“We don’t make music to sounds like anyone else, or like anything else. It’s only us that… know what it is we’re trying to sound like, and even we don’t know a lot of the time.”
John Maclean, “The Depot to Monte Cristo” documentary
There’s a lot to be said for the Beta Band’s philosophical approach to breaking-up. In deciding to reture after only four albums they have gained an equanimity which eluded them for the duration of their short career. The recent Best Of CD set offered a fairly comprehensive look at the group’s recorded history, but this DVD set has something more than mere reminiscence in mind. Somewhere in here, it seems, lie answers to certain questions which have eluded the Betas and their fans from the very beginning.
First off, they don’t much care for the modern state of music videos. By which I mean that the music videos included on the first disc are like no other music videos you have ever seen, and seem purposefully designed as such. Directed almost entirely by the band and their friends, they revel in a willfully juvenile primitivism that compliments their eclectic, occasionally shambling and accidentally gorgeous music. The first video of the set, “Inner Meet Me” (shot in 1998, at the time of their early EPs), features the four Betas frolicking across the mountainous Scottish countryside in strange homemade monster costumes. The special effects are pretty much limited to running the film backwards to make it look like thrown rocks are jumping into their hands. After that, “Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos” is a longform video featuring a convoluted and frankly nonsensical plot about bandmember Robin being kidnapped, first by an evil dentist and then by a man in a parrot suit. After calling numerous friends to help — including a female barbarian and an old ladies’ auxiliary aerobics class — they finally give chase across the universe atop magic carpets. After they find Robin, they throw a big feast to which all their friends — even the evil parrot — are invited.
If that sounds bizarre, it’s because it is. Although it was obviously made for whatever spare change was in the cushions of their couches, it’s got an irresistible charm that serves as an effective counterpoint to their melancholy music. From that point on the videos don’t exactly get weirder (it would be hard to beat that), but they do get more elaborate. The video for “Assessment”, taken off their final album, 2004’s Heroes to Zeroes, is a surprisingly masterful piece of filmmaking, a history of warfare from the cavemen to the atomic bomb shot in one long take on a very large beach. I say “surprisingly” masterful, because the very professional looking video was, again, shot by the band itself.
One fact that comes across on the first disc is that the band seems to be having a lot more fun making weird little movies than in recording music. There are a number of odd little skits that have nothing to do with the Betas music at all, such as “Weirds Way”. A spoof of historical guide programs, it features a dotty tour guide leading the camera through an entirely made up history of Scotland, a history which includes a climactic battle between Dr. Who and the Daleks. There’s other odd stuff as well, almost two hours worth — a perfect treasure trove of silly and weird clips designed for late-night viewing. The cumulative portrait of the group which emerges from these oddball clips is, unsurprisingly, very silly. It almost makes you question how serious the group were about their recondite music to begin with — but it also serves as something of a reminder that, regardless of intentions, if you don’t take yourself seriously it’s hard for anyone else to do so.
Three documentaries (along with a smattering of live footage) make up the second disc. The first, “The Depot to Monte Cristo”, is a short piece recorded in 2002 during the Hot Shots II tour, and features a few revealing quotes (such as the one which leads off this review) taken from a period before the band had become entirely disgruntled with their careers. The second feature is almost more of a collage than a documentary. “1997-2004” is, as you might expect from the title, a look at the band’s career in its entirety. It is constructed entirely from home movies and still images, with no narration, simply a cavalcade of pictures and associations. It makes for an interest time capsule, if nothing else.
But the third documentary is more than merely a memento. “Let It Beta” (you’re supposed to pronounce the “e” in Beta long, like “feed”, if that makes sense), originally intended merely to record the making of Heroes to Zeroes, instead turned into the depressing chronicle of the band’s final months.
The parallels between “Let It Beta” and Wilco’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart are quite unsettling. At the commencement of recording, the Betas find themselves in a vulnerable position. Their records haven’t sold very well, and they’re in debt to their record company, who they blame for the commercial failure of their second album. As a result, they are justifiably wary of any further corporate interference. Furthermore, the same critics who championed their initial releases have turned on them. They want nothing more than to be released from their record contract and regain a degree of autonomy over their fate. But whereas Wilco, as documented in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, were able to turn their unreleased masterpiece into a cause célebre and critical phenomenon by bypassing their record company, the Betas seem essentially helpless to affect the situation. It is almost chilling to see a band so completely lose their nerve. The momentum so necessary to any sustained creative endeavor seems wholly gone, and the band remains unable to recapture the traction.
While the group never — at least in the footage shown — turns on one another, they are essentially four men against the world. Unable to achieve the success they were once promised, unable to find any firm footing in the studio, unable even to control the costs of rapidly mushrooming studio sessions, the only real solace remains their live performances and their small but fervent fanbase. But at the end of the documentary it becomes clear that these are not reasons enough to remain aboard a sinking ship, mortally wounded by diminished expectations. Although the actual decision to quit is made off-camera, the film leaves the viewer with no doubt that the choice was almost inevitable.
As depressing as it sounds — and it is, no doubt about that — the mass of information gathered for this set makes for a captivating portrait of a band in its death-throes. Many times throughout the documentaries the band bewails the deleterious influence of the critical community on their career, and the poisonous high expectations that contributed to the eventual breakup. I certainly count as part of said community, but they should at the least consider themselves fortunate that they were the subject of such deserved praise to begin with. While it is true that the Beta Band never quite lived up to their potential, it is also true that few groups ever reach even that modest pinnacle of expectations. They recorded some good music, and the fact that they quit when it stopped being enjoyable places them head-and-shoulders above a few other groups I could mention who really should have quit a long time ago. I wish them well in their future careers as filmmakers, or whatever — after all the crap the music industry has dumped on them, present company included, they deserve a break.