White Folks Rioted at Disco Demolition Night – But Didn’t Silence Dance Music’s Black & LGBTQ Voices

It was 79 degrees outside when local DJ Steve Dahl set fire to a crate of disco records in a publicity stunt so hot, it scorched music history. Disco Demolition Night happened in Chicago on July 12, 1979. But in many ways, the event doesn’t feel too distant.

Blowing up records was supposed to boost ticket sales for White Sox games. Higher-ups at Comiskey Park were looking for ideas to get butts in seats, and rock-radio personality Dahl pitched this: If patrons sacrificed a disco album at the door, they could get in for 98 cents (about $3.50 in today’s money). On a good night, the ball park could attract 15,000 to 20,000 people. That evening, Dahl attracted almost 50,000 individuals — all eager to see a genre created by and for women, queer people, and people of color go up in flames.

Even now, talking to progressive people of that generation, I’ll hear that disco was music of the elites. I have to understand, they insist, that disco was about an urbane cosmopolitanism, and that’s really what Disco Demolition Night was rebelling against. Disco was driven by electronic sounds, not “real” instruments, and it’s vapid plasticity was embodied by Studio 54: beautiful celebrities, expensive clothing, and a bacchanalian excess that was alienating to “ordinary” people.

Never mind that Chic’s “Le Freak — which ranked number three on Billboard’s top singles of 1979 — is an ironic celebration of the nightclub; its refrain comes from being told to “fuck off” (which became “freak off,” then “freak out”) by Studio 54’s doorman. Sometimes even the “elites” didn’t fit into their own scene, and that element of exclusivity was part of the charm. In that sense, “Le Freak” proves the ultimate expression of disco as a space where anger and joy coexist, especially for those at the margins. That sentiment is rooted in the genre’s anti-fascist beginnings.

As Peter Shapiro describes in his book Turn the Beat Around, the music can be traced back to a small French club called La Discothéque that operated during German occupation. Even though Hitler considered it beneath “good” citizens, he did little to slow France’s famous nightlife, believing it would keep Parisians too distracted to resist German control. While popular clubs like the Moulin Rouge adapted to cater to Nazi officers, holes-in-the-wall such as La Discothéque used cultural contraband like jazz music to identify themselves as safe spaces for plotting against the Third Reich.

Under Nazi rule, large public assemblies and dancing were forbidden. This made underground clubs (which were often, literally, in basements) necessary sites for political organizing — but also for laughter and fun. When WWII ended, La Discothéque and similar spots endured because they continued presenting an escape from the repressive forces of daily life. Europe was taking strict austerity measures, and radio broadcasts were treated as public services that disseminated news and cultural ideals of music. To hit a place like La Discothéque meant experiencing moments of revelry and soundtracks not prescribed by the state.

In the post-war years, La Discothéque’s club model — screening clientele, foregoing live bands for curated selections of recorded music, and offering something out of the ordinary, even bordering on decadent — trickled across Europe and was eventually adapted in major cities across the United States. In 1970, a gay man named David Mancuso who’d been hosting record-playing parties since the mid-60s began hosting invite-only events in his apartment. Part of his goal was to provide a community for gay men to dance and socialize without fear of police violence — what the Stonewall riots had responded to a year before. Crowds flocked to hear his state-of-the-art audio equipment flood the space with rhythmic, soulful music, often with Afro-Latinx roots. Eventually, his apartment was christened The Loft.

As audio engineer Alex Rosner recalled in Bill Brewster’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, “[The Loft] was probably about sixty percent Black and seventy percent gay…There was a mix of sexual orientation, races, [and] economic groups. A real mix, where the common denominator was music.”

Mancuso helped DJs pool music for hosting dance parties, and the sound and vibe of his parties spread across New York, getting appropriated by private parties as much as dance clubs. It’s worth noting that, during this time, New York City was not unlike much of Europe after WWII. Infrastructure was weak, crime was high, and the city was verging on bankruptcy. American culture was also nursing a cultural hangover from ’60s idealism. Hip hop and punk are often referenced as disparate responses to shared conditions, but disco should also be seen as a reaction to systemic failures. Who bore the brunt of New York’s social problems? Queer, Black, and Brown communities. Some of them just danced their troubles away.

