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Beat Happening - We Are Beat Happening ,Beat Happening ,Jamboree ,Black Candy ,Dreamy ,You Turn Me On ,Music to Climb the Apple Tree By Music Album Reviews

 An essential new vinyl box set collects all of the trailblazing Olympia band’s records. It is a monument to the spartan trio’s music and their seismic influence on the indie rock that followed in their wake.

In 1979, a 17-year-old music nerd named Calvin Johnson made a revelatory discovery. “I know the secret: rock‘n’roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages—they could be 15, 25, or 35,” he wrote in a letter to the punk magazine New York Rocker. “It all boils down to whether they’ve got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit.” As a preternaturally music-savvy high schooler in Olympia, Washington, Johnson had a show on KAOS-FM, a community radio station hosted by Evergreen State College which had a strict rule that at least 80% of all records played on-air must be independent. He filled his slot with bands that prioritized idiosyncratic passion over technical ability such as Young Marble Giants, the Raincoats, and the Slits. In 1980, Johnson enrolled at Evergreen, a small public liberal arts school with no majors or grades that attracted the kind of inquisitive minds who created and collaborated nonstop.







Johnson’s upstairs neighbor during his freshman year at Evergreen was Heather Lewis, an aspiring artist from affluent Westchester County in New York. Lewis—who had never played in a band before—accepted an offer to play drums in a group called the Supreme Cool Beings in the summer of 1982. Inspired by fellow Evergreen student Bruce Pavitt’s Subterranean Pop fanzine and cassette imprint, Johnson had founded a home record label called K (Johnson has said that K stands for knowledge, but also that it’s “unclear why the name is K”). The Supreme Cool Beings’ 1982 Survival of the Coolest cassette—recorded live on Johnson’s KAOS show—was K’s first release. The following year, Lewis and Johnson started playing together and after a few lineup changes, Johnson invited recent Olympia transplant Bret Lunsford—who had never played guitar before—to join the band that would be renamed Beat Happening.

The punk and underground music Johnson discovered as a teenager was driven by independence, egalitarianism, and an urge to destroy life’s rulebook. Beat Happening stripped away these philosophies until only the most elemental parts remained. They used yogurt containers for a drum kit, a thrift store guitar with no amp, and rebuffed the bass entirely. At live shows, they frequently switched instruments, if they had them at all. “Our attitude was if people don’t let us borrow drums then we can go grab a garbage can or a cardboard box and that will do,” Lunsford says in Micahel Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life. While punk was presumably loud, fast, and aggressive, Beat Happening, with their instrumental amateurism, unintimidating appearance, and unabashedly sentimental lyrics, were provocative by simply existing. It was an unintentional sort of defiance. “We just didn’t have a choice,” Johnson said years later. “We made music that we made—and that’s just the way it is. We were always working to the edge of our abilities.” Beat Happening was music at its purest.

We Are Beat Happening, a new vinyl box set that collects all of the bands’ records in one place for the first time since 2002, is a crucial step in recognizing the trio’s seismic influence. Though Beat Happening are frequently written off as cloyingly twee (which, to be clear, should not be an insult), in truth, the band created a crucial link between the minimalist experimentations of post-punk and Riot Grrrls’ demystification of perfection. By disrupting the status quo concept that music must be polished, practiced, and public, Beat Happening helped crack open a world for new voices.

In 1985, Beat Happening released their self-titled debut, a declaration of their undefined, instinctive, and fearless nature. As Johnson sings on “Youth,” one of the group’s earliest recorded songs, “When you’re young you can afford to be bold.” Drifting between barely-there lo-fi ballads and ’60s jangle-pop ditties, Beat Happening is unconsciously rule-free. The band’s name, which originated from an Evergreen student film called Beatnik Happening, could not have been more appropriate: In Beat Happening songs, a rhythm organically materializes. Vocal responsibilities bounce between Johnson’s booming, buffoonishly sexy baritone—which more than makes up for the lack of an actual bass—and Lewis’ unaffected candor, which propels the band’s more hook-driven songs. As she implores listeners to “open up your eyes and speak your mind” on the opening song “Foggy Eyes,” Lewis crashes through walls of hesitancy with every word.

