Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from K Records

"It's Really Hard for Me to Listen to Other People's Versions of My Songs"
by Kristin Bochicchio, NYU '09
(June 2008)

I've spent the last few weeks trying to decide why Beat Happening is so good. It all comes down to the song "Sleepy Head."

Despite naysayer claims of affected/ineffective neoprimitivism, there is something so literal about Beat Happening's minimalism. Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Brett Lunsford really couldn't play their instruments or sing--so they worked around it. They didn't bother practicing either--practice is no use when you suck that badly. Instead Beat Happening relied on instinct, creativity, and collaboration. The result? Pop music with all pretensions evaporated, boiled down to its core: an expression of elemental human emotion that dares you to not sing along.

Just listen to "Sleepy Head." Both its simple melody and its straightforward lyrics sound so familiar, like a song you might improvise (or might have improvised) to coax a loved one out of bed in the morning. You don't have to be a proponent of childish love or any twee-related ideal to feel a bit of déjà vu, a distant memory of whispering the words "Get out, you sleepy head/ it's time to make the bed/ at least get partially dressed." At their best, Beat Happening captures human emotion at its most basic, human experience at its most universal. And sometimes, that's all you can handle. Sometimes I can't bring myself to listen to anything but Beat Happening.

Of course, not everyone feels this way. From the start, Beat Happening was a polarizing band.

Beat Happening formed in late 1983, in Olympia, Washington. In January of that year, Evergreen State students Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis, along with their friend Laura Carter, had begun playing shows as an unrehearsed trio called Laura, Heather and Calvin. Bret Lunsford, a novice guitarist and fellow Evergreen undergrad, attended one of the band's performances and, as he told Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life, found that it "struck a spiritual chord" in him. When Laura left the band to move to Seattle, Calvin invited Bret to join the new group he was forming with Heather--Beat Happening.

Beat Happening made their first recording, a four-song tape, in the Evergreen campus firehouse in December of 1983, with the help of the Wipers' Greg Sage. At that point, Calvin Johnson had already started his soon-to-be-seminal label, K Records. When the original one hundred-copy pressing of this cassette sold out immediately, Beat Happening knew they had started something that could extend far beyond their circle of friends. So the next logical move was for the whole band to move to Japan. It was Calvin's idea--he felt Japan was the only place it was still cool to be an American, and would turn Beat Happening into pop stars. The trip did not go exactly as planned and, in 1984, back in the United States, Beat Happening released their eponymous first album. The band went on to record four more albums: Jamboree in 1988, Black Candy in 1989, Dreamy in 1990, and You Turn Me On in 1992. Unable to agree on what direction to go in after You Turn Me On, they broke up after a Halloween show in Kansas show at the end of a 1992 tour.

Despite their impact, Beat Happening was never universally loved, even in the indie world. Bret Lunsford explains:

A lot of times when we weren't playing for our friends, we weren't surprised when people hated us and voiced that. It was a moment in time when the stage was hallowed ground for musician types and [for] people who were non-musicians to take the stage was sacrilege, and it confused and pissed a lot of people off .
Veteran critic Robert Christgau was not the only one to dislike Beat Happening, though he was surely the most eloquent in his denunciation of the group: "I find their adolescence recalled cum childhood revisited doubly coy and their neoprimitivist shtick a tired bohemian fantasy." But Beat Happening was also hated by their underground peers. For instance, when the band opened for Black Flag at the Tropicana, Henry Rollins famously heckled Calvin Johnson, including grabbing Calvin's crotch mid-song. "There seemed to be a lot of animosity directed towards us," Calvin says. Most of us associate polarization with loud, angry bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag, but Beat Happening always had its fair share of haters.

Perhaps this polarization was the point. Azerrad writes: "They could barely play or sing. Implicit in Beat Happening's music was a dare: If you saw them and said, 'Even I could do better than that,' then the burden was on you to prove it." Beat Happening is the opposite of a band like Built to Spill, who most consider "pretty good" or "all right." Either you love Beat Happening or you want to grab Calvin Johnson by the balls. There's no other way. (Note that Calvin Johnson later formed the Halo Benders with Built to Spill's Doug Martsch.) You have to relate to Beat Happening on a personal level to enjoy their music. And if not, Bret Lunsford says, "Fuck you": "Some people liked us, and a lot of people hated us. And ultimately, who cared?"

Not only were Beat Happening non-musicians--they were non-singers as well. Neither Calvin nor Heather could carry anything resembling a tune. Yet Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis's untraditional vocals perfectly complement their primitive music. Calvin's expressive baritone adds a layer of depth to the minimalist instrumentation. Pitchfork's Brandon Stosuy explains, "Beat Happening didn't need a bassist because Calvin's voice was deep enough to supply endless roots." The best part about Calvin's tone-deaf vocals is the resolute confidence with which he sings. Azerrad writes: that "Calvin Johnson argued that musicianship was always second to emotion." And the same is true for his singing. What he lacks in talent, Calvin makes up for in poise and storytelling prowess.

Heather Lewis, in contrast, is extremely unsure of herself as a vocalist. Her girlish alto may not be terrible, but it sure isn't wonderful. Simply put, her voice is incredibly normal--she sounds like any woman off the street. Michael Azerrad points out that Lewis's lyrics often hit close to home, and her lack of confidence when singing only makes the words seem all the more sincere. Take "I Let Him Get to Me" from Beat Happening, a perfect example of the band's extremely sparse earlier work: Heather's audible unease seems to bring a layer of honesty to the song's lyrics--she really is letting him get to her, isn't she?

