The kids' songs are all right


February 25, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic



Be they hard-core punks, inveterate headbangers, diehard hipsters or elitist art snobs, there comes a time in the life of many rock 'n' rollers when they suddenly find themselves bopping along to tunes like "Willy Was a Whale" or "Freddy Bear the Teddy Bear."

Musical differences with a spouse or significant other can always be negotiated; in the DeRogatis household, for example, my wife happily adheres to the "no Barbra Streisand in my presence" dictum so long as I don't subject her to the epic noise-rock of "Jerusalem" by Sleep. (She isn't big on Hawkwind or My Bloody Valentine, either, but our love endures.)

Like many parents, however, we quickly learned that there would be no such compromise with our daughter. It's not as if our 4-year-old tyrannically demands to listen to her CDs in the car. It's just that things are a lot more pleasant for everyone involved if she does.

This presents a problem familiar to any American couple that has reproduced--call it the "Barney Syndrome." It's bad enough that that insipid purple dinosaur and his cohorts couldn't carry a tune in a lunch box. But they also have a habit of endlessly reworking the same five or six ancient public domain melodies to fit whatever simplistic lesson they're stressing on that particular video, CD or TV show.

These unwelcome jingles have a way of burrowing deep inside your head and refusing to leave. And it's a sad, sad day for anyone who loves rock music when you suddenly find yourself singing in the shower, "The wheels on the bus go round and round" or "My hat it has three corners, three corners has my hat."

Thankfully, there is an alternative. As with many of the most interesting sounds today, you need to work a little bit to ferret them out; across the board, the best music in this new millennium is emanating from the underground instead of the mainstream. But it's well worth the effort, if only to banish Barney from your eardrums once and for all.

Yes, Virginia, it's true: There is kids' music that doesn't suck!

Shortly after the birth of his daughter Fiona, veteran Chicago rocker Ralph Covert, former leader of the Bad Examples, was approached by the Old Town School


Tots' tunes can rock

of Folk Music to teach one of its popular "Wiggle Worms" music classes for toddlers.

"I went in and kind of watched some of the other teachers do their classes, and it was really clear to me--it was like the Barney Syndrome--I said, `I can't do this!' " Covert recalls. "I said to them, `No offense, I certainly want to do stuff that kids like, but I just can't play stuff like that.' And they said, `That's why we hired you; we want you to go in there and be yourself. Play stuff that you like.' So I did.

"I went in and I played as much to the parents as the kids. The kids loved the music and the energy, but I realized real quick that I could sing some lame song about bouncing marshmallows or I could sing `The Kids Are Alright' by the Who. The kids would like it either way, but if I played cool music, the parents would be entertained, too."

New York rocker and dad Dan Zanes, former front man for alternative-country pioneers the Del Fuegos, reports a similar experience. "When my daughter was born, I thought every household with a kid was going to have this outrageous record collection of kids' music that everybody loved to listen to together," he says.

"I was so shocked to see these parents who, the minute you mentioned kids' music, half of them just rolled their eyes and said, `You know what? We just play Beatles records over here.' In a way, I feel like kids' music is the real underground. There's room for it to be perceived as something other than `just for kids.' At its best, it's family entertainment--stuff that makes everybody happy."

In classic indie-rock fashion, Covert and Zanes didn't hear much kids' music that was to their liking, so they set out to make some themselves. Covert's "Ralph's World" was recently released by Minty Fresh, the Chicago label that first brought us Veruca Salt and the Cardigans, while Zanes started his own company, Festival Five Records, to release "Rocket Ship Beach," the first of what he hopes will be a series of rockin' kids' records.

These cool kids' discs are part of a burgeoning movement as Generation X'ers become new parents and attempt to entertain their children and themselves. Another Chicago label, Hear Diagonally, has just released "Yellow Bus," the second kids' album by Minneapolis singer-songwriter Justin Roberts, formerly of cult-favorite rockers Pimentos for Gus.

Last year, Tim Rutili of Chicago art-rockers Red Red Meat played two children's concerts at the Old Town School with Jon Langford of the Mekons and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco; Rutili recently did another kids' show at Schubas with David Singer of Kid Million. The Hideout has also been hosting cool kids' gigs featuring the likes of Kelly Hogan and Lucky Break.

"These are some of my most favorite shows," says Hideout booker Tim Tuten. "They're great: kids running around, dancing, eating hot dogs, shaking their noisemakers. At one show I had all of these apple juice cans filled with beans and rice so that everyone could play along. We bring the big rugs and pillows down from upstairs so the kids can sit, and it's just such a magical day. The kids love it, and they're exposed to music other than Britney and the Backstreet Boys."

But the kids aren't the only ones having a ball. "Some of my biggest fans are in their 20s," Roberts confesses. He started recording his kids' songs to give to friends at Christmas, and they proved to be so popular that he decided to make an album.

