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F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/31/2004 12:46:13 PM ET 2004-08-31T16:46:13
COMMENTARY

Right around this time of year, sweat starts to pour off the brows of young people, while parents breathe a sigh of relief. School bells are ringing.

The summer is over, and it’s time for students to stop lying around, playing video games or watching television, sending text messages to their friends even though their friends are right in the next room, eating their parents out of house and home, failing to do chores, borrowing the car without permission, hosting a “study group” in their rooms with the doors locked, and looking for jobs only in places that they know are not hiring.

For parents, though, the news couldn’t be much better. The abode is again quiet. The little freeloaders are back in class where they belong. Let the teachers deal with them. That’s what they’re getting paid for, isn’t it? Aside from doing their carpool duty, parental units across the land soon will be dancing in the streets during school hours. In fact, maybe a little reward is in order for enduring a summer of chaos. Dad, it’s probably time for a new set of irons. Mom, even though you already have about a hundred pairs of shoes, a busy lady like yourself could always use a few more.

What would truly capture the spirit of this occasion are some appropriate tunes to play on the car stereo as you’re driving around without junior in the backseat. They also could be used while the little tykes are fighting over juice boxes or headphones. The kids themselves might even appreciate them.

Without further ado, here is a list of 10 songs to enhance the “back to school” experience. They cover  various aspects of the academic environment, from the respectable to the sordid. They’re not geared specifically toward parents, but school itself, since we all had to survive it at some point. So sit back, relax and listen. Oh, and pay attention, because there will be a quiz later:

“Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys: Somehow our natural rah-rah instincts have been beaten down over the years, probably a victim of post-Watergate cynicism. But there was a time when it was O.K. to put on your letterman’s sweater,  wave your pom-pons and proudly declare your scholastic allegiance. The Beach Boys knew the feeling: “When some braggart tries to put me down,  and says his school is great, I tell him right away,  now what’s the matter buddy, ain’t you heard of my school, it’s No. 1 in the state.” For the full effect while listening: guys should get a buzz cut and find a girlfriend named Mary Lou; girls should wear saddle shoes, plaid skirts and pig tails. Just don’t go out of the house that way.

“Schoolgirl” by Argent: Keyboardist Rod Argent was one of the driving forces of the Zombies in the ’60s, but then set out on his own and formed a new band. “Hold Your Head Up” is probably its most recognizable single, but it came on the group’s third album, when Argent was desperate for commercial success. The underrated “Schoolgirl” appeared on the band’s 1969 debut album and it sounds more like a classic Zombies song. “I must have been a fool not to fall for you, when you were a schoolgirl.” If you’ve never looked back on your schooldays and lamented the fact that you screwed up a good thing with the ideal person, then this song probably isn’t for you. Then again, that puts you among the .00001 percent of the human population.

“Rock and Roll High School” by the Ramones: I don’t know about you, but my high school experience would have been a lot more enjoyable had I skipped classes, teachers and homework and just concentrated my efforts on having fun. (Actually, now that I think about it, I wasn’t far off.) The Ramones share my sentiments: “I just wanna have some kicks, I just wanna get some chicks, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock and roll high school.” There isn’t a lot to this song — the meat of the chorus is “fun, fun, oh baby” — but it captures perfectly that centuries-old conflict between academic achievement and having a blast with your friends. If there were such a place as Rock and Roll High School, I would venture to guess that it would boast perfect attendance.

“Don't Stand So Close To Me” by the Police: By now I think we all know the story of Mary Kay Letourneau. But of course, that was not the first time the wrong pen has been dipped into the wrong inkwell.  Back in 1980, Sting and the Police understood the perils of a student developing a special rapport with a teacher: “Temptation, frustration, so bad it makes him cry, wet bus stop, she’s waiting, his car is warm and dry.” Sting was a teacher in England before he became a rock star. I hear he was especially tough on his female students, making them stay after class and clap erasers and wash the blackboard, even if they had to stretch really high on their tippy-toes to reach the top parts.

