Elementary School Kids Sing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” & Other Rock Hits: A Cult Classic Recorded in 1976

In 1976 and 1977 an inspired music teacher in the small school dis­trict of Lan­g­ley Town­ship, British Colum­bia, a sub­urb of Van­cou­ver, record­ed his ele­men­tary school stu­dents singing pop­u­lar songs in a school gym. Two vinyl records were pro­duced over the two years, and fam­i­lies were invit­ed to pay $7 for a copy. The record­ings were large­ly for­got­ten — just anoth­er per­son­al memen­to stored away in a few homes in West­ern Cana­da — until a record col­lec­tor stum­bled across a copy in a thrift store in 2000.

Enthralled by what he heard, the col­lec­tor sent a sam­ple to a disc jock­ey at WFMU, an eclec­tic,  lis­ten­er-sup­port­ed radio sta­tion in New Jer­sey. The sta­tion began play­ing some of the songs over the air­waves. Lis­ten­ers were touched by the haunt­ing, ethe­re­al qual­i­ty of the per­for­mances. In 2001, a small record com­pa­ny released a com­pi­la­tion called The Lan­g­ley Town­ship Music Project: Inno­cence & Despair.

The record became an under­ground hit. The Wash­ing­ton Post called it “an album that seems to cap­ture noth­ing less than the sound of falling in love with music.” Spin said the album “seems to sum up all the rea­sons music is holy.” And Dwight Gamer of The New York Times wrote that the music was “mag­ic: a kind of celes­tial pep ral­ly.” Lis­ten­ers were moved by the ingen­u­ous­ness of the young voic­es, the strange authen­tic­i­ty of per­for­mances by chil­dren too young to under­stand all of the adult themes in the lyrics. As Hans Fenger, the music teacher who made the record­ings, writes in the lin­er notes:

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.

You can learn the sto­ry of Fenger’s extra­or­di­nary music project in the 2002 VH1 doc­u­men­tary above, which includes inter­views and a reunion with some of the stu­dents. And lis­ten below for a few sam­ples of that touch­ing qual­i­ty of lone­li­ness and sad­ness Fenger and oth­ers have been talk­ing about.

David Bowie’s ‘Space Odd­i­ty’:

One of the most wide­ly praised songs from Inno­cence & Despair is the 1976 record­ing of David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty.” In a 2001 inter­view with Mike Appel­stein for Scram mag­a­zine, Fenger explained the sound effects in the record­ing. “When I first taught ‘Space Odd­i­ty,’ ” he said, “the first part I taught after the song was the kids count­ing down. They loved that: they’d go ‘TEN!’ They could­n’t say it loud enough; the count­down in the song was the big win­ner. But as soon as they got to zero, noth­ing hap­pened. So I brought this old steel gui­tar. Well, one of the lit­tle guys whose name I’ve for­got, I put him on this thing and said, ‘Now lis­ten, when they get to zero, you’re the rock­et. So make a lot of noise on this. He’s fool­ing around with this steel gui­tar, and I did­n’t even think of this, but he intu­itive­ly took out a Coke bot­tle from his lunch and start­ed doing this (imi­tates a bot­tle run­ning up and down the fret­board). I just cranked up the vol­ume and turned down the mas­ter vol­ume so it was real­ly dis­tort­ed. And that was the ‘Space Odd­i­ty’ sound effect.”

The Beach Boys’ ‘In My Room’:

The chil­dren record­ed “In My Room” by the Beach Boys in 1977. Fenger told Appel­stein it was the ulti­mate chil­dren’s song. “It’s the per­fect intro­spec­tive song for a nine-year-old,” he said, “just as ‘Dust in the Wind’ is the per­fect phi­los­o­phy song for a nine-year-old. Adults may think it’s dumb, but for a child, it’s a very heavy, pro­found thought. To think that there is noth­ing, and it’s expressed in such a sim­ple way.”

The Eagles’ ‘Des­per­a­do’:

Sev­er­al of the record­ings fea­ture soloists. A young girl named Sheila Behman sang the Eagles’ “Des­per­a­do” in 1977. “With ‘Des­per­a­do,’ ” said Fenger, “you can see it as a cow­boy roman­tic sto­ry, but that’s not the way Sheila heard it. She could­n’t artic­u­late metaphor­i­cal­ly what the song was about, but in that sense, I think it was pur­er because it was unaf­fect­ed. It’s not as if the kids were try­ing to be some­body else. They were just try­ing to be who they were, and they’re doing this music and falling in love with it.”

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Comments (4)
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  • Big Ticket says:

    cool stuff. I went to Bel­mont in the 90’s and nobody ever men­tioned this but I don’t think any­body knew it exist­ed. I dis­cov­ered the album a few years ago ran­dom­ly on the inter­net. nBel­mont has a real­ly good music teacher and i’m sure he’d love to hear about this

  • AB says:

    “Plan­et Earth is blue and there’s noth­ing I can do…“nGreat post. I find, for me, that it is almost impos­si­ble to be unmoved when lis­ten­ing to chil­dren singing, or when read­ing about the efforts of one fan­tas­tic teacher. The song choic­es were, and are, time­ly.

  • rg57 says:

    Wow. It takes a lot to get me to watch some­thing on youtube twice in a row.nnnThese kids were so lucky to have this teacher.

  • artlife says:

    this is all kinds of won­der­ful ~ pri­mal, clear, thrilling

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