Lost & Found: Genius Kid Albums
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There’s nothing jaded or professional about these long-lost recordings. They’re pure innocence and heart.
By Chris Dickens
As prophecies go, the one on Austin Wiggin’s mind back in the 1960s was a weird one: His mother’s palm reader had predicted that his daughters would form a popular band one day. And so, according to the tale, he set about making it happen, coralling young Dot, Betty, Helen and later, Rachel, into a girl group called The Shaggs. Forced to play along – rather badly – his daughters recorded Philosophy of the World in 1970. Later the Shaggs won praise. Frank Zappa called them “better than the Beatles,” and rock critic Lester Bangs called the album a “masterpiece” on par with Beatles ’65 and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Then again, Rolling Stone said they sounded like “lobotomized Von Trapp Family singers.”
Part of Philosophy’s charm, perhaps, is in the tension buried just below the surface of simple lyrics, the forced-at-gunpoint-sounding melodies and clanging instrumentation, all of which result in an us-versus-them tension felt in every decent indie rock album since.
Dot’s first solo effort, Ready! Set! Go!, is slated for release on Oct. 29. In anticipation of that, a few other stories about the long-delayed success of weird, genius albums made by kids. They begin in different ways, but they all end the same: a music enthusiast discovers an old record with innocent faces gracing the dusty cover.
Children of Sunshine, Dandelions
Recorded and self-released 1970. Never reissued.
Thérèse (“Tres”) Williams and Kitsy Christner, of St. Louis County, Missouri, hadn’t finished sixth grade when they made Dandelions, announcing their irresistible 10-year-old view of the world with the lyric, “We’re the Children of Sunshine / Seek our love.” Today they’ve got a cult following and their records go for as much as $1200 on eBay. The 10 songs on Dandelion are about topics as diverse as divorce, running away from home, God, love, war, and Tres’ dog Tuffy, but what shines through all of it are melodies only kids can write, and the innocent voices of two little girls trying to make musical sense of a sometimes confusing world, but one they clearly love in the most naive, heartbreaking way.
Donnie and Joe Emerson, Dreamin’ Wild
Recorded in 1979, reissued 2012, Light in the Attic Records.
Donnie and Joe’s only album nearly bankrupted their father. By the end, Don, Sr., had lost most of his big family farm in Fruitland, Wash. to build his sons a recording studio and to print and promote Dreamin’ Wild, which then sat mostly unsold in his basement for the next three decades. The Emerson sons were far from the two baby-faced, jumpsuited kids on the album’s cover by the time music blogger Jack Fleischer came across it in a thrift store and launched its success practically overnight. The warm vocals, meandering basslines, and slightly spaced-out groove of the reissued album’s tracks earned it immediate praise. There’s also a recent, loving cover of one of the best songs, “Baby,” by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.
Death, For the Whole World to See
Recorded 1975, released 2009, Drag City Records.
Last year’s documentary A Band Called Death tells the story of three black teenage brothers from Detroit – Bobby, David and Dennis Hackney – who formed a band in 1971 and called it Death. They played a new brand of hard rock that nowadays sounds like some kind of experimental punk rock, but with a heavy dose of Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper thrown in. A deal with Columbia Records fell through after the brothers refused to change the band name to something more marketable, and if Bobby’s sons hadn’t found old recordings in the family attic, and then – in an uncanny generational repetition – formed a band with his brothers to play those songs, the story might have ended there. Instead, the seven-song album that Columbia never released was finally heard by a wider audience: one more puzzle piece of the history of punk rock recovered.
Various artists, The Langley Schools Music Project: Innocence and Despair
Recorded and released 1976–77. Reissued 2001 by Bar/None Records.
This album is what happens when you put 60 musically sheltered kids in a school gym with a man who has no clue how to teach what he loves most. As Hans Fenger found out, that didn’t matter much, because kids love to sing. They covered the Beatles, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, and more, but their versions of these pop tunes–choruses that sometimes spike oddly in volume or key, all of it accompanied by otherworldly instrumentation–are undeniably special and, at times, downright haunted.