Roman Mars [00:00:01] Apple Card is the credit card created by Apple. You earn 3% daily cash back up front when you use it to buy a new iPhone 15, AirPods, or any products at Apple. And you can automatically grow your daily cash at 4.15% annual percentage yield when you open a High Yield Savings Account. Apply for Apple Card in the Wallet App on iPhone. Apple Cards subject to credit approval. Savings is available to Apple Card owners. Subject to eligibility. Savings Accounts by Goldman Sachs Bank USA. Member FDIC. Terms Apply. Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, the content you create, and even your time. You can easily display posts from your social profiles on your website or share your new blogs or videos on social media. Automatically push website content to your favorite channels so your followers can share too. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. It’s hard to overstate just how important record album art was to music before we downloaded everything. Our experience with a record or CD used to be visual. The design of the record cover was your first impression of what was to come. I would stare at the fonts on the cover and pore over the liner notes the first time I put an album on. It was a ritual. I’m not saying that era music was better. It wasn’t. It was just different. The art on the records try to encapsulate the essence of a band. And then that essence was transferred to you because you were a fan, and it became part of your identity too. At least that’s what it felt like. Album art was certainly important to my friend and reporter, Sean Cole–one certain album, and one certain band in particular.
Sean Cole [00:01:55] Roman Were you ever a Devo fan?
Roman Mars [00:01:57] I was more of a Devo appreciator. I don’t think I was really a fan. I liked the songs I heard. I remember Whip It when I was a kid.
Sean Cole [00:02:06] Were not a Devotee.
Roman Mars [00:02:07] It was not a Devotee. I remember the red hats, and I have a particular memory of them doing a cover of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones on Saturday Night Live, wearing these yellow hazmat suits. You know, like, they were really weird.
Sean Cole [00:02:22] Yes. Weird. Yes. So, this story is about that Devo album–the one that they were promoting on that Saturday Night Live performance you saw. More specifically, it’s about the album art of that record because the story of the image that ultimately ended up on the cover of that record is this crazy rabbit hole that I fell down. But before we get there, I just need to cover some things about Devo that you might not know. Do you know where the name comes from?
Roman Mars [00:02:52] I do not.
Sean Cole [00:02:54] So a lot of people think of Devo as this really silly, you know, nutty band and jumping around. But they were actually very serious and had a very considered philosophy. And that was that the human race is in a state of de-evolution, hence Devo. So, their songs–other than Whip It–are mostly about corporate control and blind conformity. And they were actually visual artists before they wrote any songs. This was in the early ’70s in Akron, Ohio. So, I talked with one of the founders of Devo, Jerry Casale, who says, like, back then, they were mostly trying to figure out what de-evolutionary art would look like.
Jerry Casale [00:03:34] You know, because we were very, very enamored and put off at the same time by pop culture–the lowest end of, like, ad graphics, terrible TV commercials… We were kind of drawn to kitsch.
Sean Cole [00:03:48] And occasionally they would go out shopping for kitsch.
Jerry Casale [00:03:52] So we’re walking through the Kmart.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:03:54] Nope. It was the predecessor to Kmart. It was Click.
Sean Cole [00:03:58] And this is Mark Mothersbaugh. He’s another member of the band. And this is probably the point to mention that this was more than four decades ago and not everybody’s memory is too clear.
Roman Mars [00:04:09] But independent of what department store they’re in, they’re in a department store.
Sean Cole [00:04:12] They are in a department store.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:04:14] We were looking for supplies. We were collaborating on a visual art piece together and walking through the sports section.
Jerry Casale [00:04:22] And there’s these six practice golf balls in a clear plastic pouch sealed shut at the top with a cardboard display head.
Sean Cole [00:04:32] Can you picture this? It’s like that display head with the hole in it that hangs on a hook.
Roman Mars [00:04:37] Yes, I can picture it. Kind of like the racks with bags of generic candy at the gas station–a clear bag full of candy–and it just says “Gummy Bears” at the top.
Sean Cole [00:04:46] All right. So, on that display head is an illustration of the smiling face of Chi-Chi Rodríguez.
Roman Mars [00:04:56] And who was Chi-Chi Rodríguez?
