My Favorite Soundtrack: 'Up the Academy'

'Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy' was a commercial bomb but its soundtrack is ace.

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Oct 16 2014, 4:53pm

The 1980 motion pictured released as Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy represents one of the great tragedies of cinema and soundtracks. Not only was the film a financial failure that lost us all the chance to have a bona fide Mad magazine movie, its soundtrack was even more of a flop—sentencing a good music collection to bargain bin obscurity.

First, some background on the whole Up the Academy debacle: after National Lampoon begat the 1978 blockbuster Animal House, Warner Brothers sought to make a proper Mad magazine movie and commissioned a script that would have brought Mad's pages to life in a sketch-comedy format.

Before that, though, Warner wanted to test the brand's drawing power, so they slapped Mad Magazine Presents above the title of Up the Academy, a pre-existing military school romp directed by iconoclast Robert Downey Sr. (creator of Putney Swope, father of Iron Man). Downey's coarse and ill-paced satire was rated R for foul language and thus inaccessible to Mad's preteen audience. It bombed atrociously and, as a result, Mad Magazine: The Movie suffered a permanent kibosh.

In the meantime, though, Warners' music department assembled a sprawling, 22-song Up the Academy soundtrack that functions as a perfect snapshot of what major labels briefly banked on in the wake of punk. Spiky hair, skinny ties, and sugar-rush guitar riffs seemed a natural extension of the unwashed ass-length manes, skin-tight bellbottoms, and smoking grooves that moved zillions of units in the years immediately prior to #1 hits by the Cars and Gary Numan.

Alas, the actual vinyl Up the Academy soundtrack album winnowed that astonishing array down to a mere ten numbers. It still delivers plenty of potent wallop but devotees spent decades assembling and trading their own complete UTA collections on cassettes and CDs. A similar phenomenon occurred with 1982's Valley Girl, prompting Rhino to issue a secondary soundtrack album consisting of excised songs in 1995. Nobody's holding their breath, however, for Warners to unleash More Music From Up the Academy.

In short order, Michael Jackson, Madonna, New Wave's synth-y Euro fops, and a 24-hour music video channel, MTV, would bury this final outburst of hard-rock-as-sweet-pop embodied by Up the Academy. Take a taste.

Blow-Up – "Kickin' Up a Fuss"

Teenage LA punk pioneers Blow Up didn't get a real album out until the 1984 Bomp release Easy Living, but they do contribute three songs to Up the Academy, including "Kickin' Up a Fuss," the movie's official main title theme. An upward charging guitar lead ushers in a mid-tempo, fist-tossing anti-authority anthem with an irresistible sing-along chorus. The lyrics liken the school year to a nine-month exile that's "like workin' on a rock pile" before repeatedly proclaiming solidarity by chanting, "Yeah, man, that's us! Kickin' up a fuss!" And, hey, that is us!Cheap Trick – "Surrender"

Power pop's most resplendent declaration of adolescent bafflement over the behavior of the folks in charge, "Surrender" by Cheap Trick provides a perfect background narrative to the comical upstart kids in Up the Academy—or any kids anywhere, at any time, period. The universal adaptability of "Surrender", in fact, is ably evidenced by how perfectly it also fit the soundtrack of 1979's deadly serious youth-gone-wild drama, Over the Edge. Cheap Trick rode the '80s teen movie wave long enough to record to absolutely killer eponymous theme songs to the raunch comedies Spring Break (1984) and Up the Creek (1984). The movies were hits; the tunes, although great, were not.Nick Lowe – "Heart of the City"

Wickedly witty Brit Nick scored a sizable FM radio hit in late 1979 with "Cruel to Be Kind" and landed his first Stiff Records single, the pile-driving "So It Goes", onto the soundtrack of the Ramones' big screen bust-out, Rock 'n' Roll High School. As that film is very much a spiritual sibling of Up the Academy, the Lowe song here makes sense: it was initially the B-side of "So It Goes" and provides two fast minutes of foot-stamping good fun.Pat Benatar – "We Live for Love"

To the record industry, Pat Benatar looked like a solid bet early on, as her multi-octave pipes layered glitzy, dude-friendly arena rock atop Blondie's pop art/art pop. For once, the record industry was right and, in an even more rare occurrence, the result was some kickass music for the masses (and their markets). "We Live for Love" delivers Pat at her soaring prime, belting out words and emotions that sound like everything you hope and dread about the madness of growing up just as you get there.Eddie and the Hot Rods – "Do Anything You Wanna Do"

Muscularly melodic pub rock from the primordial punk pool of Essex, England in 1977, Eddie and the Hot Rods' "Do Anything You Wanna Do" proved enough of a hit overseas to snag the band touring gigs with the Ramones and a weird one-time collaboration with MC5 singer Rob Tyner. "Do Anything You Wanna Do" is catchy, heartfelt, and snazzy; it crystallizes the first rush of teen romance just before everything goes to Hell (which for, roughly, means somewhere in the course of the first date).David Johansen – "Girls"

As the lead lips and front croak of the New York Dolls, David Johansen rushed too early to punk rock to make a salable go of it, so he was determined not to let New Wave just leave him in a lurch, too. "Girls," from Johansen's 1978 self-titled solo debut, is a ripe combination of slamming pop and glam-streaked stomp that should have hit the charts in the company of the Knack and the Romantics. Instead, it hit the deep tracks section of the Up the Academy soundtrack.Cheeks – "Coquette"

First there's a cascading guitar rev-up, then there's a pogo-beat, and finally an ooze of light ska instrumentation flows forth over an enjoyably generic attempt at an amorphous musical subgenre best defined by the name of an early 80s KROQ show, "Punky Reggae Party." What you need to know regarding "Coquette" by Cheeks is all right there. And it's all right, in general.Ian Hunter – "We Gotta Get Out of Here"

From under a geyser of blonde curls and behind sunglasses so huge they'd make Elvis, Yoko, and the Terminator blush, Ian Hunter fronted glam-rock kingpins Mott the Hoople from 1969 to 1974. He subsequently scored a few eccentric solo hits (including "Cleveland Rocks" and "Once Bitten, Twice Shy") and seemed primed for another one with "We Gotta Get Out of Here." In less than three-and-half minutes, the song rolls out a mini-rock-opera so grand in scope it features glitter god Mick Ronson on lead guitar and duet vocals by Ellen Foley, the other voice in the backseat of Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."The Babys – "Midnight Rendezvous"

Musically, the Babys' high-octane British power pop tends to sound like a good time, but the vocals by pretty boy frontman John Waite typically throw a rope around the ascending instrumentation and ground it with gravitas. Oddly enough, it almost always works. "Midnight Rendezvous" offers a nifty demonstration of the Babys at their best, with one foot keeping a beat in party town and the other primed to hoof it somewhere… heavier.Lou Reed – "Street Hassle"

Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" didn't make the vinyl cut of the Up the Academy because, frankly, he probably had enough difficulty getting it on to his 1978 solo album of the same name. Clocking in at just under eleven minutes, Reed's three-part "tone poem" utilizes cacophonous orchestral instruments, lyrics elevating New York street scum to saint status, and a bizarre invocation of Bruce Springsteen. Somehow, this black leather art suite made it into a movie the mascot of which was Alfred E. Neuman. No wonder that guy is always grinning.