Ah, those golden school days. While they may not have felt so at the time, it seems many of us look back on our time in school as fun-filled days, getting even more so with increased nostalgia during each passing year.
Singers, songwriters, producers and other purveyors of popular music are no different from lots of others when recalling their days as students. I’ve noticed though, most of the songs are about high school — with a few exceptions, including one exceptional song by Dolly Parton, which hearkens back to her grade-school days.
Here then are some outstanding songs about spending time in school, for better or for worse — or somewhere in between:
1. “School days” — Chuck Berry
Ah Chuck Berry. Although he was was 30 when he wrote and recorded this teenage anthem in the 1957, the feeling of being stuck in school when you’d rather be out having fun is an emotion that encompasses generations. This song was already considered a Golden Oldie by the time I first heard it, and it still endures today, resonating through the years.
Berry perfectly tapped into that teenage feeling of angst at having to endure hours of classroom time before that last bell of the day finally rings. The opening verse captures it so well: “Up in the mornin’ and out to school; the teacher is teaching the Golden Rule; American history and practical math; you’re studying’ hard and hopin’ to pass. Working your fingers right down to the bone, And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.”
Berry also laments about trying to find a seat in the lunchroom and having to eat in a hurry before returning to class with that mean-looking teacher.
Oh, but 3 o’clock eventually rolls around, when those students can finally lay their burdens down, head down to the juke joint, drop a coin into the slot, play some things that’s really hot and hitt the dance floor. Younger readers may be wondering what’s going on at this point, likely never having dropped a quarter into a jukebox. I doubt if many of them are waiting for that final school bell of the day so they can dance either (unless they’re enrolled in an after-school dance class.)
Still, the feeling of release at the end of the school day is universal and there are those who abide by the opening lines of the song’s final verse: “Hail, hail rock and roll!”
Berry isn’t the only one to have a hit with “School Days.” The Beach Boys scored with their own version in 1980, which brings me to the second song in the lineup.
2. “Be True to Your School” — The Beach Boys
Even back in the mid 1960s, The Beach Boys sang about more than surfin’, hot rods and girls. Take this early ode to school, albeit from a jock-centered point of view, since songwriter-bassist Brian Wilson and his cousin Mike Love, who collaborated on the song, both payed sports in high school.
Unlike Berry, The Beach Boys are not singing about the tedium of their classroom work. Heck no. Not only do they like their school (Hawthorne High School), they try to convince others of its greatness as well.
Take the song’s almost-spoken word intro. Love sings “When some loud braggart tries to put me down and says his school is great, I tell him right away, now hat’s the matter buddy. Ain’t you heard of my school? It’s number one in the state.” And with that, The Beach Boys are off and racing, with Love singing about his letterman’s sweater for football and track, his decal in back and how he likes to wear it when cruising around town.
The Beach Boys sometimes recorded two versions of their songs — an album version and a single version. Like with “Help Me, Rhonda,” the single version of “Be True to Your School’ is far superior to the track originally included on their 1963 album “Little Deuce Coupe.” It’s faster; it’s peppier and it includes the female trio known as The Honeys providing cheerleading yells, with the rest of The Beach Boys singing back vocals consisting of “ rah-rah, rah rah, sis-boom-bah.”
Love is also excited about the school’s upcoming game, singing “on Friday, we’ll be jacked up on the football field and we’ll be ready to fight, We’re gonna smash ‘em now.” He also gives a nod to the cheerleaders singing, “My girl will be working on her pom poms now and she’ll be yelling tonight.” So come on now, “Be true to your school,” The Boys Boys sing.
The exuberant song reached number 6 on the pop charts. The 45 rpm recording also proved to be another double-sided hit for The Beach Boys. While “Be True to Your School” practically jumped off the grooves with its tale of school fidelity and having a good time with your schoolmates, the other side provided a shape of things to come, with “In My Room,” Brian Wilson’s take on staying secluded in the comfort of your room — which is something he would take to extreme levels in a few more years.
