Rock-and-roll and discipline-minded, state-sanctioned education have been mortal enemies from the get-go.
It’s only right and natural, too, as music’s ultimate delivery system of antiauthoritarian expression arose in the 1950s from teenagers—and no oppressive figure weighs heavier on a kid than the professional nag who flips out if you so much as crack wise, chew gum, or express interest in something he or she doesn’t know about, and then demands you keep washing your own brain on your own time (calling it “homework”—blecch!).
The classic 1955 social drama The Blackboard Jungle recognized this conflict right off, depicting Glenn Ford as a pure-hearted teacher essentially at war with unruly high school students (Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, and Jamie Farr among them) inflamed by the sound and attitude embodied in the movie’s theme song, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets.
The final result is that popular music’s Eisenhower-era upending by juvenile delinquent types arose from the inherent percussive rhythms of youthful rebellion, exploding forth from an “I will not go quietly” spirit that can never be contained in a classroom nor crushed by nonsense like demerits and detention.
Here now, as dreaded back-to-school season clamps down on tomorrow’s rock stars, are 20 classic refuse-and-resist-the-three-r’s stomp-alongs that provide hope until summer sets everyone free again.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” – Ramones (1979)
The theme to the Ramones’ beloved big screen romp Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is actually pretty innocuous and even lazy (“I don’t care about history/that’s not where I want to be/I just wanna have some kicks/I just wanna get some chicks/Rock-rock-rock-rock/Rock ‘n’ roll high school”). It’s particularly so when compared to the punk pioneers’ total impact previous output (check out “I’m Against It”) and the film itself—particularly its climax, which visually makes good on the explosive audio payoff of “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper.
As author Danny Peary points out in his 1982 masterwork Cult Movies, “This may be a silly comedy, but [at that time] there is no other commercial American film in which an American institution is destroyed and no one is punished for the deed.”
So, yes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” forever.
“Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” – Crash Test Dummies (1993)
While interviewing Crash Test Dummies’ frontman Brad Roberts in 1994 about the group’s oddball hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” Howard Stern told the singer that he loved the song because it was “about kids going to school and having to deal with disasters that maybe aren’t really disasters, but to them, they’re disasters.” Roberts, semi-awestruck, thanked Stern for summing up his intentions perfectly.
With a weird funereal pace and Roberts’ even weirder Canadian tar pit voice, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” describes outcast schoolchildren living and dying inside due to the taunts of their classmates and the prison-like nature of institutional education.
One boy survives a severe car crash and his hair turns white, another girl is forced to chance in gym class and expose moles and birthmarks all over her body, and a final boy is discovered to be the son of shaking-and-quaking churchgoers.
“(She’s) Sexy + 17” – Stray Cats (1983)
“Hey , man , I don’t feel like goin’ to school no more/Me neither!/They can’t make me go/No way, daddy-o!/I ain’t goin’ to school it starts too early for me/Well, listen man, I ain’t goin’ to school no more it starts much, much too early for me/ I don’t care about readin’ , writin’, ’rithmetic or history!”
Anti-classroom lyrics don’t get too more nakedly on-the-nose that those that kick off the Stray Cats’ neo-rockabilly radio and MTV hit. From that opening, all manner of vengeance is rained down on “a real square cat who looks all 1974.”
“Popular” – Nada Surf (1996)
Alt-rock one-hitters Nada Surf constructed their 1996 breakthrough “Popular” around <em>Penny’s Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity, a 1964 advice book by actress Gloria Winters, who played Penny King on the early TV adventure series, Sky King.
Surf singer reads directly from the Guide, doling out deadpan how-to directions while the band builds noise around him en route to a blisteringly sarcastic, original chorus: “I’m head of the class/I’m popular/I’m a quarterback/I’m popular/My mom says I’m a catch/I’m popular/I’m never last picked/I got a cheerleader chick”
“Working Class Hero” – John Lennon (1970)
The Chief Beatle’s introductory solo album is highlighted by “Working Class Hero,” a bracing, righteously venomous screed sung by Lennon over a haunting acoustic guitar progression. Among the lacerating lyrics:
“They hurt you at home and they hit you at school/They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool/’Til you’re so f—ing crazy you can’t follow their rules…/When they’ve tortured and scared you for 20 odd years/then they expect you to pick a career/when you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear.”
“The Headmaster Ritual” – The Smiths (1985)
“The Headmaster Ritual” opens up Meat Is Murder, the Smiths’ second album that broke the bands internationally as unparalleled discontents. Few celebrated songwriters are as direct as Morrissey, and his rage against British education in general, and his own experience in particular starts right off.
“Belligerent ghouls/run Manchester schools/spineless swines/cemented minds Sir leads the troops/jealous of youth/same old suit since 1962/he does the military two-step/down the nape of my neck/I wanna go home/I don’t want to stay/give up education/as a bad mistake.”
Despite encouragement from his friends in Sparks, Steven M. never perked up after that, either.
