School’s out for summer, school’s out forever

“I got a letterman’s sweater with a letter in front I got for football and track, I‘m proud to wear it now, when I cruise around the other parts of the town, I got a decal in back, so be true to your school now…”  — “Be True to Your School,” The Beach Boys, 1963

“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teacher! Leave them kids alone!…”“Another Brick in the Wall,” Pink Floyd, 1979

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These two lyrics, written 16 years apart, offer polar-opposite examples of rock songs about life in high school, from rah-rah school spirit to “school sucks.”

0630aab5-a4e0-5c1d-a5ba-c50609cd71ed.imageAfter love and romance, and cars and driving, few subjects have been covered more often in rock music lyrics than the pros and cons of the high school experience.

Early on, it was the universal feelings of Chuck Berry’s “School Days” and the carefree fun of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential.”  That evolved into the infatuations and crushes of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” and Elton John’s “Teacher I Need You.”  Later came the more lustful emotions of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” and the rules-breaking of Brownsville Station’s “Smoking in the Boys Room.”  There was even the militant rebellion of The Replacements’ “F–k School.”

Some tunes that focus on other subjects still manage to make observations about school.  Take Paul Simon’s 1973 hit “Kodachrome”:  “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…”  In 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” about not breaking promises and not giving up, included this line:  “We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools, we learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school…”  Reminiscing about childhood in general brought out this school memory in Stevie Wonder’s 1977 hit “I Wish”: “Smokin’ cigarettes and writing something nasty on the wall, teacher sends you to the principal’s office down the hall, you grow up and learn that kinda thing ain’t right, but while you were doing it, it sure felt outta sight…”  

They’re still writing great tunes about school in the new millennium.  Check out John Mayer’s 2001 single, “No Such Thing”:   “I wanna run through the halls of my high school, I wanna scream at the top of my lungs, I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world, just a lie you’ve got to rise above, I just can’t wait til my ten-year reunion,
I’m gonna bust down the double doors…”

It’s been great fun sifting through the many dozens of rock tracks from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that describe what it was like to deal with homework and exams, raging hormones and school rules, cute teachers and mean girls.  I’ve selected 15 tracks to highlight, plus a list of honorable mentions.  They’re all included on the Spotify playlist at the end.

Rock on, students!

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220px-Chuck_Berry_1957-1“School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” Chuck Berry, 1957

Not surprisingly, it was rock pioneer Berry who was the first to have a hit song about high school.  (It’s interesting to note that Berry took the same music, wrote new lyrics about driving, and had another hit with “No Particular Place to Go” in 1964.)  “School Day” went on to become a featured number in the 1987 Chuck Berry biopic “Hail!  Hail!  Rock and Roll” as well:  “Up in the morning and out to school, the teacher is teaching the Golden Rule, American history and practical math, you study ’em hard and hopin’ to pass, workin’ your fingers right down to the bone, and the guy behind you won’t leave you alone…”

To_sir_with_love_SLEM2292“To Sir With Love,” Lulu, 1967

Sidney Poitier starred in the coming-of-age film about a black teacher assigned to a high school in a rough British neighborhood.  Singer/actress Lulu played the student who was infatuated with the handsome teacher, and the title song from the soundtrack reached #1 in the US in the autumn of 1967:  “Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone, but in my mind, I know they will still live on and on, but how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?…”

crime-of-the-century-albums-photo-u1“School,” Supertramp, 1974

British art rockers Supertramp kicked off their critically praised 1974 LP “Crime of the Century” with “School,” a great rock record that features intermittent sounds of school kids on the playground:  “I can see you in the morning when you go to school, don’t forget your books, you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule, teacher tells you, ‘Stop your play and get on with your work, and be like Johnnie-too-good’…”

eltondontshoot1“Teacher I Need You,” Elton John, 1972

The #1 LP “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” included several ’50s throwback songs such as “Crocodile Rock” and this tune with Bernie Taupin lyrics about a schoolboy’s infatuation with his pretty teacher:  “It’s a natural achievement, conquering my homework with her image pounding in my brain, she’s an inspiration for my graduation, and she helps to keep the classroom sane, oh teacher I need you like a little child, you got something in you to drive a schoolboy wild…”

6132206192_c1dbebcd1b“When I Kissed the Teacher,” ABBA, 1976

ABBA’s fourth LP “Arrival,” which included the international #1 smash “Dancing Queen,” also featured the amusing song “When I Kissed the Teacher,” about a schoolgirl’s crush on her good-looking instructor:   “All my friends at school, they had never seen the teacher blush, he looked like a fool, nearly petrified ’cause he was taken by surprise, when I kissed the teacher, couldn’t quite believe his eyes, when I kissed the teacher, my whole class went wild…”

