Rock School

Sunday, February 12, 2006 by

Two teenagers scour the newspaper listings for somewhere to play host to a fledgling heavy rock group. They’re both part of the band’s management team, and hence have a shared interest in finding a suitable venue – and fast. The snag is, they can’t. Another, far greater, problem is that they hate each other. “Oh look,” says the first, brandishing the phonebook petulantly, “here’s one for you – the YMCA!” “Well here’s one for you,” the second immediately replies, fashioning his response for anyone in the vicinity. “Bender”.

There’s absolutely nothing subtle about Rock School. And that’s exactly how it should be, because there’s absolutely nothing subtle about heavy rock. It’s the most obvious, indelicate and overstated kind of music there is, which is why it’s so successful, and why its practitioners, depicted here as ranging from hirsute veterans to gangly apprentices, are desperate to do the same.

The rules are simple. You don’t use two decibels when 10 will do. You don’t wait to speak only when you’re spoken to. And you don’t refrain from using the odd obscenity now and then: “You dickhead, fuck off!” “He’s a right fucking wanker, and I hate him.” “Mr Simmons is an arrogant arsehole. He’s arrogant … and … and an arsehole.” “He basically talks a load of, a load of fucking bollocks.” “Don’t you open your fucking mouth again!” “If he thinks he’s going to do that, then no fucking way. Fucking fuck off!”

You’ll never hear so much swearing tumble out of the mouths of so few a bunch of young people in such a short space of time than in one episode of Rock School. The programme is a symphony of expletives. Profanities rise from within the participants’ throats in tandem with the opening titles and don’t let up until the final credits roll. Aside from a handful of diversions into somewhat more conventional playground concertos – “Stop being such a poof!” “He called me a ginger slapper!” – it’s a fugue of fucks all the way. And each and every one is spat out with that timeless teenage relish of finding a rude word in and of itself endlessly, infinitely, amusing.

All of this would amount to something a good deal more volatile, and quite probably far more substantial, were it not so harmless. Because Rock School is a cartoon from start to finish, its students beating each other round the head with abuse that’s almost Tom and Jerry-esque in its incapacity to inflict lasting pain. Thanks to judicious editing and bags of adolescent complicity, the people who hate each other in one scene love each other the next, whoever quits the band is always back in the fold five minutes later, and dispensing the occasional “poof”, “slapper” or – yes – “bender” is more likely to win you more screen time than lose you a friend.

It’s a game the kids play on each other as much as the camera, seeming to be far more knowing than they let on. But that’s the universal prerogative of the teenager, and as such the viewer is cheekily immunised to the regular outpourings of grief and sharp-tongued tantrums. Instead you’re invited to invest only the most upbeat and transitory of cares in the show and its simple culture-clash conceit. Conveniently enough, that’s the easiest thing of all, because the conceit, unlike every single one of the show’s participants, is hugely likeable.

There are endless variations on the theme of a stroppy, putative school band struggling to make it, and quite rightly Rock School exploits them all to the full. Misguided forays into inarticulate angst, wildly over-strummed two-chord riffs, personnel paranoia and finger-pointing, thunderous arguments over who forgot to set the amps up properly – they’re all here, and if we haven’t been there ourselves, we all know someone who has.

Then there’s the fickleness of the band members, which is extraordinary, ricocheting from outrageous stubbornness in the morning to red-faced embarrassment at lunch to exuberant co-operation by home time. In its own way this is just as mesmerising as their efforts at music-making, being a salutary reminder of how, once you leave your teenage years behind, never again can the entire point of your existence be boiled down to whether someone actually called you a twat or not.

But towering above everything, literally so, is the hood-eyed wiry-haired gristle-gummed shuffling clothes-hanger that is the aforementioned Mr Simmons, aka Gene Simmons, bass player with Kiss for 30 odd years and now classroom counsel to the belligerent tunesmiths of Britain.

Having spent the first series of Rock School fashioning tousled rockers out of earnestly coiffeured prefects, this time he’s purporting to use the power of music to soothe the bedraggled tyros of a Lowestoft comprehensive. He does it through a mix of self-effacing (or possibly unblinking) honesty, lots of shouting, furtive conversations with individuals about “not just letting yourself down, but letting me down too”, and forever changing his mind.

Let’s be clear: he’s hopeless at the job. He’s always walking out, or dithering, or calling up celebrity “friends” to do the real work (this week Suzi Quatro; “I think they fucked,” concluded one student). But he gives himself some of the best lines (“I have guitar picks older than this little prick”; “They’re going to learn that the alpha male is spelled Gene Simmons”), gets the other members of staff in a complete kerfuffle, and gives as good as he gets. Which, when you’re accused of “wearing make-up and dancing around like a pansy”, is quite clearly of utmost importance.

That’s really all there is to Rock School. It doesn’t presume to be anything more, it doesn’t contend to settle for anything less. Whether or not the band, now sporting the ace name No Comment, learn from the experience is almost irrelevant. After all, their exposure and antics and swearing probably won’t mean much until long into the future when they’re grown up and pre-disposed to not living so much for the next 30 seconds.

If Gene Simmons helps supply the traces of a soundtrack to those 30 seconds, so much the better. The truth is Rock School is TV made for the moment – one where calling someone a bender is only done for a cheap laugh, and one where real life with real consequences doesn’t happen.


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