Indie Canon Inductee: Beat Happening

29 Nov

For anybody that knows me, this should come as no surprise.  I’m wearing a god damn Beat Happening t shirt as I write this.  I stumbled upon Beat Happening in 2005 when I was looking at some rando’s list of the best albums of the 1990’s.  Since then, they have become my most listened to artist.

Beat Happening has been an indie rock staple for the past 25 years and had an enormous impact on their musical peers.  They took a typical rock song and boiled it down to its bare essentials: no bass, no overproduction, no complicated solos (most Beat Happening songs are only three or four chords).  The band, which formed in 1983 in Olympia, WA, was comprised of Calvin [Johnson], Heather [Lewis] and Bret [Lunsford].  I put their last names in brackets because the band was known by their first names only at the beginning of their career.  No wonder they seemed welcoming; I already knew them on a first name basis.

Their first album, Beat Happening, was released in 1985.  There are a number of great songs on it like “I Love You”, but a handful of the tracks are unlistenable.  Who cares?  An album with north of twenty tracks is going to have some bad seeds (this album actually has two: “Bad Seeds” ).  Three years later before the release of their second album, Beat Happening released a 4-track EP with fellow WA band, Screaming Trees.  The hybrid, though a little heavy in Screaming Trees, actually works well: “Polly Pereguin” .  Those tracks were released later on Beat Happening’s Music to Climb the Apple Tree By.

Their second album in 1988, Jamboree, is terrific.  The album begins with the balls to the wall “Bewitched” which defines Beat Happening’s early style in three minutes: gritty and charming.  The spoken word tracks in “Ask Me” and “This Many Boyfriends Club”, though a little rough on the ears, have fun with language and bring the band home with you.  “Crashing Through” on to “Midnight a Go-Go” create an unbreakable backbone for the album.  Calvin humorously tells Beat Happening’s fans that “L7 can have the day, but they’ll never take the nighttime away.”  You may remember L7 for the single “Pretend We’re Dead.”   In any event, Calvin was right: the nighttime is the right time…for Beat Happening.

“Bewitched” video – This is so good!  I know exactly what to get Calvin Johnson for Christmas…a licorice hula hoop.

“Indian Summer” video – Fitting for Summer 2011.

Black Candy represents that band’s one and only lull.  It’s not even a bad record; it’s just bookended by absurd greatness.  It does have one of my favorite Beat Happening songs on it: “Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive” (I know the youtube video says “HAUNTED HIV”, but I guarantee that it has nothing to do with…god damn ghost bees; always sharing stingers).

“Cast A Shadow” Live at the International Pop Underground show in 1991

By Dreamy in 1991, Beat Happening had perfected their sound.  Unlike their earlier albums, Dreamy is start-to-finish tremendous.  It’s heartwarming, it’s gut-wrenching, it’s adorable, it’s tragic, it’s [fill in the blank adjective], it’s [fill in the blank antonym of said adjective].  I’ll always have a soft spot for “Hot Chocolate Boy” which I covered in college with a buddy (fellow hipster, Cory) when I had a massive head cold (I almost sounded as deep as Calvin).  Heather Lewis finally gets more vocal time and it’s entirely welcome.  “Left Behind” is one of the best tracks.  “Collide” and “Fortune Cookie Prize” help to balance Calvin’s bass-y onslaught.  And “Red Head Walking” …I still don’t talk to gingers.

I’ve already said enough about this album (see my review).  It is totally stacked and it’s without a doubt in my top 25 records of all time.  (please see the review…I’m too lazy to copy and paste)

“Noise” – One of my favorite songs ever.  GET THE DATA!

“Pine Box Derby” video – It’s like a beach party at an abandoned barn!

In 2001, the band released a “posthumous” record of their b-sides and unreleased tracks called Songs to Climb the Apple Tree By.  One of my favorite Beat Happening songs of all time is “Angel Gone” .

Also to be recognized is Calvin Johnson, not for his ridiculous baritone (well…he is the sometimes tone-deaf Johnny Cash of indie rock), not for his solo records and side projects (though Halo Benders, Cool Rays, Dub Narcotic Sound System and The Go Team are all enjoyable in their own way), but rather for what he did for the west coast independent music scene.  He helped put Olympia, WA on the map when the pop/grunge scene was exploding 60 miles away in Seattle.

In 1991, Johnson organized a six-day festival in Olympia called the International Pop Underground Show (see “Cast A Shadow” above) which showcased a number of talented but commercially unrecognized artists.  Almost a decade earlier he co-founded K Records.  You may or may have not have heard of K Records, but I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the artists that released on K: Melvins, Heavenly, Bis (yeah?)…Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Beck (yeah huh!).

So, thank you, Beat Happening, for Jamboree, Dreamy and You Turn Me On.  And, Calvin, keep K Records going and think about a reunion tour.  I read that Beat Happening still practices with some regularity??

Beat Happening is one of the few bands that I would pay north of $100 to see.  You can even play at my wedding!  Just give me a few weeks notice so that I can find someone to marry.

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One Response to “Indie Canon Inductee: Beat Happening”

  1. Rodney Welch June 22, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    I enjoy your blog.

    We have at least two things in common: undying love for Beat Happening and Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life.”

    Indeed, it was Azerrad’s book that introduced me to Beat Happening and other great bands — and it seriously re-ignited my interest in Sonic Youth.

    Beat Happening is one of those bands that have entered my can’t-live-without list, along with Sonic Youth, Captain Beefheart, Pavement, Bob Dylan and others. These are bands that reach that air and water level.

    I’ll clean Beat Happening off my iPod and then, boom, within weeks, they are back on it.

    I even have a playlist called “Heather Lewis Greatest Hits.” For me, “What’s Important,” “Knick Knack” and “Fortune Cookie Prize” are Beat Happening’s best songs.

    Anyway, back here in the Hinterlands of South Carolina, Beat Happening fans are a rarity, so it’s great to find one, even on the web.

    Take care.

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