No album has successfully captured the vague sadness of childhood better than The Langley Schools Music Project's Innocence and Despair. Perhaps because it was made by children themselves, perhaps because all these children have now grown up and may well mourn the loss of innocence as adults tend to as they continue their slow crawl towards the grave. The inherent woe and fragility of childhood fills every fumbling nook and cranny of this album. It is painful and bittersweet like the death of summer, or a Judy Blume book. This album will simulteneously warm and break your heart.
Long before Jack Black or School of Rock there was Hans Louis Fenger, a typically broke Vancouver rocker who took a job at Belmont Elementary in rural Langley, British Columbia in 1971. He started teaching the kids pop songs of the time using no theory or sheet music, showing the kids just enough to get through the arrangements. The kids loved it. Four years later Fenger was teaching grades 4-7 at three different schools. Soon after, Fenger organized a giant concert in one of the school's gymnasiums with kids from all over BC to perform for parents and staff alike. The instrumentation was as follows:
- electric bass, featuring a girl plucking on open-tuned string with a Marshall amp bigger than she was.
- a stripped-down drum kit; a bass drum on a pedestal; and hand cymbals
- a 1940s-vintage National Steel laptop electric; wired through a tremolo
- Orff xylophones and metallophones
- hand percussion, eg., tambourines and claves
- acoustic rhythm guitar and piano (played by Fenger)
Fenger enlisted his friend Glen Finseth to help record the album. He brought his Revox 2-track deck to Glenwood Elementary and strategically placed two mics in the massive gymnasium. This attributes to the ghostly atmosphere of the record, it adds to the bizarre sense of melancholy of the performance. The kids recorded nine songs in one take. Fenger pooled up money from the parents and faculty and pressed a scant 300 LPs to give to those involved.
In 1977 Fenger was teaching at Wix-Brown Elementary in Langley. It was there that a second recording was made of 12 songs. Fenger estimates that 150 kids took part in these sessions, as well as a gymnastic performance set to Space Oddity. In 1979 Fenger returned to Vancouver where he still resides to this day teaching music.
One of the reasons Innocence and Despair works so well is the choice of songs. The delicate nature of Brian Wilson's compositions are best sang by children, and five of his songs represented here. But the clear winner is the haphazard and absolutely devastating version of Space Oddity. The Langley School's rendition of The Eagles ballad Desperado is another choice cut with 8-year-old Sheila Behman delivering the song with more vulnerability and longing than any adult could ever muster. This is precisely why Innocence & Despair is heavy without being loud, beautiful without being well-orchestrated, and absolutely moving without being overly concerned with being so. Innocence & Depair is the sound of the heartbreak of a fleeting childhood, the sound of a thousand scraped knees on the way to the numbing ennui of adulthood.