It's July 12, 1979, and the White Sox, ten games behind the California Angels in the American League West, are playing the Detroit Tigers in a twilight doubleheader. It's not just Teen Night at Comiskey Park—it's also Disco Demolition Night.
Two first-rank mischief makers have cooked up this event. One is the Sox's marketing director, Mike Veeck, a onetime rock musician as well as the son of the legendary Bill Veeck, the team's Barnumesque owner. The other is a legend in the making, WLUP's new deejay, Steve Dahl, whose morning radio show is third and rising in Chicago. The price of admission is 98 cents—that's for the Loop's place on the FM dial—and a disco record. The records are being piled inside a giant box that'll be set down in the outfield and blown up between games.
Dahl has only been at the Loop since March. WDAI brought him to Chicago in February of '78, but on Christmas Eve WDAI switched to an all-disco format and canned him. Disco is the sound of the late 70s, the music of Donna Summer, the Jacksons, and the Bee Gees, but Dahl sneers at it on the air. Tonight he gets his revenge. Thousands of records will be blown to bits, and then Dahl's going to lead his apostles, the Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco Army, in a few rousing chants of Disco sucks! Disco sucks! Then the grounds crew will clean up the pieces and it's on to game two.
The Tribune sports section this morning made no mention of the event, but the paper's sports columnists and editorial board will soon be excoriating everyone involved.
Diane Alexander has brought along a roll of film and her Kodak Retina Reflex IIIc, a little fixed-lens camera her dad bought at a pawnshop and gave her for her high school graduation. Alexander, 24, does some advertising photography, and for her own enjoyment she likes to shoot faces in crowds in Chicago neighborhoods. This is one of those crowds. She'll say later, "I didn't think it would be quite like what happened. It sounded like it was going to be a great time."
What is about to happen will at first be perceived as a promotional disaster on a par with Cleveland's Nickel Beer Night in 1974, but later it will pass into cherished legend. Thousands more kids than anyone expected are packing the bleachers and filling the grandstands, and thousands more without tickets are milling around outside, plenty of them getting inside anyway by scaling a wall behind the bleachers, where Alexander is sitting. The massive disco record box, about four feet by six feet by five feet tall, is full to overflowing, so late arrivals take their records to their seats, where they discover that the vinyl makes great Frisbees—that's why the Sox's Ron LeFlore is wearing his batting helmet in the outfield. The Sox radio team, Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall, are remarking on the marijuana wafting into the press box.
Alexander runs out of film before the records go up in smoke, but that's OK—plenty of pictures are being taken of the explosion and its aftermath. What her shots end up capturing is a moment in time—the south-side rock 'n' roll youth culture of 1979 on the verge of pandemonium. "This was a backlash," she says today, looking over her pictures. "[Disco] was so stylized, with pressed pants, white suits, collars outside of jackets, gold chains. The girls are blow-drying their hair to death. A lot of these kids identified it as very shallow, in the dress, in the repetitive beats in the music, crystallized in Saturday Night Fever." This Saturday, 30 years to the day, her enlarged and digitally restored photographs from Disco Demolition Night go on exhibit for one night only.
The Sox lose game one to the Tigers 4-1, and then a jeep brings Dahl out onto the field dressed in camouflage gear and a soldier's helmet. His disco-loathing troops shower him with beer and vinyl. "This is now officially the world's largest anti-disco rally!" he tells the screaming crowd. "Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got 'em in a giant box, and we're gonna blow 'em up reeeeeeal goooood."
The massive blast sends records shooting 200 feet in the air. Burning vinyl litters the outfield, and over the chants of Disco sucks! kids begin trickling onto the field. No—they're coming by the hundreds . . . the thousands. They're running the bases, literally stealing the bases, stealing bats, toppling batting cages, and dancing in circles around the flaming vinyl shards.
An appeal to the "fans" over the PA is ignored. please return to your seats, begs the scoreboard, like a timid substitute teacher trying to exert authority in a tenth-grade detention room.
Observing the chaos, Piersall tells his audience, "I would rather swim than stand out there on the baseball field." Nobody is sure what he means. Bill Veeck steps onto the field, grabs a microphone, and pleads with the kids to go back to their seats. After nearly 40 minutes of bedlam Harry Caray takes a turn. "Holy cow!" he bellows to the crowd. "Can you hear me out there? OK! To make this an absolutely perfect evening, let's say we all regain our seats, so we can play baseball again!" From the fans still in the stands a chant is launched: Back to your seats! Back to your seats! Caray and Bill Veeck, accompanied by Nancy Faust on the Comiskey Park organ, sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
All this accomplishes nothing. So the Chicago police, in full riot gear, take the field and clear it. The crowd in the stands is derisively singing, "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye!"
"I was trying to get the hell out of there," recalls Alexander, now Diane Alexander White. "We were in the colonnade, and they had riot police on horseback in that area. The craziness on the field was like the craziness where I was. People were still trying to get in as people were trying to get out. The potential for a dangerous situation was definitely there. I was questioning whether or not I was going to make it out of there OK. The police blocked off every exit except one."
In the end there are 39 arrests and six injuries, and game two is never begun—the field is unplayable and the Sox forfeit. And in the years to come no history of the disco phenomenon of the late 1970s will be told without reference to Disco Demolition Night, aka "the day disco died."
White marries in 1983 and goes on to a career as a Field Museum staff photographer and wedding photographer. She still has the Kodak.
On July 12 she'll show her photos of Disco Demolition Night from 5 to 8 PM at the Music Garage, a band rehearsal space in West Town. The venue was suggested by her daughter, celebrated garage rocker Miss Alex White, who'll provide the entertainment, playing with her brother, Francis, as White Mystery.
"To me, it wasn't about the disco records being blown up," White says. "It was everything leading up to it, which is what a lot of these pictures are." It's the kids themselves, "blue collar kids, kids whose parents were Sox fans. We were still churning out products in this town. You could still get a job at the steel mill.
"These kids wanted to be part of this experience," she says. "They wanted to be part of something fun."