Looking back 20 years later


More radically, Fenger adapted the program to speak to the inner lives of his students. Instead of light meals, he understood that children were drawn to songs that answered their darkest fears. “A lot of these kids didn’t have happy childhoods,” he told reporter Mike Applestein in 2002. “I think what I did with them gave them a voice… It was purely fortunate ; it wasn’t like I had thought about it. The children themselves have pointed this out to me. Of course, there’s a lot of Brian Wilson on Innocence & Despair, because few pop artists have captured such a childish perspective. There is something powerful about hearing a group of kids singing “In My Room”, as if Wilson had planned it for all tweens from the start. The Langley children understand this sense of retreat and refuge all too well, which lends a sense of intimacy and gravity to this meditation on seclusion.

Fenger documented these songs primarily because he believed that recording an album could be a good lesson for his students. So he installed a two-track recorder at the Glenwood School Gymnasium, taking advantage of the natural reverberation of the space to add three-dimensional quality to these recordings. You can almost hear how the children were laid out on the gymnasium floor, where the instruments were placed, where the soloists stood. In fact, for “Calling Occupants”, Fenger had one of his students climb a high ladder in the middle of the gymnasium, so that his voice sounded as if it came from the sky. He pressed 300 copies and sold them all to parents. Then he repeated the process at the nearby Wix-Brown Elementary School a few months later.

By the time he left the school system in 1979, most of these students had graduated and their vinyl records were probably gathering dust, eventually made obsolete by CDs and completely forgotten. The Langley Schools Music Project came into being primarily through the efforts of crateigger Irwin Chusid, who was fascinated by art made outside of industry and disseminated through alternative distribution models. In the late 1990s, he hosted a radio show called The Incorrect music time; fan contributions were not uncommon, but a burnt CD of a listener named Brian Lind caught his ear, especially the Langley students’ version of “Space Oddity.” Chusid contacted the school district, but no one remembered the tapes or even Hans Fenger. It took a lot of detective work, not to mention negotiations with skeptical record labels, before Hoboken indie Bar / None Records agreed to release it, combining the recordings of Glenwood and Wix-Brown on one CD.

Who could have predicted that a children’s album would have been a great success? Innocence & Despair made a big splash, and the waves are still rippling outward two decades later. In 2002, VH1 released a documentary that brought together many students, while David Bowie joined the Langley Schools Music Project when he organized the Meltdown Festival in London. He even gave some really weird praise for their cover of “Space Oddity”: “The backing arrangement is amazing. Coupled with a serious but dismal vocal performance, you’ve got a piece of art that I couldn’t have done. imagine, even with half of Colombia’s best export in me. These songs appear in movie and TV shows whenever the directors want to cover the wonder or the sadness or both at the same time. In 2009 , Karen O cited the reissue as the inspiration for her soundtrack of Where the wild things are. “The songs are all kinds of jangly and flawed,” she said. new York magazine, “but the heart behind you is killing you”.

Twenty years later, however, the novelty has faded a bit and newcomers may wonder what it was. Foreign music has become more readily available, so that even the most obscure fan cover or outraged album can be released by anyone, and the reissue market, coupled with the resurgence of vinyl, has given rise to a new life to previously marginal figures like the Shaggs, Donnie & Joe Emerson, Lewis and Todd. Foreign music has lost part of its outward character. Beyond that, the regrettable a cappella revival of the 2010s, driven by Joy and the Perfect movies, has changed the way we hear choir music, even something as flawed and technically flawed as Langley’s performances. But the passing years have intensified the sound quality found in this strange album, reminding us that these children are no longer children. In 2001, they were in their thirties, and many of them had young children of their own; in 2021, they are in their fifties, some with grandchildren. There is something irretrievable about these recordings – not just the innocence and despair of the singers, but ours. Listening to these songs is about considering how we age with pop music, how we relate to our favorite songs in different ways at different stages of our lives. Because it always retains a little of our youth between the notes, because it often expresses something that we always risk losing, all pop music is in a way children’s music.


About Shirley A. Tamayo

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