Certain events in music history are powerful enough to change the course of the industry for good. Prominent events such as Bob Dylan going electric in 1965, Radiohead’s groundbreaking OK Computer, or, as far as my personal relationship with music is concerned, the emergence of the seminal independent K Records and Beat Happening in Olympia, Washington in 1982.
The man at the center of it all was Calvin Johnson, frontman of Beat Happening and K Records founder, bringing with him his fierce Do It Yourself ethic and lo-fi sensibilities to change the course of the American independent music scene.
Beat Happening was one of those bands that discarded any preconceived notions of what it takes to make music and get it out there. Call it a childlike naiveté or a disregard for professional musicianship, but Beat Happening’s playful and whimsical approach whisked in a new era of change within the industry, a sort-of middle fingered address to the major labels and their tendency to homogenize the playing-field. They weren’t masters of their instruments, they often strayed off-key and out of tune, yet they captured something primitive and organic with their sound that continues to speak to people. The ethos of the trio, Calvin, Heather, and Bret (they dropped their last names in order to strip away all pretense) was one of democracy and fearlessness, swapping instruments and singing duties from song to song.
Their full-length, self-titled debut wasn’t released until 1985, after plenty of years of spontaneous gigs, various self-recorder cassette-tapes, and a trip to Japan where they recorded their first EP. To any major label exec, it was like a heart attack caught on tape with its hazy recording quality, often innocently juvenile lyrics, and the monotone, dark voice of Calvin Johnson. Abandoning the bass, the band consisted of just the drums, a two-chord guitar, and the singer’s voice. Very quickly though it was Calvin’s baritone voice and wry singing style that became the trademark of the group, which was often juxtaposed to Heather’s almost unbearable sweetness.
It took three years for a follow-up to emerge and Jamboree provided a stark improvement in musicianship, featuring the dangerously catchy “Indian Summer”. The song plays out like a teenage tribal anthem and features some of the best aspects of Beat Happening: a simple, repetitive drumming pattern and guitar rhythm, and Calvin’s bittersweet voice. Jamboree quickly established their sound: a pulsating mix of raw, sweaty mosh-pit anthems underlined by a refreshingly carefree candor in their lyrics. Their next release, the somewhat unloved Black Candy, stopped the band from veering too close to cutesy with an exploration of the dark shadows of their music. Like a haunted house ride, it’s dark and sardonic but still provides great fun in between its heart-jumping moments.
Calvin, Heather, and Bret on the cover of Dreamy
By 1991 and with Dreamy, Beat Happening had become the most influential independent band on their side of the Atlantic. Often considered their greatest album, Dreamy captured Beat Happening at their most mature and sophisticated, highlighting everything that people loved about the band. Songs like “Me Untamed”, “Revolution Come and Gone”, and “Nancy Sin” expresses them at their most sinister and ruthless, while on the other hand masterpieces such as the Heather led “Fortune Cookie Prize” and Calvin’s “Cry for a Shadow” expose a new level emotional depth previously unheard.
Much of their mythical status also had to do with Calvin’s leading role in the legendary International Pop Underground convention. The six-day festival in Calvin’s hometown of Olympia celebrated the indie and DIY ideal with the greatest garage bands of the time, bands that would go on to influence and shape the sound of indie rock. He got everyone together from Fugazi to Bratmobile, from Courtney Love to the Pastels, to celebrate the independent spirit of music, forming a unified “up-yours” to the established musical order that had oversaturated the music industry with their generic and over-produced definition of rock music.
Beat Happening’s last studio album in 1992,You Turn Me On saw them turn away from some of their foundations and experiment with the way they had always approached music. They broke some of the norms they had established in the past by multi-tracking two guitars rather than using the traditional one and the album featured songs that lasted more than six minutes, especially on the whopping nine-minute-long jaunt ‘Godsend’. Despite displaying a newfound complexity in the arrangements, You Turn Me On kept finding that brilliant balance between scorching noise and minimalist heartbreak so perfectly realized in Dreamy.
Although never officially disbanding, You Turn Me On has proved to be their last studio album. Calvin Johnson has gone on to record as a member of Dub Narcotic Sound System, the Halo Benders, and the Hive Dwellers, while still playing a prominent role in the independent music scene as a part of the enduring essence of K Records. Calvin Johnson encapsulated and even resuscitated the spirit of independent music for a while, leading the troop of unlikely heroes in battle against the ‘corporate ogre’ he saw taking over the music industry.