School Archives

May 2019 - Rock 'n' Roll, Disco, and Stayin' Alive

Rock 'n' Roll, Disco, and Stayin' Alive

By Mary Cay Doherty

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Hellooooo….it’s me, your friendly Magnificat Archivist. I’ve fallen down another fascinating historical rabbit hole. Jump in and join me!

As I considered a topic for this month’s Archives Antics, Magnificat was preparing for the Annual Gala which had a disco theme. And disco got me thinking about what was happening at Magnificat in the 1970s.

So I searched our database for documents and artifacts and discovered that the 1970s was an important decade for Magnificat. The Resource Center (1970), Genesis (1973), Key Club (1978), and Interscholastic Varsity and Junior Varsity teams (1977) were just a few significant additions to Magnificat’s building, curriculum, and co-curricular activities. Hmmm, maybe I could write about these important milestones…

Then my mind drifted to the yearbooks of the 1970s. For this decade, the yearbook came out in two soft-cover volumes each year. The first was devoted to poetry and short stories, and the second featured all the traditional yearbook trappings: photos, activities, events… Yes, I could write about how 1970s era yearbooks mirrored cultural changes in America…

But “disco” kept calling my name (figuratively, of course). I just had to know about disco. Why is it a hallmark of the 1970s? Surely Magnificat students of the 70s would have caught disco fever, wouldn’t they? And so, down the proverbial rabbit hole I jumped – back in time to music history in the 1970s and Magnificat history via the school newspaper.

Like a scientist with a hypothesis, I started combing issues of the Magnificat from the 1970s in search of articles related to disco. Regrettably, we only have 11 issues of the student newspaper from the 1970s (May 1970, February 1974, December 1975, March 1976, May 1976, October 1977, April 1978, May 1978, April 1979, June 1979, and October 1979). And I wasn’t exactly sure in what context these papers would discuss disco, but I was certain that I would find multiple references.

I was wrong. Well, not entirely. There was one article in the October 1978 issue that referenced disco.

What I did find, however, were 4 issues that had stories, not about disco, but about rock ‘n’ roll. Statistically, that means 36% of our newspaper collection from the 1970s had a story about rock ‘n’ roll (remembering, of course, that we only have 11 issues in our collection). But, equally important to note, is that these stories appeared in Oct. 1977, April 1978, Oct. 1978, and December 1978—a 15-month period near the end of the decade. We have to consider that the close date proximity of these articles and the authors. For example, Laura Martin (Class of 1981) who clearly had a keen interest in rock ‘n’ roll (vs disco) wrote the October and December 1978 articles. We cannot know whether or not her sentiments reflected those of the student body.

There was also one point of intersection for rock ‘n’ roll and disco in the Magnificat: page two of the October 1978 issue featured “Rock-n-roll Still No. 1 in Cleveland” and “Class of ’81 Catches Disco Fever; With New Skills They Teach You.” More on these a little later…

So deeper down the rabbit hole, I crawled. Rock ‘n’ roll and disco: what are the differences technically and in terms of popularity in the 1970s? More importantly, can these four articles in the Magnificat tell us anything about Magnificat students’ music preferences in the late 1970s?

History of Rock ‘n’ roll

Rock ‘n’ roll, a combination of country and rhythm & blues, came on the American music scene in the 1950s. But it wasn’t called “rock ‘n’ roll” right away. Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, gets credit for popularizing the term rock ‘n’ roll in reference to this new emerging music (the city of Cleveland used this as its basis for arguing that Cleveland should be home to the Rock Hall of Fame). Freed first used “rock ‘n’ roll” as an adjective describing the energy of his “Moondog” radio show, energy rooted in anew R&B records. Later, after moving to New York, he renamed the show as “The Rock and Roll Party.” Eventually, the term expanded to encompass the emerging genre of music that, while rooted in R&B, was distinctly different. Interestingly, “rock ‘n’ roll” has its roots in the African-American community as a slang word for sex. The provocative nature of performances by Elvis and other early rock ‘n’ rollers led to the usurpation of the term to describe the new musical genre. Although Elvis Presley is considered the “King,” Chuck Berry is often called the “Father of Rock ‘n’ roll.”

In the 1960s, as the genre continued to evolve, it became known simply as “Rock” music. “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ roll” became the rallying cry of the Counterculture Revolution, and rock music’s beat and lyrics carried the Counterculture’s message via now legendary performers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead.

Cleveland Rocks

Cleveland has deep “rock” roots. Alan Freed certainly played a role. And rock probably appealed to our Midwestern, blue-collar cultural ethos while disco with its urban, elitist flair might have seemed less appealing, especially in the early 1970s. Additionally, our Midwest location would have insulated us from disco’s effects until later in the decade. The cultural changes that begin on the far Pacific and Atlantic coasts take time to reach the sunny shores of Lake Erie. These factors may explain why 4 of the 5 music references in the Magnificat from October 1977 until December 1978 refer to rock ‘n’ roll rather than disco.

