In 1979, Chicago’s 97.9 WLUP radio station decided to switch from playing rock to playing disco. Their breakfast DJ, Steve Dahl, was told to start playing disco music or get fired. Dahl responded by leading a “Disco Sucks” campaign against this new genre of music. The Chicago White Sox were scheduled to play a two-game match against the Detroit Tigers at Comiskey Park stadium on 12th July. The White Sox owner was trying to boost lacklustre numbers at the stadium by arranging increasingly outlandish entertainment. He booked Dahl to lead what was billed as a Disco Demolition Derby in the interval between the two games. Fans were invited to bring disco records to the game, have them dumped in a crate on the pitch, and then watch the crate get blown-up with dynamite by Dahl himself.
An attendee bringing a disco record to the game could gain entrance for 98 cents. The enticement worked. Average attendances at Comiskey Park usually ran to about 5,000, but that night over 50,000 showed-up. Things soon got out of hand. After Dahl detonated the explosives, excitement boiled over and thousands stormed the pitch. Anarchic scenes ensued, with people stamping on the molten debris of the vinyls, lighting fires, digging up the pitch, destroying the batting cage, and climbing up the foul poles. The commentator Harry Caray took to the loudspeaker to urge people to return to their seats, but was ignored. The police eventually turned-up in full riot gear and cleared the pitch. By then the damage was so bad the game was forfeited by the White Sox, and the Tigers went home victorious.
It was the fortieth anniversary of the Disco Demolition Derby riot last year. Discussions of it were caught between two different interpretations. Or rather, discussions of it should have been caught between two different interpretations, but it wasn’t that simple. On the one hand, the Derby is interpreted as the result of unfortunate circumstances. It is seen as significant only insofar as baseball games are rarely forfeited by public disorder. An ESPN mini-documentary of the evening takes this approach, as indeed does Steve Dahl himself. This interpretation maintains that Midwesterners were just weary of disco’s overexposure, that the security at Comiskey Park was insufficient for a crowd of that size, the alcohol was too cheap, stadium staff were unprepared, and the police arrived too late.
On the other hand, the Disco Demolition Derby has been interpreted along identitarian lines. This approach sees an explosion of racism and homophobia. Disco originated in Black and Latino cultures, and was the music of choice of New York gay clubs. This interpretation maintains that white Midwesterners were fearful of an insurgent black subculture and the increasing visibility of gay people in the years following the Stonewall riots. This line of thinking is usually connected with disco’s importance for the development of Chicago’s house music scene in the mid-1980s. The Comiskey Park riot is presented as a moment when disco was forced back underground, before re-emerging in a different form, fuelled by newly affordable drum machines and synthesisers. Disco’s demise around the turn of the decade had led some big-name DJs from the New York meccas like Studio 54 to move to residencies in Chicago clubs, which then became melting pots for the morphing of the new sound.
Documentaries about the genesis of house and techno, like Pump Up the Volume and I was There When House took over the World, are typical examples of this second interpretation. Both show the early house music producer Vince Lawrence talking about his experiences as a steward at Comiskey Park that night. He says the records being thrown onto the crate were not just disco, but all sorts of black music by artists like Marvin Gaye. Academics support this interpretation. The documentary Disco Inferno has a Historian of Sexuality saying that white, straight America was struggling with the fact that the “culture they feel identified with” was “being marginalized and limited.”
Whether or not Dahl was spearheading a wave of prejudice is not my concern in this article. The issue is that no proponent of the identitarian interpretation seems even to have asked this question. It has become the received account of what happened, and is uncritically repeated ad infinitum. But there are questions worth asking here. How was media negativity toward disco significantly different to punk, heavy metal, or even rock n roll? Hip-hop was shortly afterward to become one of the most successful music genres in history, and didn’t cause any rioting at baseball games. If Steve Dahl was racially motivated, why did he mock the Bee-Gees and John Travolta? His own mock-disco novelty record “Dya Think I’m Disco?’ is a pastiche of Rod Stewart. He was a shock-jock celebrating the scruffy and raucous culture of late 70s rock. So he poured scorn on Saturday Night Fever’s 3-piece white suits, the pina coladas, the stylized and rehearsed dance moves. Dahl’s target might just have been a commercial caricature of authentic disco, the pop tunes he would be forced to play, not the 12”s of Brooklyn loft parties or the Paradise Garage.
