As an act of solidarity with all those poor kids returning to the classroom this week, we revisit a high school too cool to ditch.
In 1979, music was in transition. Disco died a horrible death that summer, The Knack’s “My Sharona” was the number one song in the country for six weeks, and many were hailing punk and new wave as the next big thing.
While the musical landscape was changing, the Ramones movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, was dropped onto the world. It wasn’t an immediate hit, but like the band itself, it grew in its beloved cult status, updating the rock and roll movies of the ’50s with the punk kings from Queens, and it remains surprisingly timeless today. Consequence of Sound spoke to the film’s director, Allan Arkush, and screenwriter Joseph McBride for this special tribute to one of the most memorable, beloved, and surprisingly innocent of spirit rock and roll movies of the ’70s.
For director Allan Arkush, rock and roll was his passion. He grew up listening to Murray the K on the radio, “my musical education,” then worked as an usher at the Fillmore East from 1968 to the early ’70s, where he saw practically every great rock act of the time perform.
Arkush eventually moved to California in the hopes of becoming a director, working for Roger Corman’s legendary B movie company New World Pictures. He still followed the music scene avidly, and while he liked a lot of the music that was breaking out of New York in the mid-’70s, he wasn’t immediately impressed with The Ramones.
“When I played the first Ramones album, it didn’t impress me like the Talking Heads did,” Arkush recalls. “I couldn’t get past how so much of it all sounded alike. With many albums, a band has a sound, and it’s not until the second or third time you listen to the album that the songs started breaking apart. After three, four, five listens, The Ramones were not doing that!”
Yet over time, the band grew on Arkush, and by the time they released Rocket to Russia in 1977, he was a major fan. “To me, Rocket to Russia was one of the great rock albums of all time,” he says. “It was clearly a masterpiece. It was a fantastic record, and I played it constantly.”
Establishing the ethos of punk, The Ramones were a reaction against the bloat and clichés that weighed music down in the ’70s. No fancy musicianship, no stage costumes, no frills, they were four average guys from Queens wearing their street uniform of black leather jackets, t-shirts, and jeans, playing fast-and-furious music stripped down to its absolute essentials, with a good dose of sick humor thrown into their lyrics.
Arkush was eager to direct a movie about high school that involved rock and roll at New World. There was a project in development at the company, Rock City, written by Joseph McBride, which Arkush was going to direct with Joe Dante, who would later go on to helm Gremlins. While Rock City never got off the ground, Arkush and Dante then tried to put together a high school comedy called Girls Gym.
As McBride explains, “The way Roger Corman worked around Writer’s Guild of America rules, which required he pay about $8,000 when he commissioned a screenplay from a guild member, was to pay $200 to someone to talk a script into a tape recorder that a secretary would then type up. Then Roger would hire a Guild member to write the actual script for a $4,000 rewrite fee.”
Of course Arkush and Dante weren’t established talents yet, so they were stuck talking a script into a tape recorder for bupkis. They talked out a teen comedy called Girls Gym, spit-balling ideas for two days. McBride was then contacted to do the actual writing and found that their script was essentially 60 pages of random scenes of high school kids goofing around. “They needed a writer and thought of me since Rock City supposedly made me an expert on teenage movies,” McBride continues. “This was a Friday, and I was told if I could come up with a plot by Monday, I could have the job of writing the script.”
Even though this would be a teen rock and roll comedy, McBride drew from more serious sources for the screenplay. His father, Raymond E. McBride, was the leader of a student protest when the kids at his high school objected to a popular teacher being fired. The students went on strike for a month before the teacher was reinstated, and the kids agreed to go to summer school to make up for the classes they missed.
Not only would the kids in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School go on strike over a popular teacher getting fired, the school getting blown to hell was based on a real event as well. In 1970, the Army Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin was bombed by anti-war protestors, accidentally killing a graduate student in the process. “I wanted to give the story some weight and some political dimensions,” McBride says. “I thought the humor and lighthearted fun would mean more if the kids were standing for something serious.”
In a similar vein, McBride decided the kids would blow up Rock ‘n’ Roll High School at the end of the movie to protest its tyrannical administration. “When I combined these political elements with the student strike and other story elements, everything clicked,” McBride says.