The record’s bright yellow cover with a stick-figure cat riding a rocketship indicates that the music inside is childish. And sure, there’s plenty of wide-eyed whimsy throughout Beat Happening: the beachside dance party and picnic hosted by Mr. Fish in “Down At the Sea”; the singsongy “Fourteen” where Johnson struggles to speak while he and his crush feed a pet rabbit some cabbage; the tambourine-driven “Our Secret” where forbidden lovers express their undying devotion over cups of tea. The charming activities outlined in the band’s music were reflective of their lives in Olympia. They had slumber parties, made Super 8 films, and lived simply.

In many ways, Beat Happening was three twentysomethings performing the affectations of innocence. But for all their pseudo-naivete, the band’s music can be strangely sexual, like a teenager caught between the mysteries of adulthood and the comforts of childhood. The nearly a capella “In Love With You Thing” begins with Johnson lamenting an unrequited romance and kicking himself over his bashfulness. Suddenly his creaky wooden voice softens and he admits a hankering to touch a woman’s “parted lips” and “swinging little hips.” On the barebones “Look Around,” Johnson stares down a girl before deciding to “come between her thighs.” The most overtly sexual moment arrives on “Christmas,” a bumpy little track which appeared on a 1996 expanded edition of Beat Happening. It starts with a deadpan admission: “I had sex on Christmas/I had sex three times today/Three different women taught me how to be bored/In their own separate sweet little ways.” These moments of carnal desire stand in stark contrast with the record’s prevailing sense of polite swooning. While Bruce Springsteen was on the radio likening his desire to being set aflame, Beat Happening preferred small and private pleasures of all sorts.

Beat Happening’s debut was initially just a drop in the ocean, adored mostly by their small but supportive community in Olympia. But through Johnson’s connections in the fanzine world, the record eventually caught the ear of Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis, who would release Beat Happening in Europe in 1986. While this led to a swell of positive foreign press, the re-release also exposed the band to like-minded indie-pop contemporaries like the Pastels, Talulah Gosh, and the Vaselines.

Three years later, they made their darker and more abrasive second album, Jamboree. It opens with Johnson spellbound by a woman whose heart is “black as tar” to the point of single-minded delusion. His almost-frightening obsession marks a drastic change from Beat Happening’s debut, where Johnson was more likely to accept rejection with his tail between his legs than pursue romance so doggedly. On the caustic closer “The This Many Boyfriends Club,” he implores a young woman to ditch the dudes who fawn over her; he’s indignant that they think of her as an object rather than a person in her own right.

But for all its grit and angst, Jamboree is still driven by an underdog’s romanticism. The record’s most beloved track, the lethargic, wistful “Indian Summer,” clings to the promise of forever in the face of looming heartache. “Breakfast in cemetery/Boy tasting wild cherry/Touch girl, apple blossom/Just a boy playing possum,” Johnson murmurs, letting the delicate romance of each image melt in his mouth. Though Lewis’ vocal role here is more understated than on Beat Happening, her scrappiness leads to one of the record’s highlights. “In Between” is a charged blast of three-chord pop and it offers one of the most profound, utterances in Beat Happening’s catalogue: “And I remember when my parents met/It was years before my birth/And I can see them years from now/Their ghosts fly above the earth.”

While Jamboree was delayed by time off and physical distance between the bandmates, Beat Happening went on to release a steady stream of records for the next four years. Their third, 1989’s Black Candy, is undeniably the band’s spookiest and most sexually-charged album. While things begin pleasantly enough with the chipper Johnson-Lewis duet “Other Side,” their dreams of running away to a cozy shack and living off “bread crusts and lemon rind” are quickly extinguished by the ominous title track. “Jackhammer, can’t stand her/Can’t live unless I have her/Sin dribbling down my chin,” Johnson darkly intones. “Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive” is not the innocent bumblebee sleepover the title suggests. Over Lunsford’s spiky guitar, Johnson unleashes a horrifying Kama Sutra of insect innuendo: “Yellowjacket buzz let’s honey do/I’ll lie down on top of you/Gonna split this womb in two.” Even its most warm-hearted track, “Cast a Shadow,” is sullied by a dark specter of a lover who can only be seen in dreams.

Following the release of Black Candy, Beat Happening headed out on tour with punk heroes Fugazi; Johnson had befriended the band’s founder Ian MacKaye years before in Washington D.C. and the two artists regarded each other as contemporaries who shared ethics about DIY culture, independent labels, and affordable, all-ages shows. Beat Happening’s rejection of macho aggression as a core tenet of punk was bewildering and infuriating to some Fugazi fans, who wanted to crash into each other in the pit, not watch an awkward crooner squiggle his hips, rub his tummy, and sway like a drunk puppet. But the backing of Beat Happening by scene authorities like MacKaye signaled that punk is not a sound or a style, but a spirit of rebellion against norms of all sorts.

