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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If I really say it, the radio won’t play it

Boldly creative art has been facing censorship for centuries, and attempts to stifle provocative popular music lyrics have been going on since the Top 40 Hit Parade debuted way back in the 1930s.  Over the years and still true today (although to a far lesser extent), song words have been occasionally bleeped, masked and even outright banned to keep lyrics deemed inappropriate or objectionable from being heard on the public airwaves.

musiccensorshipMuch as films were heavily censored in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s to remove any scenes or dialog considered by industry watchdogs to be immoral, popular music in the first decades of the rock and roll era often came under the same sort of scrutiny by record company executives and radio programmers.

Instances of censorship involved different types of objections — profanity, politics, sacrilege, sexual content, drug abuse, even commercial product mentions.  Radio programmers typically said they were worried of running afoul of decency laws or offending powerful interests, but more often than not, they were just as concerned about losing revenues from advertisers or local retailers who refused to be associated with a song’s edgy lyrical content.

But what, exactly, is edgy?  How do we define it?  Standards regarding what is objectionable have changed significantly over 80+ years.  This is particularly true when it comes to lyrics about sex.  In 1943, for example, a British singer named George Formby found out that his recording of a song called “When I’m Cleaning Windows” was going to be banned from airplay because the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) decided the lyric was “too racy.”  Here’s how it went:  “The blushing bride she looks divine, the bridegroom he is doing fine, I’d rather have his job than mine, when I’m cleaning windows…”  Wow.  This innocuous song was banned, evidently, because someone determined we shouldn’t hear lyrics that they thought described a voyeur spying on newlyweds from his perch on the window washing scaffold.

db6cb9329f23e7191be3a3643587b5f8Van Morrison’s beloved 1967 classic “Brown-Eyed Girl” raised eyebrows at the time because of the obvious sexual lyric “making love in the green grass behind the stadium with you” in the third verse.  Most stations were reluctant to ban the whole song, so they simply removed that line and replaced it by repeating “laughing and a-running, hey hey” from the first verse, despite Morrison’s heated protestations.

(It’s interesting to note that Morrison had originally written the song about a Caribbean woman and had entitled it “Brown-Skinned Girl,” but the record company refused to release a song that seemed to endorse a mixed-race relationship, so he grudgingly agreed to change it to “Brown-Eyed Girl.”)

By 1987, the George Michael hit “I Want Your Sex” managed to reach #1 that year, but it met enough resistance in a few conservative areas to create the alternate version “I Want Your Love.”  And through the years, there has been no shortage of rather graphic sex-oriented lyrics hidden deep on rock albums (check out Frank Zappa’s “Dinah-Moe Humm” from 1973), but they usually slid under the radar because they didn’t get radio play except on the most maverick FM stations.

87bcc222ebdcd223a8f847c44971567cMany songs with references to drug use started in the freewheeling ’60s with tracks like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which tied the story of “Alice in Wonderland” to hallucinogens.   And while John Lennon always maintained the “LSD” initials of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was purely coincidental, the song was clearly awash in psychedelic imagery.

And there are much earlier examples:  Some versions of the 1940s-era Cole Porter standard “I Get a Kick Out of You” were rewritten to remove the second verse — “Some, they may go for cocaine, I’m sure that if I took even one sniff, it would bore me terrifically too, yet I get a kick out of you” — because censors feared it would glamourize drug use (even though it’s clear the singer didn’t even try the stuff!).

While drug-oriented lyrics abound on many album tracks of rock LPs, if they show up in the hit singles, they’re usually subject to some sort of censorship.  Tom Petty’s 1994 song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” includes the line, “Let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint,” a blatant marijuana reference that was intentionally garbled by many radio stations.

13000745_f520Sometimes the censors were totally off-base, interpreting an innocent children’s fairy tale like Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” as a veiled reference to smoking weed.   “Oh, for crying out loud,” said Peter Yarrow in 1963 when the song was released.  “It’s just a children’s song, a story about a boy and a dragon.”  But some stations in conservative areas blackballed it anyway, at least for a while.

Overt political views were sometimes deemed too controversial for radio play.  Barry McGuire’s antiwar song “Eve of Destruction” (1965) made waves because of the line ‘they’re old enough to kill but not for votin’.”  The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (1976) and Paul wingsadMcCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” (1972) were banned from the BBC for their perceived anti-government opinions.

