Sunday, May 06, 2018

The LOOP, Disco Demolition, and the Wild Days of Chicago Rock Radio

Jonathon Brandmeier, Kevin Matthews, Steve Dahl & Garry Meier, mid-1980s  

I finally watched the Twisted Sister documentary on Netflix a few weeks ago. I’d been avoiding it for awhile, but figured, “Well, I’ve watched every other rock doc, I’ll give this one a try.” The doc was almost three hours long, and it covered the band’s slow climb to MTV fame.

Twisted Sister’s tale of slogging it out on the Long Island club scene in the ‘70s was more interesting than you’d expect. The tackiest part of a pretty tacky story involved scenes about the band’s onstage anti-disco tirades.

I was shocked at how vicious the Long Island anti-disco movement was, or that they even had such a movement in the first place. After all, I grew up in Chicago, where the most infamous anti-disco event of all took place, and I was there.

Disco Demolition

The stoner, Dazed and Confused ethos of my college days was accompanied by non-stop music, visits to Rose Records and Wax Trax, and wacky DJs. The soundtrack to my first year in college was provided by WLUP, and to a lesser extent by the other rock stations in town, WXRT, WLS and WMET.

Known more commonly as the Loop, WLUP was the home of Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. Steve and Garry were the dynamic, shock-rock duo that gained infamy – and a rowdy audience of teens and 20somethings - in Chicago and environs in 1979 and throughout the 1980s. 

Their biggest bit was an anti-disco spiel, which involved blowing up disco records via sound effects on their radio show. They brought their anti-disco message to listeners in person at public appearances, and more fans showed up than the venues and the station expected. The biggest anti-disco rally of them took place at the old White Sox Park (Comiskey Park) in 1979. 

 I thought that blowing up disco records was a comedy bit. I didn’t think it was a pop culture revolution. (Apparently, other people did.) My friends and I loved Steve and Garry and the Loop, so we penciled in the night of July 12, 1979 for a visit to Disco Demolition Night at Sox Park.

I owned lots of disco records, and I had a hard time deciding which record should be blown up. I wasn’t going to part with my “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby”, and certainly not the Blondie ten-inch disco version of “Heart of Glass”. I finally decided on the single of Peter Brown’s, “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me?”
We traveled from my friend’s parent’s house near Midway Airport to Sox Park. As it turned out, we were part of a contingent of what seemed like thousands of kids swarming the city buses headed to White Sox Park. They all wore the same uniform- a black Loop T- shirt, jeans and sneakers. (A jeans jacket was optional if it got chilly.)

I wore the same uniform as the other kids, but I carried an additional item with me- a copy of Newsweek, in case I got bored during the first game of the Twi-Night double-header.

A sea of kids descended from city buses and stormed Sox Park in droves. It was like the Day, or rather, the Twi-Night, of the Locust, right there at 35th and Shields. When we got out of our bus, we saw kids scaling the side of the stadium like some kind of artificial mountain.

I don’t even remember if the ticket takers were bothering to collect the 98 cents (WLUP’s frequency was 97.9) entrance fee by the time we got there. I remember throwing my record into a bin. I felt sad about that, and looking in, I could see a copy of Saturday Night Fever.  It looked brand-new, like someone had specifically bought it to be “blowed up.” That, of course, would have actually helped disco’s bottom line.

The stands were full of kids drinking beer, smoking pot and flinging disco records like Frisbees. We sat down in the grandstand, passed around a joint and a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, and watched the craziness around us.  

My friend Kathy and I escaped the vinyl Frisbees for awhile by hanging out on the ramps between levels. When she told me Minnie Ripperton had died (that’s Maya Rudolph’s Mom, for you youngsters out there), I almost fell off the ramp railing I was so shocked. (She died on the same day, July 12).

When we returned, a young married couple sitting in front of us, who had obviously come to see the game with their kids, couldn’t take it anymore and left. They shielded their bewildered children from the flying records as they walked to the exit.  I wonder if they asked for a refund.  I’d be mad if I were in their position.

Finally the first game ended, and Steve, Garry and Lorelei, the station's sexy spokeswoman, took the field.  It was great to finally see the guys we had listened to on the radio for the last few months get their due. The between game record blow-up was louder and more intense than I expected. I  didn't expect them to literally blow up the records, but they did, right there in center field.