Rock band Fleetwood Mac received a glowing review in the October 21, 1977 Magnificat included an article about a Fleetwood Mac concert in Cleveland on September 24/25. “Big Mac Attack Occurs; Fleetwood ‘Dreams’ On” reported that the September 24th and 25th Cleveland concerts were sold out. The article extols Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 awards for “Best Band,” “Best Album,” and “Best Producer.” For the Magnificat author of this article, Fleetwood Mac also earned accolades for donating a penguin to the Cleveland Zoo. The article explains that penguins were a mascot for the band. The penguin was named ‘Peter’ at the request of band leaders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.

The World Series of Rock bore witness to Cleveland’s “rock” devotion in the 1970s. The October 19, 1978 Magnificat reported “Rock-n-Roll Still No. 1 in Cleveland.” Sophomore Laura Martin’s story covered all three of the World Series of Rock Concerts that were held during the summer of 1978 and highlighted upcoming fall rock concerts by the likes of Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel, and Jethro Tull.

The World Series of Rock were daylong summer music events in Cleveland that featured multiple rock ‘n’ roll groups. The event was held from 1974 until 1980 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. During the summer of 1978, Cleveland hosted three World Series of Rock Concerts. The July 1st concert featured “The Rolling Stones,” “Kansas,” and Peter Tosh. The July 15th concert brought the “Electric Light Orchestra,” “Foreigner,” “Journey,” and “Trickster” to Cleveland. And the final concert on August 26th had fans rocking out to “Fleetwood Mac,” Bob Welch, “The Cars,” Todd Rundgren & Utopia, and Eddie Money.

In the December 14, 1978 Magnificat, Laura Martin again reported on Cleveland’s status as “High for Rock-n-Roll.” After opening the article with the assertion “we live up to our name of ‘Rock Capitol of the World,’” Martin’s second paragraph perhaps hints at the struggle between rock and disco for the hearts of Clevelanders. She says, “If any questions still linger about Cleveland’s status, take a look at who is in the forecast.” Martin then proceeds to list the many rock groups who have performed or will be performing soon in the city. She cites recent visits to Cleveland by Hall and Oats, Queen, and The Moody Blues, and upcoming performances expected from Styx, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springstein.

History of Disco:

Disco music gets its name from Discotheques, clubs that first popped up in WWII France as part of the Nazi resistance. (Disque is French for record; “theque” is taken from “bibliotheque” the French world for library.) Germans banned American swing music and jazz, discotheques were underground clubs where people went to listen and dance to these banned records. The first discotheques came to America from France in the 1960s, but “disco” music did not yet exist. Like their French counterparts, American discotheques featured dance music, but 3-minute long American rock ‘n’ roll songs were ending just as dancers found their “groove.” D.J.s and disco club goers were hungry for dance music. Enter Disco—a blend of jazz, funk, and soul that featured synthesizers and longer songs. At rock music venues, people sat and listened. At disco clubs, music existed to support dance, and records were much more common than live performances. In the disco world, African singer, Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa (released in 1973) is considered the first disco song. The reliance on records over live performances was made disco especially advantageous for urban clubs that catered to the gay population. Many bands refused invitations to perform in gay clubs out of fear of public scrutiny or retribution.

The “Hustle,” by Van McCoy in 1975 was instrumental in bringing disco to a wider American audience. The song hit the top of the pop charts. Two years later, in December 1977, Saturday Night Fever was released. Overnight, disco was a sensation. For the next three years, disco dominated the popular music charts. Popular singers/bands included Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and The BeeGees. In his 1999 American Heritage article, Peter Braunstein explains that after the release of Saturday Night Fever came the “discofication” of America: disco lunchboxes, disco belt buckles, disco proms, etc…

Magnificat at “The Car Wash”

Because “Saturday Night Fever” propelled disco mania in the U.S., it seems likely that Magnificat students awareness of, and interest in, disco would grow from December 1977 until 1980. Of the 11 issues from the 1970s in our collection, nine are dated after the release of the “Hustle” in the summer of 1975. Furthermore, of those nine, five are dated after the release of “Saturday Night Fever.” It is interesting then, that only one article in our, albeit small, collection even mentions disco.

The lone disco article is in the October 19, 1978 Magnificat: “Class of ’81 Catches Disco Fever; With New Skills They Teach You.” The article explains that four Magnificat sophomores, (Margaret Bucci, Brigid McCafferty, Jacque Meluch, and Robyn Mlodzik) had been taking disco lessons from Sherri Cox at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. According to the article, Sherri Cox was a regular on Channel 3’s “Weekday Fever” program which ran from 4-5 p.m. The Magnificat students and others in the class learned disco line dances, group dances, techniques for disco free-style dancing, and “hand dancing,” which was new. The article closes with routine directions for a line dance called “The Car Wash.” This Rose Royce hit number 3 on the U.S. pop charts in February 1977.

