Segarini: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 13 – When Worlds Collide and Eras Clash…

Part 12 can be found here

Q: What happens when you take the breakout star of a television sitcom (Welcome Back Kotter) a short story written by British writer Nick Cohn called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night that ran in New York Magazine, a soundtrack written and performed by 3 brothers and a handful of dance club staples, and put the soundtrack and a single (How Deep Is Your Love) out in November and the movie just before Christmas in 1977?

A: You create a cultural phenomenon, a cash cow, and a bunch of pissed off music fans, not necessarily in that order.

By the end of 1977 most people thought that the disco craze had already peaked and had gone the way of the Mashed Potato and the Frug. It had been around since the early ‘70’s and had already produced a backlash in England, Canada, The U.S, and Australia that Dave Marsh had begun to call ‘Punk Rock’ earlier in the year.

Instead of gracefully disappearing like any self respecting fad, disco got its second wind with the release of Saturday Night Fever (also released with 76 ‘fucks’ and several ‘c’ words removed, along with other offensive stuff), and did the unthinkable…it became the mainstream music of choice. Led by the soundtrack album’s first single, radio found an excitement it hadn’t seen since the early days of the British Invasion, and suddenly, by February of 1978, disco was the All-High Empirical Ruler of the airwaves. In fact, it wouldn’t be until July of 1979 that a record that wasn’t disco related or a ballad achieved  Number One status in the U.S. And that record turned out to be just as annoying as some disco. See for yourself.

There were other reactions to disco as early as 1977 in England, that would not only begin a groundswell of support for alternatives to the dance club craze, but British radio actually played the new music along with more mainstream rock and disco tracks. Generation X, Sex Pistols, and the Clash gained almost instant acceptance, first with live audiences and then on both the radio and England’s great music television shows.

Meanwhile in the U.S, Punk was rising to the occasion on the street and in the clubs, but barely making a dent at the radio level. With the exception of College radio stations and some still progressive FMers, Brit Punk was all but shut out of mainstream radio, whose tighter and shrinking playlists didn’t really have room for the new kid on the block. Even Punk’s more sophisticated cousin, first brought to light in an XTC single, failed to make an impact outside of music lover circles, but some would establish beach heads that would pay off a few years later under what would be called “New Wave”.

In the U.S, bands like the Ramones, Television, and the New York Dolls were Gods at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and other Manhattan clubs, and bands like The Dictators with Handsome Dick Manitoba would blend punk, rock and roll, and even the Beach Boys into a thing of beauty.

If there was ever proof of Punks viability and radio’s willingness to open up, it was an outfit out of New York called Blondie. Fronted by an astonishingly beautiful young woman named Debbie Harry, Blondie started out in the wilds of New York’s punk scene and managed to not only keep their credibility with the new music crowd, but cross over into rock, pop, and, with a vengeance…disco. Deborah would also be one of the early adapters of rap, and on a visit to Toronto, a booster of the great early punk bands like the B Girls, Diodes, Poles, and more. One of the first shows at the Crash and Burn featured a young American band called the Nerves. Harry was so impressed with one of the tunes she heard that night, Blondie covered it and at least one other Nerves penned tune.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the Disco Era was its impact on live venues. Club owners, seeing the large crowds that could be drawn into a club with just a disc jockey, a crate of records, a dance floor and some lights, did the math and realized that after the initial cost, it was a lot cheaper to have recorded music than it was to hire bands 6 or 7 nights a week. By mid 1978 many clubs that hired rock bands were switching over to the disco motif, dimming the lights, and turning up the prices. It became increasingly difficult for new bands to break into the dwindling rock market, and harder to get airplay on local radio stations. In major cities, rock tended to move to clubs in the suburbs while the big downtown clubs became massively popular discos. Still, thanks to punk and the new wave, smaller, hipper venues started to cater to the new music crowd, those scenes growing to the point of being able to pack medium sized concert halls and large clubs with mostly local acts. In Toronto, all you needed were Teenage Head, the Diodes, or any number of well loved local acts to fill a venue and keep people coming back again and again. The Viletones, Ugly, Battered Wives, Cads, Androids…such a great scene, as were all the local new music scenes springing up in every major city on the planet.

There was something for everyone. Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Disco/Dance, Punk New Wave, and Pop were well represented if you knew where to look. Radio for the most popular (which came first, the chicken or the egg) clubs for the latest local acts, and auditoriums and arenas for touring artists of every genre, and by today’s standards, all were available at prices so reasonable most people could easily afford to go out night after night. Being able to drink and smoke at the same time didn’t hurt, either.

