Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979): American Indie #14

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A human sized female mouse is flabbergasted about recent events at Vince Lombardi High and she’s squeaking angrily to the Principal. On her cutesy dress is embroidered ‘I Hate Mousework’.

On first seeing Rock’n’Roll High School in 1979 (it was shot the year before although it’s set in the very near future of 1980), I wasn’t entirely convinced by it. I’d wanted something that resembled producer Roger Corman’s biker flicks from the 1960s but with punk rockers. Or maybe a social realist film shot in the streets surrounding CBGB, featuring a bunch of desperado Ramones fans behaving badly.

This is a very different beast. A teensploitation flick that focuses on comedy as much as it does on music, some of it gloriously silly.

Then there was the fact that the schoolkids were all so old. As filming took place I was still at secondary school myself. On screen, The Ramones’ biggest fan and leading Vince Lombardi rebel Riff Randell is played by P.J. Soles, who was over a decade older than me, albeit she was a very young looking 28.

The movie kicks off on the day when Riff’s soon to be nemesis, Miss Evelyn Togar takes over as Principal. Her main aim is to improve discipline. She’s a prim and proper authoritarian and vehemently opposed to modern music. And this uptight woman is played wonderfully by Mary Woronov, former dancer with The Velvet Underground!

The problem between the pair is later summed up by Togar as: ‘I am a reasonable, well educated, mature, adult member of society and you are a spoiled, heathen punk.’ Randell, though, isn’t dressed in black with spiky hair and there’s not a safety pin in sight. Instead, she wears bright colours. When we first see her, she’s wearing a red satin jacket patterned with musical notes. If the movie had been named Disco High, she would have fitted in just as well.

Okay, a little background and something of a spoiler. Roger Corman was initially keen on the movie being called Disco High to cash in on the success of Saturday Night Fever. Director Allan Arkush, though, had other ideas. A man who’d worked for years at the Fillmore East, where he’d seen the likes of The Who, Doors and Led Zeppelin, Arkush wanted a rock band to feature, a wise decision, as by this point disco was absolutely mainstream, with clubs like Studio 54 employing an elitist door policy. The climax of the script was to be the pupils blowing up their school and a disco inferno just wouldn’t work. Loud and fast guitars were required and who better to provide that than The Ramones?

Allan Arkush hadn’t appreciated the band on first hearing them but had eventually got them after repeated listens to their debut album. By the time the film was in development, Rocket To Russia was one of his ten favourite albums.

As he cast the film, P.J. Soles wasn’t even aware of the CBGB favourites and her initial reaction on hearing them was: ‘Is this music?’

Co-star Dey Young, who plays Kate, Riff’s geeky best pal, hadn’t heard of them either and when she first met them, she ‘thought they were the oddest creatures I had ever seen.’ You might think she was exaggerating but according to their tour manager Monte A Melnick’s book On The Road With The Ramones, back then in the warm Californian sun, they had problems even entering Disneyland: ‘Because we looked so weird,’ while another time: ‘Joey and Dee Dee decided they wanted to walk around Hollywood, so I went with them. The police stopped us within minutes.’ Most of the world took a while to catch up with the NYC band.

Ironically, the only cast members who already knew and admired them were Paul Bartel, who plays Mister McGree and none other than Miss Togar herself, Mary Woronov. Mary has also admitted to being high on the set! And she wasn’t the only one.

There’s even some mild drugtaking in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, when Riff smokes a joint (in reality a herbal ciggy) and fantasises about The Ramones playing in her bedroom, Joey serenading her with I Want You Around as he gangles around her.

Being one of Roger’s Corman New World productions, the budget was tight but even so Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky were often bored hanging around while waiting for the cameras to roll. Luxuries were scarce on the set, and they weren’t keen on the early starts required by film crews. The school’s empty classrooms functioned as dressing rooms. Sometimes they would head over to the school fence, where local punk fans congregated. Some threw over drugs, which Dee Dee was all too happy to pick up, pocket and then try out. He was out his face for the entire shoot. Although an expert in lines of drugs, his three lines of dialogue in the screenplay had to be pruned to one. And even that required take after take after take.

Joey wasn’t much better. He kept forgetting Mister McGree’s name and repeatedly called him Mister McGloop. Due to the tightness of the schedule that day, Allan Arkush was forced to keep Joey’s mistake in – which I reckon only adds to the fun.

The two giant mice we see had as much chance of carving out careers as actors in Hollywood as any of the band.

In her gym class, Riff performs a new song she’s written with the intention of delivering in person to Joey and persuading The Ramones to play it: Rock’n’Roll High School. This is great, even though you might accuse the verses of Riff’s song of resembling Sheena Is A Punk Rocker too closely, but forget that, how can she get the song into the hands of her heroes?

