Let The Children Sing

pink floyd

Each year, world organizations recognize children with one of the largest “days” taking place in June, as UNICEF, the United Nations, and the Council of Europe hold their International Day for Protecting Children. The rock world doesn’t have a specific day for commemorating kids, but there’s a rich history of featuring children in their music.

Although popular music has featured kids before (i.e. Frank Sinatra’s 1959 “High Hopes” and Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” in 1972),  here are some of top rock songs that feature kids as part of the sonic landscape:

“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” – John Lennon & Yoko Ono 1971

Recorded at the Record Plant in New York in October of 1971, John and Yoko had only arrived in the USA just a few months before. Their political impact was immediate. Upon the massive success of his anthem “Imagine” earlier that year, John noted that he could successfully raise political themes via the pop structure. He noted in interviews that one could, “Put your political message across with a little honey.” In the era of the Vietnam War (and coming from someone who was not an American), this was hot, sticky stuff.

John took his “honey” notion and added children’s voices to this holiday track, provided by the Harlem Community Choir. The sleeve of the single had a wonderful picture of the choir (along with John and others) from a photo taken by Ian Macmillan- the very photographer who’d captured the Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road crossing only two years prior. “Happy Xmas” achieved #32 on the US Billboard Holiday charts. In 1980, it hit #2 in the December aftermath of John’s murder.

“Cheyenne Anthem”  – Kansas 1976

There are few better albums in the Progressive Rock genre than Kansas’ Leftoverture. This was their best and most commercially successful effort and has endured for nearly 40 years. One of the reasons for this longevity is one of the album’s two closing hymns, “Cheyenne Anthem” and  “Magnum Opus.”  “Cheyenne” is a structurally complex piece of work (sung by violinist Robby Steinhardt); it tells the saga of the Native American’s need to stay on the only land they knew before being pushed away.

To give the track more authenticity, writer/guitarist Karry Livgren thought to add a vocal depicting the perspective of a child in those times. To achieve that, he and the band brought in Toye LaRocca and Cheryl Norman (ages unknown) to overdub several layers of voices to build what sounds like a group of children:

“But we cannot endure like the earth and the mountains./Life is not ours to keep, for a new sun is rising.”

Leftoverture has been certified 5 times platinum in the USA, with “Cheyenne Anthem” continuing to be one of the favorites on their tours, but performed without the children’s voices.

“The Golden Age of Leather”-  Blue Oyster Cult 1977

Appearing on the band’s Specters album, this tune opens with the Newark (NJ) Boys Choir sounding like members of a frat house, saluting their former selves:

“Raise your can of beer on high, and seal your fate forever/Our best years have passed us by, the Golden Age of Leather”

The tune then rolls along with the rest of the band weaving through various musical sections of the song with BOC’s traditional heavy sound. The Newark Boys return at the end of the tune at the fade-out by repeating a high falsetto with the line “Golden Age.”  All this was quite a juxtaposition as the song goes from choir music to heavy metal, back to the choir again (not unlike the structure of Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”).

“Gino” – Good Rats 1979

That homely, rocking band from Long Island often came up with innovative ideas.  For their 5th studio album (Birth Comes to Us All) singer/writer Peppi Marchello had developed a song idea of a father warning his young son of the hardships of this world. Once he’d written the verses, he had trouble delivering the chorus, a plea from the father to have his son listen to his important advice. This is when Marchello changed the song’s narration to the 3rd person, reflecting conversations from himself with his son, Gene Marchello.

Knowing most children don’t want to hear the harsh realities of life, Marchello developed a chorus of dialogue between him and the resistant son. For authenticity purposes, he recorded the choice with the young Geno in a back-and-forth manner:

“Gino,” he would tell his son/This whole world is one big war/You gotta step on them before they step on you, my boy”

“Oh, no Daddy, it’s not for me” (Gino)/“Come on Gino, do it for me” (Peppi)

“Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” – Pink Floyd 1979

This song from The Wall is the single that’s perhaps the best known for kids singing rock tunes. Designed to sound like a disco march, Roger Waters’ message was against corporal punishment and the abuse children sometimes faced, especially in boarding schools.