R-8352920-1474671919-2712.jpeg“(What A) Wonderful World,” Sam Cooke, 1960

Record industry stalwarts Lou Adler and Herb Alpert worked as a songwriting team in the early ’60s and came up with this catchy tune.  Sam Cooke modified the lyrics to make it more about school subjects, and made it into a #12 hit single.  A version by Herman’s Hermits reached #4 in 1965, and a third version featuring Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon and James Taylor peaked at #17 in 1978.  Cooke’s version was featured in the soundtrack to “Animal House” that same year:  “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took…  Don’t know much about geography, don’t know much trigonometry, don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for…”

R-1429440-1218998317.jpeg“Teacher,” Jethro Tull, 1970

One of Tull’s earliest singles in England was 1970’s “Teacher,” which was omitted from the British version of the “Benefit” album that year but included on the US version.  The lyrics are concerned with a teacher of life lessons rather than a school teacher, but the song is a huge favorite of mine and simply had to be included here:  “I have a lesson that I must impart to you, it’s an old expression but I must insist it’s true, jump up, look around, find yourself some fun, no sense in sitting there hating everyone…”

R-7048386-1449812871-1527.jpeg“School is Out,” Gary U.S. Bonds, 1963

R&B singer Bonds had a huge #1 hit in 1961 with “Quarter to Three,” and then followed it up with the similar sounding “School is Out” later that year:  “No more books and studies, and I can stay out late with my buddies, I can do the things that I want to do, ’cause all my exams are through, I can root for the Yankees from the bleachers, and don’t have to worry ’bout teachers, I’m so glad that school is out…”

7225179210_12c072a21d_b“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police, 1980

“I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom,” said Sting about this tune, which covers mutual lust, guilt and consequences.  “I’d taught at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them!  How I ever kept my hands off them, I don’t know.”  The Police turned it into a ridiculously catchy #10 hit (#1 in England):  “Young teacher, the subject of schoolgirl fantasy… Sometimes it’s not so easy to be the teacher’s pet… Strong words in the staffroom, the accusations fly…”

jerry-lee-lewis-high-school-confidential-1958“High School Confidential,” Jerry Lee Lewis, 1958

Lewis wrote this dance tune expressly for the 1958 film of the same name, which was actually a crime drama about a young narcotics detective who goes undercover at a high school to break up a drug ring.  Lewis’s record reached #21 on US charts (#9 on country charts), and the tune was later covered by Sha Na Na, Brian Setzer and The Blasters, and in concert by Bruce Springsteen:  “We’re just a-movin’ and a-groovin’ at the high school hop, well, everybody boppin’, everybody’s hoppin’, boppin’ at the high school hop…”

R-834317-1173404222.jpeg“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” The Ramones, 1979

The Ramones were commissioned to write this mindless song as the title track to the film “Rock and Roll High School,” a 1979 musical comedy where several school principals have nervous breakdowns because the students prefer rock and roll to education.  The soundtrack included a few other songs discussed here, including “School’s Out” and “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”:   “Well I don’t care about history, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school, ’cause that’s not where I wanna be, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school, I hate the teachers and the principal, don’t wanna be thought to be no fool, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school…”

220px-KinksSchoolboysinDisgrace“Schooldays,” The Kinks, 1975

In 1975, Ray Davies put together a delightful song cycle of Kinks pop tunes called “Schoolboys in Disgrace” in 1975, including tracks like “Education,” “Headmaster” and the marvelous “Schooldays.”  Davies’ lyrics painted a picture that showed both the pros and cons of life in school:  “Schooldays were the happiest days, though at the time they filled me with dismay, we only remember what we choose to remember, when I was a schoolboy I loathed regulations and rules, I hated my textbooks and my school uniform ’cause it made me conform, and teachers were always disobeyed, but I’d go back if I could only find a way…”

R-6240159-1523125110-7916.jpeg“My Old School,” Steely Dan, 1973

In this rollicking track from “Countdown to Ecstasy,” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were actually writing about their unpleasant experiences in college rather than high school.  But the emotions are similar, and again, this is one of my favorite tracks of all time, so it made the list:  “I was smoking with the boys upstairs when I heard about the whole affair, I said ‘Whoa no, William and Mary won’t do,’ well I did not think the girl could be so cruel, and I’m never going back to my old school…”

R-2190966-1456150467-1385.jpeg“Teacher Teacher,” Rockpile, 1980

Brit rocker Dave Edmunds had scored a Top 10 hit in 1970 with “I Hear You Knocking,” while Nick Lowe went Top 20 in the US in 1979 with “Cruel to Be Kind.”  They teamed up on the road and in the studio for a while as Rockpile, and released one LP, “Seconds of Pleasure,” in 1980, which included the minor hit “Teacher Teacher,” in which the student is hoping for some extracurricular learning:  “School’s out, bells’ll ring, now’s the time to teach me everything, teacher teacher, teach me love, I can’t learn it fast enough, teacher teacher, teach me more, I’ve got to learn to love for sure…”

schools-out-768x768“School’s Out,” Alice Cooper, 1972

When Cooper was asked, “What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?”, he replied, “The last three minutes of the last day of school, when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.  I thought, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.'”  Sure enough, “School’s Out” was #7 in the US and #1 in the UK in 1972 and has enjoyed classic rock airplay at the end of every school year ever since:  “School’s out for summer, school’s out forever, school’s been blown to pieces, no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks, out for summer, out ’til fall, we may not go back at all…”