“Adult Education” – Hall and Oates (1984)
Bolstered by a big-bam-boom beat and an entirely inexplicable music video in which Hall and Oates strut around an ancient Egyptian temple, it’s easy not to understand that “Adult Education” is about gossip hounding a sexually active high school girl (“the student body’s got a bad reputation”).
The song ends hinges on a funky “hang in there” message that begins with “Believe it or not/there’s life after high school” and ends with “They’re calling it preparation/You’re waiting for a separation/You’re nothing but another odd number/Memories that you won’t remember/So you got a little education/and a lot of dedication.”
“F–k School” – The Replacements
For all the accolades heaped later on Replacements’ frontman Paul Westerberg as a witty wordsmith and clever songwriter, the group was never more powerful than on their 1982, Stink, which is populated with eternally evocative song titles on the order of “Kids Don’t Follow,” “God Damn Job,” “White and Lazy,” “Dope Smokin’ Moron” and, above all, “F—k School.”
The song is a berserk outburst that lasts less than a minute-and-a-half and perfectly collapses in on itself by barking: “F–k my school, f–k my school/F–k my school/What’s the matter, buddy?/F–k you!”
See also: “Guns in My School” by Hüsker Dü (1982).
“Fools” – Van Halen (1980)
VH’s bulldozing “Fools” is Diamond David Lee Roth’s comeuppance to education officials who watched him come of age and still insisted he was supposed to develop into something other than… well, Diamond David Lee Roth.
“Well, I ain’t about to go to school/And I’m sick and tired of golden rules/They say I’m crazy, from the wrong side of the tracks/I never see them, but they’re always on my back”
Later on, DLR takes the grief somewhat in platform-booted stride, singing: “My teachers all gave up on me/No matter what they say, I disagree/And when I need something to soothe my soul/I listen to too much rock ’n’ roll/Don’t want no class reunion/This circus just left town/Why behave in public/if you’re livin’ on a playground?”
“The Hard Way” – The Kinks (1975)
Schoolboys in Disgrace is the Kinks’ entire concept album aimed at “taking the piss,” as lads such Ray and Dave Davies say, out of English education.
The LP’s plotline is based on the real school experience of teenage rebel Dave Davies. It’s described thusly in the liner notes:”Once upon a time there was a naughty little schoolboy. He and his gang were always playing tricks on the teachers and bullying other children in the school. One day … he was sent to the Headmaster who decided to disgrace the naughty boy and his gang in front of the whole school… After this punishment the boy turned into a hard and bitter character…. He people in authority would always be there to kick him down and the Establishment would always put him in his place.”
Among the chapter-like songs is “The Hard Way,” told from the perspective of an intolerant teacher, who seethes: “Boys like you were born to waste/You never listen to a word I say… No matter what I do or say/You’re much too dumb to educate… I’m wasting my vocation teaching you to write neat/when you’re only fit to sweep the streets/Your intellect is such/that it requires a killer’s touch.”
“Be Chrool to Your Scuel” – Twisted Sister (1985)
Twisted Sister’s send-up of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” boasts a vocal cameo by the master educator who actually taught Dee Snider and the boys what matters in life: Alice Cooper.
The zombie spoof music video was deemed to violent for MTV, thereby denying teens rallying lyrics such as, “Well I don’t think I’ll make it through another day/It’s eight o’clock and all ain’t well/My brain hurts so much it’s startin’ to decay/and I’m livin’ in my private hell,” and “Now there must be a better way to educate/’Cause this way ain’t workin’ like it should/Can’t they just invent a pill or frozen concentrate/That makes you smarter and taste, mmm, so good.”
“School Days” – Chuck Berry (1957)
“School Days” announced early on that the kid prison ostensibly built on “the three r’s” had nothing on the two r’s—rock and roll—being pioneered by Chuck Berry.
The song notably expands past the usual classroom agonies and delves into cafeteria horrors: “Ring ring goes the bell/The cook in the lunchroom’s ready to sell/You’re lucky if you can find a seat/You’re fortunate if you have time to eat/Back in the classroom open your books/Gee but the teacher don’t know/how mean she looks.”
Chuck does ultimately promise deliverance: “Soon as three o’clock rolls around/you finally lay your burden down/Close up your books, get out of your seat/Down the halls and into the street/Up to the corner and ’round the bend/Right to the juke joint you go in…”
“Hail, hail rock-and-roll” follows. Logically.
“Growing Up” – Bruce Springsteen (1973)
The second song on The Boss’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey, is a triumphant thumbed nose at his Garden State education. Bruce lays it out early on when he proclaims, “When they said sit down/I stood up/Ooh… growin’ up.”
Likening his vehicle of liberation, a juke box, to first a pirate ship and then a combat aircraft, Springsteen cheers his own victory: “I pushed B-52 and bombed them with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing/I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school, never once gave thought to landing/I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, “Come down,” I threw up/Ooh… growin’ up!”
