Erica Henderson Humans and vinyl records. They're like two peas in a pod. Like…
- Posted on Jan 18th 2011 4:45PM by Lonny Knapp
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"I was a rather controversial figure," he tells Spinner.
Thirty years later, he can add subject of a proposed Hollywood film to his resume. That's because it was Renshaw who arranged for a group of students to sing on 'Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,' from Pink Floyd's classic rock opera, 'The Wall.'
With the lyrics "We don't need no education" and "Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone," that diatribe against the English school system caused quite the controversy when it hit the charts more than three decades ago. Now that film producer Andy Harries of 2006's 'The Queen' has announced plans to make a film based on Renshaw's life, the controversial tune is the unlikely inspiration for a film described as 'School of Rock' meets 'Dead Poets Society.'
Renshaw, who never bothered to clear the project with the school's headmistress or the student's parents and ended up getting fired for his efforts, says he didn't have reservations about the lyrics at the time, and certainly doesn't now.
"The lyrics are bloody true," he says. "It was an album about [Pink Floyd singer-bassist] Roger Waters' life; he wasn't attacking the education system, but the education system he was taught under."
Before Renshaw arrived at Islington Green School, music was a conservative subject. Students would sit idle while teachers drilled music theory or rattled on about Mozart and Beethoven. Renshaw took a hands-on approach.
He wanted students to experience and experiment with sound, and his methods were somewhat unorthodox. He might lead his class out in the streets to listen to the traffic and later ask the students to draw what they heard, or have pupils slapping the walls in the school's corridors, classrooms and bathrooms to illustrate the effects of reverberation.
"If we paint pictures in an art class, why don't we experiment with sound in a music class? At that time, it was a bizarre curriculum. But to me it was common sense."
Then one autumn day in 1979 an anxious sound engineer named Nick Griffiths turned up at the school. Pink Floyd had already completed tracking 'The Wall,' leaving Griffiths to add finishing touches and sound effects to the theatrical album. When he arrived at Islington Green School he was up against a tight deadline; he needed a choir, and fast.
Renshaw thought it would be a great for students to experience a real-world recording studio. He gathered a group of 23 students that he thought could sing and marched them around the corner to Britannia Row studios.
The students sang the chorus a number of times and Griffiths later multi-tracked the voices to emulate a huge choir. For compensation, the school's music department received £1,000, and later a platinum record award, which hangs in the principal's office to this day. For their contribution, the students got bragging rights.
With its disco backbeat and sing-along chorus, 'Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,' was the first single from Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and became the band's first and only No. 1 hit on the UK's singles chart.
But when the tabloids started tossing around allegations of the exploitation of children at the hands of millionaire rock stars, the school board came down hard on the faculty of Islington Green School. As a result, Renshaw was canned.
The controversial teacher missed much of the resulting hullabaloo. While it was a hot topic, he travelled to Australia to produce a major work in Brisbane. He so enjoyed Australia that he opted to stay for good. He insists it wasn't bad press that prompted this move but a shift in the education system under former conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, at that time, was secretary of education.
"The clouds of conservatism were rising. It was becoming a school system based on grades, rather than on inspiring imagination and encouraging free thinking," he says. "I had revolutionary ideas; I wanted to treat the students as people."
Today, Renshaw resides just outside Sydney where he enjoys a distinguished career as a composer and music educator, and currently runs Murder Life Records, an independent record label formed to release his nephew's hardcore rap and metal records.
Since news of the proposed film broke, some 30 or 40 former students have reached out over Facebook to thank Renshaw for his somewhat unorthodox approach to education.
But before the film moves forward, Harries must get Waters to agree to license the song. With Waters's recent stadium tour of 'The Wall' winding down and rumours of a full-scale Pink Floyd reunion once again ramping up, this could be a fortuitous time.
However, Waters is the type of unpredictable rock star that's made a career of doing the opposite of what is expected. At this time there is no guarantee that the film about a controversial teacher and a group of students that sang on a classic rock anthem will ever hit box offices. Nevertheless, Renshaw is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.
"I feel a bit like Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society,'" he says. "It's fantastic to get the recognition."