Having heard the Ontonagon High School school song enough times, I absolutely can not remember the school song from my days at Marquette Senior High. I do remember that it wasn’t just a converted college anthem reworked for our school but it had actually been written by my first high school band director, Mr. Joseph Patterson. Perhaps I should do a little more research. In this day and age, I just may be able to find it online somewhere (okay – I looked but not one of them was clear enough that I could actually hear the tune). It doesn’t really matter at this point, however, as this isn’t an article about ‘school songs’ but rather songs in popular music that have included some school or teacher related theme. If you don’t think this has been a well covered subject in the music field, guess again. It won’t be possible to touch on all of them or even a representative sampling of them over the decades, so I will focus on a few of the memorable ones that are part of the soundtrack of my life. Please feel free to reminisce about the ones that fit into your personal soundtrack.
In that I started getting interested in pop music in the mid-1960s, one of the earliest hit songs about school that I was exposed to was To Sir With Love (1967) by Lulu. It was the title track for the Sidney Poitier movie of the same name and as a soon to be freshman in high school, male and a would be rock and roller,, I am pretty sure I would not have been caught dead buying the record. Never mind the posturing, it is a song that I got to like by playing along with it a lot.
Every day after school, I would load up a stack of 45 RPM records or 33 ? RPM albums on our living room stereo. It was connected to a stereo speaker box in the basement corner right behind my drum set. The single of To Sir With Love did happen to be in my sister’s record collection so one day I put it in the stack and found that it was kind of fun to play along with. As a string laden rock ballad, it was a lot different than some of the other songs I was learning so it became one of my regular practice songs. I knew it well enough that when my buddies and I went to see the movie, I made sure they knew that I knew that the ‘band’ playing at the school dance in the movie was NOT actually playing the song (as if the lack of an orchestra doing the string parts in the film wasn’t a big enough hint that they were lip syncing). The flip side was a more up tempo song by Neil Diamond (The Boat that I row) so I learned that as well when I would flip the stack of 45’s over.
I can go back a little farther and conjure up Be True to Your School (1963) by the Beach Boys. My neighbor Louie bought himself and electric guitar with his paper route money and was working at becoming a guitar player. He wasn’t a California boy (his family roots were in Grand Marais, MI), but he had a neat collection of the Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth car models to go along with his growing collection of Beach Boy 45s. This was just before I started learning to play a drum set so I knew of a lot of Beach Boys songs before they even figured in big with my drum practice routine. The Beach Boys were already moving beyond surf music when I started woodshedding in a serious way., but I learned their songs anyway.
Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room (1973) was my favorite school themed song for a long time because one of my ‘15 minutes of fame’ moments revolves around the song’s co-creator, Cub Koda. Cub wasn’t a rock and roll star when he spent a year at NMU and if we had an inkling of what lay ahead, I am pretty sure I would have found the time to take a picture or two of him leaning on the fender of a black Olds 88 parked in front of our house. Cub (or Mike as we knew him then) majored in ‘rock band’ at NMU and one of his bass players, Kim French, was famous for blowing up his speakers. I have fond memories of them borrowing our Twig era speaker cabinets from time to time. When he returned to NMU the first time in 1972, we were all a little slack jawed that our Mike was now ‘Cub’ and he had a rocking little band called Brownsville Station. I know the first visit was around 1972 because the first time I saw them they were a four piece with Tony Driggins on bass. The next time they came to town, Koda’s co-songwriter on Smokin’ Mike Lutz had moved over to bass and they were performing as a trio with Henry ‘H-Bomb’ Weck on drums. This coincided with the release of Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room and appearances on nationally broadcast concert programs like Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert and ABC’s In Concert. It is still a great song and I have even more fond memories of playing it regularly with Knockdown. These live concert shows were ‘must see TV’ for me and are readily available on the World Wide Wait if you wish to check them out.
