The Day the '70s Died


Today is the 25th anniversary of Disco's Altamont, the "Disco Demolition Night" at Chicago's Comiskey Park, where the South-siders took out their frustrations at having yet another crappy baseball team by unleashing an orgy of anti-Donna Summer violence, forcing the cancellation of the second half of a double-header. MSNBC's look back is a window into a lost world:

"It was just a bad atmosphere," [former White Sox manager Don] Kessinger recalled. "Even the aroma in the ballpark was a bit different."

Late in the first game, records started flying from the stands. Fans got into the ballpark for 98 cents if they brought a record. Obviously, not all the albums were handed over at the gate.

"Some of them were just knifing in the grass and others were exploding on the infield," former White Sox second baseman Alan Bannister said.

Dahl said people threw beers and cherry bombs at him "lovingly," as he demolished records following the Sox' 4-1 loss in the first game.

At some point, thousands of people began to rush the field.

People started fires, burned records and knocked over the batting cage. Others played imaginary baseball. They ignored the pleas of then-White Sox announcer Harry Caray to stop.

"It was like nothing you ever saw," said Blair Libby, then a 17-year-old Dahl fan watching from the upper deck.

"Bottle rockets, M-80s, all sorts of (stuff) whizzing over your heads."

People who didn't have tickets scaled the walls to get in.

"It looked like medieval times when they go after a castle, pouring over a wall," Ron Battaglin said.

He still remembers the sharp pain in his head, "like someone dropping an ax on me" ? a record had struck him, leaving a two-inch gash.

Rich Battaglin couldn't believe what was happening.

"Donna Summer, like her or hate her, you don't put M-80s on her albums and throw them at people," he said.

Click here for pictures. My feelings about this watershed moment are mixed—on one hand I still feel bad that great acts like the Bee Gees had their careers knee-capped by the Backlash, but on the other it allowed me to build up a fantastic vinyl collection, one quarter at a time.


NEXT: Trial Run

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  1. You know who was behind the conspiracy against Disco?

    Four words: P-N-A-C

  2. “Disco Sucks” T-shirts were like confederate flags in many circles… Wink wink, nudge nudge.

  3. The comments in this blog probably paint the best picture of the scene at the time.

    Funniest local TV I ever saw. (Though Gary Dotson getting interrogated by Gov. Thompson is a close second.)

  4. No worries, Disco still lives albeit in an evolved and somewhat altered state, but it is still disco and it still sucks.

    For my money, The Bee Gees should have been career knee-capped before they went disco. However, career knee-cap or not, although Maurice won’t be cashing any of those royalty checks I’m certain that the Bee Gees aren’t lacking for funds in retirement.

    Disclaimer: I didn’t say they weren’t talented I said disco sucks.

  5. A few months after this event (1979) WSJ ran a front page article on Disco, from the point of view of the record companies. Disco was a money loser. People listened, but they didn’t buy, at least to the degree that they bought other forms of pop music. Record companies were responding by not developing Disco groups. The results were amazing. In the summer of 1979 Disco dominated the charts. In the summer of 1980 it was nowhere to be seen except for a brief appearance by “Funkytown” and two Disco-ish songs by Rock groups who didn’t get the message that Disco was out (“Emotional Rescue” and “Another One Bites the Dust”).

    Now, as fun as Steve Dahl’s anti-Disco movement was (“Do ya think I’m Disco” to the tune of “Do ya think I’m Sexy” is still one of the great parodies of all time), it wouldn’t have had any impact if the music sold enough records.

    Apparently the big problem wasn’t initial sales, but follow-on sales. Classic Rock albums can sell reasonably well for decades after release. In 1979, Dark Side of the Moon was enjoying its sixth year in the top 200, and in 1980 would get back into the top 100 due to renewed interest after The Wall came out. This phenomenon is so well established that a few years ago David Bowie sold bonds secured by future CD sales. But Disco generated only very short-term interest. A friend who owned a record store at the time told me that he made more sales in his 3 bins of Disco/Soul than in his 38 bins of Rock records. He could keep the stock low because no one asked for Disco/Soul records that were more than a year old.

