Monday, September 12, 2011

Six Song Six-Pack - Back To School

I never know how to feel around this time of year. On the one hand I love summer and all the freedom represented therein with emotion deep and abiding. On the other hand, by the time early September hits, the cool air, pennant races and lure of Captial Brewery's Autumnal Fire are pretty tough to resist. Of course, when you're a kid there's always on big tie-breaker - school. Even as an admitted geek, I never really looked forward to hitting the hallowed halls (before college, of course, that's a whole 'nother can of worms) every year.

Since, let's be honest here, many rock bands start off as nothing more than a way to be loud, get chicks and voice adolescent complaints with distorted guitars, the canon is filled with screeds about compulsory education. Obviously, as someone who works in education, my position has now somewhat changed. I still say that there a fundamental understanding of alienation of industrialized education and bureaucratic thinking that any teacher can take to heart. Besides, I think we all know that the pain that is high school has been the catalyst of many a great band. So here it is, you're back to school six-pack, enjoy!

1. Academy Fight Song - Mission Of Burma  Buy Signals, Calls & Marches [EP]
Mission of Burma is a ferocious live band, famous for throwing recorded feedback and loops into the their live mix for a trippy, arty brand of punk. But on record, boy do they know how to craft a catchy song. "Academy Fight Song" was released as a single in their early days in 1980 and it's a perfectly fractured take on life in a rigid school. Not only is an ill-lit, foul smelling place, but Roger Miller is disturbed by odd attraction of the groupthink, musing that "the sound of marching feet / it has a strange allure." The song culminates with Miller singing in desperation "I'm not judging you / I'm judging me!" For what? Not fitting in? Conforming to the herd? Hard to say what it's really about, but by the end of the song, you are ready to fight.

2. Sister, Do You Know My Name? - The White Stripes  Buy De Stijil
Jack White has an amazing number of personae that he can trot out when it suits the tenor of his music. In this album cut from the Stripes second full-length, he plays one of his favorite characters - the earnest schoolboy. White would later tap the softer side of school to amazing success in "We Are Going To Be Friends" but in "Sister Do You Know My Name?" he tells a more nuanced story. White adds a lethargic slide guitar to his palate while singing as a boy waiting for the bus, pining for a girl. He nails the hesitance inherent in a young crush, revealing that the while he missed his girl at summer school, he did see her in town but didn't dare talk to her, lest he break the rules. By the end of the song, White decides to break the rules to get through to his crush and she does indeed join him on the ride to school. High school girls, always picking the bad boys, right?

3. Smokin' In The Boys Room - Brownsville Station  Buy Yeah!
There is no better argument for one-hit wonders than Brownsville Station, who were basically just a glorified Detroit bar-band that caught lightning in a bottle. "Smokin' In The Boys Room" starts with a fantastically jive spoken word intro that asks if you've ever gotten grief from everyone from your teacher to your "best girlfriend". The song revels in the joys of petty teenage rebellion, the idiocy of high school boys and being stupid enough to enjoy the whole ride. I was introduced to this song via a 70's box set where it was nestled amongst other AM glories such as "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)," "The Cover Of The Rolling Stone" and "I've Got A Brand New Pair Of Roller Skates." That's the perfect context for this - it's pure rock in its rebellion, pure pop is its embrace of simple trashiness.  

4. Fuck School - The Replacements  Buy Stink [EP]
Paul Westerberg once described "Smokin' In The Boys Room" as a perfect example of how great rock doesn't need to be complex and he certainly puts that assertion to the test here. "Fuck School" is basically half a killer riff, sped up, and strung together with jittery words. "Laugh in m..m...middle / of my speech" he spits out either from anger or nervousness or both. Everything's so mumbled that you can barely make out the verses except for the swearing before the band, in all their thrashy glory hits that chorus for all they're worth. After a second muddled verse (did he just call his teacher a bitch?) the band burns through the chorus once more, pauses just long enough for Westerberg to catch is breath, then closes, a mere :89 seconds after beginning, by pissing on a Beach Boys anthem. "What's a-matter buddy? Fuck you!"

5. Weird At My School - Pixies  Buy Complete B-Sides
The obvious choice for a Pixies school song would be Trompe le Monde's glorious "U-Mass," which manages to be both a paen to their college fanbase and pretty cutting dig at it (see also: hipsters and "Subbacultcha"). Instead, I chose "Monkey Gone To Heaven" b-side, "Weird At My School" because it perfectly highlights the arty, jerky, fucked-upedness that makes the Pixies the perfect band to soundtrack high school. The song is a Frank Black collage of images about a kid at a bizzare boarding school. He admits to fantasizing about having sex with nuns and his cousin, he hints at flying a plane on a Columbian drug run and thinks his mom's hot, nothing to see here. This is all done over a bizzarely galloping, almost Spanish-sounding guitar riff that threatens to overtake the lyrics. Weird indeed.

6. School Days - Chuck Berry  Buy The Definitive Collection
We can argue back and forth all day, but if you're gonna claim that anyone invented modern rock n' roll, you might as well say it was Chuck Berry. For a period in the late 50's you couldn't touch this man for classic singles and right smack in the middle of that run was "School Days," the prototypical educational blues song. Berry describes the tedium and frustration of the average school day before bursting out at 3, heading to the local hangout and blasting some of this new "rock" music on the jukebox. Never mind that he was essentially creating the very phenomenon that this would soundtrack, it's an all-time great celebration of the joys of being young and eager to slip the shackles of societal restraint with a melody so good, he reused it on "No Particular Place To Go." Berry rejects the whole idea of the order and respect for tradition that school is based on in a simple couplet, "Hail, hail, rock n' roll / deliver us from the days of old!" As long as angry teens form garage bands, may they cover this song.

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