It was 40 years ago (July 12, 1979) when Steve Dahl, a Chicago DJ, at Bridegeport’s Comeskey Park, led thousands of white anti-disco young people chanting “Disco Sucks”, burning, and breaking disco records in what has been called: “the night that Disco died.” When the media asked him the reasons of his crusade, Steve said he felt “intimidated by the disco lifestyle and culture”, he couldn’t dance, didn’t own a three-piece-suit that could fit him, and wanted to get back at his former employer, a radio station that had just switched its format to disco, a music he would never play. He felt he had “tapped into something” when he began bashing Disco in his new job, The Loop, a rock station where young people began to follow him.
Disco criticisms varied from: “it’s all flash and no substance”,”they’re phony artists with flashy clothes” to what some rock artists argued by saying they were being displaced because the disco beat was created by machines and no real musicians, it was a monotonous rhythm intended to make people dance mindlessly, etc. All of this could be said also of rock artists, by the way. Their grievances sounded more like a defeated boxer’s excuse for not winning a fight or a poor justification for not keeping up with the times, for not adapting nor evolving, nor willing to even accept other cultures and lifestyles.
Some rockers felt betrayed and threatened when watching some of their most admired leaders in rock cross the line, and if not record pure disco songs, at least flirt with them. Examples: The Rolling Stones with “Miss You”, Rod Stewart with “Do You Think I’m Sexy”, Paul McCartney and Wings‘ “Goodnight Tonight”, ELO’s “Last Train To London”, the “not too flashy” KISS with “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” and even John Lennon and Elton John’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.”
What’s Disco? It’s a genre of music, dance music. As any genre, it’s guilty of repetitions as well as innovations. Characteristics? It’s identified by repetitive drum beats, syncopated basslines, string sections, horns, electric piano and rhythm guitars, and synthesizers. The genre evolved from Funk, Soul, Salsa, and Pop Rock. It was mainly created by black artists (as mostly any American genre: jazz, blues, rock and roll, and others) or racially mixed bands and artists.
Socially, Disco became an answer or counterpart to the hippie movement of the 60’s with the same sexual openness, but with more sophistication. It was an urban music, closer to the big cities than to country towns. It was about going out to dance and flaunt the latest fashion clothes. That’s where dressed down die-hard rockers felt excluded and couldn’t negotiate the difference.
Culturally, the Disco industry was more receptive to minorities. Blacks, gays, and latinos were more involved in Disco music than in Rock (with some few exceptions: Hendrix, Mercury, Santana).
The first song with a disco beat to appear at the Billboard charts was: “Love Train” by the O’Jays in the 30th position of the top 100 songs in 1973 followed by “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes in the position # 80. In 1974 “TSOP”, “Love’s Theme”, “Rock Your Baby”, and“Rock The Boat” were the most popular ones. From then on, Disco took off. K.C and The Sunshine Band, Silver Convention, and…The Bee Gees.
THE BEE GEES
The brothers Gibb have been recording since the late 60’s. Their most popular ballads: “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”, “Words”, “I’ve Gotta A Message To You”, “Massachusetts”, “I Started A Joke”, “World”, don’t even get close to the explosion of success they would experience after their first # 1 hit in 1975: “Jive Talking.”
The three Australians almost monopolized a genre mainly dominated by black artists just by singing in a falsetto voice a la Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in the past (a voice that even Sesame Street’s Elmo must still envy), and by adding conga drums, and a brass section that made their rhythm irresistible. “Nights On Broadway”, “You Should Be Dancing”, “Staying Alive”, “If I Can’t Have You” and others filled the airwaves after the John Travolta movie and Saturday Night Fever‘s soundtrack album went on sale.
As popular as The Bee Gees was:
Getting into the 28th position in 1976 with the sensuous “Love to Love You Baby”, Donna Summer would soon become the Disco Queen with a voice only Streisand could match and an electronic sound that would influence future generations of dance musicians and creators. She would conquer the scene with hits like:“I Feel Love”, “MacArthur Park”, “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls”, and “No More Tears” with Barbra Streisand.
Having said all of the above, Disco wasn’t the only thing on the radio in the 70’s. There were great ballads, punk, rock, country, and even salsa music became so influential that in the Saturday Night Fever album, there’s a song resembling it called “Salsation.” Many of those songs have left a mark not easily found in music made today. Those lyrics meant something, the melodies, harmonies and rhythms were made to make you reflect upon, sing along, and dance with songs that have no expiration date. There were ballads like: “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack, “Time In A Bottle” by Jim Croce and funk beats like: “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, “The Cisco Kid” by War, or “Pick Up the Pieces” by The Average White Band. There were great rock hits never to be matched again: “More Than A Feeling” by Boston, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen and “Hotel California” by The Eagles.
In other words, they had no reason to whine about their music in 1979. We do. We are the ones who should throw a stadium tantrum for the lack of variety, depth ,and substance in today’s music.
Has there ever been a “Country Sucks”,”Hip Hop”, “Reggae”, “Rap”, “Jazz” sucks campaign or rally at all? The closest thing I’ve found is the anti-rock and roll religious leaders of the mid 50’s and the burning of Beatles‘ records by the same type of crowd in the mid 60’s.
I wonder if that night at Comiskey Park, in Bridgeport, Chicago instead of thousands of mostly young white male teenagers and young men, it would have been the other way around: thousands of black young males disrupting a baseball game, carrying signs of “Rock Sucks” or similar, destroying Aerosmith, Tom Petty, or token Hendrix records. I wonder if they would have been treated the same by the media, as if they were just venting out their frustrations with an overwhelming successful music genre that happened to be not of their like only disturbing a planned White Sox baseball game. At that time nobody mentioned the veiled racism and homophobia behind what was intrinsically part of what DJ Dahl mentioned when he said: “I tapped into something.”
If you want to immerse in the disco era, I recommend the obvious movies: Saturday Night Fever (1977), Car Wash (1976) and the crime drama Carlito’s Way (1993) with Al Pacino, containing one of the best soundtracks of that period.
Other great Disco songs:
Dancing Queen–ABBA, He’s The Greatest Dancer–Sister Sledge, Boogie Wonderland–Earth,Wind, and Fire, Shake Your Body (Down to The Ground)–The Jacksons,When You’re in Love With A Beautiful Woman–Dr. Hook, Heaven Knows– Donna Summer, Dim All The Lights–Donna Summer, Knock On Wood–Ami Stewart, Good Times–Chic, Ring My Bell-Anita Ward, I Will Survive–Gloria Gaynor, Disco Inferno–The Tramps, Love is in the Air–John Paul Young, Last Dance–Donna Summer, Night Fever– The Bee Gees, I’m Your Boogie Man– K.C and the Sunshine Band.