Today is the 35th anniversary of Disco Demolition.
Like the Ten Cent Beer Night, it is one of those embarrassing anniversaries you wish happened to some other team.
Disco Demolition, for the uninitiated, was a simple promotion. If you showed up at the ballpark with a disco 45, you could enter the ballpark for 98 cents (WLUP-FM 97.9 went by "The Loop FM 98" on the air; digital tuners were still a couple of years away). In between games of a double header, morning jocks Steve Dahl and Garry Meier would blow up the donated 45s in the middle of the field.
After the promotion ended, the 50,000 fans who packed the ballpark ran on to the field. The field was ripped up. The second game was canceled. And the White Sox were charged with a forfeit. It was one of five forfeits since 1955 (all other forfeits were also the result of fan disturbances).
Disco Demolition has been over-analyzed. One book used Disco Demolition as a larger example of the malaise that had gripped America in the late 1970's. Watergate had eroded confidence in government. Vietnam had destroyed our confidence in foreign policy. Inflation -- which had been ballooning since the end of the 1960's -- was eating away at everyone's paycheck, derailing the economy that had propelled the middle class since the end of World War II. Three weeks before Disco Demolition, gas shortages sparked a riot in Suburban Philadelphia. Three days after Disco Demolition, President Jimmy Carter would deliver his "crisis of confidence" speech:
Disco Demolition has been described as racist and homophobic. After all, it was a mostly white working class men raging against a style of music that was enjoyed in the African-American, Latino, and gay communities.
Dahl, in a recent piece for Crain's Chicago Business says his anti-disco sentiment was driven by personal resentment. His original radio station, WDAI-FM 94.7 flipped to an all-disco format at the end of 1978.
Hired by the Loop several months later, Dahl started firing shots at his former employer.
Dahl's personal animus against Disco also happened to coincide with a change in the Loop's marketing strategy. WLUP switched from jazz (WSDM, the "station with the girls and all that jazz") to album rock in 1977. During the first two years of its existence, The Loop was a standard issue 1970s FM rock station with long sets of music and laid-back jocks. In 1978, under the direction of radio format consultant (and White Sox fan) Lee Abrams, The Loop became a great deal more aggressive.
Ted Nugent, Judas Priest, and AC/DC replaced Cat Stevens. The Loop's logo was changed to graffiti on a black background. Black Loop bumper stickers and black t-shirts popped up all over town. The DJs began to call the Loop "Chicago's kick ass rock n'roll." The blue-collar heavy metal fans who flocked to the new Loop hated disco. Dahl says they hated disco because the lifestyle was too expensive -- and it belonged to someone else. Heavy metal belonged to them.
By 1979, the media landscape changed. As the 1970s progressed, baby boomers who grew up with TV and radio began to call the shots.
Saturday Night Live a TV show produced by the TV generation for the TV generation, hit the airwaves in 1975. It connected with adults who grew up on TV on an almost subatomic level.
Such was the case for Steve Dahl and Garry Meier in 1979. FM radio listening had surpassed AM radio listening in 1977. Despite the fact that more people were listening to FM radio, FM had yet to find its star personality. Fred Winston had migrated from WLS-AM to WFYR-FM 103.5 in the late 70s, but he already had a following. The big radio stars -- Larry Lujack, Bob Sirott, John Landecker, Wally Phillips, and Clark Weber -- were still on AM.
Like Saturday Night Live, Dahl and Meier connected with the audience on a subatomic level. The jocks on WLS had fans. Steve and Garry had followers. They had a loyal subset of obsessives who taped every show.
Because Dahl and Meier were talking about things that simply hadn't been discussed on the radio before. They took direct shots at competitors (especially Wally Phillips on WGN). Steve was very open about his drinking, his marriage, and his children. Steve and Garry didn't have the showbiz polish of their fellow broadcasters. They were real, and the audience responded by packing Comiskey Park.
Disco Demolition became an amusing anecdote in the long history of the White Sox. The field was repaired, and the next night's game was played on schedule.
Some accounts say Dahl was banned from White Sox games for life. Not true. He would go to Sox games. He recorded a song that paid tribute to Comiskey Park when the place closed in 1990. In 2012, his grandson Henry starred in a White Sox TV commercial:
The same probably holds true for the people who stormed the field that night 35 years ago. They grew up, cut their hair, and got real jobs. Today, they take their grandkids to Sox games. Maybe, while walking through the parking lot north of the ballpark, they try to find the spot where they jumped the wall and ran the bases.
Maybe "Stayin' Alive" exists next to Judas Priest on their iPod.