Luckily they announce a tour with a date at the Roxy in LA – sorry, the ‘Rockatorium’ in LA.

Of course, just about everybody in school wants to see the show but only Riff is prepared to skip school for three days to land herself a spot at the front of the queue. On the third day, they pull up to the venue in the Ramonesmobile, a pink Cadillac convertible with Gabba Gabba Hey license plates, and proceed to enter the building, playing I Just Wanna Have Something to Do as they do so. It’s crazy. It’s great. In reality, it was 7 in the morning and they were all as hungover as hell.

Riff snaps up one hundred tickets, which have been requested by her classmates, but unfortunately for Riff and Kate, Miss Togar confiscates their tickets when she discovers the reason for Riff’s recent absence from school.

Will our heroine and her pal somehow get to the concert? You bet. But when Miss Togar discovers Riff and Kate defied her, she launches her ‘first major step in putting the school back on the right track,’ the next morning with a mass burning of rock albums including those by The Ramones.

This means war.

P.J. Soles is the bubbliest Ramones fan ever but eventually her infectiousness won me over and the fact that she wants to be a songwriter rather than just find the boyfriend of her dreams (she only has eyes for Joey) makes a nice change for a teen movie, although there is also a more traditional subplot where Kate desperately wants to go out with Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), the captain of the football team, and the kind of All American boy that Riff has zero interest in. Of course, Tom only sees Kate’s big owlish glasses and swotty persona – although those science skills of hers are gonna come in handy later in the film. He becomes desperate to date Riff. Problems. Problems.

Seymour Stein and Jonathan Brett coordinated the soundtrack and, considering the movie’s cost (around $200,000), they worked marvels. It not only includes The Ramones but acts such as The MC5, Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, Eddie and the Hot Rods and even Fleetwood Mac and Wings.

You won’t be surprised that the best thing about the film is getting to see The Ramones at the top of their form perform Blitzkrieg Bop, Teenage Lobotomy, California Sun, Pinhead, and She’s the One live. Superb stuff. It took me back to my own schooldays, seeing them play a pulverising set at the Glasgow Apollo in 1977. Still one of the very best concerts I’ve ever attended.

Finally, a little trivia. James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame, worked uncredited as an production assistant. And if you ask me this is much more enjoyable than anything else he went on to direct. As I watched last night, I even smiled widely at the mum mouse’s ‘I Hate Mousework’ dress.

Indeed, so much did I enjoy the movie this time around, that I made the frankly stupid decision to seek out 1991’s unofficial sequel of sorts Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever. Hey, we all make bad decisions in life and hopefully we learn from them.

Even Mary Woronov can’t save things as quasi-fascist Vice Principal Vadar, a more extreme version of Miss Togar. Ruth, Kate and Tom are long gone, replaced by a bunch of charmless pranksters who play in a band called The Eradicators. How bad are they? They even manage to drain every bit of life out of a song like Tutti Frutti. I’m still attempting to eradicate their music from my memory.

The Not for Anyone Tour

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I take little notice of folk who yap on about meeting celebrities for a few minutes and then feel entitled to judge them on the strength of this.

Just over ten years ago at the Glasgow premiere of We Need To Talk About Kevin at the GFT, I was walking past Ezra Miller who happened to ask me if I could suggest an area outside where he could have a ciggy. Miller gave a great performance in the film and was very charismatic during the Q&A that followed and polite and likeable when speaking to me about the film. As I say, snapshot meetings like this don’t really offer any real insight into a person’s personality.

Google Ezra Miller today and you’re as likely to come across accusations of burglary, kidnapping and even grooming as you are his film roles. Then there’s the dangerous fixation with guns. We Need To Talk About Kevin is going to be an even more chilling watch the next time I see it.

Decades ago, I also spoke briefly once to another young man born in New Jersey, one Jerry Sadowitz. Did he strike me as a likeable guy? No, he was a bit wired – aftershow adrenaline, I would guess, but he didn’t scream vitriol in my face once and hardly resembled the splenetic monster of what was clearly an onstage persona.

I first saw Sadowitz early in his career. He would occasionally take part in some street entertainment in Glasgow city centre, performing magic tricks with the passing public, including myself, tossing some coins into his hat in return. Later, he opened for some bands in East Kilbride at a long gone bar called Peaches, and I saw him at The Star Club by the side of the River Clyde too.

Over the years, I’ve tended to prefer edgier and highly sarcastic comedy. Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks (who I saw many years ago at the Fringe), Russell Howard. I immediately found many of Sadowitz’s routines amazingly funny at times.

