Jul 272012

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

I never liked conventional “children’s music,” which is condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary. These children hated “cute.” They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness. – Hans Fenger

Hans Fenger was a musician who accepted a job teaching music in a western Canadian school district. He dismissed hi-ho-the-merry-O children’s music in favor of current pop favorites, and his pupils responded enthusiastically enough that he recorded two albums of their performing, pressing 300 copies. More than twenty years later, WFMU DJ and outsider music scholar Irwin Chusid heard the albums and set out to get them released to the world; the end result, Innocence & Despair: The Langley Schools Music Project, wound up on multiple best-of lists at year’s end.

One reason was the eerie sound of the record; the huge echo of the gymnasium/recording studio combined with the spare, almost willfully amateurish instrumentation to make what one critic beautifully described as the “Wall of Sound made of Lego bricks.” Add to that the children’s voices; not always understanding what they were singing, not always on key or in time, they belt out the uptempo with undeniable verve and vivacity and turn the quieter songs into dream-haunters.

The Langley Schools Music Project – Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys cover)

The Beach Boys were a favorite of Fenger’s; six of their songs appear on Innocence and Despair. The surf and sun Brian Wilson wrote about were a long way from British Columbia, but Fenger and the kids succeeded in tapping into Wilson’s loneliness. “Good Vibrations” doesn’t sound like a pocket symphony anymore, so much as a beach party soundtrack performed on a meteor – remote, a little scared, but still getting those excitations.

The Langley Schools Music Project – Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)

David Bowie called this cover of “Space Oddity” “a piece of art that I couldn’t have conceived of, even with half of Colombia’s finest export products in me.” He wasn’t being facetious, either – when he curated London’s Meltdown Festival in 2002, one of the events was “Langley Schools Revisited,” where London schoolchildren were conducted by Fenger himself. Good as the recreation may have been, it’s doubtful they got those half-beat-late cymbal crashes just right, or the tremolo-crazy guitar. One thing’s for certain – Bowie knows outsider genius when he hears it.

The Langley Schools Music Project – I’m Into Something Good (Herman’s Hermits cover)

The enthusiasm the kids have in delivering the upbeat songs is a lot of fun to hear – verses are mumbled and rushed through just to get to the whoops and yelling in the choruses. “I’m Into Something Good” provides a good example of that. One can imagine Fenger standing in the back of the room, encouraging the kids to get louder and louder, and how freeing that must have been.

The Langley Schools Music Project – The Long And Winding Road (The Beatles cover)

The second of the original Langley Schools LPs differed from the first in that it had solo performances on it. One came from Joy Jackson, who performed “The Long and Winding Road” to Fenger’s slightly clunky piano. Years before Let It Be… Naked stripped away the strings and the goop from the Phil Spector production, there were others who showed the magic that could be wrought from doing so.

The Langley Schools Music Project – Desperado (The Eagles cover)

Sheila Behman was nine years old when she recorded “Desperado”; years later, her performance was singled out over and over again as one of the highlights of the album, and when asked about it, she seemed uncomfortable with the attention. It’s hard to blame her – how easy can it be to tap into understanding what you did in your single-digit years; if you do so, how hard would it be to share it? Some things wish to remain a mystery, and those wishes need to be granted. Let’s just appreciate what Behman did here, taking lyrics she may not have completely understood and conveying them in a way that Glenn Frey never could have done.

You can buy
Innocence & Despair at iTunes and Amazon. There are dozens of great pieces about the project on the web; this one, with in-depth interviews with Fenger and Behman, is a fine place to start.

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