Gang of Three
A New Box Set Celebrates the Peculiar and Precocious World of Beat Happening
Those enthusiastic fans light up main man Calvin Johnson's favorite segment, a 1988 Olympia cable-access show in which Beat Happening opened for grunge godfathers the Melvins. "They had obviously just gotten their video camera," Johnson says over the phone from K Records headquarters in Olympia. "And they were using every possible feature on it--the in-camera editing, split screen, zooms, even soft focus. They were doing everything they could, so it was just crazy. And people are just jumping onstage and dancing with us."
It's a little weird to imagine the Melvins playing a show with Beat Happening, a nondescript trio of multi-instrumentalists Johnson and Bret Lunsford and drummer/vocalist Heather Lewis. But while Northwest heavy hitters like the Melvins, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains overemoted all the way to the bank over the course of the '90s, Beat Happening operated on a very different--but no less important--wavelength. For one thing, it didn't howl and scream. And it didn't use '70s metal as the basis of its sound. Instead, like those camcorder-wielding fans who sent in their tapes, Beat Happening approached what it was doing without talent or overwrought affectation--the band's songs were extremely basic in structure and childlike in sentiment, more akin to nursery rhymes than power rock. Just about anyone could perform these songs.
The group also exuded zero rock-star demeanor. Calvin, Bret, and Heather (first names always, please) came across as three thoroughly average people who happened to be in a band together. Their simple songs and easygoing attitude endeared them to the DIY indie-rock community. And while Johnson says he can't hear Beat Happening's influence in today's music, the band is the prototype for much of modern American indie pop, just as Rites of Spring is for emo. While many artists have paid overt homage to the group--Yo La Tengo recorded a cover of "Cast a Shadow"--its low-fuss sound and attitude still reverberate today. New York anti-folk duo the Moldy Peaches, who earned critical accolades last year with their self-titled debut album, should probably be paying Beat Happening royalties.
But convenience, not ostentation or nostalgia, is why the band chose to reissue its entire catalogue en masse. "We wanted to reissue all of the records, as they'd been out of print for a while," Johnson says. "We were trying to figure out if we wanted to put out two at a time, or one every month. [Then] we thought, Why don't we make a box set?"
It's a extravagant move for a group that was always modest. From the band's beginnings in 1983 to its slide into inaction in the early '90s, the only thing Beat Happening ever did to excess was write songs--oodles of spare, engaging, and sometimes foreboding pop tunes. The trio did so without much musical training or experience under its belt.
"Heather is a really good drummer, but I don't think Bret or I are good at playing any of the instruments that we do," says Johnson, who mostly plays guitar. "There are certainly some boundaries in our abilities in terms of making music, but exploring how to push those boundaries and how to work within those limitations is a lot of what we're about--working with what people might call a disadvantage and turning it around."
On paper, the elements add up to little more than a high-school talent show. Johnson's gully-scraping baritone and Lewis' awkward yet honest vocal declarations and drumming were unabashedly primitive. And there wasn't anything especially memorable about the basic chords Johnson and Lunsford banged out on their guitars. But conviction lends their music its power, and the band was always totally confident in its so-called incompetence. Like the best moments of the Ramones or Guided by Voices, the best songs on Crashing Through feel like you knew them before you heard them.
"A lot of the time when making up songs, I have a concept that there are classic songs--like 'Blue Suede Shoes,'" Johnson says. "I only want to make songs like that."
In contrast to the simplicity of the arrangements, the band's lyrics straddle a rickety fence between naiveté and more complex themes. "Other Side," a Johnson/Lewis sing-along with a seesaw melody, sounds like it could be one team goading another during a kids' game. But the taunting lyrics--"Your side has a favorite color/ Your side is turning toolbox brown/ My side wants to call you over/ And keep you from running out of bounds"--could very well represent opposing cultural/political factions.
Beat Happening always excelled at addressing mature themes through childlike means. Johnson's a cappella turn on "Grave Digger Blues" is a fatalistic examination of the pleasure/pain dynamic of romantic commitment: "Baby's got a jar of cider/ Used to make hearts melt/ Baby knows chicken wire/ Don't make no chastity belt . . . I'll come running with a heart on fire/ And baby you can dig my grave/ Baby, I'll be counting the days." Fingers snapping, Johnson plows through "Blues" as though mere swagger can stave off an inevitable oblivion.
Another seemingly immature jingle, "Nancy Sin," is a Pandora's box of innuendo and sensual imagery, anchored by Johnson's impossibly deep voice. When those devastating pipes, buffered by peals of guitar, demand that the titular Nancy "Fill my mouth with hot sand" as the singer prepares to "Kiss you and leave my brand," the chorus--"Nancy sin/ Won't you let me in?"--loses its innocent lilt.
Though Beat Happening's regular touring and recording ended in 1992, Johnson says it hasn't broken up. The group slid into semi-hibernation when Lewis and Lunsford moved to Anacortes, Wash., and started families. A few songs on Crashing were recorded for a 2000 single.
Today, Johnson mostly busies himself by performing with the Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Halo Benders, collaborating with everyone from Heavenly to Little Wings to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and co-running K Records. His debut solo album, What Was Me, comes out on K this month. Lunsford operates the Knw-Yr-Own label and a record store called the Business and plays in a band called D+, while Lewis works at the Empty Space Theatre in Anacortes.
"[Beat Happening] was something that we did that was really fun," Johnson says. "But [touring and recording] weren't really what [Lewis and Lunsford] wanted to do. It got harder to find the time. It's just not a thing where we're gonna go out and play a bunch of shows together. It doesn't mean we're not a band--it just means that that aspect of it is dormant."
Johnson admits it's an odd concept--a band that doesn't play together. "[People] have a very strict definition of what a band is," he says. "A band does this, and they act like this. This aspect of us seems really hard for some people to grasp, but maybe we're not a band. I mean, maybe we never were. More like a gang."
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