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Lo-Fi Hi-Fives: The Langley Schools Music Project-Innocence & Despair

“If you wanna know if you’ve written a hit, play it for kids.”–Monica Lynch

Welcome to the third installment of Lo-Fi Hi-Fives, where we favor tiny gyms over large stadiums. Today, we take a look at Innocence and Despair, the album that heavily influenced the 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock.

In 1971, Hans Fenger was a struggling 24-year-old Vancouver musician–by day teaching guitar at a music shop; at night gigging at rock clubs. When his girlfriend became pregnant, Fenger spiraled into career panic. He straightened up, rocketed through his remaining schooling, and became a full-fledged teacher in 1974. He got hired for his first teaching gig in the Langley district, a small rural area in the Western Canada Bible Belt.

Langley was an isolated, conservative place; many kids lived on family farms and some rode to school on horseback. The administration was mostly unperceptive to the new guitar-strummin’ hippie, all except for Pat Bickerton, an elder teacher and respected community member. Bickerton’s enthusiasm for urban tastes (he loved Miles and Coltrane) and unwavering support for Fenger’s subtle subversiveness lead to more teaching opportunities for the unorthodox instructor.

Hans’ style bore virtually zero resemblance to conventional music education. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune or out was no big deal. He valued music “feel” over theory, the arrangements were “organic” (i.e., “head arrangements,” existing not on paper, but taught orally or explained by example). The coursework favored contemporary radio hits in favor of “classic” children’s music, which was often condescending and ignored the scary and lonely parts of childhood.

Fenger encouraged the kids to sing songs they liked and which reflected their viewpoints; stuff that had emotion, drama, and were fun to perform as a group. He taught unison vocal parts, counterpoint, percussive patterns and accents, and one- and two-note guitar and bass riffs. The kids used Orff percussion, which had a simple beauty in which no struck note was ever “wrong” In 1976, Hans thought it would be fun to record an album. Meanwhile, Pat Bickerson had been diagnosed with cancer. He was no longer teaching.

It was a logistics nightmare, but Fenger organized a pep rally-sized sing-along featuring students from all three schools in the Langley sphere (South Carvolth, Lochiel, and Glenwood). Some kids were driven great distances. Hans had a pal bring a Revox two-track deck to Glenwood, along with two Shure SM-58 mics. Nine songs were recorded–each in one take. Money was collected from the students and an estimated 300 LPs were pressed for performers, parents, classmates, and faculty. A year later a second album of twelve songs was recorded at Wix-Brown Elementary. Both albums were dedicated to the memory of Pat Bickerton of Lochiel School, “a lover of all music.”

In the late 70’s, the family that Fenger became a teacher to provide for dissolved and he returned home to Vancouver where he taught a much more diverse student base for many more years. The untitled Langley recordings languished in thrift store hell for decades until they were discovered by an aficionado named Brian Linds. Ten labels rejected Linds and his outsider musician friend Irwin Chusid, until Bar/None Records released the found artifacts under the title Innocence and Despair.

The unearthed sounds caused a bizarre combination of joy and chills for the 21st Century: the sonic dodgeballs crafted in the canyonesque gym conjured up dated Spectorisms like “wall of sound” and “symphonies for the kids.” Perhaps the most haunting aspect of these recordings is that they were never meant to be heard beyond a small community nearly 50 years in the past. The students didn’t have illusions of record deals or TV cameras, the only things on their mind were the hopes, fears, anxieties, and fantasies that exists within every youngster.

Class begins with the thunderclap downbeats of “Venus and Mars/Rock Show,” from the band that Paul McCartney was in. Although these are two LPs melded together with a varying chorus of kids the sequencing is very good: “Rock Show” does what a good opener should by being exciting, inviting, and giving just a hint of what’s to come.

Brian Wilson wrote fantastic children’s songs, with six appearing on Innocence & Despair. The words sound heavenly here but the achingly vulnerable “God Only Knows” and charming spell “Good Vibrations” are sneakily complex, and the ensemble somewhat stumbles staying together. The kids are out-of-sync in “Vibrations” in particular, continuously tripping over the line “exaltations.” Langley’s cover of “Good Vibrations” appeared in the trailer for the “documentary” Catfish.

