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February 03, 2001

Culture Wars, Part I: Disco Must Die!

So much is being made of the "civil" wars going on the in the country right now. It's a time of great strife, they are saying. The people are divided. Woe is the country.

There have always been divides in the country. It's just that some of them get more coverage than others. Sure, protests and riots will always get the front page, but it's the little wars that have waged within that people tend to forget about. Yet these wars are part of our history and, to this day, the animosity and acrimony exist between the participants in these great battles.

One of the most bitter wars fought between Americans took place in the late 1970's. It pitted brother against brother, husband against wife, neighbor against neighbor. It threatened to tear the very fabric of our nation until the war finally ended in a great wave of flames on July 12, 1979. However, the embers of that battle between countrymen still exist today and threaten to flare up again every time a radio station plays Donna Summers's Last Dance.

Yes, I'm talking about the great war between Disco and Rock (alternately known as the Disco/Punk war).

Some say it was more than a war over music. Historians have written treatises on the subject, some claiming that it was a battle over masculinity; disco was turning our men into effeminate butt-shakers. Others claim it was a battle of bigotry; the rockers represented "the man" and were looking to quash a rebellious movement by minorities and gays to grab the culture limelight.

As one who stood in the midst of the battlefields of that war, I can tell you that our battle cry had nothing to do with race or sexuality; no, it was about the music.

While disco had been around in one form or another since the early 70's, the genre took hold of our country some time around 1976, the year when the bass-rhythm heavy music consumed radio playlists. Vicki Sue Robinson, the Andrea True Connection and Thelma Houston all had huge hits that year. Discotheques starting popping up on every city corner. In fact, Newsweek printed an article at the time that said there were 10,000 discos in America in 1976.

Meanwhile, rock and roll was taking a huge tumble in the Billboard charts. Kiss, Blue Oyster Cult and Peter Frampton all had hits in 1976, but they were overshadowed by the influx of disco tunes.

One could argue that the disco culture was born out of the free love movement of the late 60's and early 70's. That, too, was a culture of sex and drugs and those things were imported into the discos, where cocaine flowed free and the music and dancing played out like orgasmic sexual rituals.

What was a rocker to do? How could we battle the biggest trend to hit the nation since flower power when we didn't have the power of hit music to back it up? Oh, rock wasn't about the hits at all, but we were in desperate need of some firepower, some heavy hitting power chords to knock the dancing fools off the cover of weekly magazines. Who would save us? The state of rock music was abysmal. Prog rock and arena rock were not good weapons to be holding in this war because they were nothing more than different forms of the pretentiousness that was disco.

Little known to us suburban rock neophytes, A 1976 counter movement had already begun. Sure, we already knew of bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, but we never thought they would form the soundtrack to our fight against the polyester dancers. Apparently, my little group of three or four disco haters were not the only ones who wanted to wage war against the Donna Summers of the world. Punk music would help us rise above.

It got worse in 1977. Saturday Night Fever hit the theaters and John Travolta's Tony Romero became the boilerplate for every guy who wanted to score with the babes. Polyester leisure suits became the norm and all we could do was stand and watch with our mouths agape, horrified that this plastic, narcissistic culture was taking over not only our airwaves, but our country.

And thus, the disco sucks movement was born. No matter what anyone tells you, this was all about the music and the clothes. We hated those wide lapels. We despised the simplistic beats and the cheesy lyrics. We loathed the repetition of the 12" versions of every song to hit the charts. Disco, we decided, must die.

And so war was declared. We armed ourselves with Disco Sucks buttons and wore them proudly. We laughed and pointed at our fellow classmates who sported the look of the the disco age. We spiked our hair up, wore black leather jackets and thought about putting safety pins in our cheeks and opted instead for putting them in our ears in place of earrings. Hey, we were in high school. We still had our parents to answer to.

We fought the battle for almost three years. I'll never forget the Battle of Holy Trinity, which I proudly took part in. Our school cafeteria had a stereo. We were allowed to bring in albums to play, provided we all took turns and all the music was school appropriate. Everything was going smooth until the day the disco kids decided to take over. They formed a ring around the record player and stood guard while one of them, a tall, lanky boy bearing a Saturday Night Fever iron-on on his t-shirt, spun record after record, all dance beats and push-push-in-the-bush lyrics. School appropriate? I think not. But nobody was taking notice. Not the principal, a priest who was spending the lunch period chatting it up with the nerds, nor the cafeteria monitors, who were seen tapping their feet and fingers to the strains of Chic's Le Freak.

We had no punk records with us. They had all been banned from school property. We had Zeppelin, The Who and Boston, but we couldn't get near the record player. So we started chanting. Disco Sucks! Disco Sucks! We banged our fists on the table in time to the chant and, much to our surprise, most of the cafeteria joined in. The geeks, the nerds, the jocks, the freaks, even the tight-knit Springsteen community gathered in the dark corner over by the kitchen started banging and chanting along with us. The principal finally took notice of what was going on and, thinking he had a near riot on his hands, took the record player out of the cafeteria for good. We had won!

On Friday nights, we would have Marianne's older brother drive us around town so we could speed past the long lines of overdressed, overdrugged dancing queens and kings waiting to get into the local discos. We would shout "disco sucks!" as we passed by and one or two of them would come running after the car, impotently shaking their fists at us. Good times, good times.

Eventually we tired of taunting them. We were happy to sit in Marianne's basement, alternately reveling in our punk badness by listening to the Clash or getting high and tripping out to Pink Floyd. We were as unsure of who we were as the throngs of people crowding Studio 54.

Years later, we would recognize that we weren't much different than our disco brothers. While they spent hours making themselves up in order to be accepted by the beautiful people inside the velvet ropes of the discos, we struggled to become outsiders, to make people's heads turn when they saw us with our spiked hair and ripped army jackets. We both wanted to be noticed in different ways. But the culture wars of the time forbade us from every forming a therapy group aimed at figuring out why we cared so much what everyone thought about us. Enemies until the bitter end.

And the end did come, in July of 1979 at Comiskey Park, in a blaze of glory. Well, not so glorious, really. The night was somewhat of a disaster. And it did not really mark the end of disco, but the end of our war against it.

A few years later, I got swept up in the new wave craze. I recall one night while drunkenly doing some spastic, new wavish dance to the extended mix version of Blue Monday, dressed to kill in torn fishnet stockings and the requisite black and pink mini skirt, that I had become this era's version of the disco queen.

It's a war that wages on, I suppose, in various forms. Whether it's rap v. rock or prog rock v. hair metal, the battle remains even if the battlefield and weapons change hands every once in a while. But it's a passionate war. I'd rather spend my emotions fighting you to the death in a steel cage match to determine whether Dream Theater is really a better band than Queensryche than get dragged into another "let's secede from the nation!" argument.

And disco still sucks.