Sean Cole [00:04:59] Chi-Chi Rodríguez is one of the most famous golfers in history. He was like… I don’t know what Chi-Chi Rodríguez was like. He was like the Elvis of golfers. He was just, like, a big showman.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:05:13] I saw it, and I just loved it. It was a picture of him in front of a golf ball.
Sean Cole [00:05:17] So his head’s kind of haloed by a big golf ball.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:05:19] Kind of imitating something that I’d already been printing, which was human heads in front of the moon. And it made us laugh.
Jerry Casale [00:05:28] We chuckle. We have to have that. And of course, golf was almost symbolically like the most lame kind of, you know, bourgeois pursuit that you could have, especially at that time. Unless your parents were rich, you didn’t get to go golfing.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:05:45] If we ever imagined ourselves on a golf course, it was probably as a caddy.
Jerry Casale [00:05:48] And how boring it looked then on TV in the announcing. But the one guy who stood out was Chi-Chi because he didn’t fit with the rest of the golfers at all. He wore these loud pants and bright shirts, and he had this famous hat that only he wore, which had a specific hat band.
Sean Cole [00:06:09] A Panama hat.
Jerry Casale [00:06:10] A straw Panama kind of hat. Yeah.
Roman Mars [00:06:11] So did they buy those golf balls?
Sean Cole [00:06:14] They bought the golf balls. Mark used the Chi-Chi image in a manifesto he was writing about being a, quote unquote, “spud boy in the rubber town of Akron.” But other than that?
Jerry Casale [00:06:24] Nothing really happened with it until we were already putting out our self-produced single Be Stiff.
Roman Mars [00:06:37] Oh, I like that song.
Sean Cole [00:06:39] This is my favorite one. So, it’s, like, this kind of jokey anthem celebrating, like, literal stiffness–uptightness–talking about televangelists, politicians, and how stiff they are.
Jerry Casale [00:06:52] Somehow–and I don’t really remember the moment–but we had the idea of putting Chi-Chi on that cover.
Sean Cole [00:06:59] And so they used that picture of Chi-Chi on the cover of the 45–of the single. And it was, like, this commentary on commercialism and, you know, our obsession with selling.
Jerry Casale [00:07:09] And in this case, selling plastic golf balls and the Americana of the golfer.
Sean Cole [00:07:16] So Be Stiff comes out in 1978. And, you know, they’re still not famous. They’re this obscure art rock band. But then about four months later, Devo gets their big break. Warner Brothers signed the band to their first full length album. And that, according to Jerry, is where the real de-evolution began.
Jerry Casale [00:07:36] We’ve laid that whole thing out and working up to this moment. And then comes the real Devo twist that only a corporation could provide. In other words, what we’re talking about we become part of the party.
Roman Mars [00:07:51] So they’re about to be on Top 40 radio and broadcast on the TV screens of Middle America. What was that first record called?
Sean Cole [00:08:00] It’s a long title. It’s called Question: Are We Not Men? Answer: We Are Devo!
Roman Mars [00:08:11] And this is their first major label album.
Sean Cole [00:08:13] This is their first. Yeah, I know. Exactly, right? So, Mark and Jerry and the other members of the band–they’re like, “Well, that picture of Chi-Chi worked so well on the single. Let’s just stick with it. You know, It’s kind of our brand now. Let’s just put that on the cover of the full-length record.”
Roman Mars [00:08:29] And this is a picture of Chi-Chi Rodríguez–the original picture from that thing they bought at Kmart? They just took that, lifted it directly, and put it onto their album? And they’re going to put that now on a major label album. Okay.
Sean Cole [00:08:42] Yeah. So, they head to California. You know, movie montage. Theme music here. Beverly Hillbillies. Whatever. And they go to Warner Brothers HQ, and this is, like, the process back then and maybe now. I don’t know. But they’re heading from department to department at Warner Brothers, you know, dealing with all of the new album things that need to happen.
Jerry Casale [00:09:05] And we’re told to go see… I think Rick Serini was his name, and he seemed to be an okay guy.
Sean Cole [00:09:10] He’s in the art department?