  6. A lot of disco holds up, and a lot of ’70s rock does not. I’d take “Funkytown” over Foreigner any day.

  7. What I remember is how Disco was so inescapable. The Chinese Water Torture of musical fads. Nowadays when I catch FLY ROBIN FLY or A FIFTH OF BEETHOVEN (for instance) playing somewhere as background noise it still induces a flashback to when that stuff was playing every hour on nine-tenths of the speakers you passed in a day. The horror.

  8. I’ve seen more than a few people attribute the backlash to disco to racism but frankly I think it had more to do with homophobia and sexism. Oh, yeah, and the music sucking.

  9. Disco was brainless, vapid, and awful in every sense. I have lost some faith in Reason after hearing the Bee Gees referred to as talented by a staffer.

  10. What Mark said.

    And also “A lot of disco holds up, and a lot of ’70s rock does not. I’d take “Funkytown” over Foreigner any day. Has got to be the most seriously fucked up contention ever opined by a Reason staffer.

  11. Damn you Reason magazine for letting people have opinions! Liking disco = dumb!

  12. Just to make an observation from the clippings… 25 years ago broadcasters were seriously afraid of being fined by the FCC because their cameras caught a sign that said “Disco Sucks” on it!

    And a mere five years ago we were fussing the same word, except instead of it being used as a description, it’s used to indicate an action being performed on the POTUS. How the times have changed!

  13. foreigner versus bee gees?

    shouldn’t there be an opt out, like C) dig your ears out with poultry shears?

  14. “Disco was brainless, vapid, and awful in every sense. I have lost some faith in Reason after hearing the Bee Gees referred to as talented by a staffer.”

    Yeah, it sure wasn’t the Eagles right Mark? Asshat.

  15. I think the death of disco was unfortunatly indicative of what I consider the inherent racism, and mullet haired white boyness of 70’s rock, that fed into the 80’s metal scene, and that now has AGAIN manifested itself into grunge and nu metal music. While I enjoy metal and certain other hard rock elements, I’ve always been disturbed by the sheer ignorance and stupidity to be confronted at any hard rock concert these days. Now a days I just choose to go to small indie rock club shows than go see a hard rock band and have my concert night ruined by a bunch of drunken, belching mullet haired, beer logo wearing “Rockers”.

  16. Now I’ll have Rod Steward in my head all day.


  17. For those of you with the anti-Bee Gees stance, can you elaborate on your disdain?

    I’m not a particularly vehement defender of the Brothers Gibb, and everyone’s entitled to his opinion. But this sort of knee-jerk, dumbfounded response — “Somebody actually thinks the Bee Gees were talented????” — is just kind of clueless and myopic. Feel free to dislike the Bee Gees, but for heaven’s sake, catch up to the ’90s and realize that history has treated the trio rather kindly. There’s nothing shocking or radical about smart observers of culture acknowledging the Bee Gees’ contributions.

  18. “A lot of disco holds up, and a lot of ’70s rock does not. I’d take “Funkytown” over Foreigner any day.”

    You can have both (big sweeping bow to the left, then to the right)

  19. A lot of disco holds up, and a lot of ’70s rock does not. I’d take “Funkytown” over Foreigner any day

    Yeah, but would you take “Funkytown” over, say, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or Lynyrd Skynyrd? Because, if so — well, that’s just crazy talk. 🙂

  20. A lot of disco holds up, and a lot of ’70s rock does not. I’d take “Funkytown” over Foreigner any day.


  21. Although many of us are cheered at the thought that disco died, it actually didn’t. It merely evolved into a new but similar genre dominated by Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, which, in my mind anyway, sort of dispenses with the notion that racism killed the disco star.

