School of Rock

annie morton

photographs by Annie Morton

Every so often, when the homogenized and hyper-compressed world of Top 40 radio hits and inflated Youtube play-counts approaches peak inanity, it becomes crucial to reaffirm the notion that Rock and Roll is here to stay. Some people may find that notion dubious. Maybe it all slipped out of their purview when they weren’t paying attention, lost somewhere in that mass of precision-engineered distractions we all know too well. But in Wildwood, New Jersey, against the enduring backdrop of rollercoaster trusses, boardwalk crowds, and the ceaseless beat of ocean waves, a new generation is making it obvious that Rock and Roll never left. It just had no cooler place to be.

Thankfully, kids these days know the value of a good education. Sure, the old iconography of academia isn’t a major part of it--these young rockstars are happily trading mortarboards for mixing boards, tassels for patchcords, and diplomas for setlists--but their passion for the subject and the rigor of their studies are undeniable. The Culture Crush’s own Debra Scherer sat down with Annie Morton, the model, photographer, animal rights activist, and coincidentally, along with husband Michael Morpurgo, owner of three Schools of Rock, to talk about the absurdities of the fashion industry, the art of photography, and the importance of inspiring kids to express themselves.

Debra Scherer: I have a friend in his thirties, and last summer, he told me that he lost his passion for music. Like, “I don’t even search for new music. I feel like I’m lost with music.” And I felt like, “Oh my God, that’s terrible!”

Annie Morton: Yeah, that’s a horrible thing to say! Oh no.

DS: And people have said to me a lot, “you know, you should do a music issue.” But in a way every issue is the music issue, because it’s such a big part of what we do, whether it’s album cover design, or music in general. It’s always the biggest inspiration! And I remember all those times back in Paris in the ‘90’s when we just needed to do a quick shoot, and I’d be like, “Let’s get Annie!” And you would get on the flight and come straight to the studio in Paris.

AM: Just crazy! I can’t even imagine doing that now.

DS: I know! I can’t even imagine!

AM: I was, what? 22? 23? Of course, you can pull that off when you’re in your twenties! Not so much now. It takes a lot.

DS: I know! Well, I wasn’t 20, but I was probably like 26 or something. I probably had been up the whole night before as well. You and me both! It was the ‘90’s.

AM: It was everything that was going on.

DS: Now, the girls are Instagramming pictures of themselves doing 7 AM workouts! Can you imagine?

AM: It’s insane! I was reading Giselle’s diet the other day. And that’s amazing! But I just couldn’t imagine.

DS: So, how long have you been taking pictures?

AM: I mean...I always have taken pictures. But the past couple of summers, we’ve had this stage in South Jersey, so there’s been so much around me that I just started photographing. Really this past summer was the beginning of all of these shots.

DS: Well thank goodness you did that, because they’re really great! What is the story behind School of Rock? How did you bump into this?

AM: Our friend Paul Green started it in Philadelphia in 1998, and now it’s all over the world. It’s pretty incredible. It’s students learning music--learning bodies of music for the first time--things like Deep Purple, or Led Zeppelin--and the passion that these kids have for it is so amazing and incredible. They learn the body of music, and then they get on stage and perform it. It’s a really, really, really, cool thing to watch. Especially as a non-musician. Everybody has that passion.

DS: What kinds of kids are they?

AM: Just kids! Four years old to 18. They go through the program. There are also alternate programs for the big kids too, and grad programs for the parents as well. The parents like to get involved after they see what the kids accomplish. I think they learn so much faster because there’s an end-goal. So it’s not like you’re learning guitar and playing alone in your room. You’re learning guitar to perform a piece of music, so you tend to learn faster. There’s this whole community going on. It gives kids that don’t like sports an outlet to kind of be on a team. It’s really awesome.

annie morton

annie morton

DS: So it’s 4-year-olds playing Shades of Deep Purple? Is that what you’re telling me?

AM: Well, the 4-year-olds don’t get on stage that quickly. The mainstays are maybe like 12-16. They’re the ones you see in the photos.

DS: The girls are amazing!

AM: I know, I love them! I love people, I love watching. I like to watch what people do. It’s all that natural stuff that just happens.

DS: So let’s go back to the music. Who picks the music? Do the kids decide? Do they listen to a bunch of different albums and decide what they’d like to play, or does somebody pick the program?