Jerry Casale [00:09:12] Yeah. He’s the head of the art department.
Rick Serini [00:09:13] I was creative director at Warner Brothers Records.
Jerry Casale [00:09:16] He seemed to like what we were up to.
Rick Serini [00:09:18] The one band that I appreciated the most was Devo. I loved the fact that they just never took anything very seriously.
Sean Cole [00:09:26] Do you remember that first meeting with them?
Rick Serini [00:09:29] Not only do I remember it, I have a Polaroid of it.
Jerry Casale [00:09:32] We show him the image. He chuckles.
Rick Serini [00:09:34] I thought it was clip art.
Sean Cole [00:09:36] Yeah. Chi-Chi does look a lot like clip art.
Rick Serini [00:09:39] And I guess I never asked. I only found out that it was him some time later.
Sean Cole [00:09:45] I guess what did it I guess what did it evoke for you?
Rick Serini [00:09:49] Absurdity. I mean, you have to think about what was going on back in the day. Artwork, you know, on album covers had rules attached to it. Most of the albums were delivered to little mom and pop music stores all around the country. And there’d be some kid who would come in at 4:00 after school, and his job was to open up the box of records from Warner Brothers or Columbia or whatnot, and then rack them. Right? So, the one thing that they told all of us in the art department is don’t screw that up. A rock band has to look like a rock band. A country western has to look like country western. They better have cowboy hats on, otherwise they get misracked. And then if people can’t find them in the rack of the genre they’re interested in, they don’t buy it. But in Devo’s case, the music was so unusual that it could have something completely absurd on the cover and make perfect sense.
Roman Mars [00:10:49] So even though it makes no sense that a picture of a flamboyant golfer stolen from a package of golf balls is the mascot of Devo, it does make perfect sense because that’s who Devo is.
Sean Cole [00:11:03] Exactly. It was just like, “Pick something impossible.” And Rick is just psyched. Like, he loves working on this with them. They’re doing all the little designing things and giving them the font with the double bold and, you know, all the stuff and, you know, getting everything ready.
Jerry Casale [00:11:20] He laid it all out, specced the colors, you know, did the whole serious thing where they give you a transparency that’s a mockup, right? And we approve it. And then about two days later, we get this call. And it’s a big crisis.
Sean Cole [00:11:38] The call was from the vice president of business affairs for Warner Brothers, David Berman.
Jerry Casale [00:11:43] Who was a guy that you would cast in a movie about the music business.
Sean Cole [00:11:48] As the villain, or as the hero?
Jerry Casale [00:11:50] Well, it just depends on your point of view. He was very smart and very good at what he did and played hardball. And the first communication is: “I’m a golfer, and I’m a fan of golf. And I know Chi-Chi Rodríguez. I’ve met Chi-Chi Rodríguez. You cannot use Chi-Chi Rodríguez.”
David Berman [00:12:09] That is completely and totally false.
Sean Cole [00:12:11] This is David Berman. I told you, not everybody’s memory is crystal clear regarding this story.
David Berman [00:12:17] Not only have I never met– I have never seen Chi-Chi Rodríguez other than on television.
Jerry Casale [00:12:22] “I’m not going to make fun of a friend of mine.”
David Berman [00:12:24] I’ve never met him. I’ve never spoken to him.
Jerry Casale [00:12:26] “I’m not going to get this company sued.”
Sean Cole [00:12:28] That part is accurate–says David Berman–about maybe being sued. Yes, he did play hardball. But he says his objection was purely a legal one.
David Berman [00:12:35] Purely. And California law is crystal clear. You can’t use somebody’s name or likeness for commercial purposes without their permission. It had nothing to do with my being a golfer other than because I knew that it was clearly Chi-Chi Rodríguez. But it wasn’t the fact that he was likable. It could have been Rory Sabbatini, and I would have done the same thing.
Sean Cole [00:12:55] Wait, who is Rory Sabbatini?
David Berman [00:12:57] He’s a golfer. But nobody likes Rory Sabbatini.
Roman Mars [00:13:02] What? Why does nobody like Rory Sabbatini?
Sean Cole [00:13:04] I don’t know. Also, Rory Sabbatini was born in 1976 and would have been two years old when this Devo record came out. But anyway, this all came as a real blow to the band.