One of the more high profile tunes in this canon would be Alice Cooper’s School’s Out for the Summer (1972). According to the description of the song on Wiki, “Some radio stations banned the song from their airwaves, stating that the song gave the students a negative impression of rebelliousness against childhood education. Teachers, parents, principals, counselors, and psychologists also shunned that song and demanded that several radio stations ban the song from ever being played on the air.” As I mentioned some time ago in an article about misheard lyrics, if you want to have a hit record, make sure someone hates it and tries to ban it from airplay. There isn’t a better PR campaign alive than having someone try to ban your record. A good old Detroit boy like Vince Furnier (um, I mean Alice Cooper) has always had a showman’s flair for getting attention. The song is credited to all the band members and Alice says guitarist Glen Buxton based the opening riff on something he had heard by Miles Davis. His inspiration for the lyrics was the answer to a question he was asked: ‘What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?” Alice said it happened for him twice a year: at Christmas just before you opened your presents and at the end of the year when the last three minutes of school would crawl by. He said, “ the last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning. I said, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.'”
Of course, the implication in Alice’s song is that the school blows up and school is definitely out forever, but every student alive has had that daydream once or twice (and no, in this sensitive age, I am not promoting violence against schools). There are many elements that make this a great school song: the sing song kid’s voices doing the “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks” and Alice’s assertion that “we got no innocence” (which he sometimes changes in concert to “intelligence” or even “etiquette”) raise the “snotty kid” level to just the right level. The best gauge of the long standing popularity of School’s Out is probably the number of films it has been used in.
Jethro Tull weighs in next with one of my favorite songs simply called Teacher. I had borrowed my Twig bass player Mike Kesti’s copy of the Tull album Benefit because we were learning a tricky little song from it called To Cry You A Song. It had enough funny stops and starts that when we finally started playing it at gigs, we figured we had taken the next step as musicians. It was a fun song to do and we continued playing it when Mike and I reconnected in Sledgehammer a few years later. While learning To Cry You A Song, I got hooked on Teacher which really wasn’t about school. It was an ode to going out and having fun, which according to the lyric, the Teacher did with abandon but the student never really did. I tried to get this song into our catalog in a couple of bands but it seems like I was the only one who liked it. When I started to teach myself guitar, this is one of the first songs I was able to figure out the chording to and I sang it to myself enough that I can still remember all of the words forty five years after it first got my attention.
Ian Anderson is still performing the song with his touring band today, although his voice has weakened noticeably in the last couple of years. Anderson presses on like any good songwriter does with a good song: he has a vocalist in his band whose voice sounds a lot like his and they trade verses so he doesn’t have to strain his voice to get through the song. The opening riff has a simple “BUMP BUMP ba BUMP – baaaaa – BUMP BUMP ba BUMP” rhythm that makes it instantly recognizable.
The last entry here comes from your not-so-typical southern rock band .38 Special. They kind of broke the ‘southern rock band’ mold in 1981 when they began putting out arena rock hits that shot up the Billboard charts with regularity. Perhaps it was this notoriety that got them on the soundtrack of the 1984 Nick Nolte feature film Teachers. Teacher, Teacher was used masterfully in a montage of movie clips and live band footage that was hard to ignore when it was in heavy rotation on MTV. Nolte was the main protagonist in the movie, but scenes of the memorable characters weaving in and out of the video as the song plays on lets you relive the entire movie in four minutes. I really liked Richard Mulligan’s mental hospital escapee turned history teacher and Royal Dano’s portrayal of a teacher so boring that when he dies on the job , nobody notices until the custodian comes in to empty the trash. Even when I hear this song today, I see an image of Mulligan dressed up as Custer (indeed, the same costume he used in the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man) when the paddy wagon comes to collect him. Seeing Dano slumped behind his desk, face covered by a newspaper as his students dutifully collect, do, and hand in their work despite his being quite deceased is another classic scene from the movie. Songs have always told stories and played out as little movies in my head. Teacher, Teacher is just one of those songs that resonates because I can flash back to the movie promo video and relive the whole thing without seeing the actual video. The movie wasn’t wildly popular, but it wasn’t for lack of a great title song and soundtrack album.
I am pretty sure there will be songs written about schools and teachers as long as there are both on the planet. If we are still referencing them long after we ourselves are out of school, then they must be pretty good songs! We will do our best to spin these tunes on WOAS-FM 88.5 this week and see if they jog any of your school daze memories.
Top Piece Video – It is too painful to watch the newer versions of the Tull classic with Ian Anderson’s voice starting to fail him, so bear with the poor lip syncing and even poorer audio sync on this clip from the German TV show BEAT CLUB.