When I left Montreal for Toronto in 1977, live work had all but dried up for Anglo bands downtown, although you could still work on the West Island. Toronto, on the other hand, had this new music scene starting up that reminded me of L.A in ‘65,  San Francisco in 1967, and Montreal in ‘72…and I wanted to be a part of it. Toronto was just bursting with great clubs, great music, and great radio. When Q107 signed on the air in ’77, the first song they played was Murray McLaughlin’s Hard Rock Town, a local artist…and an accurate description of Toronto at the time. THAT is great local radio.

The burgeoning scene in Toronto was mostly underground when I got there, but sooo exciting, I couldn’t get enough of it. Ralph Alphonso, the Diodes, Sandy Stagg, these people were making things happen on a daily basis. The club scene was full of great local rock acts, there was a blues contingent, a roots community, and folk and R&B still had plenty of followers and clubs that presented the music. Between the 3 FM stations, the more mainstream CHUM FM, the hard rocking Q107, and the edgier, more youthful CFNY, most local acts that recorded found a home on the radio. Independent labels were springing up and releasing the records the Major labels weren’t quite ready to sign yet, but even they managed to sign and release a great number of local acts.

Toronto has always had a great music community. From the Lords of London, who were the first Canadian band to have a number one record in Canada in the rock era, to the great R&B ‘Toronto Sound’ of the ‘60’s with Dom Troiano, George Olliver, David Clayton Thomas and more, the blues based bands of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s like Luke and the Apostles, Mainline, Downchild, etc, Nucleus, Lighthouse, and other psychedelic era bands…the list goes on and on.

So in Toronto at the end of the ‘70’s, you could turn on the radio and hear the Bee Gees, Genesis, Black Sabbath, the Police, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the usual Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, and Who, and an overwhelming number of local acts, including yours truly. The great punk and new wave artists would also emerge on Toronto radio, especially those from England who got little or no airplay in the U.S.A wonderful record called Jesus of Cool by Nick Lowe (later changed to “Pure Pop for Now People” for release in the U.S), opened the door for the ‘pop’ side of the new wave movement, of which I became (ironically) associated with. It was a time when ‘pop’ meant economically written songs with melody, harmony, and lyrics that told a story, not what ‘pop’ came to mean in the ‘90’s and currently. I had to have this kind of ‘pop.

Some Highlights and Lowlights of 1978…

Saturday Night Fever becomes a cultural phenomenon. At one point, the album was selling 1 million copies per week.

Barry Gibb becomes the only songwriter in history to have written 4 consecutive #1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart.

R.I.P Keith Moon, Louie Prima, Sandy Denny, Jacques Brel, Nancy Spungen, Maybelle Carter and Chris Bell (Big Star)

1979…

Rod Stewart, Kenny Rogers, Electric Light Orchestra, and KISS all have disco hits.

R.I.P Charlie Mingus, Donny Hathaway, Sid Vicious, Lowell George, Vam McCoy, Minnie Ripperton, Dorsey Burnett, Stan Kenton, and Richard Rogers.

Would disco ever lose its hold on radio? Well, not entirely. Even today it is the single biggest foundation of what radio plays on the majority of its stations, but disco did lose favour by becoming so all-pervasive. Oddly, it wasn’t the punks who made the incision, it was mainstream rock fans. The punks reacted through their music, but a rock radio station and their rock fans went a step further…and created one of my all time favourite stories. Has this ever been a movie?

From Wikipedia…

A popular Chicago disc jockey, Steve Dahl, had been fired from local radio station WDAI when its programming shifted from album-oriented rock to an all-disco format. Dahl was subsequently hired by rival album-rock station WLUP, “The Loop”. Sensing an incipient anti-disco backlash and playing off the publicity surrounding his firing, Dahl created a mock organization called “The Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco Army” to oppose disco. Dahl and broadcast partner Garry Meier regularly mocked and heaped scorn on disco records on the air. Dahl also recorded his own parody, Do You Think I’m Disco? (a satire of Rod Stewart’s, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”).

Meanwhile, on May 2, the Detroit Tigers-Chicago White Sox game at Comiskey Park was rained out. American League rules called for the game to be made up at the teams’ next meeting in Chicago. Thursday, July 12 was to have featured a single night game, to kick off a four-game weekend series, the last series before the All-Star Break. The single game date was switched to a doubleheader.

Dahl and Meier, in conjunction with Mike Veeck (son of then-White Sox owner Bill Veeck), Dave Logan, WLUP Promotion Director, and Jeff Schwartz, WLUP Sales Manager, devised a promotion that involved people bringing unwanted disco records to the game in exchange for an admission fee of 98¢ (the fee representing the station’s location on the FM dial, 97.9). The records would be collected, placed in a large crate in center field, and blown up by Dahl.

