Class is in session at the Paul Green School of Rock Music in the Northland, and music director David Rice is prepping his pupils for their upcoming performance of Pink Floyd's The Wall.
"Which one of these people was not in the band after 1970?" Rice asks.
A dozen students fire back in unison with the answer to the quiz: Syd Barrett. At that point in Barrett's life, it's a good bet that any of these kids could have played him under the table.
"Why?" Rice continues. "Because he overdosed on LSD, and it gave him schizophrenia."
Class continues with discussions of symbolism in The Wall and Roger Waters' conspiracy to boot out keyboardist Richard Wright. Rice then reviews the Pink Floyd discography, but it appears the professor is ill-prepared with today's lesson plan.
"What about Ummagumma?" challenges 15-year-old Aaron Buszta, the lead guitarist for a local band called Radioactive Baby Punchers.
Soon after the quiz session, the School of Rock jumps into its first run-through of The Wall, and the bottom floor of its Northland office building is awash in screaming effects pedals and thumping bass and drums. Against a backdrop of Marshall posters and a giant American flag, a dozen kids, ages 11 to 17, are putting the finishing touches on their rendition of one of the world's best-known rock operas — and hardly missing a beat.
"It's weird 'cause it's Pink Floyd," says Sam Oberkrom, a 17-year-old keyboardist and singer. "'Mother' is the easiest hard song you've ever played because it changes time signatures every two bars."
On Saturday, Oberkrom and company will take the stage at the Brick to perform The Wall in its entirety. Should the audience call for an encore, the ensemble has two more Pink Floyd songs in the bag that are also notable for their quirky time signatures and mind-bending arrangements.
The fast-approaching gig is hardly inducing cold feet for veterans such as 12-year-old drummer Logan Sutliffe, whose main concern is that the Brick is "kind of small" (at least compared with the other places he has played with the school — Crown Center and the Folly Theater). He joined the school because he was more into Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin than the stuff his friends listened to: Blink 182 and Green Day.
"I just never got into it," says Sutliffe, who recently discovered that he may be a distant cousin of early Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (the c having been dropped at some point).
Sutliffe is a regular around town at open jams at Knuckleheads and Jerry's Bait Shop, where School of Rock founder Mark Ballard can often be spotted in the background with an ear-to-ear grin.
"Logan will go to a jam session, and they're like, 'Hey, little man, wanna play a song?'" Ballard says. "He ends up being up there for an hour."
Ballard's venture began in December 2005 when he visited Paul Green's School of Rock in Philadelphia. Green had not yet obtained a franchising license, so Ballard founded a separate KC entity called Rock U.
Two years later, Green was the one making offers to Ballard. The deal closed in October, and Ballard remained on-board as general manager.
"Mark's not really like Paul Green," says 17-year-old bass prodigy Carly Atwood. "If he was, I wouldn't be here."
Green, portrayed as a hothead in the 2005 documentary Rock School, seems a stark contrast to the mild-mannered Ballard — a man who once bought folkie Iris DeMent a used car so she could get to Nashville. (She did, and a couple of years later she repaid him comfortably.)
Ballard paid his dues in Kansas City's late-'70s outlaw-country scene with the band Fields before moving into radio and producing Radio Disney kid-pop acts such as the Commotions. That penchant for assembling killer kid groups has carried over to this gig, in which 48 students are working on three ambitious emulation projects: Pink Floyd, the Who and the Rolling Stones.
"They come in with a certain amount of talent, and they just practice their butts off," Ballard says. "You'd probably come see 'em even if it wasn't a novelty that they're kids."
The secret to rock schools, Ballard says, is accountability. Kids practice harder because they're beholden to their bandmates.
"I see it all the time — kids go from average to over-the-top in 90 days," he boasts. "I know at least 20 of them will be playing music for the rest of their lives."
Ballard's main goal for 2008 is to get the kids involved in club gigs such as this month's three-weekend engagement at the Brick. He also hopes to send a cast of shredders to Paul Green's All-Star band, which tours with Yes frontman Jon Anderson at the helm.
Next up: tributes to classic metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Anthrax) and the '90s.
"I might try to sneak in something really off-the-wall, like Cypress Hill," Ballard says with a grin.