Alice Cooper's Ode to Teenage Rebellion Hits Middle Age
Round and round the orange Camaro went, slowly disappearing in a cloud of acrid smoke. If that high school parking lot hadn't been repaved the next year, the circular tire marks left by the muscle car might still shine in the greasy glory that marked the the final day of school in 1979.
And throughout the melee, the eight-speaker expanse of Alice Cooper's perennial anthem "School's Out" drowned out the tires' squeal.
There couldn't be a better song for such folly, one that captures every ounce of anticipation that is a summer of freedom, and the angst of having just endured nine months of torturous class work to get there. And while the tire-squealing event laid down a burnt-rubber exclamation mark of high school liberation for yours truly in 1979, similar events have been occurring at schools around the country every year since the song's perfectly timed June 1972 release. Few can claim not to have felt something in its unbridled joy, sarcasm and jaded optimism — particularly the lyric "School's out forever."
New Times music feature
"I've never had a song or heard of any song that's had as much impact on kids," Cooper says during a recent tour stop in Buffalo, New York. "That song is everybody's national anthem. From presidents of the United States to movie stars to guys you would look at in an airport and think were the furthest thing away from rock 'n' roll, they would come up to me and go, ''School's Out' got me through school.' We were all kids at one point — 16, 17, 18 years old on the last day of school and could not wait for that bell to ring."
Wait, back up. Presidents have said such things to Cooper?
"Gerald Ford said that was a song he remembered listening to. It might have been Jimmy Carter . . . One of those presidents [in the late 1970s] said that 'School's Out' was all their kids played."
It's hard to imagine little Amy Carter rocking out to "School's Out," but then again, if Jimmy could lust in his heart, who knows what the young Carter was capable of. And it was — it is — that way for thousands of kids whose heads begin the bang the minute that unmistakable riff kicks in.
Cooper explains that the song — which was an instant number one hit in England, but topped out at only number three on home soil ("The Americans always looked to the U.K. to see what was cool, then they got on board," Cooper adds) — was his answer to a question a reporter once posed asking what his favorite day of the year was.
"If you can capture the two happiest moments in a year, what would they be? Christmas morning, when you're getting ready to open all the presents, because of the anticipation, and the last day of school," he says. "I said if you can capture on the last day of school the last three minutes while that clock is . . . 2:57, 2:58, 2:59, 3 o'clock and school is out for three months. If you can get those three minutes on tape and write a song about it you'll have a hit record, and that's basically what we did."
The song actually was a group effort, with guitarist Glen Buxton developing the memorable opening riff and scorching leads, and Cooper filling in the lyrics.
"And it was actually bratty, like 'Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na,'" Cooper sings into the phone. "It had a bratty tone to it."
True, and while that riff is a call to arms for students everywhere, and "School is out forever / School is blown to pieces," a call to action, one lyrical phrase is a call to sing out: "We got no class / We got no principal / We got no innocence / We can't even think up a word that rhymes." The verse makes Cooper laugh to recall penning it.
"I couldn't even think of a word that rhymes here," he says with a chuckle. "It's so punk, and that ended up becoming one of the greatest lines I ever wrote."
However, rock critic Ben Gerson, who reviewed the album in 1972 for Rolling Stone thought otherwise. "Alice is employing the most explosive emotions at his command and he is trifling with us," Gerson wrote. "Either he is cynical as hell or he is obliquely trying to defuse the power of his message." Gerson adds later in the article that "'School's Out' is as aimless musically as it is lyrically."
Ironically, Cooper — back when he was still only Vincent Furnier — was a standout student at Cortez High School, lettering in track for four years, and getting good grades, and his band, The Spiders, garnered national attention. He didn't share in the pent-up emotions, anticipation, and vitriol what the promise of summer brings to sweltering Phoenix classrooms.
"This is the crazy thing about it. I always write about teen angst and 'School's Out,' but I was Ferris Bueller," he says with another laugh. "I basically had everything going in high school. I never had so much fun in my life. I had girlfriends doing my homework, I had a number two record — we were the biggest band in Arizona, The Spiders — and I was on an unbeatable cross country team as a four-year letterman. I had every base covered. I really absolutely loved high school. So when I'm writing all these angst songs, I'm not writing them about my experience, because those were probably the best days of my life."
But didn't Cooper also count down those final three minutes until summertime became a reality?
"Sure, I loved the time off because basically the band was going to practice all summer and go on tour. At the same time, I did not loathe high school at all," he says. "In fact, I might have been the only one there who was really enjoying it."
But Cooper profited off those who weren't enjoying it — or at least couldn't wait for the term to end. The song's anthemic qualities made it an instant radio staple that resonated with youth everywhere. The record sales quickly catapulted Cooper's band (which a year earlier had had a lesser hit with another anthem, "I'm Eighteen") from small to mid-size venues to stadiums and arenas, with a heavy dose of TV appearances tossed into the mix. This also afforded the band a chance to expand the already "notorious" stage show into a multi-level affair with guillotines, pyrotechnics, and numerous special effects and costumes. For "School's Out," giant confetti-filled weather balloons were launched from the stage.
Though Cooper often changes the lyrics of the song in concert, a fairly steady addition since the 1980s has been a merging into Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2." The end of the song now typically mixes right into, "We don't need no education / We don't need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in our classroom/Teachers leave them kids alone." Both songs feature kids singing and anti-school rhetoric and were produced by Bob Ezrin, though Cooper takes credit for Pink Floyd borrowing those attributes from him.
"Pink Floyd liked it so much they decided to put the kids on The Wall also," he says. "The two songs fit together like a glove."
Now, 40 years after its initial release, no Alice Cooper concert is complete without "School's Out," nor is the last day of school. The song remains a rite of passage for many, and should be for generations to come.
"It was the only song out of [my] 14 hit records that I was absolutely sure of," he says. "It was the one song I would have bet the whole farm on."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.