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So Bad It's Good

'Outsider music' may be off-beat and bumbling, but it strikes a chord with listeners who like its originality and honesty.

January 16, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 60 Canadian schoolchildren fumbled their way through Beach Boys and David Bowie songs, singing out of tune and drumming off beat. It was music only a parent could love, and that's exactly who it was intended for when the Langley Schools Music Project was recorded in an echo-y gymnasium 26 years ago.

But today this novelty recording has not only been reissued commercially, it has gone through four pressings since its October release--the latest musical obscurity to bubble up to the outer edges of the mainstream in what has come to be known as "outsider music."

"It's like your homework project winning the Nobel Prize," said Hans Fenger, who was 29 and new to teaching when he started recording his students on a two-track tape machine in 1976. "To me, I just made music with kids. We had a good time, but I never thought of it outside the immediate realm that it was in."

Most outsider musicians don't think beyond the immediate realm. Their music is so far afield of convention that they know its chances for mass popularity are next to nil--even its most successful artists are only moderately so by mainstream commercial standards.

Prized for its bumbling imperfection, naive originality and unflinching honesty, outsider music isn't for everyone, yet every few years a recording is discovered by someone with music industry connections. What was once an odd and little-known piece of music is picked up for distribution, played on free-form radio and sold in record stores. While the first impulse in listening to it is often to laugh, it has a quality that keeps listeners coming back and, in the process, often wins the artists a cult-like following.

The Langley Schools Music Project is merely the latest in a string of unlikely acts that have enjoyed outsider success in the last decade. Acts such as the Del Rubio Triplets (a trio of gray-haired go-go gals from San Pedro who toured nursing homes, strumming their guitars and sing-speaking hits by Devo and the Rolling Stones) and the Shaggs (three sisters whose father forced them to form a band in 1967). Barely able to tune their instruments, let alone play them, the Shaggs' drumming sounded "like a peg-leg stumbling through a field of bald Uniroyals," rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote.

Sound unlistenable? It is to the average music fan. But one man's trash being another's treasure, outsider music is gaining a growing cadre of listeners who view it as a welcome alternative to the perfectly produced confections that dominate today's music charts.

"It's an antidote to what people are hearing on the radio. Here's something that's real. It's flawed, but it's genuine," said Irwin Chusid, host of the Incorrect Music program on WFMU, a New Jersey public radio station that champions outsider music, and author of "Songs in the Key of Z" (A Cappella, 2000) and a Web site (keyofz.com)on the subject.

That doesn't mean you'll be hearing it on commercial radio anytime soon.

"It's hard to imagine the Langley Schools being on KROQ or MTV,'' said Jon Dolan, an associate editor at Spin magazine, although it has been on NPR. "Kitsch things can make it into the mainstream, but it's usually through more obscure channels."

Outsider music has come to encompass everything from singing puppets to something called song-poems, making a clean definition difficult. As one fan put it, it's all in the listening. There isn't a formula so much as a quality to the music. Generally speaking, the artists are ordinary people singing earnestly about what really matters to them.

Chusid says Langley has become a gateway to outsider music for many. Because the artists are children and because they are singing well-known songs by the Carpenters, Barry Manilow and other pop stars, Langley is far easier to listen to and less off-putting than other outsider artists, many of whom live on society's fringe. People like Wesley Willis--a 320-pound schizophrenic Chicago street artist who pens songs with titles like "They Threw Me Out of Church" and "I'm Sorry That I Got Fat"--and Frances Baskerville, a Texas psychic who sings her predictions.

The term "outsider music" was first used by Chusid in an article he wrote in 1996 for Pulse, a music magazine, but its genesis derives from "outsider art." That term originally described artwork by psychiatric patients but now includes works by a variety of other untrained, intuitive artists. The Langley Schools Music Project first came to Chusid's attention when a listener sent him a tape a few years ago. He had heard hundreds of other school recordings--marching bands with squawking clarinets, off-key choral ensembles--but was so impressed with Langley that he chased down Fenger and arranged a record deal.

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