What is the most remarkable album ever recorded in British Columbia, by British Columbians?
You might be tempted to say something by Bryan Adams, or Michael Buble, or whomever your favourite, criminally underrated musician is.
But if you consider the odds of success and road to fame, the answer is probably the Langley Schools Music Project: an album that began in a Langley school gymnasium, 40 years ago this month.
“The whole story is a bit of serendipity. Things just happened. I didn’t have a plan at 9 a.m. what I was going to teach. It just kind of happened as it happened,” says Hans Fenger.
You probably haven’t heard of Fenger – but you probably have heard of School of Rock, the 2003 hit movie (and current Broadway musical) starring Jack Black, about a substitute music teacher who inspires his kids to learn rock and roll.
If you’ve watched that film, or listened to any recording of children singing rock songs from the last decade, you’ve heard the influence of Fenger’s class project.
The songs were recorded by Langley children in 1976, discovered by the public in 2001 and have been featured in many movies and TV shows since. They’re also set to be re-released later this year.
Not a bad legacy, for a spur of the moment idea by a Volvo-driving hippy who turned to teaching because he “needed the gig.”
“It made me understand the importance of fate,” said Fenger.
“This happened to happen, and that happened to happen, and it all kind of fit together.”
In 1976, Fenger was in his first year of being a music teacher, hired with no experience to oversee classes at Lochiel, Glenwood, and South Carvolth.
“It was necessity. I was teaching guitar a little bit at private music stores, my girlfriend at the time ended up getting pregnant, I had to get a job,” he said.
“I already had a university degree, and at that time, Langley was starting to move from a rural to an urban area, so they had a huge teacher shortage. And they were kind of hiring anyone, including me…I needed to support my family.”
From the day he entered the classroom, Fenger’s students knew he was no ordinary teacher.
“He walked into our music class, and we had this teacher before, who was your typical teacher, taught us You Are My Sunshine and things like that. And in walks in this kind of cool guy with sunglasses on, a velour blazer, jeans,” said (former student) Lurene Music.
“He was like no other teacher we ever had. He was teaching us songs that our older siblings were listening to and I said ‘this is cool.’ He always had a guitar with him, and he always held his pick like a cigarette.”
At that stage, Fenger was figuring out his teaching philosophy day by day – but he soon realized that teaching students the same songs he liked worked on multiple levels.
“From the very beginning of my teaching career, I had always really thought that my job was to have children fall in love with making music. That was really what I wanted to do. If they had fun doing it – as much making music as I had – it really didn’t matter to me whether they were playing so well. If they were doing a good job, having a great time, that was the main thing to me,” he said.
“My goal was never to have great little guitar players and singers, it was always have a good time with this. When you encourage kids to play sports, you try and get them to play sports for life. You’re not trying to teach them to become Maria Sharapova, you just want them to find a tennis court and have a good time.”
After a few months, he was jamming with his friend who had bought a new ReVox tape recorder. Out of the blue, he suggested they use the machine to record his students. Suddenly, the music classes became rehearsals.
“He involved everyone, and everyone sang, and you didn’t fake it,” said Music(really his name?), who still remembers the details of the classes.
“He also made it fun, so most of the kids really enjoyed it. There’s always a couple who are like, that’s not my thing, but he also got people in instruments, and nobody knew how to play anything before he came along.”
Fenger made sure every student had a part to play, and and wasn’t shy about pushing students out of their comfort zones.
“I was in the back row, and was very shy. And he pointed one afternoon, and said I want you to stay after school for a solo,” said Darla Kendrick, now a professional singer.
“I was so excited, because music was everything in my life.”
“Because of my own aesthetic for singing, I liked the kids who were shy,” said Fenger.
“My favourite singers in the 70s…I was absolutely enamoured with Karen Carptener, and I loved the way she had no real mannerisms in her voice, which is what I love with little children. They don’t try and sound like anyone else.”
Guitars had strings removed, so children with small hands could hit all the (modified) notes. Shy children were paired with outgoing ones on the risers, so they would be inspired to sing. And the many mallet, bell, and glockenspiel-based Orff instruments, recently bought by the districts, were used extensively to give the music the atmospheric, almost otherworldly feel.
As for the songs? All rock-based, all chosen with Fenger – and many imbued with melancholy.
“Many of the songs that they ended up singing really reflected a kind of sadness, and in a weird way I think that really resonated with them, because it really made music an expression of themselves,” he said.
“It wasn’t a singalong, and it wasn’t oh, this is a children’s song, children will sound cute singing this. We weren’t singing Imagine, we were singing sad songs about being alone and despair. Even Space Oddity is a song about being alone in space.”
At the end of the year, after a couple rehearsals where the students from the different schools all joined together for the first time, they recorded all the songs in one take.
“I go right back to that day. It was hot. There was a pause in between this song, and he would lead us into the next one, with a nod of his chin,” said Music.
“I didn’t have time, they had buses to catch to go home. I had no time to do two takes. It was all going to be one take, and that was it. They came in there and knew the songs, absolutely,” he said.
“Those were the songs we played during the year…much later I thought ‘oh I should have done this one, or that one.’ I just sort of did their greatest hits.”
Novelty albums were made for all the students, the exercise was repeated with different songs – and students from different Langley schools – the next year, and the exercise was slowly forgotten about.
And then 25 years later, discovered all over again.
In 2000, a Victoria music collector found a copy of the first album in thrift store. He was so taken with the sound that he sent it to Irwin Chusid, a well-known, if eccentric, New York DJ.
“Irwin played music that was kind of called incorrect music. This was way beyond alternative music…Irwin played it on his radio program, and the phone rang off the hook,” said Fenger.
From there, the fame spread quickly: from Chusid finding a company to release the album, to people as famous as David Bowie praising the record, to glowing reviews by publications spanning from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, to a special documentary on VH1.
“David Bowie thought it was a new wave band from New Jersey, that they were a minimalist art project, and hew as quite mind-blown that it was 9-year-old kids from this little rural place in Vancouver,” said Fenger with a laugh.
“When it came out, I listened to it again, and thought what’s the big deal?” said Music.
“We’re a bunch of kids singing kind of off key, and the cymbals are too loud, and what’s the big deal? And then I kind of realized what it was.”
When the students reunited for the VH1 documentary, it secured bonds between themselves, and with Fenger, that remain to this day.
“He was a kid at heart, and I think kids respond to that,” said Kendrick. “Hans was definitely an inspiration in my life at that time, and it meant a lot to me…He was his own person, and his own authentic self.”
“When he told me I was singing that solo, I thought ‘how could he pick me?’ I’m not good enough. But he gave that confidence to say ‘yeah, I’m going to do it, because I have that ability.’ So you go into the world, and think a little differently about yourself,” said Music.
“He really pushed you right out to centre stage.”
Fenger continued to teach in Metro Vancouver schools and to record class albums until he retired a few years ago. But he says nothing ever rivaled that first year in Langley.
“I think they liked the fact that I wasn’t like the other teachers…I took them out of their day very much, and took them into a different world. And that world was really exciting to them,” he said.
“I needed a gig, I had a baby, but in all honesty…I never got quite as high as when I was making music with those kids.”
-Justin McElroy, GlobalNews