But the identitarian interpretation does not even countenance the possibility of an alternative view. It is a perpetuated monologue echoed by many voices in succession, not a dialogue or conversation between those voices. But those who take the first interpretation – who see it as a mere combination of unfortunate circumstances – do enter into dialogue with the identitarian view. In the ESPN report, for example, the White Sox press office commented in a way that, presumably, those involved in the disco sucks campaign didn’t need to in the late 70s. They said, “We remain proud of our franchise’s long-standing record on advocating for inclusion and diversity” Steve Dahl himself also acknowledges the other interpretation. He completely dismisses any allegations of racism or homophobia, and states: “Perception is not always reality. Especially when that perception uses the prism of today to look at events 40 years ago.” One side acknowledges the existence of the other, and situates itself in relation to it. But the other side seems unaware that another perspective exists, and just continues the same old line.
Events happen. Representations of those events proliferate through different media. The differing representations are apprehended by people occupying varied perspectives. Those occupants then draw diverse conclusions about what originally happened. We can only see the objective past through the perspective of our subjective present. The clear light of truth strikes the present moment like a ray of light striking a prism. It refracts into a multi-colored spectrum. To occupy only one place on that spectrum is to be bathed in one particular color, and then everything in sight is colored the same way. A monotone orientation gives rise to monologue discourse.
By acknowledging that everything in your own perspective is colored by that perspective, it becomes possible to accept that there are other perspectives at the horizons of one’s own. Acknowledging other perspectives is the preliminary step to glimpsing the clear light of objective truth which, strictly speaking, does not belong exclusively to any one perspective. This glimpsing is interpretation. To interpret is to be between different accounts of a thing, and surmise how best to understand it. Monologue discourse precludes genuine interpretation.
Although we can only see the past through the prism of the present, the Western mind has long since delineated ways by which an interpretive balancing of the facts renders some accounts of things better than others. The contemporary closing of the Western mind is demonstrated by a reduction in awareness of the gulf between objective events and subjective perspectives. Blindness to the perspectival means monotonality is mistaken as the clear ray of truth itself.
The agility and elasticity of human interpretive skill is decelerating. The “being between alternatives,” which is required for interpretation, recedes, replaced by “being the only viable side.” Individual perspectives no longer perceive themselves as such. They then become borderless spaces. Cries for a world without walls grow ever more fervent. Monologue discourse demands total freedom from the noise of neighboring perspectives. But habitations without walls stretch out in all directions and reverberate back into themselves, like black holes in empty space. Black holes suck all the elements within range into the vacuum. A shape without sides is no longer a shape. The meaningless masquerades as the meaningful. The inconsequential becomes the incontestable. Futile projections are mistaken for fecund profundities.
Black holes appear when stars reach the end of their life-cycle. Entropy reaches the nadir of deceleration, and the star folds in on itself and burrows a hole into which space and time accelerate. As with stars, so with civilisations. The deceleration of the West folds in on itself, sucks everything in, and destroys itself. The state of the woke-ified humanities is widely acknowledged. These disciplines are those which by definition originally existed to explore and perpetuate the socio-cultural patrimony of the West. Of course it would be here that Western deceleration would implode into its opposite, the furious nexus of identitarian irreverence. The most far-reaching recognitions of the perspectival in postmodern philosophy flipped back onto themselves to manifest the new monotone mythologies of Menschlichkeit.
Once a wormhole opens up, everything within range is sucked-in. Identity politics becomes the raison d’etre of academia itself. No longer concerned with universal knowledge, the formation of character, or even striving for the common good, universities claim to exist for the purpose of levelling inequalities of outcome between groups said to have minority characteristics. The edge of the forcefield around a black hole is the event horizon. Once passed, consumption by the hole is inevitable. Approaching the event horizon everything decelerates, before suddenly inverting and accelerating into its opposite. The event horizon for academia came with the unavoidable pervasiveness of the market, combined with the complex coordinates of technocratic learning. University professionals were being dragged along by the hollow-eyed apparatus which was grinding them down and grinding to a halt, but then it passed the horizon whereby everything careered off into the new promise of meaning: woke activism.
The event horizon of the West is the reaching of Peak Boomer. Then the Boomerdämmerung is the death of the Western star. Its morbid luminescence radiates the twilight of these times. Strange figures from the East have predicted its appearance for millennia, and they trek across the old silk road to come and feast on its incandescent bounty. It would be natural to claim that Peak Boomer was reached in Britain with the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. The show included a potted history of the nation, which went from scenes of prehistorical megalithic worship with a replica Stonehenge, on to the Industrial Revolution, and then a full-scale celebration of the digital era with visuals stimulating instant message boxes like holograms dancing around the performers. It was the quintessential Guardian-reader perspective of history. Centuries of Christendom erased in favor of the safely psychologized symbolism of ancient mythology. A focus on the Victorian era from whence came the universal suffrage that eventually brought equality and human rights. But also the lauding of smartphones and social media, pointing the schizophrenic contradictions of the Boomerweltanschauung, oblivious to the hyperconsumerism which produces its own narrative of limitless self-fulfilment. The incoherent contours of a shape without sides dominated the scene.