“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam (1991)
Like a grungetastically serious version of “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” from the classic adolescent black comedy Heathers (1989), Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” recounts a presumably grade school bullying victim striking back at his tormentors by destroying himself.
In the song’s hyper-ubiquitous music video, Jeremy blows his brains out at the front of his classroom. The lyrics skew a mite more obtuse, citing specific violence and alluding to something bigger: “Clearly I remember/pickin’ on the boy/Seemed a harmless little fuck/But we unleashed a lion/Gnashed his teeth/and bit the recess lady’s breast/How could I forget?/And he hit me with a surprise left/ My jaw left hurting/dropped wide open/Just like the day/Oh, like the day I heard.”
That’s King Jeremy the Wicked for you
“Smokin’ in the Boys Room” – Brownsville Station (1973)
“Smokin’ in the Boys Room” is blazing, screw-the-system fun in both its versions, originally by Michigan rockers Brownsville Station in 1973 and later as a 1985 cover by hair metal monsters Mötley Crüe.
The words are as straight up as the music is irresistibly singsong, celebrating relatively innocuous self-destruction as a means of self-realization: “Sittin’ in the classroom thinkin’ it’s a drag/Listening to the teacher rap-just ain’t my bag/When two bells ring you know it’s my cue/Gonna meet the boys on floor number two… Smokin’ in the boys room/Smokin’ in the boys room/Teacher don’t you fill me up with your rules/Everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school!”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana (1991)
In a literal sense, Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics tend toward the abstract, but the song’s title and the band’s brilliant delivery make clear that this is all about the misery of day-by-day forced socialization and mind-mushing twixt twelve and twenty.
Case in point: the supremely heartfelt couplet, “Our little group has always bee/and always will until the end.”
The music video dispelled any other doubts, as it’s set in the gym of fantasy high school of everyone who’d grown up as a punk or metalhead prior to the moment Nirvana broke.
“I Don’t Like Mondays” – Boomtown Rats (1979)
Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof based the band’s biggest hit, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” on a tragically trendsetting San Diego school shooting that occurred on a Monday morning in 1979.
A sixteen-year-old girl opened fire on a crowded schoolyard across the street from her home, killing two adults and wounding eight children. When asked by a reporter why she committed this horrific crime, the girl responded, “I don’t like Mondays.”
“Subdivisions” – Rush (1982)
With the possible exception of Morrissey, Rush’s Neil Peart is the most exacting lyricist in rock. So when Peart sets out to pen a song about adolescent alienation amidst soulless suburbs, he taps into the core of the experience and reports back, entrancingly and in extremely specific terms, on what he sees, feels, and knows to be true.
Few songs more perfectly encapsulate Peart’s wizardry with words than “Subdivisions.”
Just consider: “Growing up it all seems so one-sided/Opinions all provided/The future pre-decided/etched and subdivided/in the mass production zone/Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone… Subdivisions/In the high school halls/In the shopping malls/Conform or be cast out/Subdivisions/In the basement bars/in the backs of cars/Be cool or be cast out.”
“School’s Out” – Alice Cooper (1972)
Alice Cooper has likened “School’s Out” as his tribute to the joy and freedom of adolescent life as it happens each year between June and August. Therefore, Alice has noted, it’s effectively the flip side of “I’m Eighteen,” which is all about the angst of what goes down between September and May.
Constructed out of radical notions of rock-and-roll liberation, nursery rhyme melodies, glitter guitar fireworks, blood-and-guts theatrics, and glorious rebellion against the bummers that be, “School’s Out” doesn’t just celebrate the closing of the titular compound for summer (although it does do that) it hurls hosannas once “school’s been blown to pieces!” because that means, “School’s out forever!”
“Another Brick in the Wall” – Pink Floyd (1979)
When it came to The Wall, Pink Floyd was no longer fiddling about. Of course, the band’s history as classic rock’s ultimate prog powerhouse and ultimate psychedelic space explorers figured into the double-disc rock opera, but The Wall is grounded in the very real experiences of chief songwriter Roger Waters.
Sure, before the end of The Wall, “Pink,” Waters’ stand-in rock star character, is some kind of inexplicable fascist dictator, but en route to that metaphoric downturn, the album piles up literal life miseries, one of which—the brutally dehumanizing British school system—generated Floyd’s only #1 pop smash.
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” rises up from an intro that decries the character of “certain teachers that would hurt the children any way they could,” before a shriek divides the song into the segment that became the hit single. If you’ve owned an FM radio since 1979, you know the words.
“We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), director Alan Parker’s visionary midnight movie adaptation of the album, hammers the song’s point home about intentional dulling and forced conformity with savage visuals of blank-masked school children being led into a meat grinder, where they come out as bland hamburger.
Waters’ has decried the movie for missing the album’s “sense of humor.” That is nonsense. The Wall works because Roger Waters delivers his take on life’s malodorous passages with utmost seriousness. One smirk, and it wouldn’t work. When those kids tumble into that brain-and-body-mashing machinery, anybody who’s ever hated school feels every blow. And that is serious.