Turn the Beat Around

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(Pictured: White Sox announcer Harry Caray interviews helmet-and-fatigues-clad Steve Dahl, organizer of Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, on July 12, 1979.)

I asked what you wanted to read about here, and some requests came in.

Tom asked a simple question: why was disco so hated compared to other forms of music? Simple question, but maybe not a simple answer. Speaking personally, I was as big a disco-hater as anybody, because I was a teenage boy when the phenomenon blew. Many white boys my age felt that disco was an attack on everything we held dear. It seemed cheap and mindless, a product rather than an art form. It was in reality none of those things, but that’s the way we perceived it.

In general, the anti-disco backlash—which took many forms, but was epitomized by what happened at Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in the summer of 1979—was partly racist, given that most disco performers and a lot of disco fans were black or Latinx. It was partly sexist, given that many of the major disco stars and fans were women. And it was partly homophobic. The secret history of disco, which is not so secret anymore, is that it gained a strong foothold in gay culture before it gained a strong foothold anywhere else. Not that we knew or cared much about gay culture per se; many Midwestern white boys considered disco dancing something that real men didn’t do. (Unless it was a slow dance, and half-a-grope at that.) And that was enough to turn us off.

Not that 19-year-old me, reading about Disco Demolition Night as it happened (and I was on the air that night, and I recall telling my listeners about it), would have acknowledged that my motivations were racist, sexist, and/or homophobic. Disco, disco performers, and disco fans as a whole were simply The Other. They were different from us. Disco people did not love the superior music we loved, and the music they loved seemed not just inferior but foreign.

I did not dislike every disco record I heard on the radio, and in fact I would have taken a contrarian’s pride back then in telling my fellow young white boys, “That’s just a great record and it doesn’t matter that it’s disco.” But on the whole, I was about as guilty of “othering” disco as the young dudes who stormed the field at White Sox Park.

If you’re interested in exploring the history of disco, Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around is a book I rely on. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols is very good too.

On the subject of books, David asked for recommendations of books and/or movies relating to the history of radio, and mentioned a few I’ve already tipped him to. One I have mentioned here recently is 9XM Talking by Randall Davidson. It’s about the early history of public broadcasting in Wisconsin, but the best part for a general reader is the story of the literal birth of radio broadcasting as we know it today. The story begins in 1914, when radio stations at universities began broadcasting weather reports in Morse code. The University of Wisconsin’s 9XM still exists today as WHA, the 5,000-watt flagship of Wisconsin Public Radio. A couple of other books within convenient reach in my office include Border Radio by Bill Crawford and Gene Fowler, which covers the phenomenon of the border blaster, from goat-gland entrepreneur John R. Brinkley to Wolfman Jack; and Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio by Tom Lewis, which was turned into a Ken Burns documentary.

Adam asked for my take on the Shadoe Stevens era of American Top 40. Stevens hosted the show after Casey’s departure in 1988 until the show folded in 1995. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Shadoe Stevens edition of the show—I’d stopped listening to Top 40 radio by 1988 and the show ceased to register with me. I don’t find any complete Shadoe shows at YouTube, so if somebody could send me one, I’d be happy to listen and report back.

Connor, who says he’s “one of your younger readers,” asked me to expand One Day in Your Life to the new millennium. Well hell, I didn’t know we had younger readers, Connor, so keep your eyes open for your request to be fulfilled in the near-to-intermediate future.

If there’s something I can do for you, dear reader, please get in touch via the comments or a private message.

4 thoughts on “Turn the Beat Around

  1. spinetingler

    I think what I mostly disliked about disco was its seemingly un-rhythmic and/or unfunky beat (which seems weird for dance music). I liked a lot of prog-rock (very weirdly rhythmic) and a lot of hard R&B (Funkadelic, James Brown – none funkier). The four on the floor average disco beat had none of that.

  2. David

    Many thanks for the recommendations–I’ve added them to my “To Do” List. I’m very familiar with the goat-gland entrepreneur John R. Brinkley; if you haven’t already, you should check out Penny Lane’s wonderful documentary about him, which is titled “NUTS!” (the documentary won a slew of awards, including Best Editing at Sundance in 2016).

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