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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

23. Beat Happening: Crashing Through (Box Set)

The secret to the success of Beat Happening comes from the notion, "I could do that...that could be me." You may not think Beat Happening is the best band reviewed on Marc, Turn That Down! On your first listen to their early material, the music is crude and might even be somewhat irritating. There is no bass, and the guitars can't seem to string three chords together. Once in a while, the drums will keep the beat as you would expect, but that moment will be fleeting. And the vocals?...If you're not put off by the utter lack of musicality of Beat Happening, then Calvin Johnson's baritone-from-the-deepest-depths-of-the-earth voice will surely do the trick. So, how, based on the information I've just presented, could they have even lasted long enough for an album...nevermind released a definitive retrospective box set, Crashing Through, that has become the best music-money I've ever spent? This little band from Olympia, Washington has become legendary, and it's simply because it sounds like any of us could do it.

Beat Happening thumbed their noses at the record industry early on. Calvin Johnson started his own label called K Records in order to issue music by lesser-known bands that no major company would have otherwise released. That attitude eventually carried over to the music of Beat Happening. They didn't play for critical success or to expand the boundaries of music. They played because it was fun.

Beat Happening (1985)
The box set begins in 1985 with their self-titled debut. On Beat Happening we hear the band (Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford) in its infancy. They rarely had instruments and usually borrowed from bands they were playing with that night. This album is raw, and without the knowledge of what they had accomplished in their career might be a complete turn-off for most. Its child-like innocence is most evident in the lyrics of "Fourteen"..."You see, to me, the best part of sex is walking home, holding hands, after swimming in the lake/To Me, the best part of love is when you say you'll be my friend."

I first heard "Fourteen" when searching for Screaming Trees music (Calvin Johnson is linked with many NW artists). I thought...sure, it wasn't very good, but wondered what the rest of their catalog sounded like. I actually enjoyed Calvin's voice the first time I heard it. I knew it was not meant for the Grammy stage, and took it in stride. Calvin and Heather each contribute vocally, and I tend to gravitate toward CJ's songs. As such, "Our Secret", "I Love You", "Fourteen", and "Bad Seeds" are the strongest tracks from this early release...while Heather's "Foggy Eyes" may be the musical shining moment from this album. Beat Happening, though not their finest album, is seminal twee pop.

Jamboree (1988)
The second album from the set is 1988's Jamboree, which is said to be one of Kurt Cobain's favorites. Despite the upbeat title, Jamboree is decidedly darker than the debut...evident right off the bat on "Bewitched". The songs are stronger, the musicianship tighter, and this album is decidedly more Calvin Johnson than the first group effort. The highlight of Jamboree is the indie rock's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (everyone's covered it) and that's "Indian Summer". Recently done by Death Cab's Benjamin Gibbard for the soundtrack of the Kurt Cobain movie About A Son, "Indian Summer" is probably Beat Happening's best known song. Other highlights are "Hangman", Cat Walk", and "Midnight A Go-Go". Props also go to "The This Many Boyfriends Club" because I'm not sure what to think of that one...making me love it all the more.

Black Candy (1989)
If Jamboree is dark, 1989's Black Candy is a moonless midnight. Seemingly designed for a B-grade teen horror movie, songs like "Pajama Party In A Haunted Hive", "Gravedigger Blues", "Bonfire", and the title track dot the landscape of this third effort. However, it's not without its shiny moments. Like "Indian Summer", "Cast A Shadow" is another well known Beat Happening song (most famously covered by Yo La Tengo). It is a pure pop treat glittering amongst the ominous themes of its album mates. All in all, Black Candy is not the best of the collection. This batch of songs seem less, somehow, than those of Jamboree, but if you're listening to Beat Happening you're past the point of differentiating between good and bad music. You're listening for the fun of it, and Black Candy certainly provides the fun. 

Dreamy (1991)
The good times continue on the fourth album, Dreamy (1991). Dreamy is more of a return to form than a continuation of Black Candy. It is still aggressively dark like its predecessor, but the songs are stronger (similar to Jamboree) and there is more of a balance between maturity and naivete. "Me Untamed" shows right away how far their instrument playing has come and any aspiring musician would want to take a crack at the rollicking "Hot Chocolate Boy". Heather's songs ("Left Behind", "Collide" and "Fortune Cookie Prize") are memorable and lovable. The darkness rears its head as well. In the lament "I've Lost You" Calvin begs for acceptance with the line "Who's gonna love me the way that I am?", only to find acceptance and more in the sexy and underrated "Nancy Sin".  The album closes with two strong tracks...the epic "Revolution Come And Gone" and the often-covered "Red Head Walking" (most recently by R.E.M., as an Accelerate B-side in 2008). Considered by many to be their best work, Dreamy is filled with gems.

You Turn Me On (1992)
Unlike many bands, Beat Happening arguably got better with each release. With that in mind, 1992's You Turn Me On is their tremendous swan song. The band bucked many trends found on previous recordings. The biggest change is that they all but abandoned the three-minute song. A third of these tracks are over six minutes long, and it's obvious there's some heavier production at work here.

At this time, you might listen to their debut once again to appreciate the level of maturity they've hit on You Turn Me On. You'd have no idea they could've reached this point. "Tiger Trap" begins this album with jangly guitars and a calm, charming tone. It's followed by Heather's "Noise" sung with a certain delicate quality we haven't heard before. The beautifully entrancing "Godsend" (also sung by Heather) is, perhaps, my favorite Beat Happening song. The repetitive nature of this ten minute song notwithstanding, I could hear it for ten more minutes and it wouldn't get old. Of course, they let a little dark in as well. "Pinebox Derby" and "You Turn Me On" each deal with death in that fun Calvin Johnson way. "Hey Day" is also a strong song. I believe this song is a glimpse of where the band was headed had they been interested in continuing on. The fact that they quit making records just after Nirvana's Nevermind and the explosion of Pacific Northwest bands when they could've easily hitched themselves onto that wagon reminds you they did it their way...they were not looking for fame or financial success.

Music To Climb The Apple Tree By (2003)
The last album in the box set is a collection of singles and rarities titled Music To Climb The Apple Tree By (there's also a disc of a short 3-song set which includes videos of live performances). This fifteen song compilation includes two later releases, "Angel Gone" and "Zombie Limbo Time" as well as songs from an EP they recorded with Screaming Trees, and original versions of several previously released songs. Overall, like so many other compilation collections, it does lack the cohesion that brings the narrative together. You would be ill-advised to make this your only Beat Happening possession. Use it only as a springboard to get to know a band important enough to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Love 'em or hate 'em (some houses are divided) Beat Happening played music for the fun of it. The child-like innocence of the lyrics and lack of technical prowess with musical instruments should be endearing if you believe that's why music should be played...for fun. The secret to their success may be the notion that any of us could do it, but I guarantee none of us could do it like Beat Happening.

If you've read through this entire post, I salute you. You've invested a lot of your time. I'll leave you with but one video..."Indian Summer".

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