Disco, Demolition, and Other Topics

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Steve Dahl revs up the crowd on Disco Demolition Night in July 1979.)

There’s been a lot of good reading on the Internet over the last couple of weeks. I tweeted a bunch of it as I saw it, but those links disappear quickly on this page, so here’s an annotated recap, along with a couple of detours.

NPR tried to figure out where disco began, precisely, although reporter Jason Heller didn’t find a definitive answer among a 1969 Chicago soul record by the Radiants, turn-of-the-70s records by the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks, and Santana, “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango, “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, and the funk and world music featured in the early 70s by pioneering DJ David Mancuso at the Loft in New York City.

Digression: In a Twitter DM, soul man Larry Grogan gave me his take: “I always draw a dividing line between the stuff from the early disco culture playlists (a la Mancuso and the Loft) and stuff purpose-made as ‘disco’. In between those two are Philadelphia International stuff like Harold Melvin (which was still expansive/adventurous) and Eddie Kendricks. That’s the true transitional stuff. If the culture had stuck to the kind of wide-ranging things you’d hear at the Loft (funky rock, Afro funk, world music), all of which was danceable yet not homogenous, it would have made for a much more robust, interesting scene, instead of the fast-burning shit show it turned into.”

I’d cosign that. What it means is that there’s going to be neither a specific disco birth date nor a particular record that is, as NPR’s dreadful headline termed it, “disco’s Cro-Magnon”—which Jason Heller seems disappointed not to have found.

Related: the Chicago White Sox are getting ready to observe the 40th anniversary of the Disco Demolition Riot of July 12, 1979, when a disco-sucks promotion involving Chicago DJ Steve Dahl and rock radio station WLUP between games of doubleheader ended in chaos. I’ve alredy seen some nostalgic writeups about it, and Dahl, now a respectable gray eminence among broadcasters, will no doubt be widely visible as the anniversary approaches. Forty years ago, I would have been firmly on the side of the rioters. Today, however, it’s clear that the disco-sucks movement was to a great extent racist and anti-gay. One might even call it an expression of toxic white masculinity. I am not, however, holding my breath to see any of that acknowledged amidst the retrospectives.

Also on the Twitter feed recently:

—The FCC is getting ready to legalize further consolidation of radio stations. An NPR piece mentions my town, Madison, Wisconsin, as the kind of market that could end up being totally owned and controlled by a single entity, instead of the three companies that divide the signals here now.

—Smaller markets than Madison are in deeper trouble: a Guardian story described the somewhat-extreme-but-by-no-means-unbelievable story of KHIL in Willcox, Arizona, where locals are battling out-of-town management to keep their hometown station on the air.

—In New York City, a legendary set of call letters has left the air. WPLJ signed off at the end of May, becoming another affiliate of the religious K-Love network. Longtime New York jock Jim Kerr shared some memories of the station with Billboard.

—An analysis shows that hit songs are getting shorter, because shorter songs equal more streaming plays, greater streaming exposure, and more money. Artists and labels have always wanted to sell records, but the cynicism involved in the process has never been more blatant than it is today. And there is a perverse honesty to it: nobody’s hiding the fact that a lot of the music being made today isn’t art, it’s product.

—In MTV’s 80s heyday, nearly every young heterosexual male in America was a little in love with Martha Quinn. The Television Academy Archives recently posted a new interview with Martha in which she discusses how she got her job as one of the original VJs and her impressions of her colleagues, musicians, and 80s youth culture in general. The entire interview runs two hours, but you can also watch highlights of it here.

—In my piece about Bing Crosby earlier this year, I mentioned his desire to record his radio programs so that he did not need to be tied to a schedule for performing them live. That led him to become a pioneer of early tape recording techology, as described in this 2016 history.

To get worthwhile reading in real time, follow me on Twitter or click the Twitter widget on the right-hand side of this page when you visit here.

5 responses

  1. John Gallagher | Reply

    Lots of juicy topics to digest here but I’ll comment on a couple.

    1) I always thought Rock The Boat from the Hues Corporation from 1974 was the first disco record though I never thought of Soul Makossa from 1973.

    2) I was at a small FM station in Saegertown, PA in 1979, the year of the disco blowup, and recall a novelty song from Frank Zappa called “Dancin’ Fool” that year that was also a stab at the genre.
    We briefly had an afternoon guy at that station that was disco through and through. Wardrobe, glasses, 12″ vinyl you name it. We briefly roomed together and I found quickly he was a real ass. I was glad when he left the station and went back to Cleveland.

    1. Zappa also released “Disco Boy” from the 1976 LP “Zoot Allures” as a single. In junior college a couple of years later there was a guy, feathered hair and shiny shirts, who we called that and he thought it was a compliment.

  2. JB: As always, I applaud your clarity and willingness to call it straight, even if it conflicts with a prior position. I was way less than a fan of most disco at the time, but what Dahl and company did back in the day always felt like the audio equivalent of a book burning—intended as much to intimidate fans of the genre as to destroy physical copies. And it’s not a big leap to racism and homophobia when you take the time to understand the music’s roots and core fan base.

    As for the Guardian story, it is much more a story about one of the smallest towns to have even one radio station that has three local signals, an AM and two FMs, in a poor area, within the shadow of a larger market (Tucson)’s signals with a deadbeat owner dumped on top of that heap of not-good. It would be hard to imagine a deck more stacked. And there are other small-town stations that are doing well, under different circumstances.

    The new digital age has given those of us around a while a lot to adjust to—the death of the concept of an album as opposed to individual tracks one (a decade ago) downloads or (now) streams. In a way, it’s 1963 again. It’s all about singles, the shorter the better. In this environment, disco would never have stood a chance of becoming mass appeal to the extent that it did 40 years ago.

  3. John Gallagher | Reply

    A song that’s been #1 for months, “Old Town Road” runs a whopping 2:35.

  4. I’ve yet to see a good explanation of why a civil disturbance should be celebrated.
    I think because the word “disco” is in the title, there’s an urge to wrap the event in campy nostalgia, as opposed to saying: “Y’know, this was an event where all crowd control disappeared and people ran rampant and destroyed stuff.”

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