Saturday, July 11, 2009
After 30 Years, Disco Still Sucks
The Yankees fell apart. So did the economy. The Iran hostage crisis and gasoline shortages began. Thurman Munson crashed. So did Skylab: I was really interested in space at the time.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released, and it was so long and dull, people called it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, A Spockalypse Now (after another long, strange movie released that year), and, reflecting a similarity to an episode of the series, Where Nomad Has Gone Before.
And disco was still the dominant form of popular music.
On July 12, 1979, 30 years ago, somebody did something about it.
Bill Veeck was the owner of the Chicago White Sox, and baseball's master promoter. At the time, the ChiSox were losing, and Veeck was a big believer in the idea that, "You can fill more seats with losing baseball and a circus than you can with losing baseball and a long silence."
He had scheduled Teen Night at Comiskey Park, once "the Baseball Palace of the World" but now a crumbling relic that, unlike the crosstown Cubs with Wrigley Field, the owners of the Sox (including in two different regimes, Veeck himself) could never afford to keep in good condition. Unlike teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Dodgers and Phillies, he couldn't "sell the team" to the local fans. Unlike the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, he couldn't "sell the ballpark." So he did the best he could: He sold fun.
Veeck's son, Mike Veeck, assisted him in his promotions, and had heard disc jockey Steve Dahl on WLUP, 97.9 FM (not to be confused with the former WLUP, AM 1000, now the ESPN station in Chicago), "blowing up" disco records on the air, because disco sucked. Actually, this was one of the first occasions where people could, instead of "stinks," say "sucks" openly, in public, without fear of being told, "How dare you say such a filthy word like that!"
Because, let's face it: Disco did suck. Imagine four brothers: The eldest was Doo-Wop, and he was cool. The second was Soul, and he was real smooth. The third was Funk, and he was the most fun of all. The fourth, the runt of the litter, but the one that eventually got more popular than the other three, was Disco.
Most of the songs I don't like are the monotonous ones, the really repetitive ones. I was just turning 8 when the film Saturday Night Fever and its replusive, Bee Gees-led soundtrack were released in late 1977. Whatever else you might think about him, we must praise the late Michael Jackson for this: Thriller replaced the SNF soundtrack as the biggest-selling album of all time.
"Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man... " Are you sure, Barry Gibb? Because in the way you walk, the way you dress, the way you style your hair, and the way you sing, you seem more like a man's woman. Except for the beard: If Barry and his brothers, the twins Robin and Maurice Gibb, didn't have beards, they would have been the most effeminate act in rock history to this point -- and this was after David Bowie did Ziggy Stardust, and in his case the gender-confusion was intentional!
"Stayin' Alive," as bad as it was, wasn't the worst song on the album. That was the incredibly limp "How Deep Is Your Love." I have hated that song for almost 32 years now. There's only one song I have hated longer, and that's because of my name: It's "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." I don't know how much you'd have to pay me to get me to sing that song, but you are welcome to place a bid.
The Bee Gees were actually really good from 1967 to about 1972, then disappeared, then came back in 1975 as a disco act. There was nothing holy about this second coming. To make matters worse, little brother Andy Gibb also got big at this point.
(And, contrary to what Jortega says in the comments below, the Bee Gees sounded NOTHING like rhythm & blues. But then, The Who used to call what they did "Maximum R&B," and, while they were great at times, they didn't sound anything like R&B, either.)
Anyway, by the Summer of '79, disco was absolutely dominant, and it was disgusting. Something had to be done. So Mike Veeck and Steve Dahl got together and did something.
The White Sox have played, since their 1901 inception -- first at South Side Park (1901-10), then at the old Comiskey Park (1910-90), and now at the new Comiskey Park, renamed U.S. Cellular Field (since 1991). The South Side is the home of the electric blues (Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor), the home of Chicago soul (Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, their former group the Impressions, the Chi-Lites, Earth Wind & Fire), the home of some progressive rockers (Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, the band Chicago, Styx) -- and, while Jim Croce was from the Philadelphia area, he taught us, "Now, the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town." Comiskey, which had hosted the Beatles in 1965, seemed like the right place to make a stand for good music.