Jerry Casale [00:13:15] We’re dumbfounded and crestfallen. We don’t know what to do. But of course, we’re stubborn. We’re not giving up.
Sean Cole [00:13:22] So they’re like, “Let’s just write Chi-Chi a letter and ask his permission. But in the meantime, you know, the corporate gears are rolling, and money has been paid. And, you know, Warner Brothers is expecting a product. So, Devo’s like, “Let’s come up with a plan B.” And they had this idea that actually involves another piece of de-evolutionary art.
Jerry Casale [00:13:42] It’s an artist’s rendering of what the last four presidents would have looked like had you combined them.
Sean Cole [00:13:48] So Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy–all of their faces mashed together. Mark Mothersbaugh just had this picture lying around.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:13:56] And it was this hideous, bizarre face that had John Kennedy’s hairline. And it had Lyndon Johnson’s ears and Richard Nixon’s nose.
Sean Cole [00:14:05] So the band brings that image to the Warner Brothers Art Department.
Jerry Casale [00:14:08] On an idea that why couldn’t we just mutate Chi-Chi’s face so that it isn’t Chi-Chi anymore.
Roman Mars [00:14:21] So what did they end up doing to Chi-Chi’s face?
Sean Cole [00:14:23] So basically it was like building a Mr. Potato Head toy. They grafted Johnson’s ears and Nixon’s nose onto Chi-Chi’s head and reversed the mouth. I should actually say that David Berman–who was in business affairs at the time–he doesn’t remember the image being altered. So, I sent him the original Chi-Chi image from the golf balls and the Potato Head collage just so he could compare them.
David Berman [00:14:49] Looking at it today, I wonder why I approved it because to me, it still looks like Chi-Chi. But obviously I must have.
Sean Cole [00:14:59] And here’s Jerry Casale.
Jerry Casale [00:15:00] About three weeks later, a letter comes back from Chi-Chi’s representatives, saying, “Yes. Chi-Chi thinks it’s fine to use that image. He just wants 50 records at Christmastime to give out to his friends and family.”
Sean Cole [00:15:18] He wanted to say to his friends or family, “Look, I’m on a record!”
Jerry Casale [00:15:21] Right. He liked that.
Sean Cole [00:15:22] And this is Mark Mothersbaugh.
Mark Mothersbaugh [00:15:24] And so at that point, it was like we couldn’t go back. They’d already printed the cover. So now we had this mutilated potato face for an album cover, and it didn’t really look like the handsome Chi-Chi anymore. So, I’m sure he was quite surprised when he got a box of them in the mail.
Jerry Casale [00:15:41] All our efforts were in fact in earnest. But what it looked like in the end is that Devo had meanly tricked Chi-Chi Rodríguez and put out something that made him look hideous. It was a mess.
Sean Cole [00:15:56] Now, they did send Chi-Chi a couple thousand dollars also, as well as the record. So, it wasn’t a total loss for him. But then they just never heard from him again.
Roman Mars [00:16:08] Wow. So, they never got his take on the album art or even the songs on the album or anything like that.
Sean Cole [00:16:14] Which is my reigning question in all of this. I really want to know if Chi-Chi ever listened to that record and what he thought of it.
Jerry Casale [00:16:21] Yeah, that would be the big question. Why don’t you interview Chi-Chi Rodríguez?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:16:26] Hello?
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:16:27] Hello? Chi-Chi Rodríguez?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:16:28] Yeah. Who’s this?
Sean Cole [00:16:31] I reached Chi-Chi at a country club, naturally, in West Palm Beach, Florida. He’s in his early 80s now. Still handsome. Still plays golf, not professionally. Does a lot of philanthropic work through his foundation and an annual charity event.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:16:44] It’s really an honor to talk to you.
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:16:46] It’s my honor to talk to you, Johnny.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:16:49] It’s Sean, but that’s okay.
Roman Mars [00:16:54] Oh, he sounds like the best, Johnny. I love him.
