsed by Abba -- Disco Demolition Night was for you.
"After that night, we knew."
Dahl arrived in Chicago in 1978, when most local radio was scripted and geriatric. He was different. He was improvised and irreverent. Dahl was also militantly anti-disco. If you were young and shiftless -- and viscerally repulsed by Abba -- Steve Dahl was a god. And you were drawn to Disco Demolition.
The gimmick was relatively simple. It was designed by Dahl, Schwartz, and Mike Veeck, the son of White Sox owner Bill Veeck. Fans who brought a disco record to the park were admitted for 98 cents -- the ticket price matched WLUP's frequency, FM 98. Dahl would blow up the records between games of a Detroit-Chicago doubleheader. "I was really just trying to get through the evening without being humiliated," Dahl says. "I mean, how many people could you draw? A few thousand? The park would still look empty."
Dahl's apprehension seemed justifiable. Comiskey Park had a capacity of 52,000, and the previous night's game had drawn only 15,520 fans. The White Sox were 40-46. They might've actually sucked more than disco -- it's debatable.
An estimated 90,000 people showed up for Disco Demolition Night. Bill Veeck would later observe that sometimes a promotion can work too well.
Amped Cohos shook the ticket booths, drawing ballpark security away from the field. The Chicago police department closed expressway exits at 31st and 35th streets to discourage late-arriving fans. When the Comiskey gates were finally shut, hundreds of undaunted Cohos scaled the exterior walls.
Once inside, they drank Schlitz. Lots of Schlitz. A Schlitzload. The Tigers scored unearned runs in the first and second innings. They never trailed. Players on both teams were pelted with debris. The final score of the first game was 4-1, Detroit. Pat Underwood was the winning pitcher. Ron LeFlore stole two bases. No one homered. It was really a wretched game, but that's only a footnote. The festivities began when the game ended.
Wasted Cohos cheered themselves hoarse. Dahl wore a combat helmet and circled the field in a jeep. The White Sox wore batting helmets and hid in their dugout. Dahl was introduced by Meier. Vinyl 45s whistled through the air. The Cohos chanted "Disco sucks!" A crate of records was obliterated in centerfield. Fans roared. Ken Kravec began to warm up on the mound - he was scheduled to start for the Sox in game two.
He sprinted for the clubhouse when thousands of Cohos began to spill onto the field.
* * * * * * *
In 1979, baseball had a complex relationship with disco. While Chicago fans were blowing it up, Pittsburgh fans were riding Sister Sledge's anthemic "We Are Family" to the World Series -- there's actually a fair argument that they were a better candidate for MVP than Pirate first baseman Willie Stargell. Bill James gave Sister Sledge, like, 22 win shares. The music worked for the Pirates. Not for the Cohos.
The anti-disco crusade was a fundamentally local fight in Chicago. Rock stations were flipping their formats to disco. Dahl had left his previous employer, WDAI, when it became "Disco DAI." He and the station parted ways on Christmas Eve, 1978. And then it was on.
"It was the rockers versus the discoers," says Harry Wayne Casey, front-man of KC and the Sunshine Band. "We were like Elvis in the fifties and the Beatles in the sixties. Of course there was a backlash. We changed music."
When you're talking to Casey, you can't help but reply "Uh-huh, uh-huh" to everything he says. Like you're a backup singer. Maybe that's the way ... uh-huh, uh-huh ... he likes it ... uh-huh, uh-huh. But it's totally distracting.
"It didn't affect me right away," he says of Disco Demolition Night. "While that was going on, I had two hits on the charts, 'Please Don't Go' and 'Yes I'm Ready.'"
Initially, disco maven Gloria Gaynor was also unmoved. "My first reaction was that it was silly. If you don't like the music, don't listen. I still don't think it affected anything except the use of the word 'Disco.' The music's alive and well. It just changed its name to protect the innocent.
"And if they did kill it, they didn't kill me," she adds, in the truest spirit of her biggest hit. (What, you thought she'd crumble? You thought she'd lay down and die? Oh no, not -- never mind.)
Disco Demolition Night hasn't prevented K.C. and the Sunshine Band from grooving on.
Casey met Mike Veeck years later, at a conciliatory promotional event. "I can remember telling him, 'You weren't just attacking the music, you were attacking people and their livelihoods. You were taking food off their tables.'"
The Cohos were attacking something they considered elitist and vapid. Dahl had recorded a parody of Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" with his band, Teenage Radiation. He called it "Do Ya Think I'm Disco?" The lyrics mocked a sellout yuppie who shellacked himself in disco clothes and lurked in exclusive clubs. The sound mocked Stewart, a sellout rocker who shellacked himself in leopard skin and lurked on "Solid Gold."
If you were a Coho, that was the enemy.
Today, that's often overlooked. "The worst thing is people calling Disco Demolition homophobic or racist," says Dahl. "It just wasn't. It's really easy to look at it historically, from this perspective, and attach all those things to it. But we weren't thinking like that."
Social critics have argued that the backlash against disco was implicitly macho and bigoted, an attack on a cultural aesthetic that was non-white and not necessarily heterosexual. But the Cohos would've said that argument sucks. If doing a one-hitter in your parent's basement while listening to Obscured By Clouds was macho, then yeah, the Cohos were macho. "We were just disenfranchised 24-year-old males," says Dahl.
Casey saw nothing discriminatory in Dahl's anti-disco crusade.
"Who thinks of that stuff, anyway? I just figured the guy was an idiot."
* * * * * * *
Harry Caray stared down at the field from the Channel 44 broadcast booth. He held a microphone against his yellow polyester shirt. Things seemed to be spinning out of control.
Like the batting cage that was pinwheeling across the outfield, for example - that seemed out of control. Or the shirtless guys climbing the foul poles. Or the fires burning in centerfield.
Harry tried to restore order. He said what he always said in extraordinary moments: "Holy cow!"
The crowd cheered. White Sox organist Nancy Faust began to play. Harry asked, "What say we all regain our seats so we can play baseball again?" More cheering. But no one took their seats. They ripped grass from the infield and threw pieces of broken records into the bleachers.
In 1959, Comiskey Park had a real circus entertain the fans during a double header.
Tiger manager Sparky Anderson told the Chicago Tribune, "Beer and baseball go together, they have for years. But I think those kids were doing things other than beer."
In the umpire's room underneath Comiskey Park, Bill Veeck argued. He wanted to complete the doubleheader. He later told the press, "It was a happy crowd, not a mean crowd." Crew chief Dave Phillips disagreed. He phoned A.L. president Lee MacPhail, who initially decided only to postpone game two. Sparky Anderson argued that the Sox should forfeit. Anderson won the debate.
Police in riot gear eventually cleared the field. The fires were extinguished and the haze lifted. Six people were injured and 39 arrested for disorderly conduct -- no doubt the 39 slowest, insanest Cohos. Bill Veeck returned to the playing surface and grabbed a microphone.
"Please keep your rain checks," he told the crowd. "We'll tell you what to do with them once we figure it out ourselves."
Dahl and Meier retreated to a downtown Holiday Inn. "We listened to the radio," Dahl recalls. "All the talk shows from around here and, you know, people talking about how we should be fired. We pretty much stayed up all night. And then we went to work."
Dahl's voice was slow and gravelly the next morning. He read the headlines in the Tribune and Sun-Times. He mocked the indignant tone of local coverage.
"I think for the most part everything was wonderful," he told his listeners. "Some maniac Cohos got wild, went down on the field."
"Which you shouldn't have done. Bad little Cohos."
Andy Behrens is a freelance writer in Chicago.