[9 February 2004]
PopMatters General Features Editor
Rejecting the idea that musicians should appear larger than life, Beat Happening, the late ‘80s phenomenon that put Olympia, Washington, on the pop culture map, set about to make music designed to inspire others to make their own music for themselves. From the amateur production values to the learn-as-you-go musicianship to the simple campfire sing-along song structures to the seventh-grade slam book lyrics, everything about the band’s approach deflated pretentiousness and denied the barrier that separates performers from their audience. Sure, they sometimes made it seem that freedom of expression necessarily involved the freedom to make a fool of yourself, that being silly is the only way to be uninhibited. But this remained as provocative a stance as that of the original wave of punks, who aimed to wrest music out of the control of industry behemoths and free it from their formulas for manufacturing bland, depoliticized hit records.
Only Beat Happening was out to rescue punk (which by the mid-‘80s had morphed into “independent” music and had become elitist, caste-ridden and doctrinaire) from itself and return it to those early principles. In the process they would invigorate the old notion of the local music scene as indigenous, inclusive, and participatory, a community which served its own ends rather than serving as an incubator for potential national acts and record-company cash cows. Ironically, Beat Happening become national icons anyway, contributing to the launch of an international twee-pop movement and ingraining Calvin Johnson’s inimitable baritone as one of the most unmistakable voices in indie-rock.
Whether or not this compromises their legacy probably depends on how rigid your dialectics are. And then you must consider as well Johnson’s entrepreneurship, his genius for promotion, his willingness to play the existing marketing game, which supports the very industry network he otherwise combats. Are these necessary concessions for the wider dissemination of a progressive ideal, or invalidating cave-ins which make K as much part of the problem as they are of the solution? It’s just another interesting question raised by the band’s legacy. It remains irrefutable that the music never fails to convey a genuine sense of warmth and generosity that seems miraculous—its inexhaustible wonder that their minimal approach, that such a rudimentary collection of raw materials, could be made to yield such magnanimous sentiment.
Though they’re often regarded as cute and cuddly, Beat Happening’s darker obsessions don’t lie too far below the surface. Though their aesthetic embraced a try-anything eagerness, it was also uncompromising and confrontational in its refusal to pander. It’s the polished music that the band rejected that attempts to be sweet and ingratiating. Most of Beat Happening’s songs are about frustration, in one way or another, and their repetitive, unresolved compositions grew to reflect that more and more as they came to write longer songs. Their unconventional playing style and frequent disregard for tuning also conveyed the discord behind the façade created by contrived innocence and wistful, virtually involuntary nostalgia. This paradox animates the band’s best songs (exemplified on this collection by “Look Around” and “That Girl”); the way striving for simplicity and directness can in fact be yet another way to formalize experience and shield oneself from emotional threats. Beat Happening often indulges a pre-emptive vulnerability that is as much a mask as the posturing, the vicariousness, the rock-star attitudinizing they implicitly criticized.
Music to Climb the Apple Tree By, originally released as a part of the comprehensive box set Crashing Through, collects the odds and ends of the band’s career: out-of-print 45s, a split EP with Screaming Trees, contributions to compilations, and the like. As a result, it’s a pretty arbitrary collection of songs, but only the charming pseudo-flamenco, ersatz Rod McKuen spoken-word piece “Secret Picnic Spot” can be considered anomalous. The collection provides an index to the various styles and motifs Beat Happening toyed with. “Nancy Sin” and “I Dig You” have the band rocking out Cramps-style with heavy reverb and a locomotive relentlessness. “Sea Hunt” and “Not a Care in the World”, performed in the patient, droning style that came to the fore on their final album, You Turn Me On reveal how subtle and affecting Johnson and drummer/singer Heather Lewis’s harmonies could be, and how many different shades of deadpan were possible in their monotone approach. On “Dreamy” and “Tales of Brave Aphrodite”, Johnson shows off his knack for deceptively simple and often silly rhymes that mask surprisingly pregnant turns of phrase. The driving “Foggy Eyes” flaunts their Velvets influence and the spontaneously composed “Zombie Limbo Time” reveals the band in party-rock mode, exploring the loose flexible structures Johnson would pursue further with Dub Narcotic Sound System.
If you already own Beat Happening’s original albums, this essential compilation will round out your collection nicely, but newcomers to the band should skip this in favor of the box set, which is well worth the money and time required to digest the mass of innovation, provocation, and sheer joy at the limitless possibilities of music-making contained therein.