What is it about children’s choruses in pop music? Is it a nostalgic response? Is it a nod to ephemerality, an awareness on some level that the exact same kids a year later would have totally different voices? Whatever impulse drives producers (cough cough Bob Ezrin) to deploy that move, it’s enough of a cliché that when it’s used, it’d better be done effectively, like in “School’s Out,” or hit the unsuspecting listener like a bomb as in “Another Brick In The Wall Part II.” If it’s treacle like “Toy Soldiers,” you’re making the world a worse place. (I’m not going to link that one. If you don’t know it, count your blessings and move on. If you do know it and I just earwormed you, I am sincerely sorry for that.)
A great example of getting it spectacularly right dispenses with the pop singer and producer altogether and just leaves the whole job to the kids. The celebrated Langley Schools Music Project was undertaken by novice music teacher Hans Fenger, who eschewed typical children’s fare for his chorales, favoring instead the recent radio pop of the time - the mid ‘70s, with a lot of British Invasion and Beach Boys in the mix. Two vanity-pressed LPs were made, both recorded live in school gyms. Those albums would have gathered dust on proud parents’ shelves or languished in Vancouver thrift store bins had they not been brought to the attention of WFMU’s longtime champion of outsider music, Irwin Chusid. Chusid arranged for the release of the albums on Bar/None Records, and the CD Innocence & Despair was released to acclaim in 2001.
The temptation to chalk up the kudos to hip irony should be resisted here. These recordings are just flat out incredible. The kids ranged in age from 9-12, and so were recorded before the pressures of adolescence and high school had a chance to stifle their expressiveness. As Fenger put it in the liner notes from Innocence, quoted here from Wikipedia,
I knew virtually nothing about conventional music education, and didn’t know how to teach singing. Above all, I knew nothing of what children’s music was supposed to be. But the kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama, and making music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune or out was no big deal—they had élan.
Élan, absolutely, and, it must be added, a seeming total lack of pretension. Though these songs were radio staples of their day, most of the ‘70s tunes have fallen from favor for their hokeyness, bombast, or their reflection of an acutely mid ‘70s complacency. But hearing stripped down arrangements of the songs sung by naifs who just really love to sing them is transformative. Check out the Langley kids’ take on that most eye-rollingly douchey of Eagles songs, “Desperado:”
It’s so much better sung by a novice kid than by a bunch of satisfied, self-mythologizing, dick swinging millionaire Laurel Canyon coke-fiends, is it not? The kids’ version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is so emotionally resonant that it could well be the only possible remake that doesn’t fall conspicuously short of Carl Wilson’s golden-voiced canonical performance.
I don’t care how grizzled and jaded a hipster you are—shit, I don’t care if you’re a 400 pound biker who’s killed a half dozen Aryan Brotherhood guys in prison—if you aren’t a little moved by that, you’re a fucking robot.
Can you imagine such a thing happening now? I don’t see it, myself. This was an era during which, aside from the eternal handful of canny nods to Tiger Beat-ish female juvinilia like Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, et al, there was no massive tween entertainment niche as we know it today. Junior high kids, for the most part, listened to the same pop radio fare as high schoolers and, before the advent of the Adult Contemporary radio format, grownups alike. Can you imagine 9-12 year olds in 2013 opting to sing Blitzen Trapper over Justin Bieber? The band Gomez over Selina Gomez? Mazzy Star over Miley? There’s just no way.
Individual tracks made rounds of the Internet as hey-check-out-this-goofy-cover sharity on some of the more oddity-oriented sites during the mid-oughts’ heyday of MP3 blogs, but Bar/None has recently uploaded the entire album to YouTube as individual tracks. This may well be the first time the entire collection has been legitimately available for free listening. The entire compilation is posted here. In the interest of preserving the CD order, I’ve reposted the two songs already shared above, I hope you’ll pardon that redundancy.
Paul McCartney and Wings, “Venus & Mars/Rock Show” - a good start, but it gets better
Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations” - I love the two-note xylophone solo standing in for the original’s famous theremin freakout.
Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”
David Bowie, “Space Oddity” - shit gets HECTIC at 1:04.
The Beatles, “The Long And Winding Road” - this is lovely, and renders moot the overwrought Phil Spector version on Let It Be.
Paul McCartney and Wings, “Band on the Run” - the most ambitious arrangement here. The percussionist plainly had a fine time.
Beach Boys, “In My Room” - does this song not make much more sense sung by kids than by five grown men?
Herman’s Hermits, “I’m Into Something Good” - you just know if this were today, some dick parent would sue the school over the “one night stand” line.
Bay City Rollers, “Saturday Night” - it’s fun to hear the kids keeping up the chanting between 2:30 and the end, though it strikes me that the fade-out may have been cover for encroaching sloppiness.
Beach Boys, “I Get Around” - yay, more Beach Boys…
Barry Manilow, “Mandy” - see, his songs have capabilities when you strip out the Broadway/Vegas chintz.
Beach Boys, “Help Me, Rhonda” - how much money did Mike Love get from this album?
The Eagles, “Desperado”
Beach Boys, “You’re So Good To Me” - last Beach Boys song. If you’re not a fan you can relax now.
Neil Diamond, “Sweet Caroline” - why couldn’t this have had six Neil Diamond songs instead of six Beach Boys songs? I want to hear them do “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show!”
Teddy Bears, “To Know Him Is To Love Him” - speaking of Phil Spector.
Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon” - another one I didn’t know I liked until I heard someone other than the original artist singing it.
Michael Martin Murphy, “Wildfire” - one of the more acutely ‘70s songs here. I went back to listen to the original on this one, as I haven’t actually heard this song since I was a kid in the ‘70s. I expected it to hold up poorly, but to my surprise, it sounds a lot like the current Texas band Midlake, whom I’ve quite liked. Still, the kids again crush the original here.
The Carpenters, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” - this is probably the finishing move for a reason. It’s the most whatthefuckishly lysergic song choice, but it turned out REALLY great. I’d like to think the kids knew this was originally a Klaatu song, but that strikes me as doubtful.
A documentary on how Innocence & Despair was made, discovered, and released.
The end of this clip has great footage of ESL kids singing Abba’s “Fernando.”