Controversial even among indie bands, Beat Happening's unapologetic sound kept them at the forefront of indie credibility. Writer Nitsun Abebe explains Beat Happening's original underground appeal: As Nitsuh Abebe put it, "their hopscotch stories felt punker than Black Flag tattoos ever could." Kurt Cobain, who tattooed the K Records logo on his arm, would certainly have agreed. In Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross describes the test that Kurt Cobain used to decide if he should sign with Gold Mountain Management. After the requisite expensive dinner, Cobain invited Jon Silva of Gold Mountain to a Beat Happening show. "Like any good businessman, Silva acted enthused and went to the show with Kurt." Though Silva later admitted that he "detested Calvin's band," Silva had "passed Kurt's acid test, and within the week, Nirvana had signed with Gold Mountain."

This acid test still exists today. Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork has called Beat Happening "a band you should already know by heart." In addition, nearly all of the indier-than-thou groups on Facebook claim some sort of allegiance to Beat Happening. Perhaps the most amusing example of this is the group Since When Did Indie Rock Refer to Pussies Afraid of Amps? The point of this group is to denounce the current independent music scene filled with "Clap Your Wolf Tapes N' Death Cabs", and pine for underground pioneers such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, and, oddly enough, Beat Happening. (Ignore that three out of four of the bands listed have released excellent albums in the past year.) The group's profile reads: "Let's get some things straight: For all the twee and indie-pop you listen to, you've probably never once picked-up a record by Unrest, the Wedding Present, The Clean, Heavenly, Beat Happening, or The Go-Betweens. So shut up." Of course, Beat Happening didn't even own an amp for the first few years of their existence.

If this elitist attitude seems ridiculous today, it used to be so much worse. If you don't already have a problem with Beat Happening's sound or lyrics, there's always an opportunity to hate Calvin Johnson. Michael Azerrad provides descriptions of Calvin's relationship to the Olympia community that are far from positive: "Johnson's role bordered on cult leader, with all the perks and quirks that position tends to entail." Azerrad says that Calvin made rules for the entire community, not only enforcing his own straight-edge mentality, but also forbidding arbitrary items such as onions. After separating himself from the K Records scene, Kurt Cobain famously denounced Calvin and Olympia: "I made about five million dollars last year and I'm not giving a red cent to that elitist little fuck Calvin Johnson. I'm not gonna donate a single fucking dollar to the fucking needy indie fascist regime. They can starve. Let them eat vinyl," wrote Cobain in an unsent letter. He dubbed Calvin's followers "Calvinists" and portrayed them as a gang of stuck-up hipsters.

Calvin does not discuss these claims in interviews. Rather, he can often sound self-deprecating: "It's really hard for me to listen to other people's versions of my songs. Not because I think they're going to be bad, but it just seems like they are probably so much better than I can do it. It's kind of embarrassing, so I haven't really listened to a lot of them." In another interview, he calls his former band the Go Team "overrated." One begins to wonder how sincere this modesty is.

Bruce Pavitt, a rabid Beat Happening fan who is nevertheless skeptical of Calvin's movement, provides a description of the scene that seems most neutral; he calls the Calvinists "performance art." Known himself as a calculating businessman, Pavitt says of Johnson: "We're both mythmakers. We just create a different myth."

Whatever Calvin's motives may have been, it is important to remember that he was not the only member of Beat Happening. Though one would have more than enough evidence to bring Calvin's modesty into question, there is really no question that Heather and Bret were normal people, the kind rarely found in rock bands. In a cappella melodies like "Ask Me," Heather Lewis's discomfort even comes off on record; she becomes audibly more confident as the song goes on. Bret Lunsford was just as introverted; he refused to sing and sometimes retired shyly to the corner of the stage during shows.

Just as varied as the personalities of Beat Happening's members are the themes of their lyrics; Beat Happening is not a twee band. Twee is a style of music characterized by simple pop melodies and saccharine-sweet lyrics, and its followers cite Beat Happening as its major influence. As of a 1998 interview, Calvin Johnson was still claiming to have never heard of the genre. When asked about twee, Calvin Johnson turned the question back onto his interviewer. "I'm not really sure what that's about. Do you know?" Beat Happening childlike lyrics are a clear inspiration to twee, but only in the way that the Modern Lovers inspired Beat Happening--the twee attitude is only a small part of what Beat Happening were about.

Though I love twee bands like Tullycraft, I can only listen to their cheery, bouncy pop and cutesy, in-joke lyrics when I'm in a gloriously happy mood. Beat Happening are different because they are willing to expose the imagined fears that also go along with sinless naïveté. According to Nitsuh Abebe in Pitchfork, Beat Happening's music was "dark, damaged, full of fright and sex and death--just like any real childhood." In Beat Happening songs such as "Hangman," "Gravedigger Blues," and "Black Candy," Calvin Johnson takes on a scary persona, using familiar imagery of childish nightmares. Another Pitchfork writer, Brandon Stosuy, says it best: "The Olympians perfected a dark, perverse sweetness that I only really saw in my favorite books."

Beat Happening are remembered today for their normalcy, for flaunting their non-musicianship, for inspiring thousands of kids to start their own bands. What is often forgotten is how incredible their music was. Beat Happening's last album, You Turn Me On, is my personal favorite. It features more cohesive playing, slicker (or rather, less dinky) production, and longer songs ("Godsend" alone clocks in at over nine minutes). While Calvin Johnson's solo attempts at maturity have never satisfied me (Calvin's voice isn't fit for ballads, and his discussion of a "certain preoccupation with my disposition toward making love" on Before the Dream Faded proves creepy), here his more adult numbers are ethereal-- "Tiger Trap" is a gorgeous love song, the guitars vaguely reminiscent of shoegaze. Best of all, though You Turn Me On is more dreamy and blurry than sparse, Beat Happening songs do not lose their familiarity. When Heather sings: "It's just the things you do/ You make it true/You're a Godsend," there is an eerie beauty to the song. It seems to be a memory you can't place.

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