Sean Cole [00:16:56] He’s so sweet. I love him. Chi-Chi says he remembers getting this letter. And he says he did give out those records to his friends and family.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:17:08] Did you notice when you got the record that it didn’t quite look like you that much?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:17:13] Well, it looked like me. I look at the pluses. It looked like me a little bit. At least the hat looked like me.
Sean Cole [00:17:19] But he didn’t know anything about them messing with his face. And he had no idea that they were worried he was going to sue them.
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:17:26] Sue them? Well, anybody that worries about somebody suing them–that means that they’re so crooked that they sue people, and they think that people are going to sue them. I thought it was these young people trying to make a career out of it and I could help them. And that’s it because I like to do something good every day of my life and I want to leave the earth better than I found it.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:17:47] So even young, sort of avant-garde, punk musicians you want to help?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:17:51] Yeah.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:17:52] Did you listen to that record?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:17:55] Yeah. I listened to it one time.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:17:57] Just once?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:17:58] I put it away.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:18:00] You didn’t like it?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:18:02] No, I didn’t like it. I like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. And Dean Martin was my favorite, you know? Because music is not supposed to rile you up. Music is something to bring you down.
Roman Mars [00:18:14] So the most important question answered. He did not like it.
Sean Cole [00:18:19] Right. But as I was talking to him, I was like, “Well, there’s a kind of greater question here, which is, like, what did he think about his face or a mutated version thereof being on the cover of this apocalyptic, weirdo, art rock band’s first record? Like, did that make sense to him? And it did in a way because Chi-Chi knows he’s Chi-Chi. He knows how much he stands out and how outlandish he is. None of that is lost on him. And in fact, he said it’s purposeful.
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:19:04] Golf is show business. And when you’re on stage, you got to give the people a show. And that’s what Devo did. They came out and gave the people a good time.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:19:15] So that is the similarity between you and Devo?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:19:18] Yes.
Sean Cole (field tape) [00:19:19] So in a way, it really makes sense that they used you on the cover of their record?
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:19:23] I think they were geniuses. And it takes a genius to recognize another.
Roman Mars [00:19:36] Whoa. You guys sound almost diabolical there.
Sean Cole [00:19:40] Yes. Me and Chi-Chi at the bottom of a volcano.
Roman Mars [00:19:44] Planning the de-evolution of the human race.
Sean Cole [00:19:48] Exactly.
Jerry Casale [00:19:51] One could argue that…
Sean Cole [00:19:52] Again, Jerry Casale.
Jerry Casale [00:19:54] What we were put through by David Berman actually achieved something here better than just using a found image.
Sean Cole [00:20:02] So what you’re saying is corporate interference, plus the faces of four American presidents who prosecuted the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and this wonderfully dandyish golf legend–all of those together…? It’s more Devo than the original Chi-Chi image in a way.
Jerry Casale [00:20:21] That’s what I’m saying. It’s Devo in action. Like, do you need an example of what we’re talking about? Here it is.
Roman Mars [00:20:32] So this whole story takes place at the beginning of Devo’s career, and they go on to play for decades and get extremely famous. They were just nominated to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do they think about Chi-Chi as part of their origin story?
Sean Cole [00:20:48] You know, Mark Mothersbaugh actually sort of raised that when we were talking.
Chi-Chi Rodríguez [00:20:52] I really don’t think anybody ever tried to measure how much that album cover had in the success of Devo, but it could possibly have been the tipping stone that just, like, changed everything and gave us a chance to have a public career. So just in case, thank you Chi-Chi.
Sean Cole [00:21:19] Hey, Roman.
Roman Mars [00:21:20] Yeah.
Sean Cole [00:21:22] Story’s not over. There’s one more diabolical Devo twist. Here’s Jerry Casale.
Jerry Casale [00:21:28] I have to say that now that I’m a senior citizen, I’ve completely changed my attitude about the game of golf.
Sean Cole [00:21:34] You did not. Really?
Jerry Casale [00:21:37] Yeah, I like it now. It’s changed so much from those days and who got to play it and how it’s played. I mean, those guys really are athletes.
Sean Cole [00:21:48] I never thought I would hear a member of Devo say that.
Jerry Casale [00:21:51] I know. Now, here’s a doubly hideous secret unfolding right now. I really like professional football.
