Panic at the Anti-Disco Rally


Thirty years ago today, a riot broke out at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Steve Dahl, a rock DJ, had organized a Disco Demolition Night at the stadium, at which he blew up a crate of disco discs. The crowd then…well, let's cut to the video:

At the time the riot was widely seen as a moment of rock'n'roll rebellion. Since then, as disco's image has been rehabilitated, critics and historians have noted that the music was associated closely with blacks, Hispanics, and especially gays. So now you're more likely to hear the riot described in terms of intolerance. Something I haven't seen anyone explore—if you know of someone who has, please tell me—is the fact that this happened around the same time that elements of the Christian right had revived the practice of burning rock records. Such rituals date back to rock'n'roll's initial burst of popularity in the 1950s, but Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave report in Anti-Rock that the "first major record burning of the 1970s" came in 1976, when Rev. Charles Boykin—who once told Mike Royko that "There's a definite relationship between illicit sex and any music with a syncopated beat"—torched $2,000 worth of music. The record-burning fad lasted into the '80s, so the anti-disco riot erupted right in the middle of the mania. I'd love to see a cultural historian fit the two phenomena together.

(While I'm at it: The first rock'n'roll was heavily influenced by the music of the Pentecostal church, as anyone who's spent much time listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe play an electric guitar can tell you. Long before there were moral panics over rock, there were moral panics over Pentecostals and their ecstatic style of worship. Our hypothetical cultural historian ought to look into which denominations were most prone to attacking Elvis and co. in the '50s, during that first wave of record-burning. While it's reasonable to expect to find Pentecostals who resented hearing their music in secular form—call it the Jimmy Swaggart/Jerry Lee Lewis dynamic—I wonder if there's also a strong continuity between the churchmen who attacked the holy rollers and the churchmen who attacked the rock'n'rollers.) (By the way, why hasn't there been a hip revival of snake handling? You'd think some offshoot of the punk movement would get into it.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah: disco. Did you know that Nik Cohn's 1976 New York article "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night"—the basis for Saturday Night Fever, and thus probably for everything you think you know about disco—was a fabrication? Instead of investigating the discotheques of America, the Brit writer conjured up a story inspired by his homeland's Mod subculture. So Saturday Night Fever is really Quadrophenia. Jive, reign o'er me.