[25 October 2005]
If there really was such a thing as a Rock & Roll High School (and not just the Ramones’ movie of the same name), the strange and circuitous story of the Beta Band would probably earn a significant place in the “Indie Rock 101” curriculum. Not necessarily because of anything they actually did, but because of what they didn’t do—because of the sheer frustration implicit in their painful creative breakdown. (OK, maybe it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting to watch as the Libertines’ spectacular implosion, but interesting nonetheless.) The Betas were feted and acclaimed right out of the gate, hailed as one of the most promising acts in modern music simply on the promise of a handful of early EPs. They spent the rest of their career trying to catch up to these initial expectations, and never seemed to gain enough traction to escape the incredible gravity of this “lost” potential.
The following is excerpted from a press release distributed by the band’s American label, Astralwerks, in the wake of the group’s 2004 breakup:
“Always regarded as something of an enigma by the media but widely recognized to be one of the UK’s most influential bands, ‘s Heroes To Zeros proved not only their most successful but most cohesive and engaging album to date. Sadly, eight years of hard work and critical acclaim but little return in terms of commercial success inevitably takes its toll and a group decision was made to finally lay the band to rest.”
It seems rather disingenuous to blame the Beta Band’s dissolution on commercial factors. I have a hard time believing that any group who dedicated their career to making music as willfully left-of-center as the Betas would have expected to get rich doing so. There are any number of small independent bands all across the world who manage to carve out respectable careers for themselves outside the borders of the mainstream music machine. Sometimes, every so often, one of these groups breaks loose and hits the big time—or a commercial group morphs into something more challenging. Radiohead make music that, by any definition, should be considered commercially untenable. Yet somehow they have managed to sell records consistently, if not spectacularly.
Artists such as Radiohead, along with their peers in the world of alternative rock—heavily-lauded groups and artists such as the Flaming Lips, Wilco, PJ Harvey and Pavement—are the exceptions, not the rule. All of these groups have (or had, in the case of Pavement) managed to achieve some degree of success based on overwhelming critical consensus that has subsequently translated into solid, if not incredible, commercial accomplishment. But the Beta Band never achieved the level of critical mass necessary to propel them into the stratosphere of these inarguably popular indie (or indie-flavored) acts. The Betas were just another in a long line of talented but decidedly noncommercial prospects that were never going to have a number-one album, even a fluke number-one like Kid A.
To put it bluntly: if your music can best be described as “quirky” or “recondite”, you will probably never find overwhelming financial rewards in our modern music industry. You have to satisfy yourselves with the long view, with recording and touring relentlessly, with the slow and painstaking process of building a fanbase by hand. The “little return in terms of commercial success” was only to be expected considering the eclectic nature of the music they created, and I’m somewhat baffled that they ever expected anything different.
The Beta Band started strong. The release of The Three EPs in January of 1999 implied that important things were in the offing for these Scottish newcomers. Their indescribable and refreshingly bizarre mixture of genres into a postmodern stew was seen in some quarters as the ultimate fruition of the musical Catholicism that had dominated critical discourse in the 1990s. The fact that the Betas blended hip-hop, country, dub reggae and pop under the aegis of modern college rock with a sheen of gleaming electronic production fostered expectations that the long-awaited Rapture of popular music foretold by Odelay was at hand. The day was upon us, when all genres would melt together in an incomprehensible digital mélange and the very notion of music itself would be born again from the ashes of the old world.
Four tracks from The Three EPs are included on Music, including their trademark “Dry the Rain”. As a purely blissful musical statement, it has no peers in the Beta’s catalog, and stands as one of the best indie-pop tracks of the last decade. The combination of shuffling drum machine and plaintive acoustic guitar add up to a brilliant melodic movement that gains momentum as it approaches the chorus. Tracks like “Inner Meet Me” and “Dr. Baker” are interesting ideas partly sabotaged by spastic, frenetic production—the type of production that requires the listener to meet the music halfway. The only early track here to approach the easy grandeur of “Dry the Rain” is “She’s the One”, but even given the track’s appealing two-chord melody, the disparate elements never seem to cohere quite as magnificently.
The Betas followed up The Three EPs with their self-titled official debut, which presented their nascent fan base with a far more baffling and confused image than their comparatively straightforward earlier material. The Betas themselves famously disowned this album as “fucking awful”. It’s never a good thing when the “Next Big Thing” stumbles, and the rather bewildering performance of their first proper album left many wondering if the potential of The Three EPs would ever be fulfilled.
Three tracks off the debut are included here, and they point towards what a more concentrated application of The Three EPs’ ideas might have sounded like. “It’s Not Too Beautiful” may outlast its welcome at eight-and-a-half minutes, but it manages to produce a memorable effect despite—it sits nicely in the baldly romantic niche carved out by “Dry the Rain” and “She’s the One”. “Smiling” is an odd pastiche of Run-DMC drums and Smurf singing that represents the off-kilter feel of the first album probably more accurately than they would have liked. “To You Alone” is less compelling than it should be, a quirky love song set to a jittery, caffeine-fueled Timbaland beat—something that sounded positively revolutionary back at the fin de siecle, but which now merely sounds inevitable.
