In the early 70s, Vancouver musician Hans Fenger decided to get a real job. His girlfriend was pregnant, and he couldn’t raise a family on earnings from club gigs and guitar lessons. He got a teaching certificate and a job in the Langley school district. He found some common ground with his students by teaching them what he knew—rock songs. He had no idea what he was doing, but with the encouragement of some colleagues, he soon found himself in charge of multi-school children’s choirs belting out the hits of yesterday and today. Their set list included lots of Beach Boys and McCartney (Beatles and Wings), a bit of Bowie, Neil Diamond, The Eagles and Klaatu, all set to arrangements that Fenger adapted to acoustic guitar, piano, snare drums, cymbals, and bells.
God only knows what the parents in Langley thought of school concerts consisting of “Space Oddity” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” The choir and their hip repertoire must have become a pretty big deal, because Fenger recorded the choir twice (in 1976 and 1977) by setting up a reel-to-reel and a couple of mikes in an empty gymnasium, without the distractions of expectant families and friends. He used the tapes to press a few hundred records for the kids and their parents.
25 years later Bar None Records compiled and released these singular documents as Innocence and Despair: The Langley Schools Music Project. I read a lot of press on it when the CD was released (what with the local angle and all), but now that I’ve heard it, it’s as wondrous as the hype proclaimed.
It’s a strange experience to hear the songs stripped down to just a vocal line and some faint, disembodied accompaniment (except for the drums, which are loud and occasionally random!). None of the songs suffer for it, they just become…something else.
I only intended to listen to the first couple songs when I first put it on last weekend, but I ended up listening to the whole thing in one go. For the belter, it made the Beach Boys acceptable. For me, it made me realize that Alan Partridge may be right: perhaps Wings were the band the Beatles could have been.
Two solo performances on the CD are worth noting. Joy Jackson sings “The Long and Winding Road”—this kid is totally the best singer in her school, as I was heard to remark when I first heard it. You know how there's always that one kid who's famous schoolwide for her/his one thing? That was Joy and her Beatles song, I bet. A few tracks later, Sheila Behman takes on The Eagles’ “Desperado” in amazingly poised fashion. I can’t stomach most solo kid singing, especially these days when young singers adopt that modulated and nasal faux-R&B style, patterned after the shite that drips out of their TVs. But these kids’ voices are so plain, clean and honest, it’s a minor revelation. They just sing the songs using their own voices. How radical.
I intended to write only a couple paragraphs about this album, and things got out of hand as usual. If you’re in Vancouver/Burnaby you can get this CD at the library, so pick it up and hear it for yourself (I hear they've pressed so many that they're selling them too. If you're feeling adventurous and flush, visit your local CD retailer). You can then formulate your own take on Innocence and Despair and safely disregard all of the above…if you haven’t already.