The Anniversary

The Langley Schools Music Project’s Innocence & Despair Turns 20

Bar/None
2001
Bar/None
2001

With its shout-outs to “Silly Willy From Philly” and “Mademoiselle Kitty,” Wings’ “Venus And Mars/Rock Show” medley was essentially a children’s song when Paul McCartney released it in 1975. As such, it’s a perfect introduction to the young artists of the Langley Schools Music Project. When they covered the song in 1977, they were all between 9 and 12 years old, with almost no proper music training among them, conducted by a teacher in way over his head. But they sound like they’re having the time of their lives. There are issues with pitch and timing, including some tambourines that are nearly a full beat behind, but the kids’ enthusiasm sells the performance, especially when they’re gleefully shouting McCartney’s lyrics about Jimmy Page and Madison Square Garden and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Stripped of its association with one of the biggest pop idols in the world, their cover recaptures a pure excitement for music — not the joy of seeing a good show, but the innocent thrill of singing a fun melody with all your friends. For a brief few minutes, these kids are the real rock stars.

The world didn’t hear this version of “Venus And Mars/Rock Show” until more than 20 years after those kids had recorded it, when Bar/None Records collected all the recordings onto one album, titled Innocence & Despair. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, it was one of the biggest and most celebrated reissues of 2001, with Spin calling it an “album-of-the-year candidate, 25 years after the fact.” This was a novelty record that had much more to offer than mere novelty. There’s a unique poignancy to the performances, an unexpected melancholy in the music, especially the solo turns on “The Long And Winding Road” and “Desperado.” Not everyone got it, of course, and there was certainly a kitsch element to the project. But the innocence and despair of these performances completely transform these songs, as the kids unselfconsciously excavate new meanings and fresh implications from these familiar lyrics, which would have been new in the mid 1970s but were oldies by 2001.

The story of Innocence & Despair begins with a struggling musician named Hans Fenger, who taught one-on-one guitar classes and played in a couple of bar bands around Vancouver in the early 1970s. To provide for his young family, he got his teaching certificate and found a job in the Langley school district, a poor, rural community near Vancouver. Most kids came to school on foot or by horse, and many came from broken homes. Fenger taught at several schools in the district, but with little knowledge of music pedagogy, he had to wing it. He assembled his young students into choirs, assigning some of them instruments that were as big as they were. One girl played a single string on a bass guitar plugged into a massive amp. Others banged on drums or cymbals or whatever the underfunded schools had lying around. And he used pop songs to demonstrate musical ideas: “Space Oddity” was an opera, with dialogue and narrative set to music. “Help Me, Rhonda” became a lesson in harmony singing. “God Only Knows” contained a round.

He taught them pop songs that might appeal to their sense of wonder, like Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.” This was the era of Star Wars after all, and what kid wouldn’t love to sing about spaceships and alien beings? Fenger also had a sense of the kinds of structures and melodies that would be fun to sing, and you can hear the joy in their voices as they navigate the tricky currents of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “I’m Into Something Good” and the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” Their hyperactive version of the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” sounds like it was recorded after a massive candy binge. They stomp and shout that glam hook into the ground, repeating it so many times that it becomes mesmerizing and more menacing than the kids on Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.”

More radically, Fenger tailored the curriculum to speak to his students’ inner lives. Instead of light fare, he understood that the kids were attracted to songs that addressed their darker fears. “Many of these children didn’t have happy childhoods,” he told journalist Mike Applestein in 2002. “I think what I’d been doing with them gave them a voice… This was purely fortunate; it wasn’t as if I’d been thinking of that. The kids themselves have pointed that out to me.” Naturally there’s a lot of Brian Wilson on Innocence & Despair, because few pop artists have captured such a childlike perspective. There’s something powerful about hearing a bunch of kids sing “In My Room,” as though Wilson had intended it for the preteen set all along. The Langley kids understand that sense of retreat and safe haven all too well, which lends an intimacy and a gravity to this meditation on isolation.

Fenger documented these songs primarily because he thought recording an album might be a good lesson for his students. So he set up a two-track recorder at the Glenwood school gymnasium, taking advantage of the space’s natural reverb to add a three-dimensional quality to these recordings. You can almost hear how the kids were arranged on the gym floor, where the instruments were placed, where the soloists stood. In fact, for “Calling Occupants” Fenger had one of his students climb a high ladder in the middle of the gym, so that her voice would sound like it was coming from the heavens. He pressed up 300 copies and sold them all to parents. Then he repeated the process at nearby Wix-Brown Elementary School a few months later.

By the time he left the school system in 1979, most of those students had graduated and their LPs were likely gathering dust, eventually rendered obsolete by compact discs and completely forgotten. The Langley Schools Music Project saw the light of day primarily through the efforts of cratedigger Irwin Chusid, who was fascinated by art made outside the industry and disseminated by alternative distribution models. In the late 1990s he hosted a radio program called the Incorrect Music Hour; fan contributions weren’t rare, but a burned CD from a listener named Brian Lind caught his ear, in particular the Langley students’ version of “Space Oddity.” Chusid reached out to the school district, but no one recalled the recordings or even remembered Hans Fenger. It took a lot of detective work, not to mention negotiations with skeptical record labels, before Hoboken indie Bar/None Records agreed to release it, combining both the Glenwood and Wix-Brown recordings on one CD.

Who could have predicted that an album by children would have been a breakout hit? Innocence & Despair made a big splash, and the waves are still rippling outward two decades later. In 2002 VH1 aired a documentary that reunited many of the students, while David Bowie incorporated the Langley Schools Music Project when he curated the Meltdown Festival in London. He even offered some truly weird praise for their cover of “Space Oddity”: “The backing arrangement is astounding. Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance you have a piece of art that I couldn’t have conceived of, even with half of Colombia’s finest export products in me.” These songs show up in film and television shows whenever directors want to cover wonder or sadness or both at the same time. In 2009 Karen O cited the reissue as the inspiration for her soundtrack to Where The Wild Things Are. “The songs are all sort of jangly and imperfect,” she told New York magazine, “but the heart behind it kills you.”

Twenty years later, however, the novelty has tarnished a bit, and newcomers may wonder what all that fuss was about. Outsider music has become more easily accessible, such that even the most obscure fan cover or outré album can be streamed by anyone, and the reissue market, coupled with the vinyl resurgence, has given new life to previously marginal figures like the Shaggs, Donnie & Joe Emerson, Lewis, and Todd. Outsider music has lost some of its outsiderness. Beyond that, the regrettable a cappella revival of the 2010s, spurred by Glee and the Pitch Perfect movies, has changed how we hear choir music, even something as uncalculated and technically flawed as the Langley performances. But the passing years have intensified the found-sound quality of this strange album, reminding you that these children are no longer children. In 2001 they were in their 30s, many with young children of their own; in 2021, they’re in their fifties, some with grandchildren. There is something unrecoverable in these recordings — not just the singers’ innocence and despair, but our own. To listen to these songs is to consider how we grow old with pop music, how we relate to our favorite songs in different ways at different stages of our lives. Because it always holds a bit of our youth between the notes, because it often expresses something we’re always in danger of losing, all pop music is to some degree children’s music.

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