The lead single off 2001’s Hot Shots II was set to be “Squares”, a rather interesting exercise in melancholy splendor. The problem was, “Squares” contained a sample of an obscure song by the Gunter Kallman Choir called “Daydream”. This would have been an unremarkable bit of trivia if it weren’t for the fact that a group called I Monster were also releasing a song that sampled “Daydream”, called “Daydream in Blue”. The resulting mini-controversy (tempest in a teapot is more like it) was enough to scuttle any momentum for the Beta’s sophomore release, while I Monster’s tune racked up a successful run on the British charts. “Squares” flopped, and despite fair reviews, the album didn’t do much better.
“Squares” is included on Music, and it comes off as positively Spartan in the context of the band’s earlier material. In place of the dizzying, kaleidoscopic instrumentation and production, the Betas have instead focused on a more austere, focused sound. Something is lost, however, from the hectic energy of the early singles, an energy that can’t quite be supplanted by more focused songwriting. “Human Being” recalls the early material more fluently, while managing to deploy their trademark kitchen-sink noise to more studied effect. The repeated mantra of “We might just break, / Can you hear us trying?” hints at the possible frustration at this point in their career.
Which brings us to the release of the Beta Band’s third proper album, final and fourth overall, Heroes to Zeroes. The announcement of the bands demise was made official, and the story revealed in hindsight for anyone who cared to go back and piece it together from songs like “Human Being”. Even the title reflects a note of distinct bitterness—just as Hot Shots II had proven itself an accurate reflection of their self-deprecating humility. a band that had once been lauded by the critical establishment was subsequently devalued to a novelty status, and the transformation from conquering “heroes” to no-account “zeroes” was complete.
But the evidence—five tracks included on Music, more than any other of their albums—strongly implies that their third album was probably their best, or at least their most cohesive. “Wonderful” is a love song in the vein of their past highlights but not without its own charm. “Assessment” is an unlikely guitar-rock track in the vein of middle-era U2, with an extremely Edge-ish guitar line floating above a rumbling, echoey drum line.
The vestiges of past ambition form a prism through which the meaning of certain tracks from their later career snap into crystal clarity. The low-key, melancholy “Simple”, which tellingly serves as the concluding track for both Heroes to Zeroes and Music, highlights the gnawing inadequacy which must have dogged them for the entirety of their career:
“I tried to see it their way, /
I tried to be alone, /
I tried to do my own thing, /
But the trouble with our own thing is, /
You end up on your own.
Music comes with a second live disc, a recording from late 2004 of one of the last shows of their farewell tour. Despite the group’s occasionally soggy sound, the general impression is of a band that has managed to incorporate its multiple disparate elements into a far more cohesive whole than could have been expected. I’d heard horror stories of their live show—a jumble of random noises adding up to any live engineer’s worst nightmare—but the group sounds quite spry. Much of the first disc’s track listing is replicated on the second, albeit—in most cases—with far different arrangements. A few live favorites not on the “Hits” disc creep in as well, like “Dog’s Got A Bone” and “House Song”, which represents an inexplicable omission from the first disc. Probably the funkiest track in the Betas’ catalog, as well as their most successful foray into the realm of straight dance.
Crafting an appropriate follow-up to a great record is one of the great challenges in all of popular music. Some acts never even get around to recording that one singularly great album, but for those that do the pressure is worse: can they top it? Will they embarrass themselves horribly, or fall apart under the pressure? But what about those artists who never even get that first great album? I imagine the most thankless lot in all of music must be the group who never succeeds in facing up to their Potential (with a capital “P”). These artists live in perpetual shadow, but it isn’t the shadow of past greatness, it is the shadow of an unrealized potency. There is no way to compete with the specter of might-have-been, and there is nothing more impossible than trying to live up to hypothetical standards of perfection (see Adams, Ryan).
So, that’s it. A handful of shiny plastic discs, a pile of reviews, a fair amount of dismal resentment all around, and now, the requisite anthology to tie everything up in a nice bow. Sounds like a career, then. They were good, but the fact that they should have been fantastic was never going to go away. Perhaps their dissolution makes a bit more sense now, perhaps not. These things rarely make sense, anyway. But listening to Music it’s easy to see why their early material was greeted with such unqualified enthusiasm. They may not have had a very good batting record as these things go—even their “best of” has as many misses as hits, as many experiments that go awry as not—but when they were on, they had something special.
Note: Portions of this essay have been adapted from an earlier essay on the topic written by the author, which was posted a long time ago elsewhere and which nobody ever read. It’s not plagiarism, it’s recycling.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/betaband-best2005/