Music To Climb The Apple Tree By
So now that we’re in the heady midst of the latest iteration of the whole “hey unconventional band lineups are a good thing!” and “strip it down!” and “bass players are obsolete!” thing, and White Stripes-mania and all that jazz/jizz, I kinda figured that someone at this point would have donned a Beat Happening shirt or like, name checked them a bunch in interviews or dug them out of a pile of beautiful seven-inches to use as a totem of (rightful) musical purity, but no, no, not a peep. And yet, surely if anyone was deserving of the accolades, it would be Beat Happening, perhaps one of the most influential American independent bands — and surely one of the best — of the last twenty years. So while we’re waiting for everyone to catch up, we’ll just have to settle for that bad ass box set that made the rounds recently, and this lil’ platter, a roundup of singles and rare tracks and other choice gems from the box all crammed onto one disc.
One more introductory note — fuck the backstory and the sociological implications and the (admittedly inspiring) historical context, Beat Happening were really all about the shining golden sun and the pitch black night, the extremes of dark razor-slit swamp rock and sickly sweet innocent beauty. The scarred face and the beautiful eyes, at first it jars, the fragile ringing chords, Heather’s angel-plush voice and Calvin Johnson’s dark syrup growl. But after about thirty seconds, you start wondering why every other band doesn’t sound this way.
“Angel Gone” is an example of that wide-eyed naivete, with a touch of the trouble shadow that makes it all the more endearing. It’s classic pop with Calvin and Heather harmonizing in that sweet, awkward way and those ace Velvet Underground gentle chord washes, and the most simple of drum beats. This was always the essence of Beat Happening for me. And this is why they’ll still be essential as air for me when I’m fucking eighty and only able to drool approvingly while these beautiful songs usher me on to a better place.
“Nancy Sin” is endemic of the other side of Beat Happening, the one that’s never talked about in pleasant company. That trashy, barbed-wire rockabilly that swings on the Cramps’ bad side of town, and shoves thorns up fingernails — Calvin’s voice is all about danger, violence and teenage tragedy. And Heather could do it too, see. “Sea Babies” is a fucking noisy rave-up, she hollers and bellows over a mess of distorted geetar. Scary stuff; drugged-out garage rock that’s all classic like the Mary Chain. Or like the midpoint between Samhain and the Shaggs.
The rest of the songs then, either fall on the good side of town or the wrong side of the tracks. “Sea Hunt” is almost impossibly sweet and yearning, simple lyrics about a beach trip sway dreamily in a glittering ocean of guitar and strings. “Look Around” is the perfect soundtrack for Cartoon Network’s Ed, Edd and Eddy. “Not A Care In The World” is a Heather solo turn, with this simple repetive Sterling Morrison riff repeated over and over again, while she sings like she’s pretty fucking bored, way hypnotic. Ditto for “Foggy Eyes.” “Secret Picnic Spot” is a crazy tone poem intoned by Calvin, with rambling acoustic guitar and drums. “Zombie Limbo Time” is the kind of fucking awesome sweaty bayou monster song that Beat Happening delved into with Cramps-ish fervor (like “Pinebox Derby”) — disorienting percussion, Heather muttering “zombie, zombie, zombie,” undead howls and a careening riff. I love this shit!
And, oh my god, “Knock On Every Door”, is just a monolith of mysterious sadness. Lee Hazlewood and Johnny Cash are the only stylistic antecedents for this sort of deep-dark vocalizin’ that unearths all manner of unspecified pain and loneliness, alongside tasteful Cavern Club drums and quicksilver thick, ringing guitars that sound like Frankie Avalon would die for their company. And they dared to dismiss this as mere indie?
Calvin’s love songs were never “quite” right. But then, love shouldn’t ever be right or then it’s just too fucking lame and boring. Which it is in the first place. Except in Beat Happening songs. Then I’m all about the fucking hand-holding and picnics and trips to the playground — they make it seem like you really don’t have to be along. That’s pretty fucking cool.
With Beat Happening, motherfucker man, could we dance! Let’s start again.
K Records: http://www.krecs.com/