    To this day I resent the fact that the dawn of the disco era effectively ended live music in small affordable clubs for many years. Instead, we got idiotic DJ’s spinning insufferable tunes and mirrored globes spinning vertigo for the pleasure of the plastic people, each of whom came from the Mattel factory completely accessorized right down to the little silver plated coke spoon shoved up their inflamed runny noses.

  22. One reason disco was so loathed is that so many club owners changed from featuring live music in favor of plying recorded music. The local of the Musician’s Union in my town waged a PR campaign against disco. There’s still a circa 1977-ish “Fight Back – Keep Music Live” sticker on the inside of the front door to my apartment building! When I wore my “Death To Disco” shirt out and about back then, guys who were in bands would stop me and shake my hand.

    As for “anti-disco” = “racist”, that may have been true for some, but many of us enjoyed black music, even funk, but wanted to hear it played by real musicians, and loved it live. One could hate “disco’ and still enjoy James Brown and George Clinton. Pre-programmed synths, drum machines, and singers doing club appearances accompanied by recorded tracks were all things we disliked. Those tricks were just as annoying when deployed by white pop acts.

    I always liked the Hollies better than the BeeGees, anyway.


  23. I despair of living among the type of opinionated nitwits who, extrapolating from a dislike of disco, would dismiss the Bee Gees as “untalented.” Disco represented, what, two, three years of their career? These guys managed to put hits on the charts for 22 years, which is a lot more than you can say for most bands.

    It’s bad enough to simply write off pop classics like “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” “I Started A Joke,” or “To Love Somebody.” But I cannot even imagine a pop-music world where, disco or no disco, “More Than A Woman,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” or “Night Fever” are considered bad songs.

    “Untalented.” Fer crissakes. Enjoy your butt-rock.

  24. One could hate “disco’ and still enjoy James Brown and George Clinton.

    I’m much more of a funk fan than a disco fan, but the best disco was to funk as bubblegum was to psychedelia. I’m not going to claim that “Funkytown” is better than Hendrix, but just as loving Hendrix doesn’t prevent me from enjoying “I’m a Believer,” loving George Clinton shouldn’t prevent me from enjoying “A Fifth of Beethoven.”

    And TWC: I get a lot more pleasure out of those old disco songs than I do out of contemporary “dance” singers like Janet Jackson. Her music is boring in a way that ear-candy pop like “Night Fever” is not.

  25. Around the ‘burbs where I grew up (the Bay Area), disco was the music that was on the radio (the shockingly bad KFRC), vs. the music people played at home. (Granted I was eight and lived in a hood full of motorheads) The Muscle Car driving elite in my neighborhood went more in the Black Sabbath/AC*DC direction. P-Funk was as probably as close to Disco as one could reasonably get without getting your Derby jacket egged.

    The rise of nostalgia over the 70s has always puzzled me, because it wasn’t a 70s anyone I knew grew up with.

  26. You’re all wrong. ABBA was the only truly decent band to emerge in the 70’s.

    That’s a joke, son.

  27. I don’t think disco morphed into Janet and Whitney, it became electronic dance music. Some of which is quite radically strange and not at all mainstream.

  28. Okay, I’ll admit it that there were one, maybe two disco numbers that were, well, okay.

    And Jesse, as far as Janet? I’m with you all the way, I actually would take Donna Summer, Funkytown, the Bee Gees do Saturday Night Fever, Rod Stewart, and all the cokeheads AT MY HOUSE nonstop for a month if it meant I never had to listen to another Janet Jackson number. 🙂

    And Phil, of course the Bee Gees were talented. Like others (Rod Stewart comes to mind) they carefully orchestrated a transistion to disco because that was WHERE it was at. Disco was the future (for a while). But I still liked the early BEE GEES best.

    Posts like this are fun because, well, for one thing they prove that Rand was wrong about something besides smoking, but it also ends up being a mini celebration of diversity of taste.

