Seattle, circa 1980, didn’t boast a scene comparable to the ‘90s grunge explosion of Nirvana and Soundgarden, or even the mid-‘80s scene fueled by the Fastbacks and the Young Fresh Fellows, but there was a thriving music scene nevertheless. The Beakers were part of that scene—if not all of that scene—and though they only played together for a year (1980) their influence is still felt today, which helps explain why they’re being anthologized 24 years later with Four Steps Toward a Cultural Revolution. How many other bands who lived for all of 12 months can claim that? The Beakers—singer/guitarist Mark H. Smith, drummer George Romansic, bassist Frankie Sundsten, and saxophonist Jim Anderson—seemed destined to footnote status in rock history (heck, as of this writing, they don’t even have an allmusic.com entry), with a discography consisting of a 45 and a handful of regional compilation contributions, and an opening touring slot with British post-punk legends Gang of Four. But such a history would sell them short, and with Four Steps… the Beakers’ brief, but important, legacy is secured.
By all indications, the Beakers arrived fully formed (given their short lifespan, they couldn’t afford not to have), mixing fractured art rock, funk, and acid jazz freak-outs in a hardcore stew. It’s a recipe appropriated on an almost-daily basis by NYC-hipsters like the Liars and the Rapture, but in 1980, it must have been something of a revelation. What to make of a tune like “Red Towel”, with its opening of spazzy horns, phat rhythm section, and ironic (?) Sprechstimme lyrics like “We’re getting a great tan!”? On the musical flow chart of the era, the Beakers land somewhere between the nervy art rock of early Talking Heads and the broadly-defined hardcore aesthetic of the Minutemen. (Chronologically, they’re a great fit as well, arriving three years after Talking Heads: 77 and three years before the Minutemen’s What Makes a Man Start Fires?) Too, lead singer Smith (not to be confused with Fall frontman Mark E. Smith) sounds a helluva lot like both David Byrne—equally on-edge and mumbly on tunes like “Bones” (also, for what it’s worth, the Beakers’ funniest song, as Smith morphs into a doctor with a God, or at least regal, complex: “I can fix him / I am a king!”)—and Minutemen frontman D. Boon in his phrasing (“The process is the thing!” he shouts on “What’s Important?”) and his song titles: the title track, “Three Important Domestic Inventions”, “Thinking Postmodern”.
The band is/was more than just lyrics; in drummer Romansic and bassist Sundsten, they boasted the tightest rhythm section in punk this side of, um, the Minutemen. In a band determined to freak out at every possible moment, Romansic lays down the necessary rock solid foundation on every track, and Sundsten coaxes danceworthy, funky lines out of his boomstick on “Third in B” and “Dinosaurus Mambo”. It’s from the bass, more than any other part of the band, that one can draw an almost direct line from the Beakers to the Liars or Rapture.
The fourth and final element of the band, and the part that earn the Beakers their jazzbo/freak-out stripes, is Jim Anderson’s saxophone. Personally, I find it to be the band’s weakest (or at least most annoying) link: Anderson is a musical graffiti tagger, running roughshod through the songs, scuzzying them up. But it’s precisely those things that help the band attain their freak-out heights; without Anderson, I’m not sure this anthology ever sees the light of day now in 2004. That said, I’d be less critical of the saxophone skronk if Anderson didn’t do the exact same thing on Every. Single. Song. As a Frank Zappa fan, I know a thing or two about horn-led musical chaos, but I’m still only tolerant of it in low doses, and Four Steps… sometimes exceeds my daily intake of such a racket.
As alive and electrifying as the band was—part of me wishes I was 24 in 1980 (instead of, um, zero) to experience the first flush of indie rock in a world free of the internet, where digging to find a gem of a band was de rigeur—Four Steps Toward a Cultural Revolution proves the band was more about ideas than songs. Listening to the album, one gets the feeling that one given song’s lyrics could be paired with any other song’s tune, to no appreciable loss. But the Beakers were more about DIY, expanding the idea of hardcore (again, much like the Minutemen), and letting their freak flag fly. I don’t know how much you accomplished in 1980 (I, for one, was busy being born), but based on the above, the Beakers certainly had a productive year.
// Notes from the Road
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