"I guess I've never forgotten what it's like to be a kid," Roberts says, and that offers a clue about the appeal of kids' music for adult performers and fans: Playing songs for children offers the perfect excuse to drop any and all pretenses and just have fun.

"Making kids' music feels almost exactly like it felt when I first started out with the Del Fuegos," Zanes says. "In the early days of the Del Fuegos, we called ourselves a dance trio, and that's what we cared about--getting people to dance. The show I did the other day, `Polly Wolly Doodle' just came out, and it sounded as good as any rock 'n' roll song I'd ever played or been a part of. The kids and the parents were dancing, and it got to the root of why I do this.

"Music is a shared experience. Computers won't do it; TV won't do it. We need things that we can do with our kids that we all love doing. We can learn from them, and they can learn from us."


Kids' records a parent could love

What makes a great kids' song? Because I'm a critic and I can't seem listen to anything without analyzing it, I've thought about this long and hard.

Big hooks and bold melodies. Colorful lyrics full of vivid images. A memorable groove, and an infectious spirit that makes you want to hit "rewind" and hear the tune again the moment you've finished playing it.

Countless songs boast these attributes, of course, and they aren't all kids' music--even if children do like some of them. "This Here Giraffe" by the Flaming Lips and "All My Loving" by the Beatles have been big on my daughter's hit parade since she was an infant. But the best kids' songs go a step further, addressing little people on their level--even if adults do like some of them.

The truly great kids' tunes tap into something inherently playful and childlike, and because of that, they appeal to children of all ages.

Among the recent releases by rock hipsters turned kiddy troubadours, "Ralph's World" by Ralph Covert (Minty Fresh) is notable for including a chorus of children who join in on songs like "Marching Medley" and "Take A Little Nap (The Disco Song)," creating a sort of wild, prepubescent party vibe. Covert's originals are imaginative and well-crafted, and he also includes gonzo covers of Roger Miller's "You Can't Roller-skate in a Buffalo Herd" and the Sherman brothers' Disney classics, "Winnie the Pooh" and "The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers."

Dan Zanes' "Rocket Ship Beach" (Festival Five) comes with a beautiful cardstock book featuring colorful illustrations for songs like "Father Goose" and "Sidewalks of New York." The music ranges from gentle folk-rock to Calypso, mirroring the ethnic diversity of his home in Brooklyn, and the disc features contributions from friends including Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and "Saturday Night Live" guitarist G.E. Smith.

On "Yellow Bus" (Hear Diagonally), Justin Roberts answers the question, "What would Big Star have sounded like if it recorded children's music?" Liam Davis of local popsters Frisbie produced and added layers of chiming guitars and beautiful background harmonies to songs such as "Tickle My Toes" and "Thought It Was a Monster."

Bay Area resident Richard Snee has released three volumes of the "Mother Goose Rocks!" series (Boffo), pairing nursery-rhyme lyrics with witty and well-recorded parodies of current pop favorites. Kids love the silliness, while parents can play "Name That Tune" with the artists who are being spoofed. "Rub-a-Dub-Dub" by the Nice Girls rewrites the Spice Girls' "Wannabe," "Humpty Dumpty" by Chewygummee parodies Chumbawamba's "Tubthumper," and so on (though I've yet to hear any Eminem).

Finally, my favorite kids' record of the last year is "The Powerpuff Girls: Heroes & Villains" (Cartoon Network/Rhino), which finds a procession of cool psychedelic pop bands (the Apples In Stereo, Shonen Knife, Optiganally Yours, Bis) performing original tunes inspired by the TV super heroines who are dedicated to "saving the world before bedtime." Some old favorites weigh in as well; Devo's homage to Mojo Jojo has to be heard to be believed.

As for great kids' discs of less recent vintage, I turned to the experts and asked them what else they like to listen to with their kids when they aren't playing their own tunes.

"I think the Raffi stuff is pretty good," Covert says. "I don't like every track on those records, but as kids' music, it's obviously a cut above. My daughter has also always liked the Beatles--we're real big on `1' right now--and Al Green."

"I love the Sweet Honey in the Rock kids' records," Zanes says. "They just put out their third one recently [`Still the Same Me']. I love those, and I love Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's `Not for Kids Only.' And even though he never called it a kids' record I think `Rock 'n' Roll With the Modern Lovers' is just about as good as it can get. `Wheels On the Bus' is on there, and I think Jonathan Richman is kind of like the godfather of rockin' kids' records.

"Then there's this group called the Deighton Family that I think is the ultimate family band, which is great for kids or grownups. We all flip when we put on their CDs [`Acoustic Music to Suit Most Occasions,' `Mama Was Right']. They're from the late '80s and early '90s in the north of England. I also heard the Sugar Hill Gang put out a kids' record. I haven't heard it yet, but how could it be bad?"