Here’s a link to the MySpace page of the Langley School Project, recordings from 1976-77 of a 60 voice children’s choir doing the hits of the time – McCartney, Bowie, The Beach Boys, the Eagles, and others.
These recordings made a big splash some years ago when they were discovered and subsequently released as an album entitled Innocence & Despair. The recordings were literally a school project, headed up by music teacher Hans Fenger based in Langely B.C (just up the road from where I’m writing this), and incorporating 60 students who sang and played percussion instruments on songs which included David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Band on the Run”, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, and the Eagles’ “Desperado”. The record polarized opinion. Some said that the takes on the songs create a sort of ghostly, otherworldly effect, while others denounced it as sounding amateurish and very “school assembly” in delivery. Perhaps it’s their origin which makes these recordings so compelling. Fenger had this to say about the project and the kids who created it:
“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. This was not the way music was traditionally taught. But then I never liked conventional ‘children’s music,’ which is condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary. These children hated ‘cute.’ They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness.”
I’m not quite sure where I stand on them. I was in school and about the same age as the kids were when they recorded this on a 2-track recorder while in the school gymnasium. Canadian public schools in the mid-70s was going through an experimental stage, trying out a number of modern techniques in teaching, like teaching music by getting kids to sing choral versions of rock songs for instance. In my case, we didn’t do this, but we were allowed more free rein in the “classroom” by way of an open concept floor where we could try out different “centres” during the course of a day instead of traditional lessons. This was the environment out of which these recordings come. And there is a certain nostalgia attached to these recordings, I guess.
If you like children’s choirs, you’ll either love this or hate it since the arrangements are not polished, despite how on-key the voices are. There aren’t too many examples of professionally arranged harmonies for instance. All of the kids, with a few exceptions, sing in unison although they do so very well. Yet a part of the charm is that a lot of the lyrical content is given a twist by virtue of the fact that they’re being sung by children, and not jaded rock stars. And I suppose there is a certain ghostly quality to the songs, although you feel yourself wondering whether this really comes off as something entertaining, or just hearing it as a novelty, a curiosity of something that is of its time, and meant for a narrower audience than it got .
Apparently, the proceeds of the recordings go to the kids who sang on it, and to the Langely school board too. The orginal releases were strictly for the school, but were given a wider release. When they were released, music critics from far and wide praised them to the skies. Like I said, I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced all-around. But many do find these recordings as something of a return to innocence, the sound of a bygone age. And I have to admit that there are moments in the songs where something special bursts through, little instances of greatness that make you wonder if they got the effect deliberately, or whether it just sort of turned out that way.
What do you think, good people? Amateurish or sublime?
To read more about the project, check out the Langley Schools Music Project Wikipedia entry.