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Rock radio’s war against disco

Sirius XM has announced a new music channel: Studio 54 Radio, described as a 24/7 commercial free tribute to the legendary club of the disco era. "The channel will air music that comes from the vaults and special record collections of insiders, much of which has never been heard since the club’s doors shut," the press release notes.

Studio 54 opened in 1977 in mid-Manhattan. The show sounds like fun in a weird, hyper-nostalgic way:

Legendary Studio 54 doorman, Marc Benecke, and Myra Scheer, executive assistant to former Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell, will host weekly interview shows, The Marc and Myra Show, with Studio 54 insiders from the iconic era. Special guests will include Studio 54’s original head of security, original bartenders, waiters, busboys and well known club regulars and celebrities.

The news comes as I am reading Alice Echols’ wonderful book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, and remembering all the disco haters I knew back in my salad days. I loved disco from the getgo, and puzzled at all the fuss over it, which seemed to come in equal intensity from the New Left and conservative right. Anita Bryant famously warned, for example, that homosexuals were cranking out disco singles "with double meanings . . . then having ‘straight’ children buy them."

But, as Echols notes, nobody hated disco more than album-oriented rock stations. There was Dennis Erectus of KOME in San Jose, California, who would play 33 rpm disco records at 78 rpm, while adding the sounds of flushing toilets and people vomiting. Then there was Detroit station WWWW, two of whose deejays launched the "Disco Ducks Klan" (!!!).

"They were laying plans, which were later aborted, to wear white sheets onstage at a disco that was switching to rock," Echols writes. "At their next job, at AOR station WRIF, they performed on-the-air ‘electrocutions’ of disco lovers whose names and phone numbers had been sent to the station by members of the ‘intelligence’ arm of DREAM (Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco)."

Anti-disco antinomian

Apparently the most famous discophobe from that era was deejay Steve Dahl of WLUP in Chicago, who organized, in his words, an "antidisco army . . . dedicated to the eradication of the dreaded musical disease known as DISCO." Dahl, who had been dumped from a rock station that switched to disco, always lisped when saying the d-word. That was the least of his schtick, it seems.

"When Van McCoy, of the hit single ‘The Hustle,’ died, Dahl memorialized him by destroying his record on the air," the book continues:

"These incidents were a prelude to Dahl’s main event. Disco Demolition Night was held on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park, during a double-header between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Dahl planned the event with the son of the White Sox’s owner, Mike Veeck, who was the sports broadcaster at WLUP. For weeks leading up to the game Dahl had promised that fans showing up with disco records in hand would be admitted for a mere 98 cents. That evening over 70,000 people descended upon the ballpark. So many Dahlites showed up with records—reportedly 10,000—that regular ticket holders were denied admission. . . .

During the intermission, Dahl, who was decked out in military fatigues and an army helmet, drove onto the field in a military-style jeep. Next to him sat a blond bombshell, a model named Lorelei who often appeared in WLUP’s ads. Then an enormous crate filled with what said to be 50,000 disco records was placed in center field. After setting off fireworks in front of the crate, Dahl detonated a fireworks bomb inside the crate that sent shards of the exploded records flying."

This provoked a half hour riot, with 7,000 fans running about the field in an orgy of record smashing. Eventually the tactical division of the Chicago Police Department was called in. They arrested thirty nine people. Several were injured in the melee.

What was all this crazy rage against disco about? Echols cautions against easy answers. But she notes that by the late 1970s, the genre had become a target for everybody. Conservatives disliked its sexual overtones. Progressives blamed it for the end of the sixties. Dueling critics accused disco of being disruptive and conventional.

Most amusingly, scruffy straight white guys hated that when they went to a club, they now had to dress better. "You have to look good," Dahl complained to an interviewer, "you know, tuck your shirt in, perfect this, perfect that."

But Echols also points out that Album Oriented Rock’s war on disco was no accident. It was organized by two radio consultants who discovered that these campaigns boosted listenership and station loyalty, even among listeners who were initially neutral about disco. After conducting some audience research, they managed to convince no less than sixty radio stations to "appeal to their base by launching anti-disco campaigns."

Today, this strange moment in American culture is almost completely forgotten. Disco is now bathed in the elixir of nostalgia. One wonders if any of this craziness will be recalled on Sirius XM’s Studio 54 show.

  • Further reading: My Jungle Boogie Moment.

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    One Response to Rock radio’s war against disco

    1. Tony August 13, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

      These days, remove the word “disco” and replace it with “liberal” and you have the ignitor for Talk Radio. It’s all about giving the audience something to hate rather than something to love.

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