Roman Mars [00:22:23] A version of this piece originally aired on the NPR sports show Only a Game. Special thanks to Gary Wallach, who conceived of the story, and Hugh Brown, who helped Sean Cole with the research. Around the time Devo was putting out their first singles in the mid 1970s, a music teacher in Canada was making his own DIY records with a bunch of his elementary school students. And the result was a haunting and uplifting outsider art masterpiece. That story after this. If you run as part of your weekly routine for therapeutic reasons or for body and health benefits, Brooks has the perfect running shoes for you. Brooks creates the best running gear, tools, and experiences to move you along your path. Let Brooks do the research and sweat the details to help you find your best run. You can find Brooks softest cushioning in their Glycerin 20 shoes. I have a pair of those. I love them. The Glycerin 20 shoes are designed to deliver comfort on the run and designed to be lightweight, responsive, and durable. Several years ago, I was running regularly for the first time, and I was in constant pain. And someone in the know suggested Brooks to me. And my foot pain when I was running went away immediately. And I never looked back. I run exclusively in Brooks to this day. They are the best. Find your perfect pair of running shoes now at brooksrunning.com. That’s brooksrunning.com. No one sees the world quite like an airline. But the world we see below us every day is changing fast. That’s why Delta Airlines is committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It’s why they’re partnering across the industry to create the future of aviation and switching ground vehicle after ground vehicle to electric. It’s why Delta is accelerating their push to source sustainable aviation fuel. And it’s why they’re also getting rid of 4.9 million pounds of single use plastics annually. That’s just what they’re doing. But it’ll take more than just the 90,000 people at Delta. It’ll take everyone at every airline and in every industry because Delta knows a thing or two about getting where it needs to be. And they believe it’s time that we all got going together. Learn more at delta.com/sustainability. Article believes in delightful design for every home. And thanks to their online only model, they have some really delightful prices, too. Their curated assortment of mid-century, modern, coastal, industrial, and Scandinavian designs make furniture shopping simple. Article’s team of designers are all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. They’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time and looks good doing it. Article’s knowledgeable Customer Care team is there when you need them to make sure your experience is smooth and stress free. My Article dining room table is the center of my house. My partner works at it all day long. And when everyone’s at home, we eat around it at night because it’s the only table that fits us all. It is the greatest. Article is offering 99% Invisible Listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim visit article.com/99, and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99 for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Do you ever feel like your brain is getting in its own way? Like, you know you should be exercising every day, or you know you should send that work email out just to clear it from your mind. You know you should do what’s good for you, but you just can’t do it. Therapy helps you figure out what’s holding you back so you can work for yourself instead of against yourself. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist and switch therapists any time for no additional charge. Make your brain your friend with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. In Canada, in the 1970s, a music teacher named Hans Fenger recorded 60 of his elementary school students singing in a gymnasium. He pressed a few vinyl records of those recordings and handed them out to parents. The Langley School Music Project was little known until a record collector named Brian Lind found one of those albums in a thrift store in the year 2000. Lind shared it with some people, and eventually Bar/None Records gave it a proper release. The record’s cover featured a collage of black and white pictures of the students singing, strumming guitars, playing drums, and clapping along. The album was called Innocence & Despair. The rediscovered recordings were a hit. Salon music critic Steven Hyden wrote, “The gloomy title, Innocence & Despair is no lie. The echoing, yelping renditions of this feel-good music gives off a powerfully aching melancholy. It’s the sound of youth frozen on tape as it fades inexorably away.” Here’s the music teacher from the Langley School Music Project, Hans Fenger, talking to Katie Mingle in 2010.
