Rock Stories: Chris Morris sez, “With ‘extra’ credit, I graduated from the Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”

By on December 22, 2015

“Pay five bucks and be in a movie starring the Ramones? Hell, yeah!” And so it was, 37 years ago this month, that I made my first appearance before the cameras, as an extra in the concert sequence in Allan Arkush’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

At that point, I was laboring as the staff writer and publicist for Landmark Theatre Corporation, then a chain of repertory movie houses that included the Nuart, the Sherman, and the Rialto in the L.A. area. (Today it’s an art house chain owned by billionaire Mark Cuban.) In October of that year, I’d become the “rock critic” for the Los Angeles Reader, a new alternative weekly.

I’d been a die-hard Ramones fan since the release of their first album in 1976; in fact, I had lost my job at the free-form Madison, Wisconsin, radio station I had worked for after playing their first album in its entirety on the air in the middle of the afternoon.

I still hadn’t seen the band live, so I was understandably excited when a tantalizing flyer fell into my hands. It read, “BE IN A MOVIE! AND ATTEND AN EXCLUSIVE RAMONES CONCERT!” I jumped at the chance, called the phone number on the flyer, and reserved two $5 dollar tickets to attend an evening shoot at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip.

Why were the filmmakers charging a fin to make the scene? Well, first of all, they knew they could get away with it: The Ramones were punk pathfinders who commanded a large fan base in L.A. More importantly, the money would help defray the cost of a picture that was being filmed on a budget that could charitably be called infinitesimal.

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P.J. Soles as Riff Randell

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was the second solo project by director Arkush, the former lighting director of New York’s Fillmore East, who had labored for several years at B-movie titan Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Arkush had convinced Corman to let him lens his rock ‘n’ roll comedy – a bargain-basement fusion of A Hard Day’s Night and The Girl Can’t Help It – but he had to make the picture on a three-week schedule for a cost of $180,000, virtually nothing for a professional feature.

(Historical footnote: The original script for the film, conceived as Girl’s Gym, was written by my University of Wisconsin classmate Joe McBride, who had based his story on a student walkout at his father’s high school in Superior, Wisconsin, in the ‘20s. Joe went on to write authoritative books about Orson Welles, John Ford, and other directors and produced several documentaries about the movies.)

On December 14, 1978, I joined a couple hundred other suckers – uh, extras – at the Roxy at 5:30 p.m., for the second of two shoots for the picture that day. The earlier shoot, which had convened at the ungodly hour of 8:30 a.m., had been largely devoted to filming footage in the club’s cramped upstairs dressing room area and tight set-ups featuring the band and the picture’s stars.

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The Roxy was standing in for the fictitious “Rockatorium,” the exterior of which was actually the Mayan, an ancient, ornate theater in downtown L.A. In the picture, high school rocker and adoring Ramones fan Riff Randell (P.J. Soles of Halloween and Carrie) and her gal pal Kate Rambeau (debutante actress Dey Young) attend the Ramones concert against the express wishes of evil Vince Lombardi High principal Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov, a former member of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the dance troupe that had performed under Andy Warhol’s auspices with the Velvet Underground at their New York club gigs).

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Mary Woronov as Miss Togar

The venue was crowded that night, and insanely hot, thanks to the movie lights that sent temperatures soaring inside the small venue. It was under these extreme circumstances that the “audience” of extras was introduced to the tedium of movie-making; we were directed to pogo up and down repeatedly as the Ramones ran through pre-recorded versions of the five songs – “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Lobotomy,” “California Sun,” “Pinhead,” and “She’s the One” – that would be heard in the movie’s climactic concert sequence.

I stood about 20 feet from the stage, melting in my heavy leather bomber jacket, and surveyed the crowd. An actor costumed as an enormous white mouse stood a few feet to my left. The open cash-for-casting call had drawn a motley assemblage; the extras ranged from Valley girls in Fiorucci finery (not entirely unlike what Dey Young is wearing in the scene) to hardcore Hollywood punks.

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Darby Crash (at left, in white) in the crowd at the Roxy

Standing directly in front of me, and visible in most of the shots taken from the stage, were the Germs’ lead singer Darby Crash and bassist Lorna Doom. You can’t miss Darby – he’s wearing a white jacket sporting a black Germs armband. (He would die from a suicidal heroin overdose just shy of two years to the day later.)

It was a long night, protracted by multiple camera set-ups and inevitable retakes, but the crowd weathered it with good humor. After all, we were all gonna be in the movies! But the icing on the overheated cake came at the end of the shoot, sometime after 11 o’clock, when, after a brief pause, the Ramones returned to the stage, plugged in for real, and treated their fans to a loud, full-on, seven-song mini-set. (The action wasn’t filmed, but audio can be heard as an extra on Shout! Factory’s 2010 DVD re-release of the movie.)

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When I finally saw the finished film after it opened in April 1979, I was gratified to discover that I had not been consigned to the cutting room floor. If you look carefully – I mean, very, very carefully — at the shots of the crowd taken from the stage, in the upper left-hand corner of the screen you’ll see a guy with shoulder-length hair and ugly glasses, clad in a bomber jacket, punching the air with his fist and chanting, “HEY! HO! LET’S GO!” That would be me.

The film’s final scene, the destruction of Vince Lombardi High by its rebellious students, was still to be shot, and a week or two later some of us trekked down to Mt. Carmel High, an abandoned Catholic school in Watts, to visit the location. (This was probably on the eve of the Ramones’ Christmas show at the Whisky a Go Go, which I attended.)

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Temperatures in L.A. that week hit record-shattering lows, and so, after a couple of hours milling around freezing amid the chaos on the street, I split the scene before the building was blown up. But stories of that night rapidly circulated among L.A. punkdom: The technicians in charge of the pyro had underestimated the power of the charge, and when it was detonated it reduced a large part of the school to rubble, and also blew out dozens of windows in the neighborhood, terrifying the local residents. That’s show biz. It does look great on screen.

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Four years later, I had the opportunity to hang around the Wiltern Theatre location of Allan Arkush’s second rock movie, the ill-fated Get Crazy. (Allan had managed to survive the case of exhaustion that had put him in the hospital at the end of the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School shoot; the picture had been completed by Joe Dante, who had co-directed 1976’s movie spoof Hollywood Boulevard with him, and would go on to helm Gremlins). I interviewed Allan at home at that time; he is a charming guy and a complete music nut, and also the only person I know who has a light show installed in his living room.

The Ramones likewise survived the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School shoot – they had already managed to live through making an album with Phil Spector, so they were game for anything.

Sadly, only drummer Marc “Marky Ramone” Bell is still with us today. But the movie – as cheap, goofy, and frequently silly as it is — lives on in TV, repertory, and film festival screenings as a testimony to the band’s energy, spirit, power, and bountiful sense of fun. I’m glad I had a chance to be a small part of it.

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Joey Ramone and Allan Arkush (photo: Bruce Frankel)

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).