AM: Well, my husband and I own three schools. And we have people that manage the music, and they decide what they’re going to do for that particular season. I think this season they’re doing like a 50’s set, and the music director will pick the songs they want to work with. I think they’re doing Women Who Rock, which is always awesome.So, basically we pick the music, not the kids. They would love to pick the music! (laughs) But we’re like, “No, you don’t get to do that.”

DS: What turns out the best? Is it like Zeppelin? How deep do you go?

AM: Deep.

DS: You go deep. Is it like Emerson, Lake & Palmer deep, or…?

AM: Frank Zappa.

DS: Oh, that’s deep. That’s tough!

AM: And they do it! Which is amazing.

DS: Not that Led Zeppelin IV is not tough too.

AM: And I’ve watched them perform Zappa, and it’s amazing. It’s not like, “Oh they’re soo cute, they’re kinda good.” They’re really amazing.

annie morton

annie morton

DS: Well when you think about it, even in those Zeppelin albums, Robert Plant was 19 for half of them. So that’s where that spirit comes from for sure.

AM: Exactly.

DS: So, was it through your husband  that you ran into this?

AM: Yes. He’s friends with founder Paul Green. Paul talked him into the fold around 2001.

DS: Was it before the movie? Or because of the movie?

AM: I believe School of Rock the program existed before the movie. There’s a documentary called “Rock School” that’s about Paul.

DS: You guys own three Schools of Rock? Oh my god. What can I say? This is an incredible story! Tell me about the relationship to the boardwalk, and Wildwood Crest.

AM: I know, I know! We were able to meet with Jack Morey, who owns Morey’s Piers, and he was really interested in bringing Rock and Roll back to the boardwalk. A lot of that ‘50s doo-wop stuff happened in Wildwood and around South Jersey--Chubby Checker, “Rock Around the Clock.” 

annie morton

annie morton

So there was a big rock and roll movement that happened in South Jersey, and it kind of just faded into the ethers. So he was really into the idea of bringing music and live performance back to the boardwalk, and we were like, “Well, we have a lot of connections with bands, and indie artists, and of course the kids that play at our school.” And he was like, “Cool! Let’s build a stage.” So now, we have a summer festival called Isle of Wild, and we run all summer long. We have local artists play; we have kids play. Basically, anybody who wants to play! (Laughs) It’s an amazing stage under a rollercoaster.

DS: Everybody in the studio here is totally coming this summer for that!!

AM: It’s awesome! 

DS: Cool! So tell me about the process. This is going on all year, and these pictures just happen to be of what’s going on in the summer? 

AM: Well, mostly. The photo of the boy behind the drums is actually from our school in Princeton. And then I believe there’s another photo that I sent you from one of our recent shows. But the majority of them are the snapshot of the summertime, of that stage. A couple of those shots are of kids from Australia.

DS: What were they doing in town?

AM: Well, there’s a School of Rock in Australia. They came on tour.

DS: They came on tour?!

AM: Yeah! They tour. You know, some schools are pretty intense, and they take kids on the road. I know the All-Stars play. There’s a group of kids that they get from all of the schools--like, the best players--and they’ve played Lollapolooza, they’ve played Gathering of the Vibes and things like that. We’ve had students from Minnesota, and from Canada, and from Australia this summer. 

DS: Wow.

AM: Which is intense. I can’t even imagine getting on a plane with 30 kids! (Laughs)

DS: So what was the concert this summer? What did they play? Is it just devoted to ‘70’s classic rock, more or less?

AM: I mean, it’s definitely devoted to classic rock, but I wouldn’t say it’s solely ‘70’s. They dive into the ‘90’s. They do a lot of ‘80’s, and ‘60’s and ‘70’s for sure.

DS: What do they do from the ‘90’s? Like, Nirvana and that kind of stuff?

AM: Yeah, they do that.

DS: What else?

AM: AC/DC, Kiss, Guns N’ Roses, Zeppelin. Black Sabbath of course. (laughs)

DS: Of course! (laughs)

AM: I’ve seen them do Green Day, which I guess is kinda on the vintage side. I saw a few schools do Florence and the Machine. But for the most part, the program is about the classics.

annie morton

annie morton

DS: That’s cool. So let’s talk a little bit about you, because I’m sure that anybody who’s reading this is going to be curious about you. You left New York in 2000 and something?

AM: I think it was 2005 or 2006.

