Four months after its CD release in 2001, the story of The Langley Schools Music Project is now the stuff of indie legend, something so seemingly improbable it has to be true; it’s too fantastic a story for someone to conjure. Just picture it: in the mid-‘70s, a creative music teacher named Hans Fenger records his Langley, British Columbia students singing popular songs in the school gymnasium, and puts together a pair of albums as a souvenir for his students and their families. Flash forward more than 20 years later, where a man spots an old, used copy of one of the records, gives it a listen, and realizes he has something special on his hands. He sends a copy of a song to a radio show based thousands of miles away in New Jersey, and the host, outsider art champion Irwin Chusid, is hooked in a major way, and launches a crusade to try to get a CD release of both of the long-lost records. Thanks to Bar-None Records, Chusid got his distribution deal, and the result is a real stunner of an album.
For the first few tracks, Innocence & Despair is befuddling and sometimes funny. Although Fenger provides piano and guitar accompaniment, it’s his groups of 60 pre-teens (Fenger recorded at two separate schools in Langley, in 1976 and 1977) who provide the rest of the instrumentation, which includes a one-string bass, a bare-bones drum kit, a bass drum, cymbals, a steel guitar, and xylophones. The bass player sometimes has a hard time keeping up with the tempo, drummers are often overeager and fall out of step with everyone else, and over-the-top cymbal crashes come in half a beat too late, but midway through the album, the pure, youthful energy the children exude in their singing and playing becomes at first oddly affecting, and by the end, emotionally wrenching.
Innocence & Despair is much, much more than any old recording of an elementary school concert. The lo-fi, two-track recording, the echoes of the cavernous gymnasiums, and the weird musical arrangements make this album particularly unique, and all the credit goes to Fenger. As a young musician, he knew his students would never connect with the boring songs most children were forced to sing in elementary music class. By singing songs that were relatively new to the pop vernacular (including pop staples by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Barry Manilow, Fleetwood Mac, and heaven help us, Klaatu), the kids were singing songs they knew very well, songs that were, above all else, fun. As they raucously shout the intro to the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night”, a very popular song at the time, the energy the kids convey is palpable; and when those kids belt out the line “I hope you’re having fun” from Wings’ “Band on the Run”, it’s clear they are indeed having a blast.
Another thing to remember is that, though Fenger and his students knew all the songs, he had no sheet music to work from to arrange the ensemble playing. Instead, he went by his gut instinct, which on some tracks, turned out to be an accidental stroke of genius, and the music of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were tailor-made for Fenger’s little project. McCartney’s “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” works perfectly, with its whimsical lyrics (“Silly Willy with a Philly band / Could Be / Oo-Ee”) and handclaps by the kids, while the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Wilson’s “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me Rhonda” sound tailor-made for children. Things get a little more experimental on “Band on the Run”, with bizarre “ting-crash-pop”s by kids on tambourine, cymbals, and claves sloppily (but charmingly) punctuating the lines in the middle section of the song. On the other side of the coin, the renditions of Wilson’s “God Only Knows”, his joyous “You’re So Good to Me”, and “In My Room” (can there be a better song written for kids to sing?) are heartbreakingly simple, with the plaintive line “Where would I be without you?” from “God Only Knows” sounding more melancholy than the version on Pet Sounds.
As original as Fenger’s arrangements of several songs sound, nothing prepares you for the mindbending cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Over Fenger’s quiet acoustic guitar and funereal accents by kids on bass and steel guitar, the children morosely sing, “Ground Control to Major Tom”, while a separate vocal section coldly counts down from ten to zero. When the second section reaches “Blast off”, drummers come in (rather startlingly) with pounding tom-toms, while a pick is run down the length of a steel guitar string, before coming to a sudden halt by a huge cymbal crash that comes in half a beat too late. That half-second when you’re waiting for the cymbal crash to happen, while obviously a mistake, somehow fits, adding to the spectral experience of the performance. “Space Oddity” carries on for five and a half minutes, and is one of the album’s most mesmerizing high points.
Innocence & Despair‘s other great moment is also its most simple, in which nine year old Sheila Behman sings The Eagles’ “Desperado” solo, with only piano accompaniment. In one breathtaking, elfin-voiced performance, Behman and Fenger transform what was originally a cheesy, overwrought FM radio staple into simply one of the saddest songs this reviewer has ever heard. The fact that Behman might not have completely understood the lyrics adds to the tragic feel of the song, with her straightforward performance actually adding more feeling to the song than any tacky, overemotional singing can ever do.
The album goes on for an hour, but there’s never a dull moment. The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” is also given a solo treatment by a young girl, the joy of Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” resounds in the kids’ performances, while tender versions of “Mandy” and “Wildfire”, two more excessively corny songs, sound better than the originals. Innocence & Despair comes to a close with the goofiest song of them all, Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”, a song made popular by The Carpenters. When they sing “We are your friends”, the children sound like they actually believe they’re singing to life beyond our planet. However, by the end of this most remarkable album, you wind up believing that it’s this group of amazing kids from Western Canada who are paying us a visit from their own home planet, so otherworldly is their performance. Listening to 60 kids sing in a gymnasium might not be the average music fan’s cup of tea, but those who give this little treasure a chance will be forever changed. Plus, they’ll never hear “Space Oddity” the same ever again.