Although the 2012 opening ceremony seems the most likely candidate for the Peak Boomer moment, another account is worth telling. The Olympic Stadium was built over a large network of industrial estates in East London. These estates were one of the places where the refracted light which span out from Comiskey Park in 1979 eventually shone a decade or so later. Disco Demolition Night is part of the received history of the development of electronic music, and this development was particularly pronounced in the UK. In the late 80s, the driving, electronic sounds emerging from Chicago and Detroit made their way to the clubs of London and Manchester. This coincided with the first batches of MDMA being shipped over from Amsterdam. A cultural explosion occurred, and was generally known as ‘rave’, or originally ‘acid house’ by the media. The abandon and excitement of dancing all night to house and techno under the influence of powerful new synthetic drugs dominated the lives of that generation, mostly going under the radar of the cultural commentators of the time.
The industrial estates of East London were the scene of countless parties, festivals, and gatherings which are written into the folklore of the City. Because those temples of industry had lain empty for decades, they were optimum locations for underground raves. Only a few networks of streets are still standing in the vicinity of London’s Olympic Village, for most were demolished to make way for the redevelopment. The streets are criss-crossed by the rivers and canals once used to transport goods to and from the vast Victorian warehouses. These warehouses were many and diverse in their activities; huge, ominous structures constructed in smog-stained London brick, a complex maze of multidimensional walkways and interlocking buildings. Each of the warehouses has old iron walkways around the outside, and parallelogram fire escapes going down into cobbled courtyards. They take up many floors of enormous, cavernous rooms, with the top floors having wooden framed glass ceilings where the foremen and their secretaries once had their desks.
On the night of the 2012 opening ceremony, the cameras switched between shots filmed from drones soaring around the Stadium, and pausing intermittently before the Anish Kapoor sculpture next to it. But in the background during those pauses, or for a couple of seconds as the drones swooped up or down, you could glimpse the sun setting behind that intermeshed network of structures that had survived the regeneration. The silhouetted chimneys of the industrial complex stood out in black contors against the twilight of the midsummer dusk.
Visiting those estates in the rave era usually involved riding in the back of someone’s car in the small hours of a summer night, or an inebriated long-distance walk en masse with fellow partygoers, over the footbridges of the freeway that sealed the industrial zone off from the rest of the City. However you got there, the deafening roar of the beats would be heard for miles away as you approached. The streets bristled with crowds of strange characters in different realms of intoxication. You’d gravitate toward a cluster of people funnelling through some old wooden double gates, or shuffling through corrugated shutters pulled up just enough for people to stoop down, push through, and clamber out into the darkness on the other side.
Then you might end-up in an old cobbled square surrounded on all sides by the high warehouse walls. Vans and trucks used to transport the sound systems would be parked up, their doors open and little clusters of people settled inside with oil lanterns and woodburners. People repeatedly staggered into you, and you had to hold firm so as not to be knocked out the way. A piece of timber or an old door would have the word “bar” spray-painted on it, leaning against a table with fairy lights and candles, where you could buy a can of beer. Sometime after this you’d draw nearer to the source of the noise, often through a long, pitch-black corridor with people so densely packed-in you could hardly breathe. At the far end of the tunnel the snapcrackle flashes of strobes and lasers lit up the scene, like synthetic lightning. It got so loud you couldn’t even signal to your companions which way you were headed. But it didn’t matter. You soon ended-up with some other people. Your ribs would be throbbing with the intensity of the bass, and the palpitations this caused in your chest could only be intensified by the chemicals pulsing through your veins.
The short, midsummer night would later give way to the dawn. On the top floor of a warehouse under the old glass ceilings, the twilight could seem to last an age. The translucent darkness would reveal a Mad Max-style carnage was underway. People spoke of the scene at dawn as “the Sunday morning massacre,” a perverse play on the sabbath, of the religion now eradicated from the memories of this people. There was no security, there were no limits, no law. The parties raged on for days. Sunny Sunday afternoons passed into Monday mornings as you sat on the iron walkways encircling the buildings, your legs dangling above the crowd milling about in the cobbled courtyard below.
Because members of this rave generation are now in their 40s, the folklore surrounding these parties is being transposed into an official history. A permitted version of events is taking shape, and a range of rave testimonials have appeared. The periodicals which most commonly run pieces on it are Vice and The Guardian. The Saatchi Gallery had the exhibition “SWEET HARMONY: RAVE | TODAY” on display this summer – “an immersive retrospective exhibition devoted to presenting a revolutionary survey of rave culture through the voices and lenses of those who experienced it.” BBC TV has shown the documentary Everybody in the Place, written and directed by the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, presenting rave as “the fulcrum for a generational shift in British identity, linking industrial histories and radical action to the wider expanses of a post-industrial future.”