DS: And you were just done with fashion?

AM: (laughs) Yeah.

DS: I am too, so don’t worry! So, what’s planned for this summer? When does the boardwalk open?

AM: I think the boardwalk officially opens Memorial Day. But the action on the stage doesn’t really get going until that last weekend in June. We play Memorial Day, and there are shows in June, but most kids don’t get out of school until the middle of June. So there is music before then, but it’s not necessarily the kids from the School of Rock.

DS: It’s so amazing just to see this kind of passion for live performance. The dedication is so incredible! Those are not things that are easy. They’re not picking some easy genre of music to try to play, and they really play it. Do you record it?

AM: You know, I’m sure some of the parents do. We don’t really. You can get too deep into that.

DS: I think I maybe feel a music video coming on. We’ll shoot it on film this summer!

AM: That would be amazing! You would be blown away. The passion--I can’t stress how much these kids have that passion. That’s the part that is truly awesome.

DS: So what kind of kids are they usually?

AM: It’s those kids that are looking to fit in somewhere. And you know, they fit in at School of Rock. And my husband and I are always like, “Yeah, let your freak flag fly!” It’s kinda perfect because we were those kids!

DS: That’s an amazing thing to say. We all feel like we don’t fit in.

annie morton

annie morton

AM: And that’s the other thing that I love! That the kids feel like they fit in there. It’s okay to be whoever you want to be. And you don’t see that weird teenager thing that usually happens because it’s about the music, so everyone’s there for this one thing, they’re like, “I don’t care if you dress like that.” You know? (laughs) It’s really awesome.

DS: It’s one thing I always say about the fashion industry. Not the fashion industry as an industry, but the kinds of people that I used to work with in fashion. I mean, you tell me what you think about this, but it’s like, they were also the kids that were beaten up in school, and now they’re sort of trying to have their revenge. You’d think they’re the cool kids, but I found them to be all the most uncool people. Not everyone. I mean, I’m not making a blanket statement, but you know what I’m saying?

AM: I do. I totally do. I can definitely see that. I mean, to be totally honest, I think I’ve blocked out the years I worked in the fashion industry for my own sanity.  (laughs) But yeah, I definitely can see the revenge piece. (laughs) But whatever.

DS: You know, it’s definitely changed now, because now it’s the cool kids who are already taking their selfies and making themselves these kinds of stars. Now it’s like, they’re growing up in the spotlight, so they’re just pros at being in the spotlight at sixteen.

AM: Yeah, it’s so crazy! But that’s the thing, there’s such a transition that happened. You really had to be in the right place at the right time, I guess, and now it just seems accessible to everybody. And you’re right, they’re so into being in the spotlight at fifteen, where I still have a really hard time (laughs). Y’know? I’m like, “oh, God…”

DS: (laughs) Right! Were you having a hard time the whole time? Working in the fashion industry?

AM: Yeah, it’s funny, I was having this conversation with my husband the other day. I definitely can say that I feel more comfortable behind the camera than I ever did in front of it. Which is funny to think, after all of those years of being in front of it. But it was always awkward for me.

DS: It’s so funny. To me, I always used to say to you, of all of the girls at that time, you always seemed more like an actress. You had much more of a personality and much more of a thing going on than just being a kind of mannequin.

AM: I think that’s what saved me! It was pretending to be somebody else. If I actually focused on what was happening--that was when it came off the tracks. But being able to go through it and treat it like acting made it make more sense. Because you weren’t really there on the set with twenty people staring at you! (Laughs)

DS:  I know! You and me both. Remember those great Jean Colonna shows? Where you would just be on those old Parisian theater stages and everybody was smoking, and you guys would just be walking up and down? 

AM: That stuff was fun. That was so much fun! Being there, especially with all of your friends, and doing that particular show. I can think of a few shows that were really stressful, but that wasn’t one of them.

DS: Which shows were stressful?

AM: Well, It was more a, “Here’s a size 40 shoe.” But I’m a 38! “Oh. Well...go!”

DS: Oh, and you’re only gonna wear.... nothing!

AM: Yeah, you’re half-naked. And the shoes are way too big for you. But good luck! And I’m like, “Awesome! Cool. I got it! No big deal.”

DS: Smile! 

AM: HA! Yeah, “Smile!” I watched those infamous videos of girls falling. I’m sure you’ve seen them. I don’t even know when they’re from, but there’s one where the girl falls into the runway..?

