Why Did 70s Rock Music Hate Disco So Much?

One night in 1979, a Chicago radio DJ orchestrated a night of disco hatred called Disco Demolition Night. Four decades later, we look at why the genre was hated so much.

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Feb 10 2016, 3:00pm


Photo Credit: Getty Images

This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.

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“Well the first thing I have against [disco] is I can never find a white three-piece suit that fits me off the rack,” jokes former radio DJ Steve Dahl to a local news camera on July 12, 1979—an evening known as Disco Demolition Night. “I hate the taste of pina coladas, I'm allergic to gold jewelry, I'm a cheapskate, I don't like to waste a lot of money at home in terms of my electrical bill and you have to spend so much time blow-drying your hair… It's a waste of energy.”

Steve Dahl was working at a local radio station in the late 70s when he was fired. The reason for his dismissal? Disco. The genre was emerging as the new sound as groovy dancefloor anthems trounced the demand for the rock fare Dahl was used to championing on the air. Rather than taking it on the chin and listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in the comfort of his own man cave, Dahl dubbed disco a “disease” and together with the promoter for the Chicago White Sox sought to destroy it with actual real fire in the middle of a baseball stadium.

Holding a demonstration at the baseball team's Comiskey Park in between a White Sox doubleheader, Dahl encouraged his former listeners to descend upon the center of the field and burn disco records to a cinder. Instead of a standard 15,000 people in attendance, there were over 50,000 revelers at the park that night. Rallying to the words “Disco sucks!,” Dahl encouraged thousands to set matches to bins full of funky dance numbers. Riot police were deployed to break it up. “I'd like to show you how we destroy the disco records,” Dahl tells the news reporter. Then, he takes a piece of black vinyl and smashes it into his head three times until it's beyond use. What a way to treat a genre that wields such positivity for the global music community.

Disco is the language of the weekend: uptempo, party appropriate, and synonymous with glitter, mirrorballs, and well-choreographed dance routines. It dates back to the late 60s. It was intended for any partygoer looking for a night on the tiles, regardless of race, gender, age or sexuality. The more individual the disco infiltrator, the more garish their entrance to the club, the better (see: pictures of Bianca Jagger riding a real white horse inside New York's legendary Studio 54 nightclub). To be an outsider in the disco community was the whole point as the sound of strings, cowbell and slapped basslines became the jubilant celebration of society's underdog. It went hand-in-hand with the rainbow flags of gay pride an embraced women as equally as it did men. Donna Summer's erotic breaths on "Love to Love You Baby" shivered with sexual liberation. Women were—more often than not—at the forefront of disco, their vocals pushed themes of surviving adversary. "At first I was afraid, I was petrified," sang Gloria Gaynor on "I Will Survive." Fast forward 40 years and the sentiments are mirrored in Robyn's "Dancing On My Own": "I'm just gonna dance all night, I'm all messed-up I'm so out of line."

Some have argued that the Death To Disco movement by rock fans was blind idiocy. Others have alluded to a more sinister attempt at ethnic cleansing of the charts, as disco's origins were found predominantly in the Black, Latino, and gay communities. Despite initial resulting demise in the early 80s, the starry glitz of the mirrorball never disappeared and is more rife now than ever. The funk of the Jackson 5 and the thrill of a deep Chic riff was appropriated by David Bowie ("Let's Dance"), Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"), Blondie ("Heart Of Glass"), and ELO. The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" became one of disco's biggest crossover moments. Wings, The Eagles, KISS, and Queen all followed suit.

Today the influence of disco's classic years can be heard across a spectrum of genres: from electro (DFA 1979, LCD Soundsystem) to chart pop (The 1975, Lady Gaga), from Daft Punk's entire Random Access Memories to Bruno Mars' performance of "Uptown Funk" at this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show and The Weeknd's enormo-smash "I Can't Feel My Face." Disco lives in the corners of Shamir's debut album, it formed the entire backbone of Scissor Sisters' career. Lest us not forget that without 1970s disco, Madonna's best album ever ("Confessions on a Dance Floor," don't argue) wouldn't even be a figment of our imaginations. Across pop culture, its legacy shouldn't really need to be stated—but does, because we still call it a “guilty” pleasure. Early hip-hop employed old disco records. Without disco, Carrie Bradshaw would never have cleaned out her closet in Sex and the City while doing a walk-in-wardrobe fashion show to Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real." And what of house music, or synthpop, or even techno? Disco paved the way.

A reaction to mainstream rock music, disco has been left miserably underrated by comparison. Nile Rodgers still hasn't been inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame, despite writing "Material Girl" and inspiring countless rockstars from Johnny Marr to Duran Duran. Perhaps the genre that shouldered the struggles of shunted communities has to remain so to keep true to its core. The freaks are still chic and if you don't agree then you're NFI.

Eve Barlow is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.

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