Yet as often happens in Hollywood, McBride’s script for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was rewritten, in this instance by two comedy writers who were brought aboard to make the movie more “zany.” McBride wasn’t thrilled about this, but as a colleague told him, “It’ll play,” and it did. “I eventually recognized that the heightened level of zaniness is helpful to the film, although there are many feeble jokes stolen from Bob Hope, Woody Allen, The Three Stooges, et al, and the dialog is generally too arch.”
One of the funniest jokes in the film, a scientific experiment where rock music makes rats explode, was Arkush’s idea, and it was inspired by a joke made by a club owner. Back in the ’70s, scientists were testing the hearing damage that came from loud rock music on mice, and when the owner of a club called The Scene was told this, he said he’d rethink his policy of allowing mice into the club. The movie has another great rodent gag, where a life-sized rat who loves The Ramones runs the risk of exploding when he goes to see the band live.
With Saturday Night Fever all the rage, at one point Corman even thought of changing the title to Disco High, and Arkush thankfully talked him out of this, telling the producer, “You can’t blow up a high school to disco music!”
Now all the movie needed was a band. As McBride was working on the script, Arkush hadn’t picked a group yet, so he told the screenwriter to just refer to them as “The Band.” Arkush told McBride to think of The Tubes, and Arkush even thought of having Todd Rundgren in the film, but he passed.
“I actually told him the story of the movie with his songs,” Arkush says. “The scene in the film where (female lead) Riff Randell dreams of Joey singing ‘I Want You Around’ was going to be Rundgren singing ‘Hello It’s Me’.”
Cheap Trick was one band that was being considered for the film, then Arkush finally met with Danny Fields and Linda Stein, who managed The Ramones. While Marky Ramone would later laugh at how he felt The Ramones were practically dropped into another movie (“There it was – sunny California plus four leather-jacket-clad hoods…”), in hindsight, you can’t imagine another band at the center of film.
“It seemed so right,” Arkush says. “If we didn’t get The Ramones, we didn’t know what we were going to do. When we told Linda and Danny that at the end of the movie the band plays the theme song while the high school blows up, they jumped out of their chairs and said, ‘We’re in! We’re gonna talk the boys into it!’”
The band didn’t take much convincing. Arkush finally met The Ramones at a New York club called Hurrahs in August 1978. Lester Bangs was backstage talking to Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, and Arkush, the ultimate rock and roll fan, was beside himself with excitement.
As Marky Ramone recalled in his biography, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, Arkush loved the show, and “he told us he needed a band that had a defining look and sound that kids in this fictional high school could identify with.” Once Arkush told the band that the school gets blown to hell at the end, Johnny Ramone said, “So, we gonna make this movie or what?”
Along with The Ramones, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School also had a terrific cast of talent including PJ Soles (Halloween) as Riff Randell, the rock chick obsessed with The Ramones, Paul Bartel as the fuddy duddy classical teacher who ironically loves the band, and Mary Woronov as the tyrannical Miss Togar, symbolizing the principal we all hated for life. (Woronov was also Mike Muir’s mother in the Suicidal Tendencies video for “Institutionalized”.)
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was shot at Mount Carmel High School in L.A. on a typically fast and furious B-movie schedule, 23 days on a budget of $280,000, which amazingly included the music rights for 45 songs. “Everybody on the crew had only been making movies for two or three years, but they were so gung-ho,” Arkush says.
The school had been closed for two years because it wasn’t earthquake safe and was set to be demolished, making it perfect for a student bombing. (In the movie, the school is named Vince Lombardi High after the famously tough football coach. Mount Carmel was also the location for another rock movie, 1956’s Rock Around the Clock.)
Arkush was hoping The Ramones would be witty, like The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, but as McBride recalls, “When The Ramones showed up, they could hardly talk … they were not verbal people, actually rather monosyllabic. So Allan was smart enough to work around that. One of (famed French director) Jean Renoir’s pieces of advice was, ‘Never change an actor to fit the script. Change the script to fit the actor.’”
“Dee Dee was not really capable of sitting there and reading a script,” Arkush says. “John was, but he wasn’t interested and bored. They didn’t want to rehearse, although I tried to go over some of their lines, but that was kind of useless after a while. When we shot a scene, they either said it well or they didn’t.”
