Wipe the Slate Clean for the Umpteenth Time: A Beat Happening Critical Overview

Features, KEXP 50, Local Music, Album Reviews
Martin Douglas
Above photo courtesy of Beat Happening's Bandcamp // All photos of Calvin Johnson (circa 2008) by Hilary Harris

As KEXP celebrates 50 years of bringing our love of music to the community, we find ourselves this week extolling the virtues of all things 1985. For the occasion, KEXP features writer, local music columnist, and veteran music critic Martin Douglas takes a deep dive into yet another one of the Pacific Northwest’s most influential groups — looking at the full musical discography of Beat Happening, who released their genre-defining self-titled debut in 1985.

The thing about teenage lust is that it’s always stamped with a rapid expiration date.

Songs driven from the pulse of surging hormones don’t hit the same when you’re 40 or 60 the way they do when you’re twenty. Thankfully, there is so much more to Beat Happening than Calvin Johnson’s songs about boys tasting wild cherry. Like the significant contributions of Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford. Or the fact that Beat Happening were the most unconventional punk rock band and unabashedly (if somewhat accidentally) created an entire subgenre of not only punk music, but several different styles and approaches to the form (twee, DIY, et al). Or the vast network of resources the band helped expose; or the idea that the lifestyle of being in a band was no longer limited to swinging dicks and bondage outfits and long hair and leopard print boots (and most recently at the time: buzz cuts along with army jackets and combat boots from the military surplus store).

Beat Happening was the final group featured in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a book which used to be (and should again be) required reading for anyone interested in starting a rock band.

The band gave clear precedent to the idea that your neighbor in the babydoll dress could be in the greatest band you’ve never heard of.

And though their collective influence could be felt for generations to come, let’s not reduce Bret, Heather, and Calvin to an aesthetic signpost or mere catalyst for bands taking a truly independent approach to their business affairs. Even after nearly 30 years since their final full-length LP (and more than 20 since their final single), the vast majority of their work remains some of the most engrossing, affecting music made in the past half-century.

You can complain all you want about Beat Happening being rather intentionally under-rehearsed, or that they don’t have “chops.” The loose simplicity of their music tapped into the heart of rock ‘n roll (as both a musical genre and a spiritual condition) in a way no amount of fancy drum fills or masturbatory guitar solos could capture on their best day. Bret, Heather, and Calvin’s earliest songs were cyclical, four-note (or acapella), homespun, handmade love notes; their later tunes split the difference between purely distilled garage honk ‘n stomp and minimalist quasi-psychedelic epic.

Beat Happening were a punk rock band, throwing flower petals in the face of macho, 100-push-ups-a-day hardcore; throwing handfuls of 50-cent candy into crowds of the heroin chic. It’s safe to say they were perhaps even more punk than the punks who endlessly ridiculed them. (Most notably Henry Rollins.)

When Kurt Cobain famously noted “punk rock is freedom,” a slogan written from the pages of this website to the inside soles of a certain, extensively derided special collection of Converse sneakers; it’s safe to say that influence came directly from his love of Beat Happening.

Beat Happening (1985)

For some, Beat Happening started as a conceit to play music in Japan. For Bret, Calvin’s promise to take the band to Tokyo was enough for him to join in earnest. Thanks to an exchange student studying at the Evergreen State College, the members of Beat Happening were afforded a lengthy stay in Japan’s mega-metropolis. Bret, Heather, and Calvin lived in a vacant apartment in a building scheduled to be demolished, played sets in parks and high school classrooms (and eventually a proper rock club or two), and recorded songs on a pair of portable stereos with double cassette decks — advanced home technology only available in Japan at the time.

Beat Happening standouts “Don’t Mix the Colors” and “Youth” were recorded in the near-abandoned flat and included on the band’s debut cassette EP Three Tea Breakfast. The latter includes a notable Calvin stanza:

When I was young, I thought I was old
I sailed across the sea to Tokyo
I thought there must be more to this world than what we’re being told
When you’re young, you can afford to be bold

Along with the modest audio quality of the Tokyo recordings, many of the songs that would make Beat Happening (or the album’s future iterations) were recorded and produced by Greg Sage, mastermind behind the Wipers, one of the most visionary and important punk bands to ever come out of the Pacific Northwest. One of the songs produced by Sage was the truly indelible “Our Secret;” a circular guitar riff, a simple but danceable drumbeat seasoned with light shakers and tambourines, and Calvin’s halfway droll, halfway childlike sing-songy vocal melody. What Calvin sings about serves as a Patient Zero for the entire twee subgenre and subculture: Inviting a cutie for a swim in Capitol Lake, expressing deep feelings over cups of tea, and indulging in suppers with her family.