Rock Rebels: Disco’s Stayin’ Alive Days are Numbered

By the late 1970s, disco music was the popular music for American youth, and the rock ‘n’ roll community began to rebel, especially as disco edged out rock in radio station play time. Some criticized disco’s reliance on synthesizers over musical instruments. Others argued that disco was elitist, while rock was populist—the music of everyday Americans.

Many of today’s cultural historians frame the backlash against disco in the late 1970s as a reactionary response of conservative middle America to gays and African Americans. Peter Braunstein in American Heritage magazine points out that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which coincides with the “death of disco,” marked a conservative turn in American political and cultural life. Braunstein further notes that the combination of disco’s affiliation with rampant drug use and sexual promiscuity, as well as the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community in the early 1980s, hastened its demise.

But John Covach from the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music posits a unique hypothesis. In his opinion, most of America didn’t identify disco with gay culture in the late 1970s. Similarly, viewing the backlash as a racial response is problematic in light of the many black rock groups such as Parliament Funkadelic. Instead, Covach suggests that the “hippie aesthetic” may have been the root of rock’s ill will toward disco. Covach argues that coming out of the 1960s counterculture, rock artists, D.J.s, and ardent fans saw rock as a vehicle for important cultural messaging. For them, disco music was the equivalent of cultural fluff. Disco tunes like “Dancing Queen” didn’t advance or push back against anything – it was culturally purposeless. According to Covach, this more than anything else made disco an anathema to rock.

Regardless of the source of their distaste for disco, rock actively hastened the disco’s decline. One Chicago disc jockey in particular, Steve Dahl, took matters into his own hands. He helped plan a “Disco Demolition” rally at Comiskey Park Stadium in Chicago on July 12, 1979. Fans were encouraged to bring their disco records to the stadium. At the break in the double header between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, a disco record-filled crate would be blown up on the field. The situation turned ugly when fans swarmed the field as the second game was beginning. The White Sox had to forfeit. But the tide was turning against disco. Other “Disco Demolitions” followed as well as “Disco Sucks” bumper stickers. Although July 12, 1979 is considered the “day disco died,” the genre hung on until the early 1980s.

Ironically, although Rock won the war, disco remains an iconic feature of the 1970s. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Magnificat Gala this year as people came dressed in their best seventies attire and boogied the night away. [On a very solemn note, we grieve the loss of Dr. Terry Hunt, wife of Magnificat teacher Kelly Hunt, father of sophomore Cat Hunt and alumna Mackenzie Hunt. Dr. Hunt won an award for best costume that evening. He tragically passed away less than two weeks later, on April 4th. ]

Where Does Magnificat Fit In?

As 21st century citizens looking through a rear view mirror, we see disco as a cultural event of the entire 1970s decade. This is true in a macro view of American culture, but not in the micro. If we start with “Soul Makossa” and end with the Disco Demolition Rally, disco’s life-span in American culture was 1973-1979. But disco didn’t’ really break through the pop culture barrier until “The Hustle” in 1975, and it wasn’t mainstream until the release of Saturday Night Fever in December of 1977. This likely means that for Magnificat students, disco’s practical life span in their cultural world was about 1977-1980.

In and of themselves, our school newspapers don’t reveal the true nature of Magnificat students’ musical preferences in the 1970s. Specifically, there are four limitations. First, we have only 11 issues from the entire decade that presumably included many more issues. Second, the school newspaper staff and advisor chose the stories, and we have no way of knowing for certain whether or not their interests and preferences reflected those of a majority of the student body. Third, the school newspaper would primarily be a vehicle for sharing school news. Broader cultural, political, and economic news is often covered but only insofar as they affect Magnificat students and the coverage is ancillary to that of school events. Fourth, as we have already mentioned, all four of the rock ‘n’ roll articles fall in a 15-month timespan and at least two were written by a single student with a passion for rock. Fifth, I confined by research to the 1970s. If we were to look at all of the Magnificat newspapers in the 1980s, we may find more disco references, especially toward the earlier years of the decade.

But, if we choose to evaluate Magnificat student preferences within these four particular issues, rock ‘n roll has four articles to disco’s one. In my mind, this is still a noteworthy.


Although disco’s moment in the sun was short-lived, the genre left indelible marks on the music and culture scenes. First, disco rejuvenated the practice dancing to popular music. Additionally, synthesizers are used even more heavily in music production today than in disco’s heyday. Culturally, disco is sure to be on anyone’s short list of 1970s iconic fads. Disco IS the 1970s. But as we emerge from our journey down the 1970s music history rabbit hole, we understand how rock and disco (uncomfortably) shared the decade, and we can speculate that the tug-of-war must have been felt by Magnificat students living in the “Rock Capitol of the World.”

