“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”
Do you feel the oncoming, meandering month of June? Is that summer beckoning with a forward glance while holding a raspberry snow cone, taking your hand and whispering, “Follow me?”
Are you ready to be “schooled” as I evaluate – with a metaphysical rubric – 1970s songs on the “subject” of education, teaching, schools, and other extracurricular activity?
Perfect! Then come on in, set your backpack on a hook – you know the drill: Homework in the baskets and silent reading for fifteen minutes.
My over twenty-year career in education as a teacher and school counselor provides me with all the context necessary to strongly suggest that popular songs can portray educators with either shining glory (none in this piece, as who wants the news story about the cat in a tree being rescued by firefighters?) or disparaging darts (that’s better!); middle ground is rare. Personally, I’ve been the “rad” teacher and I’ve been the “Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone!” (Or worse!)
Though learning is compulsory (sadly, even today not everywhere in the world), that doesn’t necessarily translate into a rosy picture of caring professionals and something akin to Alexander Neill’s idyllic Summerhill School founded in England, 1921. (The school curriculum was designed in such a way as to fit the child’s needs.) Leave it to Beaver? Happy Days? Riverdale High School? I don’t think so. Even with the best of intentions, school boards, administrators, and those higher up the chain fought mightily to reform what had become tattered and broken. Yes, there were alternative schools, schools within a school (SWAS), Montessori, and experimental options in the public and private education sector.
However, that didn’t dissuade rock & rollers from tossing teachers into the proverbial hallway trashcan. Can anyone say “Sister Mary Elephant?”
This was no Betty or Veronica situation.
Yes, many of the following songs are reflections of my beloved quirky `70s culture – mostly tongue-firmly-in-cheek – allowing me both to laugh hysterically at much of the imagery and sing along with gusto. However, there is an undercurrent – an edge – held deep within many of us regarding the beneficial or detrimental school experiences during an age that can best be encapsulated by Cole Porter’s song title (and musical) “Anything Goes.”
Now, please open your texts to page 1972. Who would like to read about this man with the chick’s name? Anyone? Anyone? (Okay, I had to riff on Ferris Bueller).
“School’s Out,” the anti-everything-related-to-school cooker actually debuted in early June – perfect timing by Vincent Furnier, aka Alice Cooper. And though (s)he had many other hits, this was her/his best-seller peaking at #7, staying on the charts thirteen weeks – essentially that entire summer. Bummer (in the post-Labor Day summer) though; we had to go back to school rendering his lyrics essentially inconsequential. Nothing changed, Alice! Truth was, school wasn’t out “forever.”
Liar! We would be returning to pencils, books and teacher’s dirty looks. Sigh. Not everyone was a graduating high school senior – or a habitual truant.
(Nerd Alert: Full disclosure – I loved going to school, so I had to appear “cool” and dig this song, but I secretly looked forward to every September. Pathetic, I know.)
This time, let’s use the index. Look under “E.” I mean “J.” Wait, it’s under “Sir.” That’s it. Elton John (and master of the lyric, Bernie Taupin) captivated me from the USA launch at The Troubadour, with majestic albums layered with Pop brilliance. EJ’s first five LPs (skipping over Empty Sky – sorry, nothing personal) may be the best initial consecutive records of any recording artist from that decade. Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman across the Water, Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player convey the times with such artistry and honesty in a singular way – opening the door for singers with stories to revel in not only in ballads, but to rock like nobody’s business. “Teacher I Need You” from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is certainly a bit twisted in that Taupin’s lyric can be interpreted as more lustful than sentimental. (Or appropriate!) “John Wayne stances” and “Errol Flynn advances” were fresh ways for describing a lovelorn teenager, who may have wanted a “connection with the birdies and the bees.”
This twisted little number managed to describe every acne-faced boy who spent more time looking at the teacher’s figure than on the figures on the blackboard. Oh, and ladies, I imagine there were some hunky teachers that mesmerized you as well. But what do I know?
Please turn to page 1973. Steely Dan enriched the times with their distinctive jazz-infused Pop, clever (though often absolutely un-decipherable) lyrics, and technological advances in recording their albums. However, occasionally Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would hint at semi-sentimentality – “ditching” their usual zone of irreverence, cynicism and just plain outright bizarre-ness. Countdown to Ecstasy’s “My Old School” is partially a veiled appreciative, though paradoxical reminiscence as described with its outwardly striking oleanders (that happen to be inwardly toxic flowers) gracing the college landscape (in actuality, Bard College). Not the wry Fagan; this is an indictment of the incident that inspired the song – and why go back; back, anywhere?
“And I’m never going back to my old school.” I’m guessing they didn’t go to their reunions.