Heather goes for a classic love song of her own on the galloping “What’s Important,” singing confidently of watching the rain outside the window over a mangy jangle teetering wobbly along with the drums. A lot has been made of Beat Happening’s lack of dexterity, formal training, and even regular practice, which is part and parcel to their divisive status as an influential punk band. They were almost entirely creating from the id; their songs so rudimentary that it nearly felt like they were writing songs entirely on the fly. 

But their pop instincts shone so brightly on song like “Down at the Sea” and “Run Down the Stairs.” Their penchant for thrilling rock ‘n roll were immediately prevalent on “I Love You,” “Bad Seeds,” and the shockingly great character study “I Spy.”

Over a delightfully minimalist surf boogie, Calvin embodies a world-traveled practitioner of espionage; outmaneuvering rival operatives from Italy to China, riding around in a bulletproof car, and widely outsourced to covertly fight evil. In its final four bars, “I Spy” becomes a brilliant meditation on the culture of masculine cool and the void it leaves inside of the song’s central character.

Absolutely nobody needs a retrospective analysis of a nearly 37-year-old album to know how massively influential Beat Happening would become to the fabric of modern music. Home recording has become more sophisticated than ever, but there’s no substitute for the warmth of tape hiss. Nostalgia is as essential an ingredient to pop music as flour is to a batch of cookies. There are musicians out there as I write these words who are writing songs upon learning a musically excessive three chords. 

And Beat Happening’s self-titled debut sounds as timeless as it ever has. As timeless as a hand-drawn cat riding a rocket into space.

Jamboree (1988)

In Nitsuh Abebe’s indie-pop tome “Twee as Fuck” — easily the single greatest feature Pitchfork has ever published — the writer specifically references Beat Happening’s second album by name as one of the highest touchstones of the subculture. On Kurt Cobain’s famous list of his 50 favorite albums of all-time, alongside Raw Power and Meet the Beatles! and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was Jamboree

As with most catalogs belonging to eternally crucial or otherwise significant bands, reaching a consensus on which exactly serves as their hallmark work is like herding cats or getting everyone on Twitter to order a pizza together. Por ejemplo, my own favorite Beat Happening full-length for a long time was their unintended swan song You Turn Me On, until it became the heavy and dark Black Candy, until the process of researching this feature, where it became penultimate opus Dreamy.

What I’m also saying is it’s frustratingly easy to argue for any of Beat Happening’s five albums as their best. Jamboree is such a bold step forward from their debut that I imagine it must have been the most startling if you heard each of these albums when they were first released.

The shrill feedback opening the album makes way for a filthy guitar riff straight out of the Cramps’ Songs the Lord Taught Us and Calvin sings with a punk swagger nearly to the point where he sneers the chorus of “Bewitched,” “I’ve got a crush on you.” A few of the album’s signature songs follow the same sonic template, like the ominous killer’s lament “Hangman” and the rave-up “Crashing Through.”

This 24-minute genre benchmark was produced in Steve Fisk’s Ellensburg studio with imperative recording help by Mark Lanegan, and the drastic improvement of audio fidelity (as well as the leveling up of Bret, Heather, and Calvin as musicians, having had several tours under their collective belt) is what puts Jamboree well past its predecessor in terms of being one of contemporary music’s most influential albums. Robert Christgau infamously gave Jamboree a middling B-, suggesting the album was cloying and saying outright that Beat Happening’s whole vibe amounted to “a tired bohemian fantasy.”

You can’t blame anyone, not even us supposedly lofty, gatekeeping music critics, for lacking foresight. But people will still try. Remember the Sonic Youth song “Kill Yr Idols” was originally titled “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick.”

The concept of jangle as a musical concept hardly started with Jamboree, but was most certainly perfected in a way no American band had tried before. (Bands of England and Scotland were crafting jangle-pop masterpieces years before Beat Happening innovated its U.S. iteration in 1988.) While “Drive Car Girl” and its junior year of high school allure is a sterling example, the absolutely stunning, Heather-sung “In Between” stands as a prime example of Beat Happening’s emotional reach using the form. In just under 2 ½ minutes, in her signature lilt, Heather explores early-onset grief; deeply buried trauma; how dreams, fantasy, TV, and the thought of growing wings shield us from reality.

For a band with a bevy of deceptively avant-garde sensibilities, Jamboree ends with its most blatant foray into the experimental without sacrificing its devotion to pop music trinketry. Over nothing more than a piercing wall of feedback, “The This Many Boyfriends Club” finds Calvin singing a devotional to a woman who finds herself heartbroken by a seemingly endless procession of dudes who find her twee lifestyle to be a little trite. He offers to help her bake an apple pie and to “shove those words back down their throat.”

With every mention of the name Lori, an enormous shriek emits from the audience like the words were being sung by Paul McCartney in ‘65. It speaks to both Calvin’s singular charisma and the small-but-profound influence of Beat Happening by the late-’80s.

Black Candy (1989)

As the cliché goes, you should never judge a book by its cover, but has there ever been a more fitting title and description of musical contents than Black Candy? Beat Happening’s breathtaking aesthetic shift of a third album is sweet and dark in equal measure (I’m far from the first music critic to describe the album this way), the mic drop counterpoint to any argument that Bret, Heather, and Calvin were all childish whimsy and no substance.

This is the Beat Happening revisited the most by critical reappraisal: the competently amateurish rock ‘n roll band obsessed with sex and death.

Indelible opener “Other Side,” a love story for outlaws, is both a proof of Beat Happening concept (a la “I Spy”) and a bright, poppy, major key upending of how the band is frequently stereotyped. A shack in the middle of nowhere fully stocked with turpentine is a far cry from a summer swim and baking pies. 

“Other Side” is immediately followed up by the record’s title track, as close to sinister as Beat Happening has ever gotten. If the inception of the band stood to confront the stale dogma of hardcore punk with rudimentary pop music, “Black Candy” served as a way to confront the expectations of the cutesy retro subculture they themselves created. Calvin sneers through one of his signature pieces of erotica, but more crucially, Bret and Heather contribute a growling, guttural guitar riff and the most gripping iteration of cool restraint on drums this side of Maureen Tucker.

Black Candy splits the difference between the seductive darkness and Pacific Northwestern summertime warmth and beauty. “Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive” (featuring one of the band’s best-ever guitar riffs) co-exists right alongside “Knick Knack” (another truly terrific Heather-driven contemplation of grief). “Gravedigger Blues,” a marked step up from past acapella performances, makes way for one of the band’s immortal pop performances “Cast a Shadow.”

Following a Beat Happening song so stereotypical it borders on self-parody (“Playhouse”), the band’s seismic upgrade in musical refinement is deployed immensely on Black Candy closer “Ponytail,” psychedelic in its squall and repetition, and absolutely climactic in its stylistic choice as a full-song crescendo. To close out what was clearly conceived as Bret, Heather, and Calvin’s darkest album with a song that feels like a blazing sun rising over a forest of trees makes for a profound emotional effect.

Though it’s probably very easy to note in hindsight (as I’m frequently wont to say), Black Candy feels like the album where Beat Happening made the jump from being a great band to absolutely essential.

Dreamy (1991)

In a somewhat testy interview where VICE interviewer Cam Lindsay asks Calvin to rank each of Beat Happening’s albums, the band’s de facto leader revealed their fourth full-length (and first of two released as a joint effort between Calvin’s K Records and Sub Pop, then co-owned by his old friend Bruce Pavitt) was the band’s best-selling album and its single “Red Head Walking” was the group’s best selling seven-inch by a wide margin.

The Dreamy closer is a swaggering tribute to (and cautionary tale about) red-haired women, Calvin firing off warnings about these leather vest-wearing heartbreakers and shuddering with delight in equal measure. It’s the apotheosis of the sort of rock ‘n roll seduction the band had been writing for years, all major chords and baritone vocals and not-overly-showy drumming and barely muted pheromones. Same with opener “Me Untamed,” only with the latter containing much more distortion and controlled feedback.

If you’ve been following this critical feature from the beginning, you’ll remember teenage lust is the thing I find the least interesting about Beat Happening’s music. Thankfully, Dreamy (currently) serves as my favorite of the trio’s LPs because it contains many of the band’s very best songs outside of that context. Heather sings lead on the lightly melancholy “Left Behind” and the eternal love song mixtape staple “Fortune Cookie Prize,” as well as the group’s champion foray into the psych-rock realm, the tempo-shifting “Collide.” 

In addition to yet another sterling outlaw’s song of sorrow (“Revolution Come and Gone”), Calvin steps into one of his greatest performances of the 40 years he’s been making music, the sublime heartbreak of “I've Lost You.” Over a blissfully chugging guitar riff, a lifetime’s worth of emotional complexity unfurls; self-loathing, deception, longing, and an astonishing internal awareness.

“The jury will be hanged,” goes the song’s most resonant lyric, “‘Cause there’s really no one left to blame / Except for me and my pride.”

You Turn Me On (1992)

In a lot of ways, Beat Happening’s final full-length chronicle was the most significant product of their growing ambition. You Turn Me On was the first since their debut LP not to be produced entirely by Steve Fisk (though Fisk helmed the recording of five of the album’s nine tracks) and the only to feature the incredibly standard recording technique of multitracking. It clears the band’s average LP running time (around half an hour) by about 15 minutes.

Three of the album’s songs exceed six minutes in length, and its emotional centerpiece (the absolutely stunning “Godsend”) is about 9 ½ minutes long, or exactly half the length of the entire original version of their self-titled debut.

The album was produced in part by Stuart Moxham, formerly of uber-minimalist post-punk legends Young Marble Giants, and those songs — particularly the aforementioned “Godsend” and the slowly unfolding masterpiece of an opener “Tiger Trap” — bears Moxham’s meaningful influence. “Tiger Trap,” unintentionally lifted from the band of the same name, makes the most (and then some) of two chords, stretching them well past their logical endpoint. “Godsend” features nothing more than a circular riff harmonizing with itself and Heather harmonizing with herself for, again, nearly ten full minutes. Both are wholly transcendent pieces of music and absolutely essential to the growth of Beat Happening before the break from the band that ended up being thirty years long and still ongoing.

“Noise” and “Sleepy Head” drive home Bret, Heather, and Calvin’s bonafides as top-tier songwriters, as well as the indie-pop movement’s most influential torchbearers. (I can name at least ten groups off the top of my head that would not exist if these two songs were never written.)

After the rollicking intensity of “Hey Day” comes the album’s closing tune, the only true Calvin and Heather duet of their decade of making music together. “Bury the Hammer” feels like a true closing of a chapter, with its deserted buildings and advice to make amends before walking away. “How many times can we start again?,” is asked of us in the final verse. Heather has spoken in a few interviews about this period and feeling like she had run her course with the band, of feeling like she would only be defined by Beat Happening if she didn’t pursue other creative interests.

But the band, essentially, never really broke up. They just decided to take a breather. Bret and his wife Denise had a baby. Heather’s career as a visual artist was starting to blossom. All three members had been living in different cities for years while keeping the Beat Happening enterprise afloat. 

Three decades later, the break still goes on.

Music to Climb the Apple Tree By (2003)

For all intents and purposes, Beat Happening were exclusively a singles band. Calvin has mentioned many times he feels the 45 (or the seven-inch single for the uninitiated) is the ideal format for rock ‘n roll music. He’s also said there was never an overarching musical or lyrical direction for any Beat Happening album; they’re all just a bunch of songs the band recorded.

So it’s almost a complete given that the band’s posthumous singles collection is every bit as important a document as each of the band’s full-length records. The set begins with the A-side of their final single, the delectable “Angel Gone,” which you could be tempted to refer to as a return to form until you realize Beat Happening had been writing catchy, heartbreaking pop tunes like this their whole tenure as a band.

“Angel Gone” was recorded as a single for International Pop Underground, the singles-only imprint of K Records after which the famous multi-day indie-pop conference was named after — and released in 2000, the lion’s share of a decade after You Turn Me On was released.

Music to Climb the Apple Tree By collects outstanding material throughout Beat Happening’s run, from a 1984 KAOS FM recording of “Foggy Eyes” to the b-side of their 2000 IPU single, the boogie “Zombie Limbo Time,” recorded in 1995. There are longtime fan favorites like the aggressively blown-out single version of “Nancy Sin,” the jangly and sort of frenetic “Look Around,” and both sides of Beat Happening’s beloved split/collaborative EP with Screaming Trees. 

The latter is far more cardinal than a mid-period curio from the band and the Ellensburg rock heroes, as it contains the incredible surf tune “I Dig You” and the marvelous “Sea Babies,” which provides the fantasy scenario of if Peggy O’Neill ever sang lead for the Gories.

To bolster the idea that Beat Happening were a singles band par excellence, none of the songs on this compilation could be considered throwaway material; in fact, some of it stands up among the trio’s best work.

The pretty surf-pop of “Sea Hunt” could have easily made it onto the track list for Dreamy, while “Not a Care in the World” feels like a clear throughline between Beat Happening and Nirvana — despite Calvin’s famous claim that Nirvana played Beat Happening covers and not the other way around. Music to Climb the Apple Tree By also exists as a home to the band’s weirdest songs, like the Western movie-esque, spoken word set piece “Secret Picnic Spot.”

All in all, it’s a compilation that is a fitting last salvo for one of America’s most significant bands. Not just in terms of format or a necessity to make sure their work is kept in print, but as evidence of the band being unwitting innovators of the indie rock format in general. A call to create first and worry about the fucking rules later. What punk rock was meant to be.

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