I sat next to an Indian engineering student from my friend’s dorm. We spent most of the first game talking about a Newsweek article I was reading about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket. The moment the interlopers stormed the field, right on cue, the kid said “Now, see, this is what I was just talking about.” 

People said it was a riot, but it looked like a bunch of kids standing on a baseball field not quite knowing what to do. Some kids turned over the batting cage and started a small bonfire. That was the riot part, I guess. Future celebrities Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Green Mile) were in attendance, though not necessarily on the field. White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray couldn’t get the kids to disperse, and then the cops cleared the field.

Most of the barbs on the radio and from the kids I knew were directed at John Travolta and the BeeGees, white upper middle class guys at North Side discos, rich celebrities at Studio 54, disco records by Cher, Rod Stewart, Charo and Ethel Merman, and the radio programmers and management types who catered to the trend. Anybody who made disco records was a target. If the Village People or Donna Summer made hard rock records instead of disco records, I doubt the kids or DJs would have complained.

Kids hated the music for two intertwined reasons – it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, and it was taking over the culture. Funny thing is, what we would call disco music was around in the mid-70s. "Disco Duck", "The Hustle", hits by the Hues Corporation, George McRae, Barry White, Shirley and Company, Thelma Houston and Donna Summer’s "Love to Love You Baby" constantly saturated the airwaves then, and no one complained about the music. (Well, except for “Disco Duck.”) The anti-disco movement didn’t start until Saturday Night Fever become a hit.

And, of course, the anti-disco movement didn't kill dance music. It just helped repurpose it in a better way as house, techno, trance, etc. by putting an end to the mainstream "blanding and corporatization" of disco.

I woke up on the floor of my friend’s dorm room the next morning, hungover, and heard Steve and Garry on the radio. “You were bad little Cohos,”, Steve  gleefully admonished. (The anti-disco army was called the "Insane Coho Lips".)  We listened to as much of the show as we could, guzzled coffee, and headed for class.  When we got home, we had to explain to our parents, grandparents and siblings that we did not go on the field and were not wooed into a vortex of juvenile delinquency, never to return.

The Rest of the Loop

There was much more to WLUP than Disco Demolition. To me, that was probably the least interesting aspect of the station’s heyday.

It was 24/7 wall to wall hilarity, with Steve and Garry, Les Tracy, Mitch Michaels, Sky Daniels, and Patti Haze. And, of course, Joe Walsh subbing for Steve and Garry when they were on vacation.

I teared up hearing this sound bite for the first time in close to 40 years. “Get jaked and blow lunch tonight.” Good times.

The station even had a Loopfest (not to be confused with Chicagofest) in the early 1980s.  One year they had the biker band The Boyzz from Illinois introduced by Ma Nugent (Ted’s Mom), but the event also featured local bands Pezband, the Hounds and Tantrum.   

And I somehow missed this comic book, released in 1980, which featured the Loop DJs in nonsensical adventures.

Steve & Garry’s newscaster Buzz Kilman did the Blues News - Buzz played harmonica as Steve read "down on their luck" news stories. (Buzz would later become Johnny B’s newsman). Steve's musical parodies included “Heal Me”, a parody of Blondie’s “Call Me”, which addressed the underhanded shenanigans of preacher Ernest Angley and his “faith healings” and “Another Kid in the Crawl”, about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, set to the music of “Another Brick in Wall.” (For obvious reasons, this parody was quickly shelved.)

Stan Lawrence did the All My Children report; there were traffic reports from “Tyrone”, complete with helicopter sound effects. Steve and Garry lambasted old-school Chicago radio heroes like Wally Philips and Cliff Mercer, the WGN announcer. Most of the bits were silly and harmless. However, Steve and Garry’s calls to Iran would result in an international incident or possibly World War III today. Eventually, Steve and Garry were fired for “violating community standards.” They then went to WLS and continued their affront to decency.

The great thing about the Loop in those days is that they played all types of bands - AC/DC, Van Halen, Graham Parker, Ian Hunter,  Pat Benatar, Tom Petty, The Police, Cheap Trick, Journey, The Stones, and local bands like Off-Broadway and Pezband. I even remember hearing an interview with Annie Lennox when she was in band called the Tourists.

