1979 was a transitional year in my life. Early on in the year, a month and a day after my sixteenth birthday, I got my driver’s license. Musically, I was diving head-first into new wave and all the new technologies of the Digital Age reinventing the sound of rock music without sacrificing the music’s danceability. Plus, we were looking at the end of a troubling decade and the entrance of a bright shiny new decade full of possibility. To me, it was an exciting time.
Now, forty years on, I look back at one particular incident, and I cringe. Back in 1979, disco music was THE dominant genre of the year, most specifically the first half. But, then it began to happen. The one thing that will kill any movement, from political to musical. All musical movements have their beginnings in the underground, and as they become successful, the bean counters at the record companies immediately look for ways to make money. Thus, the oversaturation point will be hit.
Disco really did not rear its beautiful diversity-celebrating head until 1973, when some dance-based club hits began to find their way on Top 40 radio. For the most part, disco was a producer’s and disc jockey’s playground. Far too many artists of the era were studio concoctions and not true put their time in the bars artists. The transcendent artists of disco, however, were the traditional “put in the time” up from the bars people. I am talking about Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Chic and KC & the Sunshine Band, but I would argue that they were all much more than disco acts. The Bee Gees had hits in many different eras with terrific songwriting and an uncanny ability to adapt to any era. KC and his cohorts were excellent session players with excellent pop instincts. Donna Summer had one of the greatest voices of the rock era who happened to record some excellent disco songs. And, Chic was a band that took the idea of disco and turned that idea on its head with a combination of grace, style and musicianship that put them more in the funk category than disco. Yet, I am willing to admit that I did not realize at the time how disco being a producer’s genre was simply following the format first exploited by Motown, Phil Spector, bubblegum pop, among others.
The oversaturation began every bit as slowly as the genre began to explode in scope. The first sign of this was in 1976 with the novelty hit song “Disco Duck” by disc jockey Rick Dees, who would go on to host a weekly Top 40 radio show as a rival to the great Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. But, after Saturday Night Fever mania set in during the winter of 1977-78, disco started to be found everywhere. Disco could be found in commercials, and disco dancing TV shows were all the rage. Suddenly, our parents were going out to dance, and that was wrong to the youth of America. When our parents began to appropriate our pop culture, it is time to move on.
So, by the summer of 1979, I was ready for something new in music. I didn’t care how great Bad Girls, Spirits Having Flow and Risqué were, I was sick of hearing that 4/4 dance beat on the radio when I KNEW there was some exciting new stuff bubbling up from the underground, such as Devo, Talking Heads and Blondie, never mind that they were all doing some demented things with disco. I was simply in a “out with the ‘old’ and in with the ‘new'” mode. So, when the local rock radio station began a “Disco Destroyer” promotion, I was in. And, I went out and bought a T-shirt in support and wore it often. Proudly, at the time.
Around the same time, the whole “Disco Sucks” movement was underway. Now, allow me to emphatically state right now that I was NEVER a “Disco Sucks” kind of guy. Au contraire! I owned, and still own, my share of disco rather proudly. I was tired of the oversaturation of the genre in pop culture as we lost many terrific new wave singles to yet another club hit, no matter how it was missing some pop hooks. But, in the summer of ’79, the Chicago White Sox held a promotion called “Disco Demolition Night.” That night, if a patron donated a disco record, he or she could buy a ticket to the doubleheader for 99 cents. Now, the White Sox were financially hurting at the time and were looking for all kinds of promotions in an attempt to lure fans into their ballpark for some baseball. With this night, the team was expecting 10 to 25 thousand fans. Instead, 50,000 showed up with their records, their own booze and their own stashes of pot. To top it off, these young people were ready to blow up some records and celebrate their fact that “Disco Sucked.”
According to the ushers, most of the records were not disco, but a variety of R&B and funk albums, full of black artists. This was the first sign that they were witnessing a racial act. Between games, the large box of records were “blown up” in center field, and a melee ensued. Quickly, a full-on riot broke out as thousands of “fans” stormed the field, causing the second game to be cancelled. A keen-eyed rock journalist Dave Marsh, an elder statesman in rock journalism, likened the scene to a fascist book-burning in Nazi Germany. In retrospect, the man was spot on.
As we were on the cusp of the Eighties, the majority of the country was ready to shift back to more conservative political beliefs. Unfortunately, conservative political thought also gives much cover to more racist overtones to become mainstream. And, when I look back at this event, I see this being nearly a white power rally. The thing I am saddest about this whole incident is how I perhaps naively fell for this thing hook, line and sinker. I walked around my school, which was essentially all-white outside of a handful of students of color, with my “Disco Destroyer” shirt believing I was a woke sixteen-year-old who was also exceptionally hip. Now, I see myself as a tool for institutional racism, something that took me 40 years to fully understand.