Stations squeamish about offending religious groups took issue with The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969), which was bleeped in most Bible Belt markets each time Lennon sang, “Christ!  You know it ain’t easy…”  Producers of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” had to battle mightily for a while to get the title track played in some communities that assumed it was blasphemous.  The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979) met resistance too — not because of Satan (who loses the fiddle duel, after all), but with the line “I told you once, you son of a bitch,” which was changed to “son of a gun” in some markets.

The Who’s “My Generation” (1965), with its stuttering vocals, was thought by some to be offensive to those with speech impediments.  Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” (1985) faced a fight regarding what many considered a defamatory remark against gays in the second verse — “that little faggot is a millionaire” — even though composer Mark Knopfler pointed out he was belittling the small-minded thinking of the character who spoke the line.  In these cases, the bans didn’t last more than a week or so, but it’s interesting to note that objections were raised at all.

5601251768_e298d3a946_bThe BBC even had a firm rule against any commercial product placement in song lyrics, which caused problems for Paul Simon’s hit “Kodachrome” (1973).  The Kinks’ singer Ray Davies had to return to a London studio to re-record a vocal part for the 1970 hit “Lola,” revising the lyric from Coca-Cola to cherry cola.

For years, “The Ed Sullivan Show” ruled supreme as the arbiter of which rock ‘n roll groups were worthy of nationwide TV exposure, beginning with Elvis in 1956 and up through the game-changing Beatles performances in early 1964.  But Sullivan reserved the right to approve all material, and in 1967, he rolled the dice twice by inviting two ed-sullivan-mick-jaggeredgier acts to appear.  First he booked those bad British brats, The Rolling Stones, and demanded that their brash young singer, Mick Jagger, change the words of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”  Jagger went along, but rolled his eyes at the camera each time he sang it.

Then a month later came Jim Morrison and The Doors, who were forced to alter their #1 hit “Light My Fire” by changing “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” to “girl, we couldn’t get much better” (even though it didn’t rhyme with “liar” and “fire”).  Morrison played along during rehearsals, but when the show was taped, he looked defiantly into the camera and sang the real lyric, and Sullivan went through the roof, canceling all future appearances by the group.

The main problem with censorship, though, has alway been that it’s arbitrary and uneven in enforcement.  Who gets to say what is objectionable?  How do we determine the standards?  When and where are they enforced?  Why do some songs face an embargo or tampering while others skate by without any challenges?

R-5879313-1423648758-5310.jpegA couple of Gary Puckett songs in the late ’60s — “Young Girl,” “This Girl is a Woman Now” — focused on a creepy infatuation of a young girl by an older guy that, looking at it now, clearly bordered on pedophilia, but they somehow escaped the censors’ attention at the time.  Even more curious was the case of The Buoys, a one-hit wonder group who had the sheer chutzpah to release a single in 1971 called “Timothy” that told the disturbing tale of three poor souls who were trapped in a caved-in mine, and two of the boys ate the third boy in order to survive!

The hypocrisy and randomness of the censors’ actions was puzzling, to say the least.  Having sex in the grass?  No way, Jose.  Cannibalism?  Hey, no problem.  Share a little weed?  Not on your life.  Interest in underage girls?  Oh, that’s okay.

XOASMmwPerhaps the most extreme response to a supposedly objectionable lyric came in 1963 when a team of agents from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spent months investigating whether the words to The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” were obscene.  Teens had furtively talked about how the lyrics were allegedly about a sexual liaison, but in fact, the song (written in 1957) was a rather bland ode from a sailor to his girl back home.  Thanks to a marble-mouthed vocalist and less-than-optimum recording techniques, the words were pretty much impossible to decipher, even when studied at different speeds under headphones, and the FBI eventually threw up their hands.

R-2508766-1287871057.jpegBut that was then, this is now.  In 2010, R&B artist CeeLo Green had an enormous hit with a song called, believe it or not, “F–k You.”  They released a cleaned-up version called “Forget You” to satisfy radio programmers, but most listeners, to no one’s surprise, preferred the original.

The times they are a-changin’, indeed…