“High School Confidential” by Jerry Lee Lewis: This was one of The Killer’s lesser known hits, although it did reach No. 12 on both the U.S. and UK charts in 1958. It was also the title track of a movie that Jerry Lee not only appeared in, but sang from the back of a flatbed truck. Like “Rock and Roll High School” by the Ramones, if there is a deep and profound message for youngsters here, it’s to go out and have a rockin’ good time: “Everybody’s hoppin’, everybody’s boppin’, boppin’ at the high school hop.” This song may be the product of a bygone era, but the lifeblood of a kid’s existence  —  gyrating to music with a member of the opposite sex — transcends generational barriers.

“Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen: The word isn’t used much anymore. But teachers used to admonish students who weren’t on time to class by saying, “You’re tardy!” For the benefit of any students out there who may encounter this, the perfect comeback —thanks to David Lee Roth — is: “I don’t feel tardy.” And this cut from the “1984” album, when the band was at the height of its powers,  is also the perfect song if you eventually showed up to class, but your mind was elsewhere: “I think of all the education that I missed, but then my homework was never quite like this, got it bad, got it bad, got it bad, I’m hot for teacher.” Did you know kids who always had to borrow a pen, forgot their notebook, didn’t know there was a test today, claimed the dog ate their homework and flirted shamelessly with the new teacher? This is dedicated to them.

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“End of the Summer” by Dar Williams: Although she built a reputation as an acoustic songbird whose imaginative lyrics address a wide variety of human experiences, she caused a bit of a stir with her 1997 album “End of the Summer” because it represented a bold departure from previous works. Some compared it to Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric back in the day. The cut “End of the Summer,” however, is quintessential Dar, a folksy, melancholy ballad done to a simple acoustic accompaniment. It’s about change and family ties and lost love and moving on: “And she doesn’t want to let go, cause she won’t know what she’s up against, the classrooms and the smart girls.” Makes you want to clean out your locker and run crying down the hall.

“Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd: Going back to school is always an exciting time. There’s a tingle when you experience your new classmates and teachers, get new textbooks and meet new friends. But after about two weeks or so, you start to turn surly, and you want to throw your desk out the window. It’s the regimentation that does it. Roger Waters captured that feeling in this anthem, railing against the rigidity of formal education. In 1980, it spent four weeks at No. 1 in the U.S., and has been a staple on top 40 rock radio ever since. The chorus was sung by 23 students from the Islington Green School in London, who never got paid. Hmmm. Maybe instead of “We don’t need no education,” they should have said, “We could use some compensation.”

“Jack the Idiot Dunce” by the Kinks: In any school, there is always one kid that gets picked on mercilessly by the others. The Kinks introduce us to such a character from their “Schoolboys in Disgrace” concept album: “Who’s that dumb-looking freckle-faced runt? Jack, Jack, the idiot dunce.” But they don’t leave it there. Instead, they show how the nerd can turn it around and become the coolest kid in school. In this case, it happens because of a dance that Jack invents. Suddenly everybody wants to “do the idiot Jack.” So if you’re in school and even thinking about picking on somebody, remember that Jack wound up with more girls than you could ever  imagine, so that idiot dunce may be a lot smarter than you think.

“Welcome Back” by John Sebastian: Baby boomers will  immediately remember this as the theme song for the sitcom, “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The producer of the series, Alan Sachs, was looking for a “Lovin’ Spoonful/John Sebastian type of tune.” So they hired John Sebastian himself, and Sachs liked the song he turned in — titled “Welcome Back” — so much that he changed the name of the show from the original title of “Kotter” to “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Like most themes, it lasted less than 60 seconds. But public demand was so great that Sebastian wrote another verse and it was released as a single, which climbed to No. 1 and went on to become the second-best selling single of 1976. The show was about a guy who returns to his old high school to teach. Just for the record: That is not Freddie, Horshack, Barbarino and Epstein singing backup.

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