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Honorable mention:

Bitch School,” Spinal Tap, 1992;  “Adult Education,” Hall and Oates, 19??;  “School Days,” Joe Walsh, 1991;  “Teacher Teacher,” .38 Special, 1984;  “Graduation Day,” Chris Isaak, 1993; “Waitin’ in School,” Ricky Nelson, 1958;  “Catholic School Girls Rule,” Red Hot Chili Peppers; “The New Girl in School,” Jan and Dean, 1964;  “Alma Mater,” Alice Cooper, 1972.

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Young girls are coming to the canyon

“At first so strange to feel so friendly, to say ‘good morning’ and really mean it, to feel these changes happening in me, but not to notice ’til I feel it, young girls are coming to the canyon, and in the mornings, I can see them walking…”  “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” The Mamas and The Papas, 1967

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When I moved to Los Angeles in August 2011, I got in my car and started exploring the streets, the beaches, the tourist attractions and the famous landmarks that are mentioned in so many songs I listened to as a kid growing up in far-away Ohio.

The Pacific Coast Highway.  Venice Beach.  Sunset Strip.  The Santa Monica Pier.  Topanga Canyon.  Hollywood Boulevard.  The Troubadour.

tMV6BuuOne afternoon, I found myself on Sunset Boulevard, heading toward one of the nation’s meccas for every music lover and album buyer, Amoeba Records.  Sitting at a light, I looked at the street sign and realized I was at the base of Laurel Canyon Boulevard.  Wow, I thought, Laurel Canyon.  So much rock history there!

The main thing I recall reading about Laurel Canyon was how Joni Mitchell lived in a rustic cottage there in 1969, and shared the place for a while with Graham Nash.  They wrote many of their wonderful early songs there, including Nash’s “Our House,” specifically about the idyllic home life they nurtured there as one of counterculture’s better-known couples.

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Stephen Stills and Peter Tork

I turned left and headed up the winding road in hopes of getting a taste for what the Laurel Canyon community was all about.  I pictured some sort of woodsy Shangri-La where hippie types strummed guitars on front porches, waving and welcoming passersby in for tea and a hit off the hash pipe.

How silly of me to expect that more than 40 years later.  That was then, this is now.

Laurel Canyon Boulevard today is a very busy, overtaxed roadway that brings way too much traffic up and down the canyon connecting the San Fernando Valley with West Hollywood.   Like other canyon roads that snake through the Santa Monica Mountain range and the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon can be a peaceful exception to the hustle-bustle of the rest of “El Lay,” especially if you turn onto the dead-end side streets that delve even deeper into the lush greenery.  But on the main thoroughfare, the long slow line of cars driven by impatient residents and valley commuters have little patience for swivel-headed tourists who dawdle and gawk, wondering where the peace-and-love musicians have gone.

From the mid-’60s into the early ’70s, an inordinate number of game-changing musicians

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The Mamas and The Papas

whose songs represented “the California sound” called Laurel Canyon home, even if only briefly.  The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby) ruled the roost for a spell, as did John & Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas.  John Densmore and Jim Morrison of The Doors lived there, as did Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Neil Young).  Bands like Canned Heat and Love were residents, as were Peter Tok and Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees.  Even iconoclast Frank Zappa of The Mothers of Invention made his home in the Canyon for a while.

Carole King, who had first gained fame as a Brill Building songwriter in New York with husband/partner Gerry Goffin, moved to Laurel Canyon in 1970, where she wrote the songs that would end up on her exceptional “Tapestry” album, a defining record of the ’70s and, for a while, the best selling record in history.

