“School bells ring and children sing, it’s back to Robert Hall again,” and there are a dozen words that, if you’re of a certain age, might make you queasy, because here it is the end of August and no one, not even Les Paul and Mary Ford, can put a glow on the memories of packing up all the summer stuff and preparing for another year of school, going to the five-and-ten for loose-leaf notebooks and pencil cases and reinforcements and dreading a new homeroom teacher and hating the idea of gym. They were agony, the last days of summer, and yet for some reason there are pop records that attempt to make the prospect of buying a protractor and starting a new semester into a fun thing. What were they thinking? Gary (U.S.) Bonds had a rowdy, eruptive hit with “School Is Out,” but has there ever been a more misguided follow-up than “School Is In”? Honestly, “I’m so glad that school is in” is something that no one said ever, but the premise of the Bonds recording is that his summer was a drag, doing chores and so forth, so getting back to his studies is like a reprieve, and Daddy G blows his sax like this is going to be one big party, and no one bought it for a second. This was in the center of a cluster of five Top 10 hits for Mr. Bonds, but ‘School Is In” could climb no higher than #28.
The idea of school in rock & roll — Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” Ricky Nelson’s “Waitin’ In School” — was that the time until 3:00 pm was something you had to suffer through until you could bolt out of your seat and start to rock, so the notion of school being in any way groovy was bizarre, but then came Bobby Rydell’s “Swingin’ School,” and boy, he could not sound any more excited: “Chicks! Kicks! Cats! Cool!” he yells, and apparently his school allows dancing because that’s one of the things he’s so jazzed about, along with his classmates’ fashion sense. Also, the way his chick kisses him puts the school on fire; it’s not so much the school itself that’s swingin’, but an awfully relaxed code of conduct, Rydell’s labelmate Timmie Rogers, on “Back To School Again,” had a more common reaction: “Bye bye good times, back to school again. No more swimmin’, hello history.” And on “When School Stars Again,” Anthony Perkins, yes, that Anthony Perkins, is all moony about whether his summer fling will remember all the fun they had and the records they played. “Who’s gonna be talkin’ to you in the hall?,” he asks, as though that’s any of his concern. Perkins also cut a single, “The Prettiest Girl In School,” so who is he to speculate about what his beach baby is up to in the fall?.”
Dee Clark says that he misses his teachers and is determined to get a diploma on “I’m Going Back To School.” “All the pretty girls, that’s where they’ll all be,” he says, which does sound like a strong incentive not to drop out, and in the middle of the track he stops singing to ask some of his friends if they’re going to be at school, and when one of them (Humphrey) says he doesn’t think he’s going to make it, Dee tells him they’ll miss him on the football team. School spirit! Like Gary (U.S.) Bonds, Clark made a dramatic stumble with this lyrical approach: his prior single, “Raindrops,” was #2 during the summer; this one didn’t make the Top 50, and he never had another hit again. Bo Diddley stuck his “Back To School” on the B-side of his last single to make the Hot 100, and We Three’s neo-doo-wop “Back To School” (on Courtney Records) didn’t even chart. Neither did Wilbert Harrison and His Kansas City Playboys’ Doc 45 “Off To School Again.” Or “School Bells Are Ringing” by Carole King, which shared a 45 with her Labor Day Weekend lament “I Didn’t Have Any Summer Romance” (so going back to school, not such a big deal).
Kids seemed to enjoy school more out in L.A.: there’s The Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School” and “All Dressed Up For School,” and Jan & Dean extolling the charms of “The New Girl In School.” But happy-to-be-back songs are far less common than get-me-out-here songs. Or school-fucked-me-up songs like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” The Ramones’ Rock’N’Roll High School” (first words: “”Well I don’t care about history”), or Graham Parker’s great spitball at the teacher’s neck, “Back To Schooldays.” He going back all right, but he’s pissed off.
Now, if I seem just a might confused
Don’t give me all of the blame boys
Twenty-four years just obeying the rules
No wonder I’m half-insane boys
School bells ring, but that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it.