    Besides,it’s loads of fun to diss dissco (pun intended) and its interesting to see some of the eclecticity (that is not a word–it is however, a blog) of tastes in music around here.

  29. Todd F,

    Couldn’t one find perfectly valid continuums going both ways? Technologically, the connection you cite may be the most significant, but then, few of the folks who shake & quiver to techno and the like would likely think of the Bee Gees as their aesthetic forebears. And sociologically they probably have more in common with Dead Heads than disco-goers.

  30. TWC: The difference between Rod Stewart and the Bee Gees is that the Bee Gees made disco muic that was genuinely enjoyable (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever”) while Stewart made disco so awful that it forces me to reconsider my fondness for his early work.

    Todd: You’ve got a legitimate point. And while I’m not a big techno guy, there’s some electronic music out there that’s definitely interesting: Laibach, Oval, etc.

  31. The late 70’s early 80’s had great bands and none of them disco.

    U2/Peter Gabriel/Talking Heads/Jeff Beck

    Disco was just a group hallucination. We tried unsuccessfully to shake my neighbor out of playing disco by striking a hammer against the common cinderblock wall. It didn?t work ? she thought it was part of the music.

  32. I also think people tend to forget that disco was really more of a soundtrack to what essentially became an incredibly decadent and seamy lifestyle. The fact the mainstream co-opted it is not unusual (witness todays advent of pop punk and hot topic), but you couldn’t rob it of the fact, that the 70’s lifestyle at its core was a pretty barefaced rejection of the idealism of the 60’s, without giving up any of the drug taking or sexual misadventures.

    As a person who was not old enough to enjoy the disco era, I almost have to admire the sheer audacity and damn near stupidity of a time when a club like Studio 54 reigned. Even in todays candy flipping raves, nothing quite takes the cake for excess than the sheer amount of cocaine, nitrous, and debauchery that happened in 54.

  33. laibach…their live shows were an experience.

    disco provided a template for early house, definitely. but i can’t wrap my head around the bee gees.

    big ups to jesse for repping oval, though. are you familiar with pansonic?

  34. “Disco was brainless, vapid, and awful in every sense.”

    I could respond to this in several ways:

    1) Oh, and rock isn’t?

    2) Therein lies it’s charm…

    3) Of course it is; why else listen to it?

    Pick one, your choice…

    (Oh by the way…”Funkytown” was a better record than anything Foreigner ever did, with the possible exception of “Urgent,” which is saved by Junior Walker.)

  35. Tom: Talking Heads were actually pretty heavily influenced by disco. (And don’t forget that the Tom Tom Club was a Talking Heads spinoff.) Real disco, as opposed to the disco manufactured by the nostalgia industry, had a lot in common with the punk/new wave scene, and there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization. Both genres contributed a lot to the resurgence of indie labels as well.

    Dhex: Having defended disco, I now must turn around and say that I’ve never been able to get into house music at all. And no, I don’t know Pansonic … are they worth checking out?

  36. Rap was showing up in the clubs, and in the mainstream a pre-cosmetic surgery Michael Jackson issued the non-Disco “Off the Wall” in late 1979 which dominated the charts for months.

    Actually, there’s a lot of disco in Off the Wall.

    And “We Are Family” is a good song. Way better than “Urgent.”

  37. I’m sure the way everone waxes nostalgic about the 70’s is about as far removed from reality as the constant, never ending babble about Kurt Cobain and the early 90’s (at the time I had zilch to little interest in Nirvana or the seattle music scene…in fact I was little affected by his death and most of my friends barely noticed… my tastes at the time ran to the then re-emerging brit rock scene propelled by Oasis and Pulp and The Verve). I hate when people drone on and on about how Smells like Teen Spirit “Changed everything”…I still don’t own a Nirvana record and don’t feel paticuarly deprieved for not owning one.