The official history generally holds in the first place that British youths reacted against Thatcherite individualism and “greed is good” ethics through founding alternative forms of community centred on the dancefloor. All races and classes were thrown together, and the inherent privileges of the established economic system challenged through egalitarian networks of barter and exchange. Alternative lifestyles flourished against the tedium of suburban British society.
There is much truth in all this. But now the new identitarianism is combined with these aspects of the phenomenon. The narrative focuses on how rave fostered social participation for underrepresented communities. The origins of house music in the gay scene become all important, and the police crackdowns are viewed through the lens of racial and sexual prejudice. Rave fashions are held-up as pioneering a genderless aesthetic, and the dancefloor considered to be a melting pot of non-monogamous sexualities.
Reality is more complex. The alternative communities forged by the rave phenomenon often evinced strong gender differentiation, not least due to their ideological affinities with paganism, deep ecology, and anarcho-primitivism. The rave scene in the industrial cities of Northern England, and indeed East London itself, was resolutely working-class, and therefore laddish and intrinsically averse to the avant-garde, art-school-libertine variants of the Soho clubs. While the empathogen MDMA certainly fostered atmospheres of togetherness, it was sold by rival networks of criminal organisations, and many a party deteriorated into a bloodbath of internecine gang warfare. Violence, theft, and intimidation were present among the partygoers, not to mention overdoses and people jumping out of windows because they thought they could fly. While raves were in some ways antithetical to Thatcherism, many of them were orchestrated by a new breed of anarchic libertarian capitalists that would surely not have existed without her.
As with Comiskey Park, my concern is not to conclude how best to interpret those events in light of the above. It is only to point out that there is another perspective which the official history cannot countenance. Today’s rave revisionism is symptomatic of the pull of the black hole. It demonstrates the deceleration of human interpretive skill, its reduction in the agility and elasticity required to take genuine heed of different views. So everything is pulled into the vacuum, and the difficult task of trying to work out what this historical phenomenon actually means, lapses into lazy recourses to identitarianism.
The question arises as to when the event horizon was passed which meant this phenomenon would not be accurately interpreted. The official histories always present it as a new beginning: when the classlessness of equality of opportunity took hold, when the old order of social customs passed away, when the egalitarian, democratizing impulses which later exploded with the internet first came to birth.
But an event horizon is passed at the nadir of deceleration, when previously modes of making meaning can no longer hold sway. Viewed in this light – rave itself emerges as the event horizon. The hollow-eyes of postmodernity were too empty for the people to meet their gaze. The blank stare of the technological era had to be reversed into the empowering look of affirmation. For it was then that the most profound art form, music, was consumed by computational sequencing. Then that the nexus of meaning, human emotiveness and subjectivity, was consumed by chemical manipulation. Then that the age-old nerve centers of resistance, countercultures, were soaked through by the permutations of the newly unleashed capital. As the old order ground to a halt, it was a sight too horrible to look upon, like the Sunday morning massacre.
Peak Boomer for anglos was not therefore the 2012 Opening Ceremony, but something that happened on the same soil 20-years earlier. It had been gestating quietly beneath the earthworks of East London, and was uncovered when the diggers set-in to build the stadium. The translucent darkness of the dying star then filled the atmosphere, engulfing all forms of cultural self-understanding with its pervasive twilight. Of course, therefore, in 2012 a version of events was celebrated which epitomized the black hole. Ancient paganism, not Christendom. Equality of outcome and self-fulfilment, not acceptance of the responsibilities which attend to people’s specific circumstances. Hyperconsumerism, demonstrating capital’s cunning in commanding obedience from its antagonists. What took shape, was a shape without sides, a world without walls, where the love of neighbor of the old religion of the sabbath inverted into its opposite: the unquestioned erasure of any neighboring perspectives.
The question is whether “the discourse” can re-learn the science and art of interpretation. It is to ask if lines can be drawn in the sand once again. The mark of this beast will be demarcation, its line of approach, delineation. Raving-mad revisionism of history needs to be met with a new sober-minded sagacity. From seeing everything bathed in the color of a monotone hue, eyes will squint at the clear light of truth, and many will choose to crawl back into the twilight. Some, however, will become adepts of starlight. Just as the light of the stars we see is hundreds of years old, these adepts will guard and transmit the forgotten knowledge of the past, a knowledge which permits of other perspectives, in service of the light of the reborn Western star.
Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos.