Girld Band recently covered their song I Love You, but they are probably best known as that band Kurt Cobain said he liked one time, Beat Happening were nevertheless one of the most influential and interesting bands of the American North-west. They took the core principles of punk and directed them in a totally different direction; basically creating the Alternative rock sub-genres of lo-fi and twee in the process.
Technical ability, whether it was on stage or in the studio, was not something that was even slightly important to Beat Happening. The band’s early records feature haphazard guitars and drums recorded with primitive technology; while Calvin Johnson’s sonorous voice delivers unexpectedly sweet and coy lovesongs. Although embodied with the DIY attitudes of punk, the band were booed and had objects thrown at them when touring with Fugazi; a band with a similar aesthetic, if sonically very different. The band were so unusual in both sound and style that they didn’t even fit in with the punks.
Beneath this rough exterior Beat Happening had an undeniable ear for a catchy melody, and as their career developed so did the band’s skills, finally climaxing with the their final album You Turn Me, a surprisingly well produced album. Although never officially broken up, the band haven’t made any music together since 1992 and the band members have moved on to numerous other projects.
But enough background, let’s have a look at the records;
Where To Start
For a quick entry into the world of Beat Happening, the recently released compilation 'Look Around' provides a comprehensive snapshot of what Beat Happening’s appeal is. Covering all the key tracks in chronological order, 'Look Around' guides you from the early bedroom recordings of their self-titled debut to the polished sound of their final album 'You Turn Me On'. 'Look Around' is the ideal entry point for any potential fans; give it a few spins and if you like what you hear go straight for the studio albums. If not, then Beat Happening is perhaps not for you my friend.
'Dreamy' is the band’s fourth album and collects the best elements of the previous albums together with improved songwriting to make a brilliant record with a highly distinctive sound. Me Untamed sees the band letting loose with passion, power and an easy swagger. Elsewhere Redhead Walking pulses with an easy groove and the off kilter Collide slaloms between the wonky verse and the direct chorus. 'Dreamy' is a well rounded effort and one where Beat Happening perform at their best.
What To Listen To Next
Beat Happening’s second album, 'Jamboree', finds the band still in the bedroom, but with a touch more confidence and with even better tunes. Indian Summer is one the band’s barest, simplest yet most powerful and emotional songs with its basic guitar part and the disarmingly sweet yet impossibly deep vocals. Hangman fizzes with distorted guitar and Midnight a Go-Go breezes by with a similar carefree liveliness, while Cat Walk is sweet, charming, funny and sad all at once. Overall 'Jamboree' is an excited, bubbly album, where enthusiasm far outstrips skill, but that just makes the album feel all the more real, honest and brilliant
You Turn Me On
The band’s final album saw a marked departure away from their previous twee-punk origins. Gone are the short two minute tunes, as is the tin can production; the band even use multi-tracking! Instead we have an album that stretches out to infinity, in the best possible way. The rollicking Teenage Caveman charges forward with a primal energy while the hypnotic Godsend lingers on gently like a particularly pleasant dream. The album flips from alluring to wistful with ease, and the contrasting vocal styles of the booming Johnson and the softer moments from Heather Lewis make for a lush, layered and complex sound that is somehow still gloriously minimalistic. 'You Turn Me On' is Beat Happening’s best album, made all the better with the knowledge of how the band’s sound progressed to this point.
Not For the Uninitiated
Beat Happening's first album catches the trio in their purest, rawest form. Scratchy tracks are splattered with the endearing melodies they would later bring to the fore on subsequent albums, but here the songs sound a tad unfinished. That’s not to say that this album is a dud, the frantically rushed vocals on I Love You and the excited bounce of Down By The Sea mean that this album has plenty to offer. The defiant What’s Important stands out as a highlight, with the delicious line "we don’t have to smile if we don’t want to." Versions of this record feature different tracklistings of songs recorded between 1983 and 1985, meaning the LP feels more like a loose compilation rather than a true album. Despite its rough edges, it holds a lot of charm and topped off with an adorable cover this album captures the true essence of the band.
Beat Happening’s third album is a much moodier affair than the group’s usual offerings, and this sulleness isn’t quite as appealing as the chirpier side of the band. The album feels weighted down by itself and lacks the carefree energy of other releases. 'Black Candy' has its moments though, Cast A Shadow captures a more typical easy-going Beat Happening stand and is a great song, while Black Candy with its dirty guitar tones is fueled by the dark energy the band were trying to inject into the album. The album failed at its attempt to move in a new direction, but the moody aggression that the band evidenced on this record was successfully redistributed on the band’s last two albums and despite its shortcomings, 'Black Candy' holds an important place in the Beat Happening back catalogue.
Music To Climb The Apple Tree By
This compilation gathers together the loose ends of the band’s career, featuring various B-sides and rarities. The alternate version of Nancy Sin is a fun rocky track while Secret Picnic Spot captures a fun, playful mood. Not A Care In The World provides a wistful darker touch, and is certainly not as carefree as the title suggests. This collection of tunes doesn’t quite move with the cohesion of the band’s studio albums, but is a pleasant listen for fans of the band who are looking for some more songs. 'Music To Climb The Apple Tree By' contains all the elements that make Beat Happening so good; the gritty determination to do everything on their own terms, and their uncanny knack of making twee, coy songs carry just a hint of a malicious undertone.
Beat Happening continue to influence the indie scene to this day, most notably through Johnson’s record label, K Records. Initially just a means to release the band’s records, the label became a mainstay of the Alternative scene in the Seattle area. Artists such as Beck, Modest Mouse and Built To Spill have all released material on K, and the label continues to operate.
Beat Happening’s career proved that anyone can play in a band, regardless of skill or looks and that anyone can become good at being in a band too.