The turnout for this promotion far exceeded all expectations. White Sox management was hoping for a crowd of 12,000, about double the average for a Thursday night game that year. But an estimated 90,000 turned up at the 52,000-seat stadium. Thousands of people climbed walls and fences attempting to enter Comiskey Park, while others were denied admission. Off-ramps to the stadium from the Dan Ryan Expressway were closed when the stadium was filled to capacity and beyond.

White Sox TV announcers Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall, who were broadcasting the game for WSNS-TV, commented freely on the “strange people” wandering aimlessly in the stands. Mike Veeck recalled that the pre-game air was heavy with the scent of marijuana. When the crate on the field was filled with records, staff stopped collecting them from spectators, who soon realized that long-playing (LP) records were shaped like frisbees. Some began to throw their records from the stands during the game, often striking other fans. The fans also threw beer and even firecrackers from the stands.

After the first game, Dahl, dressed in army fatigues and helmet, along with Lorelei Shark, WLUP’s first “Rock Girl”, and bodyguards, emerged and proceeded to center field. The large box containing the collected records was rigged with explosives. Dahl led the crowd in chants of “disco sucks” and a countdown prior to triggering the explosives. When detonated, the explosives tore a hole in the outfield grass surface and a small fire began burning. Dahl, Shark, and the bodyguards hopped into a Jeep which circled the Warning track before leaving the field through the right-centerfield exit. Thousands of fans immediately rushed the field. Some lit more fires and started small-scale riots. The batting cage was pulled down and wrecked, and the bases were literally stolen, along with chunks of the field itself. The crowd, once on the field, mostly wandered around aimlessly, though a number of participants burned banners, sat on the grass or ran from security and police. People sitting in the upper deck could feel it sway back and forth from the rioters.

Veeck and Caray used the public address system to implore the fans to leave the field immediately, but to no avail. Eventually, the field was cleared by the Chicago Police in riot gear. Six people reported minor injuries and thirty-nine were arrested for disorderly conduct The field was so badly torn up that the umpires decided the second game couldn’t be played, though Tigers manager Sparky Anderson let it be known that his players would not take the field in any case due to safety concerns. The next day, American League president Lee MacPhail forfeited the second game to the Tigers, on the grounds that the White Sox had failed to provide acceptable playing conditions. The remaining games in the series were played, but for the rest of the season fielders and managers complained about the poor condition of the field.

The event was deemed newsworthy worldwide.

According to the 1986 book Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone history of Rock and Roll the event was the “emblematic moment” of the anti-disco “crusade” and noted that “the following year disco had peaked as a commercial blockbuster”. Steve Dahl himself said in an interview with Keith Olbermann that disco “was a fad probably on its way out” but that the event “hastened its demise.”Nile Rogers, producer and guitarist for the popular disco-era group Chic said “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco’.”

Much later, on July 12, 2001, Mike Veeck apologized to Harry Wayne Casey, the lead singer for KC and the Sunshine Band, a leading disco act.

Here’s how local television covered the story.

Another great story from the era concerns a troupe of British comedians called the Hee Bee Gee Bees. Legend has it that when the Bee Gees heard this track, they backed off from the heavy disco beat and falsetto voices a bit in their later records. This song went to number 2 in the British charts back in the day. I don’t recall hearing it until the mid ‘80’s, but I laughed my ass off when I did…Enjoy.

Now then, lose some weight, get your teeth capped, stock up on hair products, buy some nice, bright, clothes, roll up your coat sleeves and sew in some shoulder pads. Here comes the ‘80’s, baby, and nothing will ever be the same…again.

Next Sunday: Part 14…Video Kills the Radio Star and Radio jumps on the Bandwagon…

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Segarini’s regular column appears every Monday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats and Dogs, andnominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late GreatMovies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now sadly gone), and now provides content for radiothatdoesntsuck.com with RadioZombie, The Iceage, and PsychShack. Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop, (who hosts and writes “I’ve Heard That Song Before” on RTDS), continues to write, make music, and record.

2 Responses to “Segarini: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 13 – When Worlds Collide and Eras Clash…”

  1. Strummer Says:

    Thanks for the memories again Bob,a great era for music 78-79.In Kingston here my friend and I both worked at the local hospital and had an apartment in Queens ghetto.We could play music loud and into the night.We also had many people back to our place after the bars closed to party on.We were into The Ramones ,Clash,Blondie,Diodes,Demics etc.There were only about 10 or 15 punks in the whole town and we played these bands in heavy rotation.If you wore ripped jeans and leather jackets you were scorned and ridiculed.We didnt care.Not sure when i got Gotta Have Pop,but it became a favorite as well.Went through 2 of those,and now i have the extended Cd.Nick Lowe became a favorite as well.Those were the best times of my life,and I am happy that bands like the Ramones have gotten the Kudos they deserved all along.Again Bob thanks for your great stories.

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