Look, I WAS tired of hearing some bad disco getting airplay over new wave at the time, but I went about my protest the wrong way. Suddenly, I stopped listening all the aforementioned artists, no matter truly transcendent I believed they were at the time. It was hard enough to survive my teen years as a nerdy athlete (they did not go together in my hometown back then) who had strange political ideas as a teen to continue to publicly pledge allegiance to the Bee Gees and Chic in a rural white school.
This happens to be my darkest moment in music or sports, two sanctuaries in my life where race never played a role to me. But, I allowed myself to become a pawn in a larger scheme that I should have seen back then, but I realized recently just how bad of a role I actually played in this pushback against diversity.
I am not asking for forgiveness. I want to point out just how insidious society’s racism can be, that I, a lover of all kinds of music, regardless of the color of the artist’s skin, religion or sexual orientation, could be unwittingly be enlisted into a subtle racial movement. This will remain the albatross around my neck.
Now, that I have this thing off my chest, let’s get on with a countdown. A countdown?, you ask. Yep! Over the next few days, I am celebrating my 150 favorite disco songs, a group of songs that celebrated the beautiful diversity of life. Everywhere else in the world, disco never died. And, artists from all over the globe have been repackaging it and selling back to us. Americans allowed our disco culture to be extinguished, but we never really stopped buying it. From the hits of ABC in the Eighties to the new stuff by Dua Lipa and Kylie Minogue today, disco remains very much alive today.
Now, let the countdown begin!
150. Blondie – “Rapture” (1980)
149. Tavares – “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” (1976)
148. Bee Gees – “Beat It” (1982)
147. George McCrae – “Rock Your Baby” (1974)
146. Diana Ross – “Upside Down” (1980)
145. Donna Summer with Brooklyn Dreams – “Heaven Knows” (1978)
144. The Gap Band – “Burn Rubber on Me” (1980)
143. Rose Royce – “Car Wash” (1976)
142. Prince – “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” (1979)
141. Diana Ross – “The Boss” (1979)
140. Bonnie Pointer – “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (1978)
139. Debbie Harry – “Backfired” (1981)
138. The Jackson 5 – “Dancing Machine” (1976)
137. Rick James – “Give It to Me” (1981)
136. Chicago – “Street Player” (1979)
135. Chic – “My Forbidden Lover” (1979)
134. Yvonne Elliman – “If I Can’t Have You” (1977)
133. Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band – “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976)
132. Shalamar – “Second Time Around” (1979)
131. BT Express – “Express” (1974)
130. Candi Staton – “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)
129. Banbarra – “Shack Up (Parts 1 & 2)” (1975)
128. Shirley & Company – “Shame, Shame, Shame” (1974)
127. Cerrone – “Love in C Minor” (1976)
126. Prince – “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” / “DMSR” (1982)
125. Kool & the Gang – “Ladies Night” (1979)
124. Earth, Wind & Fire with The Emotions – “Boogie Wonderland” (1979)
123. Irene Cara – “Flashdance…What a Feeling” (1983)
122. Bee Gees – “More Than a Woman” (1977)
121. Ashford & Simpson – “Found a Cure” (1979)
120. Hot Chocolate – “You Sexy Thing” (1975)
119. Barry White – “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything” (1974)
118. Labelle – “Lady Marmalade” (1975)
117. Average White Band – “Pick Up the Pieces” (1974)
116. Silver Convention – “Get Up and Boogie” (1976)
115. Grace Jones – “I Need a Man” (1977)
114. Heatwave – “Boogie Nights” (1977)
113. Barry Manilow – “Copacabana (At the Copa)” (1977)
112. The Spinners – “Working My Way Back to You” (1979)
111. Brick – “Dazz” (1976)
110. Village People – “San Francisco (medley)” (1977)
109. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1974)
108. Manu Dibango – “Soul Makossa” (1973)
107. Donna Summer – “On the Radio” (1979)
106. Loose Joints – “Is It All Over My Face” (1980)
105. Bee Gees – “Night Fever” (1977)
104. Peter Brown – “Dance with Me” (1978)
103. Ritchie Family – “Best Disco in Town” (1975)
102. Dan Hartman – “Relight My Fire” (1979)
101. The Sylvers – “Boogie Fever” (1975)