  38. My older siblings all graduated from high school in the mid to late 1970s, I was in grade school, and people forget what a truly screwed up time it was. A fair number of my siblings’ classmates died from drugs and suicide at young ages, something that was almost unheard of growing up in the 1980s. The 70s, while more fun in many ways than now, were anything but innocent, dark nihilistic would be a better description. As far as the music, its hard to condemn entire genres of music. Most of the music in the 1970s, in retrospect was pretty bad, although each genera had its quality music. The problem is not so much Led Zeppelin versus the Bee Gees. The problem is that for every Led Zeppelin there were ten Foreigners, April Wines, and Orleans. Like wise for every Bee Gees or Chic, there were ten disco ducks.

  39. “A lot of disco holds up, and a lot of ’70s rock does not. I’d take “Funkytown” over Foreigner any day.”

    You’re right, there was a subcurrent of disco, largely guitar- and bass-driven, that had its roots in funk and soul. It wasn’t half bad.

    But the percussion-based crap, a simple drum-machine line with vocal overlay, was godawful.

  40. I played the Beatles and Stones till the grooves wore out before I could even ride a bicycle, I loved rock and roll. But even rock radio was stinko by the mid 70’s, apart from the occasional Sabbath or UFO tune everything on rock radio was down tempo Eric Clapton/Genesis stuff, about as MOR as rock and roll could get. I was twelve when I first heard “My Aim Is True” and “This Year’s Model”, something my brother picked up somehow. Radio never played that stuff, but it really grabbed me. And then as a freshman in high school I was right in the throes of the “Disco Sucks” movement. I was conflicted because Disco really did suck (I think Sean nailed it), but the rockers were waving the flag for what – Journey, Supertramp, Styx? Every frickin’ party was nothing but Led Zep and Yes. Yuck. In my neighborhood, most of the oddballs were listening to Rush, Budgie, and Scorpions – a little louder and faster, but still lacking the fun.

    So I just sat back and enjoyed the silliness, and listened to my Ramones and Johnny Thunders records on my own. Thank God radio at least played “My Sharona”, an up tempo rock and roll song about sex with a smokin’ lead break.

  41. jesse: pansonic (nee panasonic before getting a cease n’ desist) is basically two finnish guys at the crossroads of drift/drone and techno type music. the end result sounds like neither. a bit on the brutal side, but if you can handle the oval…

    their live shows, however, are absolutely FANTASTIC. i cannot stress this enough. the new album is a 4CD box set, half technoid stuff and half dark ambient noise (the technoid stuff is better than the ambient stuff, i think) but look for early albums like kulma or a to start with. noisy, brutal, rhythmic goodness. they also have some live cds out of shows from the mid to late 90s, but i haven’t heard them yet.

    personally, i can’t really stand early techno and house. even “classic” tracks are kinda…bleh. force inc, perlon, etc is where its at, imo. or classic “ambient techno,” global communications, orb, that sorta thing.

  42. Disco didn’t really die, it just had it’s head cut off and cryogenically frozen for the future.

  43. Ahem, I was a teen in the 70’s and remember alot of Discomania. In fact Saturday Night Fever was filmed in a club my neighborhood which is now gay. But unfortunately the ridiculous tends to stick in my mind….like Disco Duck and Boogie Oogie Oogie. I guess whatever floats your boat…who am I to criticise anyone’s musical taste…..mine has alot to be desired.

  44. Well, for one who was there, the “Disco sucks” movement was not about racism. It was about the near total presence of Disco music everywhere. In stores. On most radio stations. At the ballparks between innings. (“We are Family” was the theme song for the 1979 Pirates .. which is why I rooted in vain for their opponents that season and playoffs.)

    The nostalgia movement has redefined “Disco” to include far more songs than were originally considered Disco. Originally Disco was defined by the unvaried constant tempo beat. It was meant to be played in Discos, where dance songs could be blended from one to the next without varying the dance beat. Once it took off, most Disco hits were remixed into extended versions for the Disco clubs with the idea of keeping the dancing going. Which would have been fine if those same songs weren’t on virtually every pop radio station except WLUP (Steve Dahl’s station) in Chicago in the summer of 1979.

