BY George Pendle in Frieze | 06 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

The Kids Are Alright

The Langley Schools Music Project

BY George Pendle in Frieze | 06 JUN 02

As Punk broke on Britain's shores and Disco began a shimmering counter-offensive in the United States, two recordings were being made in a remote Canadian farming community that rejected both the former's nihilistic angst and the latter's gossamer sheen.

The Langley Schools Music Project was simplicity itself - classic rock and pop songs interpreted by the quavering, helium voices of massed pre-pubescents. It was the master plan of 24-year-old Vancouver musician Hans Fenger, who in 1976 found himself teaching music to three schools of 9 to 12-year-olds in the rural district of Langley.

Without any formal training Fenger, a self-confessed 'guitar-strumming hippie', got the children in his classes to sing songs by bands as diverse as the Beach Boys, Wings, Bowie, the Bay City Rollers and obscure prog-rockers Klaatu. The results, recorded in an echoing school gym on two microphones and a tape deck, are unique - at times breathtakingly beautiful, hopelessly inept and peculiarly sinister. Originally intended for the ears only of approving families and friends, the recordings have recently been released in the UK under the title Innocence and Despair (2002).

The instrumentation is sparse, in fact positively skeletal: an open-tuned electric bass, a stripped-down drum kit, a 1940s vintage National Steel laptop electric (wired through a tremolo for the bone-crunching aural effects in 'Space Oddity', all versions 1976-7), are for the most part played with bashful uncertainty while Fenger provides some by-the-book accompaniment to steady the spastic fragility of each song. Offering the most solid crutch to the unsteady patient is a battery of Orff xylophones, gamelan-like chimes created specifically for children by the composer Carl Orff. These allow bars to be removed from the xylophone before playing, thereby guiding unskilled musicians to hit only the right notes. Consequently, as Fenger observed with stoner enthusiasm, 'even a little kid can jam'. It's when these start getting hammered, sending out peals usually reserved for celestial visitations, and the massed voices of 60 children swell and roar through the song, belying the flimsiness of the musical framework, that a grandiosity similar to Phil Spector's 'symphonies for the kids' is achieved. The LSMP's version of 'Good Vibrations' achieves the incredible feat of being just as weird as the original, despite the lack of a Theremin.

Indeed most of the LSMP's cover versions extend, and at times trample into the ground, the original versions. The kids take on the Bay City Rollers' 'Saturday Night' (1975) imbues the song with a venom the original never had, so that it sounds curiously like a pre-pubescent version of Orff's own Carmina Burana (1934-7). Even the bum notes and fluffed entries create a refreshingly unsettling effect, never more dramatic than when the singers shift out of key en masse while singing 'Space Oddity' (1969).

The LSMP recordings were brought to light by Irwin Chusid, the leading archivist of 'outsider music' and the man responsible for the discovery or revival of such musical mavericks as The Shaggs, Raymond Scott and Joe Meek. Such is the popularity of the recordings that Fenger himself is due to appear at this year's Meltdown festival on the South Bank, at the bequest of the curator, David Bowie, who claimed that the LSMP's version of 'Space Oddity' is 'a piece of art that I couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Colombia's finest export products in me'. His words recall Paul Klee's response to his detractors: 'the critics often say that my pictures look like children's doodlings and daubings. If only it were true.'

Whether Fenger and his milk-toothed assistants should be grouped into Chusid's 'outsider' bracket is a moot point. Outsider music, as chronicled by Chusid in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (2000), includes the likes of Jack Mudurian, a manic 72-year-old who was recorded at his retirement home singing 129 Broadway standards in their entirety, a cappella and non-stop, in a single 44-minute take, or Wesley Willis, a schizophrenic who has written some 35,000 almost identical songs. Indeed the LSMP can hardly be said to suffer the same schizophrenic hallucinations that beset the late Skip Spence or Daniel Johnson. Yet the music is similar in effect to that of Chusid's unintentional renegades, displaying not only the naif's lack of self-consciousness but also an enthusiasm that transcends ineptitude.

The unexpected conjunction of children's singing voices and hoary old pop chestnuts provides the basis for the record's brilliant and at times disquieting effect. On 'Saturday Night', the most bubblegum of hits by the Bay City Rollers, the LSMP seems to challenge the whole band/teeny-bopper relationship by sounding as if it was a rampaging group burst free from The Lord of the Flies (1954). Similarly the collision of childish amateurism with soullessly polished pop product, as in their version of Wings' 'Band on the Run' (1973), subverts the innate professionalism (and sterility) of the song, imbuing it with more spirit than the original ever had.

The LSMP produce simply guileless music. By stripping the songs not only of production values but also of attitude they leave their very heart exposed. There is no vestige of the original artists' personae or any urgent attempt at meaningfulness; instead you are left with songs that, far from being flat, are coated in a shell of blithe ambiguity. A case in point is a version of The Eagles' 'Desperado' (1973) sung by 9-year-old soloist Sheila Behman, which rids the song of all Don Henley's cowboy longing and artless chaps-wearing nostalgia, supplanting it with the emotional timelessness and authorial anonymity of a traditional folk ballad.

Indeed the LSMP are devoid of the socio-psychological baggage that accompanies even the coyest of pop stars. They are not entertainers but the entertained. In a genre of music that insists on attitude, this recording revels in its very lack of it. Yet it is not the self-conscious amateurism that informed the folk music revival of the 1960s; it is more the same spirit that flowed through the musicians on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) and the field recordings of Alan Lomax. It is music that, as Greil Marcus suggests, 'seems the product of no ego, but of the inherent genius of all people'. It is not Lester Bangs‚ 'I-rock'; it is we-rock.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.