July 12, 1979 was scheduled for a doubleheader between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Anyone who brought in a disco album would be let in for 98 cents. That's right, 98 cents, because of WLUP's FM frequency, 97.9. Between games of the twinbill, the records would be taken out onto the field and blown up by Dahl and his assistants.
Comiskey Park seated about 44,000 people. Apparently, disco sucked so much that 75,000 people showed up on the troubled South Side to get in and voice their displeasure at disco. Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall, then broadcasting for the ChiSox, mentioned "strange people." Mike Veeck would say the air was heavy with marijuana smoke. (Right, as if disco fans didn't smoke pot. Or use worse drugs: The disco era was the beginning of mass cocaine use in America.)
The Tigers won the first game, 4-1. Then the "demolition" was set up. The crate Dahl would use to blow up the records could hold 20,000. That left quite a few others, and people started flinging them like frisbees. When the records were blown up, everyone cheered. Dahl and his people got off the field in a Jeep, and then fans rushed the field, chanting, "Disco sucks! Disco sucks! Disco sucks!" They tore up the field, as if the White Sox had just won the Pennant. Caray got on the public-address system and told everyone to get off the field. No one listened. The umpires decided the field was unplayable, and declared the second game a forfeit to the Tigers -- after all, as the home team, the White Sox were responsible for making sure the field was playable.
An interesting note is that Tiger outfielder Rusty Torres was a Yankee when fans rushed the field at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 1971, causing the Washington Senators' last home game to be forfeited to the Yanks; and was a Cleveland Indian when Ten-Cent Beer Night turned out to be an even bigger disaster than this, resulting in an Indian forfeit to the Texas Rangers in 1974. This would be Torres' third experience in a riot resulting in a forfeit. I seriously doubt anyone will break that record, even on steroids.
Arrests: 39. Injuries reported: 6. Deaths: None. In other words, despite everything, Comiskey Park may have been one of the safest spots in Chicago that night. Don't forget, the South Side was Al Capone's stomping grounds half a century earlier. And, as Jim Croce taught us in song, it was "the baddest part of town."
No American League games have been forfeited since, and only one National League game has, at Dodger Stadium, when Dodger fans received free balls upon entry, and threw them onto the field to protest a bad call by an umpire. That's right, Walter O'Malley, your beloved Temple of Treason hosted baseball's last forfeit. Hot enough for ya down there, you slimy bastard?
Disco did turn out to be on the decline. "Disco Demolition Night" -- or "Disco Sucks Night," as some called it -- was a symptom of its demise, rather than the cause. After all, for those of us who loved baseball then (as well as for those of us who didn't), one of the big songs of the year was "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge. Although the group came out of Philadelphia, across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and sang about "all my sisters and me" with no mention of "brothers," Willie Stargell, the portly slugger and captain of the Pittsburgh Pirates, took the song to heart, played it in the clubhouse, and even convinced the scoreboard operator at Three Rivers Stadium to play it as the Pirates took the field.
By the time the Pirates reached the Playoffs, the top of the dugout, instead of reading "PITTSBURGH PIRATES," read "THE FAMILY." Wonder what the local mobsters thought about that? Probably liked it once the Buccos won the World Series in October.
But aside from a few more skyrockets like "Funkytown," the disco era was pretty much over in a year. The Bee Gees would have a few more hits after 1979, Donna Summer would have a couple of post-disco smashes, but that was it: The Village People became the joke they always should have been treated as; Harry Wayne Casey, leader of KC & the Sunshine Band, was in an awful auto accident, hurting him badly enough that the group's momentum was gone, though he recovered enough to make them a big fixture on the oldies circuit; and punk had evolved into new wave, which would lead to the synthesizer-driven 1980s.
"We Are Family" was a fun record. In fact, there were quite a few fun disco records, including a comeback by my fellow Essex County natives, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons: "Who Loves You," "Swearin' to God," and "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)." Not to mention that when the musical Grease was turned into a film in 1978, Frankie sang a theme song written just for the film -- by Barry Gibb! It's disco, obviously not reflective of the late 1950s when Grease takes place, and Gibb clearly sings backup on it, by Frankie showed that a man can sing falsetto and still be masculine.
Was it really so bad? After all, it wasn't a form of music filled with violence, like heavy metal, or gangsta rap, or even (sometimes) the collected works of the Rolling Stones and The Who. Let me present some records that form...