This is what’s coded into disco music. Listen to some of its most popular tracks: “I Will Survive” is about Gloria Gaynor finding joy and strength despite her most challenging moments, and it became a rallying cry for AIDs activists. Legendary gay group Village People wrote YMCA to celebrate the organization for providing affordable, temporary, single occupancy rooms to people experiencing homelessness. The subtext was, if you’re gay and on the streets, don’t despair: It’s fun to stay at the YMCA. Amii Stewart’s album Knock on Wood and the video supporting its title track are stunning examples of Afrofuturism. Though a cover, Stewart’s version of “Knock on Wood” is the best known one, and it survives as a gay anthem.

In this light, it’s easy to see why numerous musicians and scholars have described Disco Demolition Night as an outpouring of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Footage from that evening shows white people — mostly men — clamoring into the gates, hurling records like frisbees, throwing beer bottles and shoes at ball players, and eventually swarming the field in what was later deemed a riot. Of course, Dahl still pleads the event was harmless fun. Don’t we know white men were losing their place in the world? Working class ones especially didn’t know where to get a suit or how to get into a fancy city club, so can you blame them for lashing out at what, to them, were symbols of that? This, a year before Reagan’s campaign to “Make America Great Again.”

Comiskey Park was located on the Southwest side in a neighborhood called Armour Square, which hugs Bridgeport from the east. The stadium was demolished in 1991, and a new one was built in Bridgeport, eventually renamed Guaranteed Rate Field. Last year, the White Sox commemorated the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night a full month before the original event: Pride month. And last Wednesday, June 3, white vigilantes swarmed the streets of Bridgeport armed with baseball bats, pipes, and two-by-fours, harassing and intimidating people returning from a nearby Black Lives Matter march— all while cops looked on. Scared Bridgeport residents streamed videos of it on social media (and I got frantic texts from friends in the neighborhood).

It’s hard to think about these facts and not hear Dahl’s words echoing. It’s just harmless fun, right? Working class white men aren’t sure of their place in the world.

But it’s also hard not to think about what happened to popular music after Disco Demolition Night. DJ Frankie Knuckles was a frequenter of The Loft, and he transported that sensibility with him when he relocated from the Bronx to Chicago in 1977. Here, he DJed at a spot called the Warehouse, a members-only club that catered to gay, mostly Black men, and he developed a disco-based party sound so popular, it forced the club to suspend its membership policy. In the early ’80s, he opened his own spot, the Power Plant, and used a drum machine to overlay heavy, bare-bones beats across disco tracks. This was the birth of house.

Early house innovator Vince Lawrence was an usher at Disco Demolition Night. He told NPR, “It’s ironic, that while you were blowing up disco records you were helping to create [house music]. … It’s funny how things work out.”

Disco Demolition Night heralded a conservatism that’s ideologically alive but has lessened its influence on pop music. Over time, what really got blown up was the cultural hegemony of straight white male rock. Maybe hetero-capitalist patriarchy is next.

ONLY NOISE: One Ball to Rule Them All


The town I grew up in didn’t have a roller rink. Sure, there was a five-lane bowling alley and a one-screen movie theater, but roller rinks were too big for the bite-sized britches of Arlington, Washington. There are many consequences of a town with no roller rink – namely that it becomes by default a town with no disco ball, and that is no place to live, my friends. Marysville, Washington, the next town over, was no place to live either, but it had something we Arlingtonians did not: a roller rink. With skates, and shakes, and a disco ball.

Songs by Bee Gees, Chic, and Donna Summer did not score my first orbit around the glitter ball. I was miles and decades removed from the wonder years of Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, but the tidal pull of the mirrored globe translates across time and space. With its galaxy of glittering infinity, the disco ball’s only message is: keep moving.

Today marks yet another internet-spawned holiday you didn’t know about: National Disco Ball Day. But before you deck the dancehalls with balls of disco, or flock to Pinterest for mirror ball cake recipes, let’s consider the disco ball in all its pop culture glory. Oddly never out of fashion, disco balls have been spinning for around 100 years, though under varying monikers. Mirror ball, glitter ball, and “myriad reflector” were runner-ups to the genre-specific name that stuck.