3. “Wonderful World” — Sam Cooke, Herman’s Hermits, Art Garfunkel
Another song about high school, this song should not be confused with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” While Armstrong is singing about universal brotherhood, Cooke is singing about something much more important to many teens — teenage romance.
“Wonderful World” has such universal lyrics that it hit the charts in three different versions.” The 1960 version recorded by the great Sam Cooke, who also had a hand in writing the song, reached number 12 on the pop charts.
Five years later, the version recorded by the British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits made it all the way to number four.
In 1978, Art Garfunkel teamed with James Taylor and Garfunkel’s singing partner Paul Simon to score a number 17 solo hit.
With its wonderful lyrics, it’s no surprise that “Wonderful World” has reached generations of young people and adults as well: “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology. Don’t no much about a science book; Don’t know much about the French I took.”
The second verse ups the ante as some of the classes conceivably get tougher: “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.”
Ah, but our singer does know how to do simple math as her works out and equation in which he’s interested: “But I do know that one and one is two, and if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world it could be.”
4. “New Girl in School” — Jan and Dean
Speaking of two-sided hits, two of Brian Wilson’s best buddies in the music world of the mid-1960s were Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, the Southern California duo known as Jan and Dean. Wilson had famously driven his overbearing father, Murray Wilson, to distraction by giving Jan and Dean a song he had written for them to record — “Surf City.” When the song hit the top of the charts, Murray Wilson cajoled his son for giving away a number one song.
That didn’t deter Brian, however, who continued working with the likable duo. When Jan Berry wrote and recorded “Dead Man’s Curve,” some record label executives thought the song’s subject matter might be too dark, so they tacked another song on the B side of the 45 record called “The New Girl in School.”
While “Dean Man’s Curve” is a great hot rod song, “The New Girl in School” hit on a more universal theme. Like “Surf City,” it sounded just like a Beach Boys song — but that’s only natural, since Brian Wilson had a hand in writing it, along with Jan Berry, Roger Christian and Bob Norberg.
Anyone wanting to get past the gloom of “Dean Man’s Curve” only had to flip the record over and you can practically feel the hormones in the high school highways. “I got it bad for the new girl in school, the guy are flippin’ but I’m playing it cool. Never thought I’d make it through this year, Sure was a drag “til she transferred here.”
Then, all the assembled vocalists are off and soaring with those sort of nonsense lyrics so prevalent in the 1960s: “Papa-do-ron-day-ron-day.” That’s OK. They capture the spirit of the would-be Romeo perfectly. No words needed.”
5. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) — Pink Floyd
Americans aren’t the only ones to sing about school. The British band Pink Floyd even made England’s educational system a central part of the band’s 1979 rock opera, “The Wall.” The album is best known for its single release, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II), which gave the band its only number one song on both sides of the Atlantic
“Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) is, of course, is the brooding bass and drum-driven song with the children’s chorus singing “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control; no dark sarcasm in the classroom, Teacher leave those kids alone. Hey! Teacher, leave those kids alone.”
What kid hasn’t thought those lines at some point in his or her life?
Every time I hear the lines “We don’t need no education,” I think “yes you do, because you just used a double negative.” Knowing Pink Floyd songwriter, bassist and vocalist’s Roger Water’s penchant for irony, though, I figure he wrote the song that way purposely, to make a point. Another brick in the wall, indeed.
6. “Oh Baby Doll” — Chuck Berry
The prolific Berry wrote so much about teenage life, that it’s no wonder that he has more than one entry on this list. “Oh Baby Doll” is not one of his most well-known songs, but it’s one his most melodic.
In this song, as in contrast to “School Days,” he’s actually looking back with fondness at his high school years, recalling walking to school with his sweetheart when the weather was cool, stopping to listen to some music and barely making it into class before the bell would ring.
The most fun though, comes when the teacher would leave the classroom: “When the teacher was gone, that’s when we had a ball. We used to dance and play, all up and down the hall. We had a portable radio, we was ballin’ the jack, but we’d be all back in order when the teacher got back.”