In 1991, Beat Happening released their fourth record, Dreamy, with Sub Pop, who were riding high off the grunge explosion. After the B-movie pulp spookiness of Jamboree and Black Candy, Dreamy returns to the vulnerability of the trio’s debut. But after six years playing together, Beat Happening’s technical ability had de facto improved in almost every way. Paired with Steve Fisk’s polished production, Dreamy is Beat Happening’s most cohesive record and their best-kept secret. Opener “Me Untamed” confronts a similar drunk in love sentiment as Jamboree opener “Bewitched” but this time Johnson chooses smoldering earnestness instead of force. “Who’s gonna love me the way that I am,” he solemnly asks on the gentle “I’ve Lost You.” Lewis’ songs are equally introspective and tender, especially “Left Behind” in which she summarizes romantic differences with serene precision: “You want more things, I got my own way.” Dreamy’s easygoing harmony confirms that Beat Happening’s creative puzzle pieces had found their proper places.

Several months after the release of Dreamy, Johnson and his K Records partner Candice Pedersen organized the International Pop Underground Convention, a six-day gathering in Olympia that celebrated self-invention and underground music. While the convention featured a hodgepodge of activities from performances by Beat Happening and Bikini Kill to screenings of Planet of the Apes, its most influential offering was Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now, aka “Girl Night.” This opening night showcase featured Heavens to Besty, Tobi Vail, Bratmobile, a pre-Tiger Trap Rose Melberg, and more. While women like Vail, Lois Maffeo, and Kathleen Hanna were already mighty voices in the Olympia underground, “Girl Night” galvanized a younger generation and the burgeoning Riot Grrrl revolution transformed Beat Happening and K’s DIY ethos into a worldwide call to arms.

Though they continued to write songs about the mysteries of love and death, Beat Happening’s fifth and final record, 1992’s You Turn Me On, feels removed from their ramshackle beginnings. Produced by Fisk and Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham, the trio wander into dream-pop territory and idle in the drowsy glow of someone just awakened from an afternoon nap (one track is literally called “Sleepy Head”). The nearly-seven minute opener “Tiger Trap” is a slow-burning opus in the vein of Galaxie 500. “Godsend” burrows into a lush daze with Lewis’ multi-tracked murmur repeating “It’s just the things you do/You make it true/You’re a godsend” over and over across nine-and-a-half minutes. Perhaps Beat Happening fans who only listen to their 1985 debut assume that the trio never surpassed their unsophisticated beginnings, but You Turn Me On proves that by their end, the band evolved into something far more refined than anyone would have expected.

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Technically, Beat Happening never broke up. They simply went separate ways and focused on other projects. Johnson continued building K into a beloved indie mainstay and released music under the monikers Dub Narcotic Sound, the Halo Benders, and his own name. Lewis continued to pursue visual art; her minimalist sketches appear on a majority of Beat Happening’s album covers and her naturalistic paintings of rabbits adorn the We Are Beat Happening packaging. For a decade Lunsford owned the beloved Anacortes record shop The Business and encouraged a new generation of artists, including Phil Elverum, to create art and community through whatever means were available. In 2003 they released Music to Climb the Apple Tree By, a collection of b-sides and rarities recorded between 1984 and 2000, but since 1992, Beat Happening’s music has been left to quietly inspire.

Over the past two decades, Beat Happening helped provide a blueprint for countless musicians looking to pave their own path. Kurt Cobain, who listed Jamboree as one of his favorite records of all time, got a K tattoo as a reminder “to stay a child.” Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker were individually blown away by the band’s simple set up and felt empowered to start a two-guitar-one-drum band. As Bandcamp became a tool for anyone looking to share their bedroom musical doodles, there was an outburst of young musicians inspired by Beat Happening. The most prominent of these modest yet singular voices Frankie Cosmos, who has said that listening to Beat Happening helped catalyze her to begin writing music. “Beat Happening will never get old,” she told Pitchfork in 2015. “It’s similar to Frank O’Hara—you can hear the voice so strong in the writing.” The teenage spirit Calvin Johnson once unearthed springs eternal.


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