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School's Out

School's Out
September 04, 2020 10:18AM
The first “real” rock album that I ever fell in love with was Alice Cooper’s 1972 masterpiece School’s Out. Nearly half a century later, I’m still in love with this platter, and—to steal a line from Roy Blount, Jr.—if I were single, I’d marry it. What is it about this album, aside from the possibility of brain damage on my part, that affects me so?

For one thing, the original Warner Brothers packaging remains one of the most fondly-remembered jackets of its era, though Craig Braun’s marvelous design is sadly obliterated in the record’s compact disc incarnation. The front cover was constructed to open like a school desk, while the back cover contained legs which could be opened in order for the desk to stand upright. The vinyl itself was wrapped in different-colored paper panties in lieu of a traditional inner sleeve. The panties were soon removed, so to speak, due to flammability concerns. Interestingly enough, the British band Hotlegs—who subsequently relaunched themselves as 10cc—released a Godley & Creme desk design a year earlier for their Thinks: School Stinks album. That disc contained a gatefold sleeve opening to reveal the interior of a school desk, though it lacked the memorable undergarment.

I didn’t learn of the panties’ existence for several years, however. The album copy which my small town’s public library possessed had a plastic sleeve with the WB logo printed all over it. This was a reissue that the branch procured in 1973. I was already a fan of the “School’s Out” single, which I heard everywhere the previous summer. I would ride my bike to the library, clap on headphones, and listen to the disc at least three times a week on the branch’s turntable. In those days, patrons were not allowed to take records home with them; you had to listen to them on headphones instead. This obsessive listening caused me to memorize every note of the album from beginning to end. School’s Out was my first headset record, introducing me to a new world of sound.

And what sound! Bob Ezrin’s production is so sumptuously sonic that even the garage-y guitars of Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce roar with leonine nobility. On the thunderous title track, Neal Smith’s drums are absolutely immense, while he bangs the traps with tribal intensity on “Gutter Cat Vs. the Jets.” Ezrin’s keyboard virtuosity shines on “My Stars,” and his jazzy stylings on “Blue Turk,” combined with Dennis Dunaway’s acrobatic bass and Wayne Andre’s wicked trombone, complement Cooper’s sensually sinister cabaret croon—in fact, this is my all-time favorite Cooper composition. His vocals here are worthy of David Bowie or Bryan Ferry at their most darkly romantic. The anxious sing-speak of “Alma Mater” crossfades into the aptly-titled instrumental “Grand Finale,” and the acceleration on these two tracks from the slowpoke cowboy dreaminess of the former to the lushly orchestrated anthemic intensity of the latter imbues the record’s climax with all the tragedy of an outlaw making his last stand.

School’s Out was my introduction to the rock concept album. Its Youth Run Wild theme, from school daze to post-graduation non-existence, is most poignantly rendered in “Alma Mater,” wherein the Coop fondly remembers his high school mischief even as he helplessly hopes that his friends won’t forget him. Of course, the character in the song—unlike Cooper himself—is doomed to be forgotten, and that’s the album’s sting in its tail: his juvenile delinquency has merely set him up for perpetual failure, most likely as a habitual felon, and his delusions of grandeur impress no one but himself. School’s Out is a lament for lost souls.

The music here takes Cooper’s theatricality to entirely new levels of ambition. Both “Gutter Cat” and “Grand Finale” incorporate Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s memorable score for West Side Story, a conceptual move that must have mystified fans. Cooper has stated that the score “had a big impact on the band….There was something about the gang thing and the band mentality that intrigued us….We decided that when we got big enough, we’d tap into it somehow.” The “Jets Theme” segments dovetail with the band’s sophisticated glam-punk dynamism, investing the entire album with a cinematic sweep that, lamentably, remains as rare for rock music now as it was in 1972.

Critics, alas, were underwhelmed. Robert Christgau, who complained that “the orchestral homages to Uncle Lennie ruin the [album’s] effect,” awarded the record a B-. Rolling Stone’s Ben Garson proclaimed the band to be “more closely allied with the Emerson, Lake & Palmer wing which parades kitsch as art, than with the furious monomania of a Black Sabbath.” School’s Out, he adjudged, “is as bad for high-school kids as it is for their parents.” Ouch, and double-ouch! I was already an admirer of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry through repeated listening to my mother’s old singles collection, but School’s Out absolutely knocked me for a loop. It was, at that particular point in time, the most aggressive rock music I’d heard (the band, completing the effect, looked like complete degenerates in the photograph in the desk jacket's interior), and it gave me a new appreciation for the genre’s possibilities.

Alice Cooper was, and is—like Bowie and Ferry—a very theatrical performer. Reviewers in the early Seventies often didn’t seem to know what to make of these mysterious, almost otherworldly men. All three brought a sense of irony, as well as a certain distance, to their craft. “One should be either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” Oscar Wilde declared. Cooper, Bowie, and Ferry somehow managed both. In retrospect, we can see how important, indeed game-changing, they would come to be, especially in the rise of Punk and New Wave. School’s Out is part of my personal 1972 holy trinity, the other records being Ziggy Stardust and Roxy Music’s debut disc. It’s a remarkable album in a year of remarkable albums, from Transformer and The Slider to Close to the Edge and Ege Bamyasi. I can never get enough of it. Why, oh why, is there no Trouser Press entry for this seminal artist?
Bip
Re: School's Out
September 04, 2020 11:37AM
I think you just wrote one!

The original lp packaging of Schools Out is just as you describe, truly a blast. In the past year I’ve picked up used vinyl copies of ‘easy action’ and ‘pretties for you’ just because (1) I like the covers and (2) I was curious just how bizarre they really were. They are indeed bizarre.

Really good reading middle c!
Re: School's Out
September 04, 2020 11:44AM
Thanks!
Re: School's Out
September 04, 2020 04:27PM
Huh. Now I wonder why I never got that album. I had the "Schools Out" 45, which I loved. And, tho I say 'no' to Yes, I played the heck out of all those other albums you listed. Shame on me, and I promise to rectify this situation!
Re: School's Out
September 04, 2020 11:59PM
There's a 4-song concert from this tour up on YouTube, with somewhat fuzzy video quality but decent sound: [www.youtube.com]. You can still hear the Barrett/Pink Floyd influence!
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