Punker than Punk
By 1982, punk music no longer had much to do with punk spirit. Punk was a stylistic straitjacket, a set of rules and regulations, a specific to-the-letter sound, a brand-name. Beat Happening —a casually confrontational combo from the unlikely outpost of Olympia, Washington— would be one of the first American bands to turn punk music back on itself; to stage a rebellion against the rebellion.
Beat Happening took inspiration from punk-music's decentralized, do-it-yourself ethos. The trio —Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, Bret Lunsford— swapped between guitar, drums, and vocals, and were veritable masters-of-none when it came to musical proficiency. But, more than any punk pioneers, who had disguised their rudimentary musicianship with distortion, volume, swagger, and speed, Beat Happening owned it: they were happily crappy.
That was the band's initial confrontational element: a band thumbing their nose at the pursuit for virtuosity that has a strangle-hold on rock music. They had precedents in the post-punk realm —English outfits like Television Personalities and Young Marble Giants— but there was nothing like this in the US, where hardcore ruled the land and Beat Happening would open for Black Flag and Fugazi in front of hyper-masculine, hostile crowds, singing things like "it seems to me the best part of sex/is walking home holding hands," their lyrics going back to that least punk of eras, the hippy-dippy '60s, for thematic sunshine.
If Beat Happening inspired indignation, confrontation, and outrage in their day, much of that has dissipated over time. The years have been kind: with a decades of devoted acolytes trailing after the band, singing their praises and tapping into their spirit. They are, these days, the godfathers of twee, a veritable classic-rock touchstone for those who like their music meek, jangly, and not-at-all rocking.
On its initial release in 1985 —as the first LP for Johnson's legendary indie imprint K Records— Beat Happening's self-titled debut was but 12 songs and 23 minutes long. True to its running time, this is pop-music stripped down to its element: a couple of chords, a drumbeat, and simple, sing-song choruses.
And it really is pop-music; "Bad Seeds" simple boast ("we're bad seeds") sounds like a simple rock cliché, even if its loaded with irony; Lewis's "Down At the Sea" is, like Marine Girls before it, a song steeped in the childhood-centric imagery of the seaside; and "Fourteen" is possibly the ultimate twee landmark, marrying complete musical primitivism with simple sweetness.
These songs persist because of the melodies at their core, and the quality of their delivery. It's almost absurd to suggest, but Beat Happening —this band of ordinary folk deliberately playing up their ordinariness via their questionable musicianship— had their own kind of star quality. Johnson, even if his foghorn baritone was tin-eared and tough-to-love wasn't so ordinary, really, possessing abundant charisma, stage presence, and unwavering belief in what his band were doing. Even when Beat Happening sounds like it's falling apart, it bristles with confidence: the trio having the cockiness to kick against the pricks, be they corporate ogres or macho punks.
Record Label: K
Release Date: 1985