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‘School’s Out’: The Story Behind Alice Cooper’s Signature Song
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In Depth

‘School’s Out’: The Story Behind Alice Cooper’s Signature Song

Raucous and rebellious, Alice Cooper’s School’s Out song was a study in targeted songwriting. It made the grade with ease.

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If ever a rock song demonstrates the advantages of writing about what you know best, then Alice Cooper’s signature hit, School’s Out, is surely that song writ large. A transatlantic smash on first release in 1972, this ferocious anthem has barely aged a day since – and why would it? Its message has a universal, pan-generational appeal which is as relevant today as it ever was.

Not only top of the class when it comes to the best songs about school, School’s Out overperforms because of its sentiment. Sure, not everyone hates going to school, but even the most studious child longs for the summer break: a time when they can leave the classroom behind, hang out with their friends and celebrate freedom. Indeed, it was a desire to tap into this mindset that motivated the Alice Cooper Band to write the song in the first place.

Listen to the best of Alice Cooper here.

The inspiration: “I thought, what is the common denominator for every teenager?”

“When we decided to do School’s Out, that was a no-brainer for us,” bassist Dennis Dunaway said in an interview with Arizona Central. “We all went to school at the same time, in schools near each other…

“School’s Out came about because [Alice Cooper’s breakthrough hit] I’m Eighteen targeted that 18-year-old demographic that bought the most records,” Dunaway added. “Under My Wheels was a decent hit. And Be My Lover [both from the band’s previous album, Killer]. But they didn’t draw in that crowd.”

Looking to his own record collection for inspiration, Alice Cooper recalled the effect another of rock’s most rebellious songs had on him while he was growing up.

“When I heard My Generation by The Who, I thought, OK, this is an anthem, because every kid is going to relate to that song,” Cooper told SongwriterUniverse in 2017. “You know the lyrics, ‘I hope I die before I get old…’”

He furthered: “I thought, what is the common denominator for every teenager? For me, it was the last three minutes of the last day of school. When you’re sitting there, and you’re watching the clock tick down… and in those last three minutes, there’s the anxiety… When that bell rings, you’re done for three months. You’re free. You’re gonna have so much fun! And I said, ‘If we could capture that last three minutes on tape, that’s gonna be a hit!’”

The lyrics: “I made sure all the grammar was absolutely wrong”

Cooper had come up with the initial idea for School’s Out, but when it came to writing the song, the rest of the band, along with their producer, Bob Ezrin, also chipped in with lyrics.

“Bob Ezrin came in the room. He had a pad and pencil,” Dennis Dunaway told Arizona Central. “He said, ‘OK, let’s nail down these lyrics, ’cause this is gonna be the song.’”

Most of the finished School’s Out lyrics consequently fell into place, except that the band were stumped when it came to finding a rhyme to complete the verse beginning “Well, we got no class/And we got no principles/And we got no innocence”.

“Finally, I said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re the kids in the back of the class. We can’t even think of a word that rhymes,’” Dunaway said. “Bob Ezrin wrote it in and the song was done.”

To add to the anti-establishment vibe, Cooper decided that, come the end of each chorus, the school needed to be “been blown to pieces”.

“That certainly made it more subversive,” the singer acknowledged. “But I meant it metaphorically. If I never see that school again – until, you know, three months from now – it might as well be blown to pieces. I tried to write the lyrics to be funny. Like Chuck Berry. Have a punchline. And I made sure all the grammar was absolutely wrong.”

The recording: “It felt like the creative gods dropped a gift in our lap”

With the lyrics nailed, Alice Cooper needed to come up with music of a similar urgency – something duly supplied by guitarist Glen Buxton’s nagging riff. As soon as he played it, the group knew they’d found the perfect complement to the song’s sentiments.

“It had a natural ‘na na na, na na na’, a bratty, mocking sort of thing,” Cooper enthused to Arizona Central. “It fit so perfectly. And we wrote everything around that.”

Dunaway added, “Once Glen got the riff and we decided, Well, it’s gonna be about that final school bell, we were off and running. It was one of those songs that felt like the creative gods just dropped a gift in our lap.”

The release: “Everybody could relate to getting out of whatever prison they were in”

Released as a single on 26 April 1972, ahead of the ambitious School’s Out album itself – a record which still stands as one of the best Alice Cooper albums of all time – School’s Out the song did everything the band expected. Despite some US radio stations banning it on the grounds that it would inspire kids to literally blow up their places of learning, this pumped-up anthem tore up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic: officially hitting the UK No.1 spot on 12 August, it also peaked at No.7 on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining Cooper’s biggest US success until the release of his solo hit Poison, in 1989. Not a bad result, even though – ironically – School’s Out didn’t necessarily represent Alice Cooper’s personal point of view.

The legacy: “School’s Out is a universal concept”

“I’m Eighteen had been very direct and very much for teenagers,” producer Bob Ezrin noted, before adding, “School’s Out is a universal concept. Everybody could relate to getting out of whatever prison they were in.”

Yet Cooper himself demurred: “The funny thing with me is I loved high school,” the singer later confessed to Arizona Central. “Elementary school, of course, was different. But high school? That was my feeding ground. I had more fun there than anyplace. I wasn’t really anti-school at all. But I figured 99 per cent of everybody else was.”

Buy the vinyl reissues of Alice Cooper’s ‘Killers’ and ‘School’s Out’ albums.

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