John Mayall, pioneer of the British blues movement, moved to L.A. in 1968 in the wake of the breakup of his band The Bluesbreakers, and recorded and released “Blues From Blues-From-Laurel-CanyonLaurel Canyon” that year.  One track, a gentle blues number called “Laurel Canyon Home,” painted this simple picture: “Each and every morning, when the sun is high, I hunt around the canyon until I find a place to lie, it’s so beautiful to be alone, got the sun and trees and silence, I’m in my Laurel Canyon home/ Looking back a century, I look at where I stand, it must have looked the same as when Apaches roamed the land, it’s so beautiful to be alone, got the sun and trees and silence, I’m in my Laurel Canyon home…”

Perhaps most famous of the Laurel Canyon crowd was Mitchell, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose third LP, “Ladies of the Canyon,” was written there in 1969-1970.  The title song describes the innocent waifs and sturdy Earth mothers who inhabited the community at the time:  “Vine and leaf are filagree, and her coat’s a second-hand one, trimmed in antique luxury, she is a lady of the canyon…  For her home, she gathers flowers, and Estrella, dear companion, colors up the sunshine hours, pouring music down the canyon…”

The Doors’ 1968 tune “Love Street” (from their #1 LP “Waiting For the Sun”) is Morrison’s nickname for Laurel Canyon Boulevard.  He also references the Laurel Canyon Store, a images-46general-store hangout that still exists today:  “She lives on Love Street, lingers long on Love Street, she has a house and garden, I would like to see what happens…  I see you live on Love Street, there’s this store where the creatures meet, I wonder what they do in there…”

Long before this group of musicians descended on the area, Laurel Canyon had been an escapist place, a magical-forest part of Los Angeles where the noise and smog didn’t seem to penetrate.  Hollywood actors in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s found privacy there, a safe haven in which to conduct private trysts and experiment with drugs, away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi’s cameras.

In “Canyon of Dreams:  The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon,” an exhaustive history and exploration published in 2009, author Harvey Kubernik offers this 51ZqLeLTBEL._SX378_BO1,204,203,200_description:  “It was the place where you ran away from your parents, hid from authorities, wrote music, books, screenplays, hung out with bands, chart-toppers and pretenders.  The music it gave birth to — before swollen egos and swollen nostrils brought a heavy rain down — somehow still informs the soundtrack of our lives.”

In the book’s foreword, Ray Manzarek, keyboardist of The Doors, said, “There was always some kind of magic afoot in that Canyon.  The light and the sun infused that zone with a sense of joy.  There was always something spiritual about that slice through the green earth, but never more so than in the ’60s.  We had become the new tribe, and it felt as if we were spreading the message of (dare I say it today) love to a new world.”

Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night arrived in Laurel Canyon back in 1964 and never left,  raising a family, tending a garden, and becoming a stalwart of the community.  Today, he boasts the unofficial title of ambassador of the canyon.  “Everyone has this thing about Laurel Canyon.  It’s a mythical place for most people.”

The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan, son of legendary tunesmith Bob Dylan, has always been intrigued by the aura of Laurel Canyon’s rock ‘n roll heyday.  In 2015, he staged a concert with Beck, Fiona Apple and other musicians to pay tribute to the music of that place and Echo-in-the-Canyon-movietime.  He then collaborated with producer Andrew Slater to conduct interviews with some of the key players of that era — David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, even Ringo Starr and producer Lou Adler.  He also spoke at length with Tom Petty (his final interview before his death) about how the songs and sounds born in Laurel Canyon had a profound influence on him and other contemporaries.

The result is a documentary of sorts called “Echo in the Canyon,” which is currently making a splash in cinema houses around the country.  It’s kind of disjointed, woefully incomplete and flawed, in my opinion, but for people of my generation, “Echo in the Canyon” is a fun and invigorating 82 minutes well spent.  For younger generations, or those who aren’t hip to the influences and inspirations of the Laurel Canyon story, it will no doubt be an eye-opening experience.

A side note:  I thought my readers might like to know there’s a 2002 film called “Laurel MV5BNWNiYzg1ZTktOTBmOC00YWIxLWJmNzUtZDRhYjEwZjA0YmIxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc1NTQxODI@._V1_Canyon” starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale that is well worth your time as well.  Said director Lisa Cholodenko:  “My film editor and I were listening to music one day, and had brought in that Joni Mitchell album, ‘Ladies of the Canyon.’  I used to love that record. We listened to it, and started talking about what the Laurel Canyon scene must have been like in the late ’60s-early ’70s.  I thought it would be fun to set a movie in that scene but changed to a modern context. And I just took it from there.”  It’s a quirky piece of fiction set in the Canyon that focuses on the evolving relationship between a hippie-type mother and her more conventional son and daughter-in-law as they explore sexual tensions and generational differences.

Photographer Henry Diltz, one of rock photography’s most respected figures, has captured hundreds of photos of Laurel Canyon and its most celebrated musical practitioners.  One such photo appears on the iconic album cover for the debut LP “Crosby, Stills and Nash,” which was taken in West Hollywood, only a stone’s throw from Laurel Canyon.  Another is the wonderful shot (below) of Joni Mitchell leaning out the D6949H_UIAA0ru6window of her Laurel Canyon cottage.  “I really admired these people and their amazing music, and I felt honored to photograph them in their milieu.  We are still close friends to this day.”

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The Spotify play list below includes songs referred to in this essay as well as recordings from the “Echo in the Canyon” film soundtrack.