Still, Arkush got along well with the band, and they inspired another great gag in the film when the band gets pizza delivered backstage, but their manager makes Joey eat health food instead. “I had dinner with The Ramones at (Sire Records founder) Seymour Stein’s place,” Arkush says. “They ordered this lavish, Italian take-out meal, and once the band got there, they said, ‘I thought we were havin’ Italian food.’ ‘We are.’ ‘Where’s the pizza?’ So they had to order pizza because they didn’t want to eat the other stuff!”
For the concert footage, the band performed at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip, playing three consecutive shows. “To keep the [audience] screaming fresh, we would play to three separate audiences and use the best footage,” Marky recalled, and the band played “Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Teenage Lobotomy”, “California Sun”, “Pinhead”, and “She’s the One”.
While Rock ‘n’ Roll High School came on the heels of Animal House, it’s far more innocent in tone than a lot of the raunchy comedies House inspired. While McBride wanted a little more sex in the story, Arkush wanted the movie to be more like a ’60s comedy, even though one review complained the movie tried to make The Ramones vanilla for mainstream acceptance.
“It’s not down and dirty, but the message is subversive,” Arkush says. “It’s the way I first felt when I watched A Hard Day’s Night. There was them and us.”
When it finally came time to blow the school to hell, McBride and Arkush disagreed on the tone of the ending. “My point in showing the kids blowing up the school was not to celebrate and encourage mindless, nihilistic violence,” McBride says, “but to show how quickly a legitimate protest or revolution can degenerate into violence.”
Oddly enough, McBride recalls that Arkush initially didn’t want to blow up the high school at the end of the movie, thinking it would make the students unsympathetic. Yet at the same time, another New World director, Jonathan Kaplan, was directing the juvenile delinquent classic Over the Edge, where a group of teens destroy their school in the wake of the police killing a student.
“I knew that directors working at New World were envious of directors who had gone on to make major studio films, so I said, ‘We have to top Jonathan Kaplan!’”
In putting together the movie’s soundtrack, Arkush recalled, “The music couldn’t be too serious or too violent.” At one point, he considered using The Clash song “White Riot”, “but it turned the movie into something that was not what we wanted. It changed the tone too much, but Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ is humorous, funny, ironic, it made a comment: ‘School’s out forever!’”
Once Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was completed and unleashed on the world, it took time for the film to catch on because of its initial release pattern. Low-budget movies, like the kind New World made, didn’t open in thousands of theaters opening day. Instead, they would make a handful of film prints, and move them around the country regionally. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School first opened in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, where it ultimately bombed.
“That made Johnny so mad,” Arkush says. “He said, ‘That’s the worst place for us. We sold 250 albums in New Mexico for the first three records, which makes me believe we only have 200 fuckin’ people who like us there!’”
The film made its way around the country doing okay business, then, as they often did when a movie was in trouble, Siskel and Ebert came to the rescue. They both hailed the film on their show, and Ebert felt it would make a great midnight movie. (This was the era when the midnight screening phenomenon was exploding with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)
Finally, the movie went gangbusters when it hit New York, naturally. Marky went incognito to a showing in the Big Apple, where it played the 8th Street Playhouse.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School worked on its own terms,” Marky recalled in his book. “When the four of us came strutting up the street to the beat of ‘I Just Want to Have Something to Do’, the crowd clapped along. I heard foot stomping in the theater. We were their guys … The movie had cult classic written all over it.” The movie’s cult status grew even bigger when the VCR and cable boom happened in the early ’80s, and High School was also the first feature-length movie to be shown on MTV.
As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, The Ramones made a big attempt to break through to the mainstream with the album End of the Century, produced by Phil Spector, but the band couldn’t get to the next level, which frustrated them to no end, and they finally reconciled themselves to their cult status, putting out album after album, going on tour after tour, before finally calling it quits in 1996.
Yet the spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School remains strong, and it’s become an enduring and endearing piece of the band’s legacy. Looking back on it today, Arkush knows it was one of those lucky projects where the planets aligned and all the right elements came together.
Arkush has enjoyed a prolific movie and television career since Rock ‘n’ High School, but when people on practically any given set find out he helmed the Ramones movie, they’ll come up to him and rave about it, sharing their memories of seeing it for the first time. “It’s nice when that happens,” he says. “It’s like having a hit single.”
“I think the movie holds up so well because it’s almost timeless,” McBride says. “When I told a young friend of mine that it doesn’t date, he said that’s true except it contains vinyl. Well, now that vinyl is back, that’s another element that doesn’t date.”