If you can hum a few bars of “Disco Duck” I’ve got a show for you.
Delving into disco in a fun and thought-provoking one-hour journey, is the latest episode of the exclusive PBS “American Experience” series, which has provided television audiences with award-winning documentaries, often about heavy subjects, for more than 35 seasons.
One reason for this is the presence of Chicago and a number of Chicagoans who speak in the episode “War on the Disco”, as the city was the main battleground in this “war”, with Comiskey Park literally exploding on July 12, 1979.
Do you remember that night? Do you remember disco?
I have to ask because when disco was big it was so big and when it disappeared it disappeared so quickly and permanently that old disco fans rarely mentioned the word or their memories of it.
But for a few flashy years in the 1970s, disco became the dominant force in the entertainment and nightclub scenes, with Dingbat’s, Bistro, Faces and dozens of other clubs dotting the Chicago area, with mirrored balls spinning over packed dance floors.
The program argues persuasively that disco was born out of a “decade of fear” in a country that saw rising unemployment, soaring gas prices, factory closures and other ills. At the same time, Black Americans, Latinos, women, and gays were eager for recognition and cultural prominence. Disco represented a kind of freedom, offering free oases where outcasts could express their energies. The beats were catchy, the lyrics were hot, and the scene was flashy. Discos were places of self-expression, relatively safe and undeniably lively. They have sprouted up all over the country.
And the scene suddenly took off when John Travolta hit sidewalks, dance floors and movie screens in 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever.” The same year, the famous Studio 54 opened in New York.
By then, disco had become mainstream, with nearly half of radio stations in the United States playing the music. But not WLUP-FM and prominent disc jockeys Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. Dahl had arrived at that station only months earlier, having been kicked out of his old radio home at WDAI-FM, where things had turned into permanent disco. Proudly anti-disco, Dahl was paired with the like-minded Meier, and the duo held a promotional event for listeners to express their dislike of disco.
And that’s how it was planned for what they called Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. They never expected that 80,000 people would come. But with a 98 cent intro and a disco record, people made it through; 50,000 people packed the park, and another 30,000 were eager to attend the scheduled two-night doubleheader between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers.
There were cops on horseback and the beer was flowing. Danger hung in the air.
Between games, a large box full of disco records was detonated, creating a huge hole in the center field grass. Thousands of “fans” rushed the field, starting fires and stealing bases, and things got so ugly that the second game was canceled, later losing to the Tigers.
This event is described at length in this show, and the images will be familiar to people of a certain age; It will be embarrassing for a few people who may have to explain to their children or grandchildren what they did there.
It was a bit surprising to see and hear Meier on the show when I wrote about Disco Destruction Night a few years ago and asked her to comment, she said to me, “Why bother? That was 30 years ago and I have no interest in reliving the past.”
Maybe he’s softened since then because he had a few things to say for the “American Experience” cameras. Dahl doesn’t talk to the filmmakers and is frankly content to leave his feelings alone, as in the 2016 book “Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died” (Curbside Splendor). It’s a good book inspired a later exhibition at the Elmhurst Historical Museum.
His collaborators on this book were photographer Paul Natkin and journalist Dave Hoekstra (with Bob Odenkirk writing an introduction). Both Natkin and Hoekstra come across as typically smart and sharp in “War at the Disco.”
Producers Lisa Q. Wolfinger and Rushmore DeNooyer brought together many good reviewers. As with most documentaries, academics also have a say; most documentaries are valuable even if they are a bit intellectually difficult. Far better to listen to people like Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro Chicago and Smart Bar, a longtime music-world fixture and influence, and respected photographer Diane Alexander White, who was there as a curious 24-year-old.
That night, Disco died as radio stations across the country “stopped playing music overnight.” But the program suggests that the death of disco paved the way for the birth of house music and then EDM. Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles“I witnessed that scramble by Steve Dahl,” the late father of house music once told the Tribune. This scared the record companies and they stopped signing contracts with disco artists. So we created our own thing to fill the gap.
And that was a good thing.
“War at the Disco” airs on October 30 at 20:00 on WTTW-Ch. 11, for more information: www.pbs.org