    And, for the record, in 1979 Black pop culture was already moving away from disco. Rap was showing up in the clubs, and in the mainstream a pre-cosmetic surgery Michael Jackson issued the non-Disco “Off the Wall” in late 1979 which dominated the charts for months.

  45. The whole 70s nostalgia industry so mangled the whole thing, it just makes me cringe thinking what they are going to cherry-pick from the 80s, or the 90s.
    I probably missed something, but the movie “Dazed and Confused” was the first time, almost 10 years after the official 70s nostalgia craze, that I saw something in pop culture acknowledge that there was more to the 70s than disco and cocaine. That was a 70s much much closer to what I remembered growing up.

  46. Damn, I love how when the subject turns to music, people’s minds slam shut like a vault.

    Disco had a big influence on a lot of acts that came out later, not only house, techno, industrial, and other electronic music. I think that says a lot for it. Was there a lot of bad disco? Of course. There’s a lot of bad music of every genre.

    I happen to be a 30 yo person who still dj’s. And I dj house music, mostly, which has a lot to thank disco for, namely that it might never have been if not for disco. But at the same time I like hip-hop, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queens of the Stone Age, Talking Heads, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and just so many different kinds of music, I could sit here all day listing genres and bands.

    Why hate on something? If you don’t like it, fine, but saying a whole genre of music “sucks” is pretty rediculous, isn’t it?

  47. Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me…

  48. Disco didn’t really die, it just had it’s head cut off and cryogenically frozen for the future.….

    When what should have happened with that head was that it should have been buried, with the body burned and the ashes scattered at a crossroads. 🙂

    Talking Heads didn’t seem so much disco-influenced as African-influenced, dating back to their track I Zimbra. ” Remain In Light went further, with… guitarist Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx guesting on vocals, requiring nine pieces to play the music on stage incl. Belew, Busta Cherry Jones (bass, ex-Sharks), Bernie Worrell (keyboards, ex-Parliament), Dollette MacDonald, vocals, Steven Scales, percussion.*” Damn, that was a show!

    Of course, everyone knows about their covering Al Green.


    Thank silly local stations who tape delay late night TV programming! I just found out that Bow Wow Wow is on Kimmel this a.m.!!!


  49. Well well well. It’s straights vs. gays, rock vs. disco, repubilcans vs. democrats. Some fights at the not so Ok Corrale never change. : )

    Here’s my deal. I love disco, but I’m critical of which songs I say are “valued” as disco. I cannot stand ABBA. I’m gay. I’m also young. When they play ABBA on the dancefloor now once in a while at gay clubs, you have to run for your life or be stomped on by the high heels of the femmie boys who not only lip sync it while they pretend they can dance, but they also do those ridiculous Abba head move things (someone explained this to me).

    What’s good disco? Do you wanna get funky with me. Deputy of love. Thanks To You. KC / sunshine band. KC has the great live/jazz sound, and some of the other titles I wrote here are more geared as Disco/Funk…you cannot say that funk is uncool. If you can, you are living in another world, or are just some beer guzzling, tshirt nut scratching, honey get me a beer-straight loser who should take his wife out more and show her a real life–go dancing. You dont’ have to be travolta, but God man, have some rhythm in your heart.

    As for rock, yes. Rock is good too. Dark Side Of The Moon is okay. I also like Golden Earing. Eagles..well, they are “alright” but… not very exciting. Disco and rock are both great, and they both sell. People are scampering around for old school records now and old disco as much as people are buying the 25th30th or whatever supder duper double triple packed eagles 100th box set… Hehe.

    Now I dont’ care much for the BG’s either. But I’ll have to say that anyone who can deny they have talent, and have survived the test of time must be an asshat.

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