My first French teacher was a great heap of a man who I remember for his sweat patches and his bitterness and the way he changed the seating plan in the class around every few weeks, based on test results. If you came first, you got to sit front and center, and the rest of the class would zig-zag back behind you until the back row was filled with the worst half-dozen students, so he and they could ignore one another. This was a poor motivational tactic, as Monsieur M. smelt bad and if you did well you were best placed for a whiff of him. I was either too guileless or scared or proud to do badly, and so I ended up at the front, a lot, nose full of sweat while I glumly conjugated.
Monsieur M’s seating policy simply locked down the social divisions that exist in every school anyway. If I’d had free choice I might have tried to sink into the anonymity of the middle two rows, but I wouldn’t have chosen the back. As an illustration of why, the kids in the middle rows liked pop music, which I liked. The kids at the back liked hard rock and metal, which I didn’t.
This being 1983, pop music meant Duran Duran and hard rock didn’t mean Alice Cooper, it meant Maiden and Priest and especially AC/DC. The biggest tracks – the ones passed round on walkman headphones on class trips – were AC/DC’s “The Jack” and the one which goes “I’ve got big balls”. Even as a front-of-the-class guy, I heard those a lot. And when I heard “School’s Out” for the first time, years later, that was the world I fitted it into.
Of course, this was a boys’ school in the heart of Home Counties England, and we were all upper middle class kids, so the ones at the back of the class weren’t hoods or bullies – even if they aspired to be tough kids, and flirted with an idea of toughness that AC/DC was an access to. I wasn’t scared of them – didn’t like them either, but the overwhelming macro-system of social class was enough to jam most of the more tribal signals that might have been starting to reach our 10-11 year old brains, so there was never a sense of threat from the kids themselves. I projected the threat onto the music, a little: without ever actually listening to it I assumed hard rock would be something too savage for me, too aggressive, exclusionary and shrivelling and mocking. It wasn’t, mostly, which in a strange way explains to me why so much rock has been so disappointing to me. Why, I wondered, was it so easy to take?
Alice Cooper, like a lot of the music I would have assumed to be scary at 10, aren’t scary here: Alice is energetic, flamboyant, blazing with life, aggressive in a showy way but not really threatening, even to the school or the teachers. I don’t remotely mean that as a criticism: “School’s Out” is a glorious kid’s fantasy of the end of school, a playground brag, a smile at the days when “for Summer” and “forever” could happily smush together and when school’s summertime erasure was so complete that it might well have been blown to pieces. The rising glee on the “No more teachers” chant carries the real sting – mockery being a far more likely weapon for kids than explosives. But mostly this is rampaging boy exuberance, captured perfectly in that crunching, pealing opening riff. (Honestly, have guitars ever sounded as full and sweet as in the glam era?)
Maybe if I’d listened to more rock I wouldn’t have kept landing in the front row, or maybe I’d have found a way to balance liking it and landing there. Life is full of maybes and it doesn’t really matter, except that by not listening to Maiden or AC/DC in my teens I seem to have blocked a way to really loving them now. “School’s Out” dissolves my rock block, just like it offers a way to dissolve the front-row/back-row split by unimagining school completely: in the end I like it because it’s such an inclusive, generous record.