Hans Fenger [00:28:20] Before I was teaching in Langley, I played in a heavy metal band. It never occurred to me to be a teacher. I wasn’t really a good student myself. And the kids were okay, but I wasn’t all that gushy about them, to be honest with you. I knew nothing about kids’ music. I knew nothing about teaching. I knew nothing about anything. You know, I had hair. I had attitude. I weighed 98 lbs. But off I went to Langley, and I started teaching. I was hippy-dippy. I had really no philosophy at all about teaching. And I can’t really say I thought about it a lot. You know, I had a lot of ideas about music but certainly not about teaching. You know, for me, I mean, I’ve been playing in bands since I was, like, 11 or 12 years old. And it wasn’t like anybody taught us. It wasn’t even like anybody said, “Oh, this is the way you do it,” or “That’s the way you do it.” We just sort of did it. And I’ve been doing music like that since I was a little kid. So, when I went in to teach music, it never occurred to me that I was going to teach anybody how to read notes or that I was going to teach anybody how to pass a test. The only thing I ever tried to teach children is really just to fall in love with making music. That was always my goal. I just taught songs I knew. And I was very into David Bowie in those days. I was very into Iggy Pop. I was into old Phil Spector records–Brian Wilson. And it wasn’t until much later that I realized that the songs were thematic. You know, I had gotten a teaching job originally because I was with my girlfriend and she was having a baby and I needed a day job. And by the time I got this job, we were breaking up. And I think that in the back of my mind, you know, I was feeling a little bit lost. Contrary to what people think, a lot of kids aren’t that happy. They all have troubles. They’ve got problems at home. They can feel lonely. They can feel isolated. And the music can conjure up that feeling into them. Now, whether or not they completely literally understand the words, I’m not so sure that’s so important. I don’t think Sheila, when she was singing Desperado, really knew what a lot of those references were about. But she certainly captured the feeling of the song.
The Langley Schools Music Project [00:31:30] Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses? You’ve been out ridin’ fences for so long now. Oh, you’re a hard one. I know that you got your reasons. These things that are pleasin’ you can hurt you somehow…
Hans Fenger [00:31:59] When I heard other school choirs and things, we sounded so different and so weird that I thought, “Oh, well, we can’t be any good. I mean, listen to all those people. They really know how to sing.” So, I never thought of it in terms of it was special because it was good. I always thought of it in terms of it was special because it was different. Oftentimes I would have 60, 90 kids in my class. And they’d be all over the place because there was no room. And we’d have instruments, and we had no equipment. So, I brought in all the equipment for my band, which were huge Marshall amplifiers and bass guitars and all kinds of things. The kids, of course, really like that. So, there wasn’t much room, and kids were practically on top of one another. And I just sort of arranged them according to height. And that was it. I always felt like with my music teaching that I always was an outsider music teacher, you know? I mean, I never really participated in a lot of the music teaching events and all that kind of stuff. I was always like this little island unto myself. You know, people always use this term, like, “thinking outside the box” and all that, but I think for me, I didn’t even know there was a box.
The Langley Schools Music Project [00:33:32] Ground Control to Major Tom…
Hans Fenger [00:33:32] It does have this sort of The Children of the Corn… Yeah. Yeah, it does have that feeling. Well, I think we were kind of like a little cult. It became kind of an underground hit in New York. Tony Visconti, who is David Bowie’s producer, had heard it. And I think he thought it was a new wave band from New Jersey, and he couldn’t quite believe that it was a bunch of little kids from some farm country in Canada.
The Langley Schools Music Project [00:34:28] This is Ground Control to Major Tom. You’ve really made the grade. And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.
Hans Fenger [00:34:28] Yeah, I have students that still do music to this day. They’re always in touch with me. I jam with some of them once in a while. I felt that the whole success of this was a really vindicating kind of experience. It made me feel really like, “Wow! I can do something.” So, it was great. I mean, I had always taught my students in a really positive way. And then when somebody suddenly is positive about what you’re doing like that, it gives you a great feeling.
The Langley Schools Music Project [00:35:27] You’re kind of small, and you’re such a doll. I’m glad you’re mine. You’re so good to me. How come you are? You take my hand and you understand when I get in a bad mood. You’re so good to me. And I love it, love it. You’re my baby. Oh yeah. Don’t mean maybe. Oh yeah…
Roman Mars [00:35:55] That story was produced by our former executive producer Katie Mingle in 2010 for the Resound Podcast. This episode of 99% Invisible was produced by Sean Cole, Emmett FitzGerald, and Katie Mingle. Mixed by Sharif Youssef. Music by Swan Real. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson DeLeon, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivien Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stephan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family. Now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.