Rough Trade recorded the raunchy High School Confidential in 1980 at Toronto’s Manta Sound studio and released it on the True North label on the album “Avoid Freud” (TN-43).
The second single off the album, High School Confidential borrows its title from the 1958 film, and like the film is fraught with teenage hormones and jealousies.
True North released the single despite concerns about its very explicit lyrics. A month later, CHUM radio’s music director called Bernie Finkelstein to ask if the band could record an edited version to remove one particularly over-the-top lyric. “I took the idea to Carole and Kevan and although they were somewhat reluctant they were willing to give it a shot,” Finkelstein remembered. After some experimentation, they simply bleeped out the offending words.
CHUM aired this edited version, and as Finkelstein explained, “The phone lines lit up. For a while, it was the most requested song on the station….The bleep was like honey to a bear.” Listeners rushed out in droves to buy the album in order to hear the uncensored version, driving album sales to platinum.
Pushed by the controversy, the single rose to Top 10 on radio stations including CHUM (No. 8 on May 30, 1981) and CFUN Vancouver (No. 9), and to No. 12 on RPM’s Top 100 chart that June.
Rough Trade then infamously performed High School Confidential at the 1982 Juno awards with frontwoman Carole Pope, on live national television, making a gesture that was considered obscene (but that Justin Timberlake, Madonna and others have since adopted as normal).
The impact was felt across the music world. Staples later told the CBC that “The appearance on the Junos… was a life-changing moment.”
That evening Pope won the Juno award for most promising female vocalist, and Gene Martynec won producer of the year. Pope and Staples were also nominated for songwriter of the year, and the song for best-selling single.
Written as an anthem to teenage hormones, the lyrics were intended to be gender-ambiguous. In fact, Pope originally wrote High School Confidential for a man to sing, but ended up singing it herself. She told a newspaper, “I didn’t think it would be a big deal that I would be singing about a woman. But when I sang it, it was full of innuendo — a lesbian love song. Quite frankly, we were surprised at how successful we were.”
Pope’s no-holds-barred performance style proved a powerful influence on women artists like Lorraine Segato and k.d. lang.
High School Confidential was chosen for the “Oh What a Feeling” compilation, and by the CBC as one of the 1980s’ 50 best songs. Peaches and others have recorded it, and Pope re-recorded it for TV’s “Queer as Folk.”
In 2017, High School Confidential was honoured with a SOCAN Classic award.
Songwriter and vocalist Carole Pope was born in Manchester, England and came to Canada as a child. A three-time Juno winner, she is now based in California. She has also written the best-selling autobiography, “Anti Diva.”
Composer Kevan Staples, born in Toronto, is a Juno-winning songwriter. Through his agency Rhythm Division, he composes music for television and film.