A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.
The Song: “Space Oddity”
from the 2001 album Innocence and Despair by the Langley Schools Music Project
originally by David Bowie
As mainstream pop goes, “Space Oddity” is definitely one of the weirder ones, and its story is so rich that I could spend a whole article writing about its life in the hands of David Bowie, both before and after its July 1969 release. I have many feelings about the Bowie versions — “Space Oddity” was the first song of his I’d heard — but he’s not my focus for this article, so in short: the album version is good, a nice, drawn-out five minutes that hints at his magnificent tunesmith abilities…
… and yet I’ve always preferred the early version that David Bowie released back in February 1969. It’s much more theatrical and spooky, the etherealness of it all coming to you in a much less showy, somehow ghostly vocal (combined with a video where for once Bowie is not the flamboyant alien we know him to be, but the naïve spaceboy drifting helplessly into the unknown). You feel like he actually means it when he says “and there’s nothing I can do”, the vulnerability and wide-eyed wonder at the nothingness of space is just too enchanting for me. So this version for the win as far as Bowie’s singing is concerned.
And yet there’s one other version which, despite its entrance long after the two versions above had engrained themselves into my mind, still manages to beat both versions in terms of sheer likability. And it’s a version sung by completely untrained Canadian students, a version that is breathtaking in its simplicity, stinging in its rawness, and devastating in its sorrow.
The Langley Schools Music Project is, strictly speaking, barely a real thing. Music teacher Hans Fenger, having quite a bit of time on his hands, basically decided in the spring of 1976 that he would record some schoolchildren singing together, to give the kids in that sleepy suburb of Vancouver something to remember when they got older. Over the course of two years, he got four schools of fifth-graders to sing songs that were making the rounds in Canada back then — which apparently included a LOT of the Beach Boys’ 60s hits. I have no idea why young kids in snowy Canada would be interested in surf music, but then I’m not one to talk. (Also amongst the track listings: renditions of “Band on the Run” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”, which are songs by, respectively, a Beatle and a band famously mistaken to be the Beatles regrouped. Heaven knows just how the Beatles can be pulled into everything.)
By his own admission, Fenger was not a professionally trained individual: he recalled in the liner notes of the 2001 broad reissue that “I knew nothing of what children’s music was supposed to be”. And that inexperience is visible at points on the recording: “I Get Around”, previously a tight, layered charge in the hands of the Beach Boys, is a sprawling, chaotic mess when the Langley kids sing it. (I’m not putting the link here because it truly is unlistenable.) But Fenger goes on to tell us that what these kids supposedly lacked for in talent, they made up in spades with their enthusiasm and their accurate grasp of drama. And when they could be arsed to summon up both of those qualities — as on their cover of “Space Oddity” — the results were amazing beyond description.
What pulls you in at the beginning is not the simple guitar playing, or the innocent voices of the children. We’ll get to those later. What really gets you interested is the tinkling of the metallophone and the organ 20 seconds in — that single note, the two instruments intertwining and vibrating and going deep within you. It punctuates that bland statement — “Ground Control to Major Tom”, boom — and at that moment, the infinite echoes of that note already tell you that this song is going big. It’s like the ceiling has been pulled back, to reveal the stars blinking upon you. Then the percussion begins to rattle, slowly ratcheting up the tension — you know that this is a tense affair, that everybody’s really looking forward to the successful launch of Major Tom. The children begin to count down, their voices growing louder and louder with each descending number. And when they reach zero, the electric guitar suddenly bursts forth, a horrendous spiralling note that makes you leap out of your seat. It’s probably just the sound effect for the rocket ascending, but for a brief moment — before the children’s voices come back — you wonder if it’s all gone wrong.
Of course, you can’t help noticing the slight imperfections that plague the piece. Many of the kids had never played an instrument before Mr. Fenger walked into their classroom, and even after a few months of rehearsal/music classes they wouldn’t be exactly right. So you can hear that single crash of the cymbals after the rocket launch, just a tad too late and blending into the next line. Or maybe you hear the child playing the guitar, and you notice how they’ve basically been playing the same chords over and over, sometimes even getting them wrong. It’s little touches like these that help you keep distance from the whole affair, just enough to keep yourself from totally believing that these kids are the most talented outsiders on Earth. They aren’t — but I’d argue that that’s what makes them even more charming and magical.
See, children’s choirs are nothing new in music — most of us will remember how Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” hammers home its nihilistic argument by bringing in 30 children to condemn the establishment. But it has to be used sparingly, and under the right conditions, for it to mean anything as it does in the Langley children’s version of “Space Oddity”. First, it has to be both just a bit amateurish and innocent: we believe that children are untainted by the things that trouble us adults, that they have absolutely no artifice in their pure voices. Whether this is true or not, these children’s unrefined voices sound almost angelic, and adorable in the way they sing these words out without appearing to dwell too much on making it sound right. Those mismatched beats that I mentioned in the last paragraph, they’re what make this record and this song special. These kids aren’t spending their time thinking about the character underneath, or how to make their voices sound purer or more torn, just to get the message across. They want to give their best performance, and that’s it. You can hear the kids fumbling their way around the instruments, and it’s that lack of pretension — that delight from them actually pulling this off — that makes you happy that you’re hearing them work their way through these songs, too. Their innocence delights you, making you look back to simpler times.
