Any collection of a popular artist’s songs presented as children’s music should always be approached with some level of trepidation. And with good reason, given the glut of inanely saccharine covers delivered either by children and twee instrumentation or adults pandering to the younger demographics. The latter case is perhaps the most egregious, as these adults seem to believe that the only way in which to create music kids will understand is to severely dumb down the content and up the intolerably cartoonish elements of the worst of so-called children’s music performers. The question often becomes, Why subject your children to these atrociously subpar re-imaginings of popular songs when the originals are vastly superior and just as accessible?
Thankfully, the folks at Spare the Rock Records seem to have felt the same with regard to the world of children’s music and, rather than adding to the pap currently clogging the marketplace, have ventured to release music aimed at children but ideally suited for the whole family. And there is perhaps no better artist, save perhaps the Beatles, for whom this approach is ideally suited than David Bowie. With his passing in January of 2016, he left a gaping void in the musical landscape, one artists across myriad genres have, in the months since, sought to fill in the form of countless tributes, think pieces, and heartfelt expressions of admiration.
And while we may have lost the man himself, we will always have his music. His is a catalog so vast and stylistically diverse as to perfectly warrant the stylistically diverse assemblage of artists and styles gather here on the newly-issued Let All the Children Boogie. Stripped to their barest elements and rebuilt in individually idiosyncratic ways, the work of David Bowie presented here remains wholly recognizable, yet affords listeners an entirely new way of hearing these well-known songs.
Predictably, the bulk of the material collected here comes from Bowie’s early-to-mid-‘70s golden age, encompassing his Ziggy Stardust persona up through his Berlin years and into his ‘80s pop superstardom. From this, Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, arguably two of his best albums overall, are then used as the majority of the collection’s source material. The former provides four tracks (“Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Kooks,” “Life on Mars?” and “Changes”), while the latter offers three (“Ziggy Stardust,” “Lady Stardust,” and “Starman”), all of which have been reshaped using the structural bones of the originals layered with various acoustic and kid-friendly instruments.
Needless to say, ukuleles, kazoos, glockenspiels and toy pianos abound but by no means dominate the collection. When they do appear, they are never used to cloying effect, each song given a sort of reverential treatment that refrains from dumbing down the source material and retains the underlying spirit of each. On “Kooks,” Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players take the original’s basic premise, heighten its thematic elements – that of parents bringing a child into the world and teaching them to remain true to who they are – add the requisite cutesy instrumentation, and deliver an earnest performance not far removed from the original.
One of several impressive deviations – and real highlights – from the collection’s overriding musical formula comes from Antibalas, who take “Let’s Dance” and somehow manage to turn it into an even more irresistible dance anthem. From the first downbeat, only the most jaded of listeners will be able to remain still throughout as the band fuses the original’s new-wave synth-pop with the West African horns and rhythms for which the band is known. It’s a perfect example of a stylistic fusion that remains true to the original intention of the song, yet manages to transcend the well-known original to become something wholly new and different. Similarly, Wumni’s read of “Fashion” is an unhinged West African groove struck through with clattering electronics and frontwoman Wunmi Olaiya’s staccato vocals. Fitting perfectly alongside the Antibalas track, it makes a strong case for an all Afropop covers album tackling 1980s David Bowie.
Ted Leo’s take on “Heroes” is a simmering, explosive celebration that rides a wave of crescendo into unbridled joy. By breaking the verses down to just bass and rhythm, Leo finds a great deal more space to work with when the song finally explodes into its triumphant conclusion. Modernist jazz piano prodigy Marco Benevento’s symphonic piano underscoring of Storey Littleton’s sympathetic vocals on “Life on Mars?” threatens to surpass the original in terms of melodic sophistication and sheer iconic status. It will be hard to move on from this version not longing to hear Benevento’s melodic flourishes and subtle vocal harmonizing throughout. Closing with “Ziggy Stardust,” Rhett Miller manages to perfectly sum up the collection’s appeal with a heartfelt acoustic rendition of the 1972 classic.
Those looking to put together an album of well-known pop songs aimed at children would be well served to use Let All the Children Boogie as their guiding template. Not only are these versions that can be enjoyed by the entire family, but they also complement the originals in a way few similarly-themed collections have managed thus far. Let All the Children Boogie is a must for Bowie fans of all ages.
Let All the Children Boogie track listing:
1. The Honeydogs and Chastity Brown – Oh! You Pretty Things
2. Walter Martin – Breaking Glass
3. Sonia de los Santos and Elena Moon Park – The Man Who Sold the World
4. Rachel Loshak with the New Standards – Starman
5. Lloyd H. Miller and Dean Jones – V-2 Schneider
6. Sally Timms and Jon Langford – The Prettiest Star
7. Molly Ledford – Sound and Vision
8. Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players – Kooks
9. Antibalas – Let’s Dance
10. Gustafer Yellowgold and the Pop Ups – Space Oddity
11. Ted Leo – Heroes
12. Wunmi – Fashion
13. Storey Littleton with Marco Benevento – Life on Mars?
14. Gina Chavez – Modern Love
15. Red Yarn – Magic Dance
16. Nakia and the Barton Hills Choir – Golden Years
17. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower featuring Simi Stone – Changes
18. Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham – Lady Stardust
19. Colin Brooks – I’ll Follow You
20. Rhett Miller – Ziggy Stardust
Let All the Children Boogie is available from Amazon.