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______. “1979 Disco Demolition Night, Local News Coverage.” YouTube. Video. Running Time 8:48. February 3, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpQfCcsqQ0E.

______. “Big Mac Attack Occurs; Fleetwood ‘Dreams’ On.” Magnificat Vol 19, No 1 (Rocky River: Magnificat High School), October, 21, 1977.

______. “Class of ’81 Catches Disco Fever; With New Skills They Teach You.” Magnificat Vol 20, No 2 (Rocky River: Magnificat High School, October 19, 1978.

_____. “Cleveland Municipal Stadium hosts the World Series of Rock.” News 5 Cleveland. YouTube. Video. Running Time 1:52. August 27, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ5BrvxCLTA.

______. “Cleveland Stadium – Home of World Series of Rock.” Rock & Roll Roadmaps. Accessed on April 3, 2019. http://rockandrollroadmap.com/places/where-they-played/other-rock-music-venues/cleveland-stadium-home-of-world-series-of-rock/.

______. “Evolution of Dance.” Twist and Pulse. YouTube. Video. Running Time 3:26. August 23, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqHt2VeYJN4.

______. “Learn steps to Car Wash.” YouTube. Video. Running Time 2:11. February 20, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aSJldxHdIQ

______. “Quiz Challenges Rock Music IQ.” Magnificat Vol 19, No 4 (Rocky River: Magnificat High School), April 13, 1978.

______. “Soul Train Car Wash Rose Royce.” YouTube. Video. August 11, 2012. Running Time 3:38. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss0GT6x66ZQ.

______. “This Cleveland DJ Popularized Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Smithsonian. Video. Running time 2:01. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/smithsonian-channel/this-cleveland-dj-popularized-rock-n-roll/.

______. “World Series of Rock.” Cleveland Association of Broadcasters. Accessed April 4, 2019. http://www.cabcleveland.com/index.php?page=world-series-of-rock.

Akkerman, Gregg. “History of Rock: 1970s Mainstream.” YouTube. Video. Running Time 9:49. April 16, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JpX3DvPD2s.

Braunstein, Peter. “Disco.” American Heritage Vol 50, Issue 7. Rockville: American Heritage Publishing Co. November 1999. https://www.americanheritage.com/disco.

Covach, John. “History of Rock Part Two.” Coursera (University of Rochester). Accessed April 4, 2019. https://www.coursera.org/lecture/history-of-rock-2/disco-LPXCU.

Covach, John. “The Hippie Aesthetic: Cultural Positioning and Musical Ambition in Early Progressive Rock.” Academia. Reprinted from Philomusica Online 2007. Accessed April 4, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/7634280/_The_Hippie_Aesthetic_Cultural_Positioning_and_Musical_Ambition_in_Early_Progressive_Rock_in_Composition_and_Experimentation_in_British_Rock_1966_1976_Philomusica_Online_2007_reprinted_in_The_Ashgate_Library_of_Essays_on_Popular_Music_Rock_ed._Mark_Spicer_Ashgate_publishing_2012_.

Fong-Torres, Ben. “Biography.” Alan Freed: The Official website of the disc jockey who coined the phrase, “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Accessed on April 4, 2019. http://www.alanfreed.com/wp/biography/.

Hoffmann, Frank. “Hybrid Children of Rock: Disco.” Survey of American Popular Music. Huntsville: Sam Houston State University. https://www.shsu.edu/lis_fwh/book/index.htm#hybrid.

Hollis, Liza. “Disco Facts.” Our Pastimes. September 15, 2017. https://ourpastimes.com/disco-facts-12146830.html.

Kivumbi. “Difference Between Rock and Disco.” DifferenceBetween.net. February 20, 2011. http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-rock-and-disco/.

Kot, Greg. “Rock and Roll.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. April 4, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/art/rock-and-roll-early-style-of-rock-music.

Martin, Laura. “Our Status: High for Rock-n-Roll.” Magnificat Vol 20, No 2 (Rocky River: Magnificat High School, December 14, 1978.

Martin, Laura. “Rock-n-Roll Still No. 1 in Cleveland.” Magnificat Vol 20, No 1 (Rocky River: Magnificat High School), October 19, 1978.

Powers, Richard. “The Disco Lifestyle.” Social Dance. Stanford: Stanford University. Accessed on April 4, 2019. https://socialdance.stanford.edu/Syllabi/disco_lifestyle.htm.

Rockwell, John. “Pop View; Rock vs. Disco: Who Really Won the War?” New York Times Archives. September 16, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/16/arts/pop-view-rock-vs-disco-who-really-won-the-war.html

Magnificat High School, a girls' Catholic college-preparatory high school, founded and sponsored by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, educates young women holistically to learn, lead, and serve in the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat.