In 1979, the Ramones were movie stars for a short while. Their ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ became the theme song to the teen movie of the same name.
“You can’t blow up high school on disco music!?” Film director Allan Arkush punched himself in the head in frustration when his producer Roger Corman suggested in 1979 that he should be covered by the spectacular explosion in the film’s closing scene. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School slide a dash of disco. The reasoning was not so bizarre: the now iconic disco film Saturday Night Fever drove tons of money into the movie theaters. Disco was the sound of the American kids. Everyone wanted a piece of that.
But Arkush had his finger on the pulse of youth culture and sensed a shift in pop music. The Sex Pistols had come over from England. Fast, hard-hitting punk rock was slowly infiltrating the mainstream. Arkush dreamed of providing his film with a similarly ferocious soundtrack. He toyed with the idea of checking with Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren whether they would like to collaborate. Until someone dropped the name the Ramones. Arcush was sold.
The story of ex-cheerleader Riff Randell (role of PJ Soles) on a typical American high school who turned out to be a riotous rebel almost begged for the nice blunt, revolting punk of the New York band. Arkush tugged at Danny Fields and Linda Stein, the managers of the Ramones, who listened intently to his sales pitch. It wasn’t until Arkush said “and at the end of the movie, the Ramones are playing a live show while the main character blows up the school,” they jumped out of their seats enthusiastically. “We’re in!”
The timing was off. In the tail end of the 1970s, the Ramones could use a push to gain acceptance among the broad pop audience. They were about to record their album End of the Century with legendary (and later infamous) producer Phil Spector. The song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’, which the band wrote especially for the film, was first recorded with producer Ed Stasium. That’s the version where Joey Ramone kicks off with the iconic “Rock-rock-rock-rock rock ‘n’ roll high school!”
The Ramones sensed the film’s caricatural camp vibe. Their song is brimming with winks to the funniest clichés from the youth world of the sixties – cars, parties and love, so to speak – and the “fun-fun” harmonies slyly refer to The Beach Boys. There are more references to old pop classics. “Cruisin’ around in my GTO” honors ‘GTO’, a song from 1964 by Ronny & the Daytonas, who admire their Pontiac GTO. The sentence “I don’t care about history” is a tease of ‘Wonderful World’, Sam Cooke’s soul classic that “Don’t know much about history” crowned.
The Ramones had mixed feelings about their cameo in the film: four punks in thick leather jackets with long hair in bright, sun-drenched California? “We looked like we were from another fucking planet!” said Dee Dee Ramone. “And that’s exactly what I wanted,” Arkush replied. The Ramones were central to the awakening and revolt of the main character Riff Randell, the girl who puts the devil on her teachers, and sends her school up in the air. “When the cameras stopped, the set was a mess,” recalled Joey Ramone. “During the recordings, we had to keep playing and we weren’t allowed to look back. Very bizarre.”