The Top 10 Reasons Why Disco Might Not Have Sucked
10. "Play That Funky Music," Wild Cherry. The first disco parody, beating legendary deejay Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" by a few weeks, had to be on here.
9. "The Hustle," Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony. Another New Jerseyan, from Morristown, McCoy found a way to make a disco record I like: No stupid lyrics. In fact, aside from "Do it!" and "Do the Hustle!" this song has no lyrics at all. And, as an actual composer, rather than a songwriter, McCoy found a way to make it not particularly monotonous.
8. "You're the First, the Last, My Everything," Barry White & the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Another genuine composer, Barry was truly the Maestro of Love. I was in New York on July 4, 2003, and I saw the news of his death come over the Times Square "Zipper," and it was a sad thing. But he lived long enough to see his music come back, including this song used a few times on Ally McBeal. As the man himself would say, "Right On."
7. "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," Rod Stewart. I won't give Rod a hard time on this one, because he's laughing along with us.
6. "Native New Yorker," Odyssey.
5. "Last Dance," Donna Summer. The jewel in the crown of the Queen of Disco.
4. "Le Freak," Chic. A better song than their other major hit, "Good Times" -- which had nothing to do with the TV show of the same name and time-period.
3. "Shame," Evelyn "Champagne" King.
2. "We Are Family," Sister Sledge.
1. "Who Loves You," Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. Yeah, that's right, I put Frankie and the Boys at Number 1. And I think it's a better song than its follow-up "Oh What a Night." You gotta problem widdat, punk?
Well, here's ten songs I really, really, really had a problem with. To be totally fair, I'm not ganging up on anyone: One notation per act. Though, as you'll note, Andy Gibb maybe have been a "Brother Gibb," but he was never officially one of the "Bee Gees":
The Top 10 Reasons Why Disco Sucked
Oh yes it did, oh yes it did.
10. "Ooh La La, Sasson," New York Rangers. Perhaps not the dumbest commercial ever made, and maybe not even the gayest, but almost certainly the campiest commercial ever to air on mainstream TV; since it wasn't a "disco record," I'm putting it at Number 10. Also because I hate the Rangers, who suck as much as disco ever did.
9. "I Will Survive," Gloria Gaynor. Like Valli and my parents, she's from Newark. Just to show you I'm not playing favorites. A song of female empowerment, it would be a far better song if it were straight rock, or earlier-'70s soul, or just about anything except disco. Another Essex County native, Queen Latifah, sang this on an early episode of Living Single and knocked 'em dead with it.
8. "Disco Inferno," The Trampps. Had it really been so many years since saying, "Burn, baby, burn" was a bad thing? Guess what: It still was.
7. "I Was Made For Lovin' You," Kiss. They not only sold out with this one, they "jumped the shark." And that's what people who LOVE the group -- me NOT among them -- say.
6. "Dancing Queen," ABBA. Not their worst record the Swedish bland-poppers ever put out, but pretty damn close.
5. "I Just Want to Be Your Everything," Andy Gibb. How'd that work out?
4. "I Love the Nightlife," Alicia Bridges. 'Scuse me while I barf.
3. "Don't Leave Me This Way," Thelma Houston. Sing that again, and I'll leave you any way I damn well please.
2. "Stayin' Alive," The Bee Gees. "I'm goin' nowhere... " True that.
1. "YMCA," the Village People. Attention, all you people who sing "YMCA" at sporting events: It is not, I repeat NOT a song about a man helping out a runaway teenager in time of need, it is a song about a gay man trying to pick up impressionable kids and introduce him to a world that most people, gay or straight, would have been ashamed to have associated with them. "Young man, there's no need to feel down... " Yes, there is: You're singing this fucking song! And, yes, it IS a "fucking song."
I close with a Dishonorable Mention: "Goodnight Tonight," Wings. Sir Cute One should have known better. Why, Paul, why? Did you need the money? Or maybe he was toking on some truly wicked herb when he thought that one up.
Disco: A truly wicked herb. Its bastard child, the computerized glop that has ruled the airwaves since the late 1980s, lives on, like a monster that keeps returning with new film sequels, and can never truly be killed. Or like malaria, it always comes back.
Long live rock and roll. If it can survive disco, it can survive anything.