But this record is not called Innocence and Despair for nothing. For every ounce of innocence within the Langley children’s recording, there is a ton of baggage behind it. As Mr. Fenger put it: “These children hated ‘cute’. They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness.” When I was a kid and we had to do a song for our graduation ceremony, our teacher assigned us “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music” — sweet, but also very maudlin. When you stop to think about these kids’ repertoire, you realize it contains some pretty strange songs: “God Only Knows”, “Desperado”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “Space Oddity”. These aren’t happy songs (even if they have a happy ending), nor are they at all innocent. You don’t expect to hear these songs coming from a kid’s mouth — you need experience, unhappy experiences, knowledge of loss and melancholia for them to be believable.
I don’t know how they do it, but these kids just do it. When they sing the killer line, they don’t deliver it in a matter-of-fact way like Bowie does. Instead, they whisper, almost inaudibly, “here…” and their voices die away. Silence, except for the cymbal rattle. Then, tentatively, you hear, “am I” floating in the air, vulnerable and lonely. Maybe they already know the next words, maybe they already know how it ends — and they’re scared to say it. They’re don’t want to admit that there is nothing they can do. And when the next words (“floating round my tin can”) come in, they take care to accentuate it with that shimmering organ-bell combo note from earlier, and a few xylophone taps — it’s cheery, but they sing it slowly. The truth takes a while to sink in.
I don’t know if they actually knew what was happening behind those lines. Nine and ten is actually a terrifying age — the truths of personhood beginning to dawn upon you — but these kids are so sunny, you can’t help but also believe that they’re just good actors. (The kid in black clapping her hands on the album cover always haunts me — what does she know, and how could she still be so happy?) And it’s true that they have such good dramatic flair: the euphoric rush at the climax of the aforementioned countdown is just too good to ignore, and even I, a more cynical person at heart, couldn’t help but believe them when they shouted in joy. But behind it all, these kids at least imitate — if not actually feel — the emptiness and loneliness of “Space Oddity”.
Story time: I first came across this version while on a plane to Australia, on my first ever solo trip abroad. No friends, no waiting family on the other side. Just me and my luggage, sitting six miles high in the air, wondering what lay for me in Melbourne. There was only time for one film on the flight — and I chose Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck”, a tale of being lost and found in a big city. (The main characters were also deaf and penniless, but I assumed complete equivalence anyway.) During the end credits — just when I was about to turn off the screen and get some sleep — this song came on. And the magical note, the voices of the children got me. I had never felt so lost, nor had I ever felt that a band of children could understand my inner feelings so well (before or since). The melancholia — of separation, of not knowing where I stood — was crushing, completely consuming. I didn’t break down and cry, but I do remember rewinding the film, long into the night, endlessly replaying that enchanting song over and over again, savouring every drop of that rendition.I’ve tried countless times to relive that moment since arriving and then departing the Land Down Under: I searched for it for a VERY long time (was rubbish at the Internet back then, still am). And when I finally found it and replayed it, I listened hungrily for that single, magical note, for the hint of depression in the kids that I (in my slightly sadistic way) was eager to draw out and relive. At this point, you probably expect me to say that I failed — but not this time. Because every single time I turn on these kids’ version of “Space Oddity”, I still get a kick from hearing that note reach into me, grab my heart, and hold it out for all the kids to expose, even if I know what they’ll find. There’s something in their way of balancing innocence and despair that holds me, that forces me to confront my own loneliness. I love them, and the song, for that.
I’ve said before that pop music, among its many uses, transports us to worlds unknown, lets us discover how we feel. Now, I would not go so far as to make the argument that The Langley Schools Music Project is pop music in any sense. But it does beg the question: why is it able to do the same things? Let’s remind ourselves: we’re basically listening to a music class rehearse. Unlike what happened in “Here Is The News”, there’s enough mistakes here to make us be constantly aware of the fact — even in all my emotions, there’s still a part of me that says “hang on, this is complete outsider music, why are you so wretched?”. To be honest, I don’t know. But I think the answer could lie in my constant replays, my constant desire to revisit that mighty feeling, and in the very fact that this song is sung by children.
Lost innocence is a huge draw: there’s always this mythical idea that we have, that being young means simpler times. To us, children have an easier way of understanding the world, and a clearer conscience that allows them to not meld with its wicked ways. The Langley children hammers that home, reminds us that we were all once these young children, finding our way with the world. But you can’t completely descend into blissful ignorance — if you’re too busy being happy, it doesn’t mean anything cause you don’t know what you’ve been escaping from. And so the melancholy and the despair of the album’s title kicks in — the kids themselves provide you with that knowledge, shatter any illusions you have about attaining innocence. It’s this constant process of denial that we self-flagellate on through these songs: a continuing (and admittedly vicious) cycle of seeking our innocence, and losing it all over again. All the covers on Innocence and Despair do it well — but there’s an added sense of doom in “Space Oddity”, the vehemence of the words “and there’s nothing I can do”, that makes it even harder, and even more wonderful, to hear.
And so that’s why I love the Langley Schools Music Project’s rendition of “Space Oddity” more, even when either of David Bowie’s versions are superior in quality. There’s something about their version, in the way that it’s presented, that draws you in. Again and again, it makes you want to follow them back to a simpler time, trying to find that one moment of paradise when it reached down into your soul, and taught you something that you didn’t know. It’s not the feeling of discovery itself that grabs you this time — it’s the promise of rediscovery that lures you in. Even if that moment was hazy, a moment of bliss that didn’t really mean much, it waves the memory of that moment at you, and dares you to discover it again. And we, like the proverbial moths to the flame, will always happily accept.
(Cover copyrighted to Bar None Records.)