Let’s look at a map of Ohio. President Nixon’s heavy-handed policies and the resultant devastating catastrophe at Kent State University is one of the most vivid and influential dark moments in our history. Neil Young, a Canadian, composed the anthem of all anthems. The single “Ohio” debuted in late June 1970 (just over a month after the massacre), staying on the charts for nine weeks, peaking at #14. “How many more?” A simple question with so much power – and grief – behind it. To this actual moment in time, nearly fifty years later, Mr. Young’s career continues to be one defined by the power of important social commentary he shares, whispers, screams, grinds his axe, or plays on the keys – talk about an educator!
(Note: Years ago, during a snowy November, I visited KSU, and standing on the memorial sites of those who fell that tragic day has always remained with me.)
Something/Anything? Yes, it will be on the final. Todd Rundgren, who continues to rock as if he were twenty-five (for example, recently at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with The Lemon Twigs), may be remembered for or unfortunately known in elevators for heady Pop like “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” and “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” as well as quirkier songs like “Song of the Viking.” (You won’t hear that in an elevator.) Yet, from this double LP, the weirdest wonder of them all features Todd’s father’s recollections of his fine schooling rendered in the incomparable tune “Piss Aaron.”
Ahh, the good ol’ days.
In the glossary, you will locate a section on notorious crimes. Yes, that’s it, Supertramp’s 1974 release Crime of the Century. Its first track simply titled “School” was emblematic of Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies’ FM-friendly compositions: this was one of their most complex, creative, and verging-on-existential musical productions. With its yearning, plaintive timbre, the opening harmonica juxtaposed against a nearly soundless musical dirge has this way of bringing you back to your early days of school -for better or worse. The ride was irresistible. Lyrics address that popular 1970s theme of non-conformance. “Teacher tells you to stop your play and get on with your work.” The arrangement goes on with its haunting guitar motif, followed by a frenetic piano-driven passage. It’s as if Supertramp is conveying a child’s rite of passage in the song’s every phrase, in each hypnotic note, and in its dynamics and tempo changes.
Okay, let’s take our lunch break. And don’t let the VP catch you smokin’ in the boys’ room with Brownsville Station.
Released in November of 1979, The Wall broke all records for the English prog-rockers. “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” was their only #1 hit, remaining on the charts for twenty-five weeks, virtually the entire first half of 1980. I admired the song, especially the cheeky British children with perfect articulation so eloquently challenging the evil education system with a double negative, “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control/Teacher, leave us kids alone.” (Okay, that was intended to be sarcasm.)
The United Kingdom has always done education good, I mean, well. The country has a longstanding history of arming its masses with a classical education that we here in the USA have always aspired to but never quite matched. Yes, yes, they are a tiny island nation with less diversity (though we all know that has been changing for years now). Some might claim that the Punk era – with many of its bands and recording artists fingering Pink Floyd for being part of the machine, not rising up against it – may have forced their hand at taking on the man. Doubt it.
You decide. Here are your blue books. Please sharpen your pencils.
Overview: The majority of the recording artists mentioned in this piece share similar convictions about their experiences with education. Though these songs qualify as works of art, they do not necessarily invoke the writer’s truth – perhaps it is simply a story paired to music to entertain. Conversely, one might intuit that there was a common thread – like osmosis – during the 1970s, clearly delineating a line in the sand between compliance and defiance. Meanwhile, currently, almost daily we are introduced directly or indirectly to educators and those related to the field who do heroic acts on behalf of students. You might have been a student who experienced that once, or perhaps more than once. You may have been, or still are a teacher with more mugs and chocolate (gifts) than a coffee shop specializing in chocolate donuts. Or, at out lowest possible level as a society and as human beings, you may have been directly involved in or knew someone who saved lives during school shootings.
Essay: Based on our seven-hundred pages of notes, take a position either defending our education as a system in need of a complete overhaul, or leaving it as it is. You must write a minimum of eighty-seven paragraphs. You have twenty minutes. Begin.
As a culture, we can deride our system of education. Hey, during these Yelp days, it’s even easier to be critical, and be seen, and be heard, and be . . . (Please stop me now.)
Robert Plant: “And it makes me wonder.” Did all rockers have horrendous teachers?
Doubt that as well. Just listen to former teachers Sting and Sheryl Crow.
Many of my former students are teachers now. Nothing warms my heart more.
Question Authority was a popular bumper sticker back in the day. Nothing wrong with that. It’s in the how. In my prior piece, I investigate whether there is no turning back: with the predominant technologies driving us like a Suburban getting hacked by Russians, have we lost all ability to communicate in ways that involve active, respectful listening? Being critical of one’s teacher – whether by student or parents – can be done in ways where middle ground is sought, grudges are felled like diseased trees, and humor and irony are infused as if the learning environment welcomed an all-but-forgotten friend. Vice-versa, teachers often humiliate or embarrass students in front of their classmates. No rational reason for this . . . ever.
And to the cat stuck in the tree being carefully delivered to the waiting hands of the excited ponytailed girl I say: Those who can, teach.
Deal with that Alice Cooper and the rest of you, lot.