Also though, with the summer break apparently there’s a question of if the romance will continue, as Berry sings: “Oh baby doll, when bells ring out the summer’s free. Oh baby doll, when will it end for you and me?”
Whether the romance continues or ends, Berry sings about something they can do to remind them of those school days, which now seem a lot better in hindsight:
“We’ll sing the old alma mater and think of things that used to be.”
7. “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” — The Ramones
Who better to capture the exuberance of those school years than the Ramones, and what better song for them to express it than “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
Known for their frantic nuggets of rock, The Ramones kick off yet another of their punk anthems with this song, from the album and movie of the same name. Forget the message and enjoy the riffs.
While Sam Cooke, Peter Noone, of Herman’s Hermits and Art Garfunkel and his buddies sang in “Wonderful World” that they didn’t know much about history, The Ramones took it a step further and sang that they didn’t care about history.
What? That’s one of my favorite subjects. Little did the Ramones suspect (or perhaps they did) that they would one day be considered a vital part of rock ‘n’ roll history. How’s that for irony, Roger Waters?
8. “Coat of Many Colors” — Dolly Parton
Many of those who’ve attended school are fully aware that sometimes their classmates could be nice and at other times, they could be not quite so nice.
That’s the basis of Dolly Parton’s timeless classic, her 1971 song, “Coat of Many Colors.”
Parton’s fans are familiar with the story from her childhood, where she relates how someone gave her mother a bax illed with small pieces of rags of various colors. She relates how her mom sewed the rags together to make her a coat because they didn’t have any money “and it was way down in the fall.”
Parton also recalls how her mother told her the Biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, and she tells her daughter perhaps her coat will bring her luck and happiness.
Parton tells how she proudly wore her coat to school, only to have her fellow students make fun of her.
“For I didn’t understand it, for I felt I was rich and I told them of the love my mama sewed in every stitch,” Parton sang. “and I told them all the story mama told me while she sewed and how my coat of many colors was worth more than all their clothes.”
However, her fellow students remained unconvinced, as Parton relates it: “But they didn’t understand it and I tried to make them see, that one is only poor only if they choose to be.”
She sums it all up with the final couplet: “Now, I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be, in my coat of many colors, my mama made for me.”
9. “High School Confidential” — Jerry Lee Lewis
High school wasn’t just about academics, sports and band. Some time was set aside for fun too, such as at prom-time.
However, since proms usually only occur once in a given year, some students threw their own less-formal dances, often in a school gymnasium. The events became known as sock-hops. Since some school officials didn’t want the students scuffing up the gym floor with their antics, they often-times required the students to doff their shoes and dance in their stocking feet. The students didn’t seem to mind, since dancing in their socks gave them added agility when sliding across the gymnasium floor.
Pioneering rocker Jerry Lee Lewis co-wrote his hit song “High School Confidential” to coincide with the cinematic release of movie with the same name.
While the lyrics won’t ever challenge William Shakespeare, Lewis already knew the real power lay in the music, so he pounds away while singing “Hopping at the high school hop; Rockin’ at the high school hop. Everybody’s boppin’, everybody’s hoppin’, boppin’ at the high school bop.”
Hey, I said it wasn’t about the lyrics.
10. “School’s Out” — Alice Cooper
What could be better for the final song than the Alice Cooper anthem, “School’s Out.”
Alice Cooper has been quoted as saying that he was trying to capture the feeling of the final three minutes before the last bell rings on the last day of school.
Apparently he achieved his goal, because enough people snatched up the record to place it at number 7 on the charts in 1971. Coupled with another song of his, “Eighteen,” Cooper became a sort of unofficial spokesman for those anxious to break free from the confines of academia, if only on a temporary basis.
The song, though, includes a verse warning students not to consider a lack of education a good thing: “Well, we got no class and we ain’t got no principals. We ain’t got no intelligence. We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
Nevertheless, “School’s Out” takes the students’ point of view to note that they will have three months more or less of freedom, before the cycle begins again — with “School Days.”
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org