An early and particularly odd usage of the sparkly decoration can be found on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website. A 1912 image of a “Sun Parlor for Tuberculosis Patients” (which was located in the Milwaukee Hospital for Insane, might I add) appears pleasantly mundane – until you glance up at the photo’s topmost edge, and see a mirrored sphere shining down on the vacant room. The image is jarring with its backwards anachronism, giving off a A Kid in King Arthur’s Court feeling of displacement; I scratch my head upon seeing this objet de disco thrust into a pre-disco atmosphere.

The disco ball traces back even further than that however, as Vice’s thump outlet details in their in-depth history of the ball. The disco ball’s first reported appearance cropped up in an 1897 issue of the Electrical Worker, which referred to a “mirrored ball” hanging over the attendees of a N.B.E.W. electrician’s union party in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Despite the disco ball’s varied history, it goes without saying that the glitter globe is not known for its psychiatric hospital tenure, or electrician’s party debut. Rather, it was the flame that “burn baby” burned its way through “Disco Inferno.” While its roots dig much deeper, the dance floor ornament’s cultural capital skyrocketed in the disco days, and at that time, Louisville, Kentucky manufacturer Omega National Products had already been the unofficial home of the disco ball for 20 years, making 90% of the world’s spheres at their peak. This boom in bling balls was surely due to disco fever, as every New York discotheque worth its salt had one. Paradise Garage, Crisco Disco, The Loft, and many other disco havens were bathed in specks of light cast by their own mirror balls, dutifully twirling above the heads of boogying regulars.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”]

The Paradise Garage, 1979. Photo by Bill Bernstein

Back in ‘90s Marysville, we weren’t snorting snow in gilded bathrooms or shacking up with Bianca Jagger. We were eight, and while it wasn’t a New York City night club, the Marysville skating rink was just about the coolest place an eight year old could throw a birthday party in a 20 mile radius. We didn’t have drugs or Halston dresses, but we were rich with ice cream cake and the flavored roll-on lip-gloss the rink sold for $3 (I’m still convinced it was fruit-flavored vegetable oil). The DJ? Certainly not Larry Levan or Frankie Knuckles. I’m fairly sure there wasn’t even a human behind the music programming at all, but a CD that favored acts like Shaggy, LeAnn Rimes, and Hanson. Such were the times.

Naturally, there’s no comparison between the glamorous disco clubs of the ‘70s and my barely-local roller rink, but they both boasted that mirrored mosaic sphere that is the disco ball; and that’s one of the most magical things about it. Aside from its overwhelming ability to *sparkle*, the disco ball is a remarkably democratic piece of party paraphernalia. Even if you aren’t among the rich and famous folks about town, chances are you can afford a seat at a bar with a disco ball overhead, or better yet, your own for home use. This may not have been the case in the early 1970s, when manufacturers like Omega were charging around $4,000 for a 48-inch ball. These days you can nab one second-hand, buy an inflatable version, or even make your own. The possibilities are endless, and the emblem is timeless.

New York’s own Museum of Sex recognized this timelessness; the museum has enshrined the disco era in Night Fever: New York Disco 1977-1979, a collection of photographs by Bill Bernstein, who captured iconic nightlife images at joints like Studio 54, Xenon, Electric Circus, and more. Bernstein was the man on the scene, and to honor his exceptional work, MoSex didn’t go the normal route with regards to museum curation. Instead of white walls, frames, and text panels, MoSex transformed their bar into a disco itself, playing nonstop cuts like “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” “Ladies Night,” “A Fifth of Beethoven,” and all the Bee Gees hits you can strut to. According to MoSex’s website, Night Fever includes a “an original Richard Long Audio System (infamously associated with clubs like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage) along with guest appearances by disco-era DJs” and “a retro ‘70s cocktail menu” to enhance the experience. Oh, and a total of SEVEN disco balls. One large ball in the center of the ceiling, and six smaller ones clustered around it, like planets surrounding the sun.

The lasting presence of the disco ball is perhaps its most fascinating quality. It remains a completely relevant symbol (as proven by acts like Madonna, U2, and the English music festival Bestival) despite being completely analog. At the end of the day, the disco ball is merely a sphere covered in mirrored squares of varying size. And yet it is so much more than that. It is a silent choreographer, keeping the room in perpetual motion…an egalitarian beacon, showering everyone with a little bit of spotlight.