I was born on Disco Demolition Night.
The event took place in July of ’79 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, home of the Chicago White Sox. In a nutshell, the event was both a radio promotion and an MLB promotion that was predicated on the already waning popularity of disco music, which was being overproduced, oversold, and overhyped at the time.
The event promised as its coup de gras the destruction of a giant crate of disco records. Rockers filled the stands and celebrated the symbolic destruction of something that, for whatever reason, they saw as a threat.
While it’s certainly debatable whether there was an undercurrent of racism and homophobia to the whole fiasco, it’s more certain that the results of the demise of disco were the rebranding of “disco” to “dance music” and the birth of something called “house music”, which was, ironically, born in Chicago.
'Ouroboros' is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. This public domain image shows an ouroboros in a 1478 drawing in an alchemical tract.
I was around 15 the first time I heard house music.
It was the mid-90’s. My good friend’s older sister played a cassette for me that was a DJ mix from her friend Bryson who had a show for the UT Austin radio station. It wasn’t quite the upbeat and funky music that came out of Chicago, later dubbed “Chicago House”, but it was intriguing to me because, among other things, it never ended.
I kept trying to hear where one song ended and another began, but I could never quite tell. It seemed that the DJ was telling a story or taking me on a journey through the records he was playing and the way he was mixing them together. One song would bleed into another until it was consumed by the other. And on and on. I was hooked.
OK, I got totally sidetracked here.
My intention was to write about a local event I went to…not to give a speedy history of the perceived demise of disco and a timeline of the birth of house music. But here we are. Usually, the words write themselves and I just arrange them, and it seems to work out. Sometimes, they go a little off-course, and that’s okay. We’ll just end on what was supposed to be the beginning.
What I was going to write about was seeing the very distinguished Chicago house music DJ, Ron Carroll, also known as the Minister of Sound, (who requested to play in San Antonio after seeing footage of people dancing to house music here, mind you) at Jandro’s on the Saint Mary’s Strip.
This was an event put on by the collective, Primo House. I’d opine about how the San Antonio house music scene seems to be approaching some sort of blossoming…about how lots of people, young and old, are carrying the torch of disco music and its analogues and putting San Antonio on the national dance music radar, once again.
I would’ve delved into the current-day disco and house music analogues known as “Nu Disco” and “Power Disco” and how sometimes, when a type of music appears to be dying, it’s beginning the process of transforming into a new version of itself.
So, the irony is that in trying to “demolish” disco, those Chicago rockers were participating in its evolution. Like the ouroboros devouring its own tail, music tends to cycle through destruction and recreation. The ending is always a beginning, and beginnings are endings…and on, and on, and on.
Also, Ron Carroll was great.
What I’m listening to
Surfbort – Keep On Truckin’
ESG – What More Can You Take?
Sinead O’Brien – Time Bend And Break The Bower
Forthcoming vinyl releases of note:
Pearl Jam – Live on Two Legs 6-18-22
Various Artists – The Royal Tenenbaums (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) 6-18-22
Prince – The Gold Experience 6-18-22
Ron Carroll, left, with author Tommy Newman.
Disco’s influence on music in general is so vast that to trace its impact would be a fool’s errand. It’s enough to say that disco’s tentacles have influenced most genres of music in one way or another.
Nowhere is this influence felt more than in house music. In fact, prototypical house music, or “proto-house” music, was essentially disco records being remixed or spliced together by DJs in order to make the “dancey” parts last longer or just to extend the play so that there was an unbroken chain of dance music for as long as the DJ played.
In relatively underground clubs in and around downtown Chicago, people, mainly black and Latino, predominantly gay, would listen to these DJs splice up disco records using turntables and mixers and, later in the 80’s, playing their own remixes on reel to reel tapes all night long, until the early morning hours.
Now, there are a few etymological tales as to the derivation of the term “house music”. The following is the one I like best.
Frankie Knuckles, also known as The Godfather of House Music, was a resident DJ at his friend’s Chicago club known as “The Warehouse” in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Knuckles would splice up disco records and mix them up all night long. After buying a drum machine in ‘83, Knuckles began playing his own productions that were easier to fit into his sets. His productions emphasized drum machine beats with disco samples overlayed on them.
Eventually, people started looking for that music that they’d heard at The Warehouse.
One day, driving past a local bar, Knuckles and his friend saw a sign in the window that said “we play house music”, which they took to mean The Warehouse music. Record stores began labeling the type of stuff Frankie and other DJ’s were playing as “house music”.
Tommy Newman is the owner and operator of Southtown Vinyl.
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