Producer Bob Ezrin had encouraged the band to “get out to the discos [a hot market in 1979] and see what’s happening.” The members initially resisted this strategy but relented in developing a song that they felt “sounded like Pink Floyd.”

But Ezrin was not finished, as he lobbied the band to consider making the song longer so that it could be a single. The Floyd stated that “we don’t do singles” (indeed, they hadn’t put out a single since 1968’s “Point Me At The Sky”), but Waters eventually gave the producer permission to “go ahead and waste your time doing silly stuff.” With that, Ezrin added a second verse and chorus, but the master stroke was bringing children’s voices into the mix to paint a full picture of the message.  This is when he turned to engineer Nick Griffiths to record 23 students from the nearby Islington Green School. The school only allotted 40 mins of the student’s time for recording, but it produced an impactful performance.

Upon hearing what Bob Ezrin and his staff had cooked up, Waters and his bandmates were gobsmacked with the results, approving the eventual single that would go to #1 on several international charts. By the 90s, UK copyright law had changed to make the participating children eligible for royalties from broadcasts. Over several years of tracking down the original 23 kids, they have all enjoyed a piece of their particular brick in the wall.

“Dear God”- XTC 1986

A controversial track at the time, this Andy Partridge-written gem appeared on XTC’s Skylarking album, only to be removed by their record company as anti-religious. The song opens with a child’s voice seemingly writing a letter to God- “Dear God, I hope you got my letter and I pray you can make it better down here…”  The voice was provided by 8-year-old Jasine Vellenette, daughter of a friend of a band member.

Once she completes her plea, the rest of the band kicks in with Partridge taking the singing role for the rest of the song, assuring the listener he’s no believer. The track eventually was relegated to the B-side of XTC’s single “Grass,” but soon made an impact through college radio stations. It caught enough attention and airplay that Virgin Records changed their policy to include the track on the re-press of the Skylarking album.  “Dear God” reached #39 on the US Billboard Rock charts.

-Steven Valvano

Photo: Pink Floyd (Getty Images)


18 comments on “Let The Children Sing

  1. Alice Cooper’s School’s Out too…

    • Steven Valvnao

      Hal, its a funny thing, I thought the same!…. but upon doing the research, I found out those voices on the record were adults!…but the theme is for all the KIDS!…thanks -SV

  2. Don Klees

    While Pink Floyd certainly wasn’t a “singles band”, they released a number of songs as singles between “Point Me at the Sky” and “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)”. Among these was “Money”, which became a top 20 hit in the United States.

    • Steven Valvnao

      Don, thanks and correct…..and “Money” was only a single in the USA and not the UK because “We are not a singles band!” …. it is probably more correct to say the Pinks were not a singles band, but their record company wanted them to be!-SV

  3. Great and eclectic list, Steve.

    I notice no “Playground in My Mind”.

    Thanks for that. ;]

    • Steven Valvano

      Hummmm… didn’t think of that one!…. Didn’t have Clint Holms in my mind! ….. thanks, good add! – SV

  4. Fun article. In stark counterpoint to the 15th century adage ‘children should be seen, but not heard’. And what better vehicle than rock to give voice to the very young, who invariably rage against the confines and calamities of the world they inherited, but who’s ‘voices’ might not have matured enough to be fully coherent.

  5. Thanks for giving Leftoverture some love! (And any article with XTC in it is OK by me.)

  6. Steven Wi

    I love that John Lennon filmed the children singing. It must have been a thrill for the children’s families to see them in the video.

    • Steven Valvano

      Yes, it was the kind of magic that came with that era! – SV

  7. James Blesius

    The XTC review might have mentioned Todd Rundgren produced the album…given its importance in the XTC cannon.

  8. Seeker64

    How about the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want?

    • Steven Valvano

      Although I referenced its structure, it was recorded with the London Bach Chorus… an ADULT ensemble. -SV

      • Seeker64

        Right. I could have sworn these were children’s voices in the opening chorus of the album version. Maybe the intended effect was to suggest some heavenly innocence there though… Hence the confusion…

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