From memory, he was trading under the name Jerry Antom back then and was already a helluva sight more outrageous than any of the so-called alternative comedians of the time. As Ben Elton, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders and others created a cosy new comedy establishment for themselves, Jerry developed into something of a cult act. An outsider who wasn’t interested in playing the game. He was the first comedian I ever heard name Jimmy Savile as a pedophile. Come to think of it, he was the first person I ever heard name Jimmy Savile as a pedophile.

Craig Ferguson certainly took a few notes in his ‘Bing Hitler’ days but ditched some of the offensiveness and went on to fame and fortune, including hosting one of America’s top chat shows. Sadowitz and TV never really worked together. He had to find work in a magic shop to help make a living.

Sadowitz’s sets are tour de forces of utter toxicity. They would read horrifically if written down without any context and if I didn’t know who he was and he was talking like he does in a bar, I would have a big problem with him but I’ll mention it again, when he takes to the stage, it’s a persona you’re watching. Not everything he says is what he believes. Why do some folk find this idea so hard to understand?

As you most probably know, Jerry’s proposed second show at the recent Edinburgh Fringe Festival was cancelled. During the first, he brought out his willy and waggled it and worst still, he made a joke, repeat, made a joke about woman and blacks ruining the British economy. I’m sure he that he feels foolish now about that one after the marvelous start that Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng have made in Getting Britain Moving Again.

‘The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material,’ Anthony Alderson, the director of the Pleasance Theatre announced afterwards, continuing: ‘While we acknowledge that Jerry Sadowitz has often been controversial, the material presented at his first show is not acceptable and does not align with our values.’

I’m not making this up. He did say that. And thought it made sense.

The whole incident made me almost nostalgic for the days when humourless Conservative local councillor Moira Knox could be depended on to be outraged by at least one ‘depraved’ act visiting the Fringe each year: the likes of the Jim Rose Circus, Tokyo Shock Boys and Puppetry of the Penis. Of course, everyone involved loved it when she attacked them and some of her condemnations would even end up on the publicity materials for their shows. Did she ever manage to get anyone banned? Not that I can remember.

Today’s humourless moral guardians have discovered a more effective, though still flawed, method of censorship. Blag a temporary job in a big venue and claim an act you don’t like is making you feel ‘unsafe’. Yep, there were apparently a few students staffing at Jerry’s show who felt ‘unsafe’ during it, although their definition of the word presumably differs from mine.

If they reckon a man in his sixties on a stage telling jokes is frightening, what are they going to think if they ever run into an angry Begbie type on the street after a show.

Don’t pretend that you feel unsafe. Or if you really do feel that unsafe, don’t take a job on where a notoriously controversial comedian will be performing. To really be on the ‘safe’ side, it might be an idea to never leave the house in case you’re ever exposed to anyone who could offend you in some way.

What was especially infuriating about this, is that i happened in the immediate aftermath of the news that Salman Rushdie had been stabbed multiple times while giving a public lecture in New York.

If you believe Sadowitz shouldn’t be allowed to play, that’s fine. Complain. Stand outside with placards denouncing his material like some right wing Protestant zealots used to do wherever Billy Connolly played in Scotland. ‘If the Forth was lava,’ protest leader Pastor Jack Glass once declared, ‘I would throw him in.’ Which strikes me as very unchristian but the types that try and enforce their standards on everybody else do tend to be a hypocritical bunch.

I did think about seeing Sadowitz in Edinburgh but I hadn’t been totally won over by his set in Glasgow earlier this Spring (first time I’d seen him in years). Ironically, he made a joke about how he was holding back some of his best jokes for his Edinburgh shows.

Tonight sees the start of a series of Scottish dates, starting off in the Town House in Hamilton, followed by a string of shows in England and Wales.

Only one venue, Margate’s Crack Me Up Club has followed in the Pleasance’s footsteps. ‘The owner of the venue read what happened in Edinburgh, and has decided to cancel due to me being ‘Unsafe, Racist, homophobic and misogynist,’ Sadowitz explained on his website. ‘People… I am so much more than that.’

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

So far, ticket sales have been good, with the Hamilton show one of many that have already sold out. A date has even been added at London’s Hammersmith Apollo – yep, the three and a half thousand plus capacity Hammersmith Apollo, where The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Kate Bush have all taken to the stage, and where David Bowie performed his final concert as Ziggy Stardust.

Would this date have happened without the Pleasance ban?

I don’t think it would.

For more on Jerrry Sadowitz: http://www.jerrysadowitz.com/