I’m only so tough on the struggles to adapt intricate Beach Boys classics because “Space Oddity” sounds fucking fantastic. Tremolo-drenched guitar, soda bottle decrescendo, restrained vocal intensity, and an overeager nine-year-old drummer with his own sense of time are all lost in the cosmos with no control. David Bowie said this version was “a piece of art I couldn’t conceive of and described the backing arrangement as “astounding.” The creativity on display reminds me of Max Fisher’s explosive school plays from Rushmore

The long and winding “Road” is the lesser of the three solo performances but it’s pleasant and simple; just had the misfortune of following the wild “Oddity” and coming before two of the most fun songs: “Band on the Run” and “I’m Into Something Good.” I love the xylophone substituting for the guitar flourishes on “Run” as well the stack-of-plates cymbal crashes during that infinitely singable chorus. “I’m Into Something Good” has delightful backing vocals and a nonstop clap metronome.

The act of youngsters singing adult lyrics that couldn’t possibly experience or relate to sometimes creates a disconnect, such as the one-night stand talk on “Something Good.” Those are the moments that sound like a computer reciting words, lyrics separated from context. But it other moments, the presence of a child narrator actually strengthens a song’s storytelling aspect. Wilson’s moody “In My Room” gains an added layer of naive sadness, and his boastful drag racer on “I Get Around” sounds even more immature (I find both of these tracks a bit meandering, though)

“S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y!” The Bay City Rollers “Saturday Night” gets a high energy, tremor-inducing tribute. The un-trained kids demonstrate remarkable restraint and maturity: they sing in unison but don’t just shout over everything, the combined voice rises and falls. But when they do shout, the results are hair-raising and incendiary. I think the liner notes somewhat overhype the makeshift “wall of sound” provided by the gym, but there are moments on here that are very, very good.

The first song recorded was “Help Me, Rhonda” which was easy to sing in two parts. Nothing was written down–these kids could not read music. It worked well–the students wanted to play “Rhonda” ten times a day! The piece was worked out with guitar rather than piano, as is usually the case with kid’s choirs. This forced students to listen to each other rather than to a dominant piano. Fenger always felt this “Desperado” was better than versions by the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt. Sheila Behman, who sang it, was only nine, and her delivery evoked such electrifying soulfulness without a trace of sentimentality.

They didn’t know it while recording, but two of these songs would eventually erode into parody: “Sweet Caroline” as an overplayed ballpark staple and “Wildfire” as a beaten-into-the-ground David Letterman joke. Thankfully, “Rhiannon,” which chronicles obsession with an enigmatic sorceress, remains as haunting as ever. “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” a 1975 anthem by the off-the-radar prog-rockers Klaatu (and covered by the Carpenters), is a peculiar choice for a closer by any measure. But it combines so many of the best preceding moments that the song takes on the form of a pulse-pounding final exam.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of kids covering popular songs (such as the wretched Kidz Bop franchise) or hip teachers having their students perform “Everywhere with Helicopter,” but Innocence & Despair perfectly captures the joy of recording music and the feeling of having a great teacher around. If you look in the comments for the YouTube videos for some of these songs you can see former Langley students praising Fenger for being such a positive influence on their lives.

Final Judgement, on the order of zero to five fingers (with a hi five being a perfect score): Four fingers; a paper hand-turkey cut by a child without adult supervision so the turkey is missing a head.

Superfluous Rankings (in the liner notes, all but one of these songs is labeled as either Innocence (I) or Despair (D)).
1. Space Oddity (D)
2. Saturday Night (I)
3. I’m Into Something Good (I)
4. Desperado (D)
5. Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (I)
6. Band on the Run (D)
7. Rhiannon (D)
8. Help Me, Rhonda (D)
9. God Only Knows (D)
10. Venus and Mars/Rock Show (I)
11. Good Vibrations (I)
12. Mandy (D)
13. Wildfire (D)
14. You’re So Good to Me (I)
15. In My Room (I)
16. The Long and Winding Road (D)
17. To Know Him Is to Love Him (I)
18. I Get Around (?)
19. Sweet Caroline (I)

Next Time: 3