Maybe it was one of life’s Newtonian formulations about equal and opposite reactions, or some Einsteinian thing concerning the duality of the university and matter/anti-matter. Maybe it was a case of identical concepts being explored on two very different volume settings. Maybe it was nothing more than anti-hipster nonconformity run wild. In any case, as one musical upheaval — grunge/punk (grunk?) — was gestating in and emanating loudly from Seattle and its environs, its antithesis — a spare, minimalist adorable pop concoction dubbed love-rock or cuddlecore and casually marketed as the International Pop Underground — was bubbling up quietly in the nearby state capital, Olympia. At the center of this latter phenomenon stood Calvin Johnson, his band Beat Happening and his K Records label.
As profoundly archetypal in its way as the Velvet Underground, the influential and delightful Beat Happening demonstrated that punk’s rebel spirit could be expressed just as effectively by defying rock conventions as by defying society’s. Hence the contrived (or sincere, you get to guess) anti-star innocence and cuteness: first names only, scanty, handwritten credits, blurry photos and crude drawings, sardonically trivial lyrics, singing that treats melody and key with cavalier apathy, disorganized and seemingly impromptu concert appearances. Structurally, the trio — Johnson, Heather (Lewis) and Bret (Lunsford) — pulled off one of orthodoxy’s wings by repeating a feat first tested by the Cramps (another obvious stylistic source; add Jonathan Richman’s self-willed flimsy to that short list) and making do without bass. (Perhaps they assumed Johnson’s astonishingly deep voice could provide all the notes needed in that register.) Finally, the group certified the insignificance of instrumental skill by democratically rotating guitar and drum responsibilities among its members.
After releasing two five-song tapes, Beat Happening made its monumental album debut in 1985, produced (well…) by Greg Sage of the Wipers. A fresh breeze of one-take pop ingenuity, songs like “I Spy,” “Down at the Sea” and the Crampsy “Bad Seeds” are remorselessly amateurish but loaded with charm and invention. (The 26-song 1983-85 brings the story up to date with the trio’s first single, the first album, Three Tea Breakfast, several compilation contributions and some otherwise unreleased tracks. The ’96 K CD of Beat Happening has 23 of the same selections but better artwork.)
Just prior to the release of their second album, Beat Happening issued a four-song 12-inch in Britain. Along with Jamboree‘s “Crashing Through” and an alternate version of the same album’s “The This Many Boyfriends Club,” Crashing Through contains both sides of a non-LP American single.
While repeating the band’s habit of ending an album with a live cut, Jamboree — co-produced by Steve Fisk and Mark Lanegan and Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees — is a bit more intricate and electric, but not enough to hurt anything. What makes the trio so special is its innate ability to turn raw, crude ingredients into friendly, nice music without getting all mushy about it. So, while “Hangman” gets a ferocious Cramps roar going, the vocals are thoroughly mild. Similarly, the alluring (and oft-covered) “Indian Summer” paints an idyllic lyrical picture over an innocuous drone. Indicative of a deft internal compass, the pathos-laden “Cat Walk” has enough of a spine not to whimper.
The four songs on the joint Beat Happening/Screaming Trees 12-inch (the record melds the two groups without specific credits) suggest that a boxload of Cream’s Disraeli Gears had recently arrived in town. (The wah-wah and mock-Ginger Baker drumming is a dead giveaway.) “Polly Pereguin” and the pointedly titled “Tales of Brave Aphrodite,” a loopy confessional, are rough-cut electric pop with definite ’60s ambience. If nothing else, the EP demonstrates how open-ended the group’s musical ambitions could be.
Beat Happening lost its poise on Black Candy, a disappointing album that’s more careless than casual, with vocals (almost all by Calvin) that wander nervously around melodies over drums and guitars that are too often intrusively aggressive (and, in “Knick Knack,” gravely out of tune). While the Crampsian grind of “Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive” and the driving intensity of “Ponytail” are impressive, there isn’t enough winsome pop (the memorable “Cast a Shadow” and the folky “Other Side” are pretty much it) to balance out the mood. Sung over snapped fingers and brushes on a snare, the somber “Grave Digger Blues” has the record’s lightest sound, but not a shred of innocence or vulnerability.
The darkly painted Dreamy, inconspicuously produced by Fisk, continues in the scrabbly stylistic direction of Black Candy but is a much better, more consistent LP with none of its predecessor’s sloppiest shortcomings. Calvin’s resonant voice is the concise album’s dominant feature (Heather sings three: the lightly tuneful “Left Behind,” the wistful “Fortune Cookie Prize” and the racing, feedback-drenched “Collide”); the raw and undeveloped electric music supports him with easy grace, making the most of inspired — and only occasionally Crampsy (see the surly and sexy “Nancy Sin”) — minimalism. The album is loaded with cool tunes: the ominous “Me Untamed,” the Shonen Knife-like “Hot Chocolate Boy,” the ’60sish “Cry for a Shadow” and the bodacious “Red Head Walking.”
Beat Happening’s final longplayer, You Turn Me On, leaves the group in a different place than it began. Carefully performed and produced with startling clarity by (separately) Fisk and Stuart Moxham (an avatar of ’70s new wave minimalism in the Young Marble Giants, another crucial ingredient in the foundation of Calvinism), it takes 45 minutes to present nine numbers in what actually sound like planned arrangements. Stretching out songs that are as structurally ambitious as usual — which is to say not in the slightest — merely makes them longer. (Unlike many minimalists, Beat Happening has never made a fetish of brevity.) So while there’s nothing in the four-plus minutes of Calvin’s gritty “You Turn Me On” or the nine-plus of Heather’s pretty “Godsend” that couldn’t have been achieved in half (or a quarter) of the time, neither is seriously damaged by its interminability. That said, the material’s exceptionally high quality would have been more obvious if each song didn’t hang around so long. (Besides the title track, “Pinebox Derby,” “Bury the Hammer,” “Tiger Trap” and “Sleepyhead” are all keepers, and not just to the bands who named themselves after the last two.)
Considering how many like-minded artists have covered Beat Happening songs over the years, the tribute album, despite good intentions (artistic, educational and fund-raising), is surprisingly stinky. Indie bands like Velocity Girl, Seaweed, Scrawl and half of Sonic Youth put their fat-fingered handprints on a bass-ackwards selection of tunes (and an awful Unrest original called “I Love Calvin”) that lose most of their personality in the process. Superchunk’s seething “Nancy Sin” and the Tsunami-related Geek’s raging rendition of “Night Moves on the Catwalk” (the deep male voice of which sounds suspiciously like one of the album’s honorees) are the prizes of Fortune Cookie Prize.