 It was a mix of rock music, regardless of genre. The other rock stations in town did the same. We’d listen to WLS, WMET, and WXRT, too. (If you wanted the greatest mix of genres, that was up the dial at WXRT. They played Kate Bush, the Raincoats, obscure prog rock and even some jazz.)

I taped an interview one of WXRT’s jocks did with REO Speedwagon in 1978, so there was a lot of musical crossover between genres and stations. It was hard to keep track of what you heard and where sometimes. This was a time where you didn’t have to choose your party and stick with it, forsaking all others.

The Loop, Part 2 – Late 1980s/1990s

In 1983, I left for Los Angeles. Friends would occasionally send me cassettes of shows, but the Loop was always there when I came back home. By the time I returned in 1987, things got wackier, and less subversive.

The hyperactive Jonathon Brandmeier was the new wacky radio guy now. Brandmeier’s humor was more frat boy than current events. I remember him commenting on a news story about a new exhibit at the Art Institute saying he didn’t understand that “art crap.”

A recurring bit on Johnny B’s show involved sidekick/show producer Jimmy "Bud" Weiser trying to locate visiting celebrities checked into hotels under aliases. Johnny’s band, Johnny and Leisure Suits, had local hits with “We’re All Crazy in Chicago” and “The Moo-Moo Song” inspired by a guy who romanced a cow at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Kevin Matthews (who I thought was the most talented of them all), did a whole slew of character voices and celebrity imitations. Pee Wee Herman did the traffic, and there were rock lyrics with Ronnie Reagan.

Matthews voiced the sportscaster character/sidekick Jim Shorts, a foul-mouthed know-it-all with no self-editing abilities. This surly character wouldn’t work in any other city but Chicago (and parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana).

(Most people would wrinkle their noses at this and dismiss it as infantile. I’m looking for more episodes.)

The last go round for the crazy, personality-oriented LOOP was in the mid-1990s .Danny Bonaduce, Brandmeier, Kevin Matthews and Liz Wilde were the weekday DJs, and porno star Seka had a show on the weekends.

The gags weren’t mean-spirited like Howard Stern's, but they were silly and annoying. When Kevin Matthews or Brandmeier made prank phone calls, you could almost hear the person on the other end going, “What the hell was that?” after hanging up the phone.

I made a pit stop back to Chicago just in time for the 1994 charity boxing match between Donny Osmond and Danny Bonaduce. (Danny won.) Also, I got to hear the DJs do a play by play of the OJ slow-speed Bronco chase. Between that and the Howard Stern regular Captain Janks’ prank call to Peter Jennings, the commentary was like the pre-internet version of memes and social media, and could turn anything, even a tragedy, into a circus.   

In 1992, Eddie Schwartz joined the WLUP staff. (You’re setting yourself up for problems when you’re on the same station as a guy who makes fun of you.)

When I was about 12, I first listened to Eddie Schwartz when he did overnights on WIND. I had no idea what he looked like.  I was sitting in one of my college radio classes waiting for the teacher, when he walked in as our guest instructor for the day. To say he was larger than life is an understatement. He was morbidly obese, and weighed maybe 500-600 pounds. He had the class in stitches, telling a crude story or two and swearing a lot, in contrast to his nice guy radio persona. RIP Big Guy.

In the mid-2000s, terrestrial radio faded away, as podcasts and  internet radio took over. I found the Loop online, only to discover Mancow was the star DJ. I couldn’t stand the guy when he started on another Chicago station, WRCX-FM, in the early ‘90s. The station’s only other claim to fame was their sexy calendar girls, like a Lorelei for every month of the year. Otherwise, it was classic rock as usual.  

By the time the Loop was purchased by a Christian broadcasting company in March, the irreverent DJs of the ‘70s-‘90s were working at other stations or no where to be found. (Steve and Garry broke up in the mid-90s. Steve currently occupies the drive time slot at WLS-AM.)   

The Loop lives on the internet without all the fanfare and comedy, and you can still buy the Loop logo T-shirt.  In keeping with the spirit of the original Loop, the last song played before the station’s segue into Christian pop was “Highway to Hell.”

Today’s youthful comedy podcasts are more sophisticated and user-friendly, and music is optional. Yes, the radio we grew up with was cheeky and juvenile, but boy, did we have fun.