DS: Well, at this last Givenchy show they did in New York, a lot of the girls fell. Because they put weird steps on the catwalk, and I’m sure the shoes didn’t fit either. So the girls are still falling. 

But you have to understand, now when they fall, some editor gets up from their seat and goes and gets them, it gets photographed and Instagrammed and Vined a billion times, and it all works in their favor! It’s completely the opposite in the fashion industry. 

AM: Yeah, you’re going to get all of this press now, because you fell!

DS: And even the guy that got up and helped her, he’s getting press now. “What a gentleman! He’s so amazing!”

AM: Right!

DS: There’s essay after essay being written right now about how it’s changed, but people have a very, very short memory. We used to laugh, way back in my Milan Anna Piaggi days that the fashion industry only has a memory of six months. Now it still holds pretty true, but I’m not even sure it’s six months anymore.

AM: I think it’s less.

DS: Yeah, it’s less. So yeah, it’s a completely different animal. And for the good in some ways, probably, because maybe it’s good for the girls do be doing 7 am workouts. Instead of other kinds of workouts. (wink wink) 

AM: Like drinking at 6 o’clock in the morning?

DS: Yeah, champagne! (laughs)

AM: Right! That was the other thing, too! You’re naked, the shoes are too big, oh--and you’re drunk.

DS: You’re drunk, and you’re like, what, 19 at the oldest? 

AM: Right!

DS: Those were the days! (laughs) So back to the pictures...

AM: You have to meet my assistant. I take all of my photos with my 6-year-old assistant. (son Oscar) He’s usually in-tow next to me. I’m like, “C’mon, hurry up!”

DS: I think I saw that incredible picture where he’s pushing his face against the glass at the amusement park? That picture is amazing.

annie morton

annie morton

AM: Yeah, because he is so involved in it! Against his will. I’m like, “Let me test the light--go over there!” And he’s like, “Ugh.”

DS: What does he think of the music?

AM: He loves it! He’s a drummer now. He plays drums. He has his lesson tonight, and we’re hoping that he’ll get into the show, but we’re not trying to be, y’know, total pushy parents about it.

DS: You don’t want to be the stagemom?

AM: Yeah. But he was in utero for rock shows. He would go with his little headset on when he was just a baby. It’s really interesting for us to watch him. He has such a good sense--he’ll hear something and be like, “That’s Ozzy.” And we’re like, “Yes it is! It is Ozzy. Bravo!” 

DS: You’re teaching him well!

AM: So it’s cool. I’m hoping that it gels with him without having to be like, “You’re going to do something musical!” 

DS: Who’s his favorite drummer?

AM: Peter Criss.

DS: Oh.

AM: I know.

DS: Are you kidding? (laughs) It’s because of the make-up.

AM: Well, no! He loves Kiss. And I was telling him--like, you have the make-up lesson at Rock School because you missed your lesson. And he was like, “I...I don’t want to have to dress up like Peter Criss to go to my lesson! I don’t want to wear make-up!”

DS: Wait, so that’s part of the lesson? Wait...so tell me about that. What are the classes? What is the curriculum at the School of Rock?

annie morton

annie morton

AM: Well, it’s more of a methodology. It’s Paul’s methodology where you learn the theory. You learn the scales and learn about your instrument, and then you learn a body of music. This is so not my department as the non-musician! But no, you don’t have to wear make-up in your lesson. That was the joke! I said it was a make-up lesson because he missed the lesson from the week before, and he thought he had to actually wear Kiss make-up to his lesson, although when they do Kiss shows, they wear the make-up. 

DS: They do.

AM: Yes, in full Kiss blood and everything. No pyrotechnics, no fire.

DS: No pyrotechnics, no biting the heads off the chickens?

AM: No! (laughs)

DS: Wait, is there an Alice Cooper section?

AM: Yes! And they’ve done Rocky Horror.

DS: That’s amazing!

AM: Yeah! I think the most interesting show that I’ve watched ever, for me, was when the kids do Guns N’ Roses. Because...it’s Guns N’ Roses! And when you listen to the lyrics, you’re like, “Oh my God.”

DS: So now that you’ve moved behind the camera, what is your approach?

AM: I think people just tell their own stories. They’re amazing to watch when you just kind of step back and become the fly on the wall. You’re like, “What’s going on over there?”