Early in his 33 1/3 look at the first Beat Happening album, author Bryan C. Parker tells the story of meeting Calvin Johnson for the first time. Parker’s first interview question was, “What’s the best cupcake in Olympia?” “His pause was disconcerting for an amateur music writer,” Parker writes, before recording Johnson’s answer: “Well, you see, I’m from an era when the cupcake was frowned upon. …but then again, a cupcake doesn’t have to be something that’s bad for you.”

Parker’s modest tome Beat Happening offers some valuable and entertaining insight into the history of the band and the Pacific Northwest scene that spawned it and was inspired by it. But too often, the author overcorrects that cupcake mistake. Wary of trivializing the music, Parker sometimes makes it too significant, weighing down sentences with a prose that seems antithetical to what Beat Happening was about. The author seems to admit as much. At intervals throughout the book, Johnson replies to his queries with dry statements that cut through the bullshit. When Parker asks about Johnson’s time in Washington, D.C., when he met Ian MacKaye, Johnson evades suggestions of grand cultural significance with the matter-of-fact, “Well, it was a great way to buy Trouble Funk records.”

After an introduction, the book is laid out in chapters on each letter of the alphabet, from “A is for Action” to “Z is for Zooming Rocket Ship.” This structure is meant as a primer inspired by Johnson’s “youthful innocence,” but Parker’s tone is inconsistent, and more often than not isn’t innocent at all. Conversational observations like “You can have the cake in the oven, but if it’s not on, you’re not cookin’” would have served the material well. Unfortunately, the book frequently unspools in term-paper lines like, “The concept of decentralization denounces large corporatized interests and homogenized culture.” That may well be accurate and relevant, but do you really want to read a term paper about Beat Happening?

Prose inconsistencies aside, Parker lays out valuable background that sets up the cultural climate and brings readers back to pre-internet days before music was available at the click of a button. Olympia, Washington institutions like Evergreen State University and radio station KAOS, as well as Olympia itself, each get their own chapter. Running throughout several chapters is the landmark OP Magazine, which at the time was one of the few places where you could read about truly independent music. The book offers revealing insight into recording and tour history, documenting the band’s impromptu visit to Japan and explaining why “Our Secret” ends with an a cappella line: Johnson was singing over a backing tape and had simply run out of music.

The musical primitivism of Calvin Johnson and company can seem like a precious affectation, or as Robert Christgau put in a B- review of Jamboree, “a tired bohemian fantasy.” But from the line-drawing of a cat in a rocket ship to the rough amateur (to put it kindly) musicianship, Beat Happening the album was a raw delight, sparking a DIY renaissance that made anyone feel like they could make a record. It seems churlish to quibble that Beat Happening the book is too competent, but its well-meaning approach doesn’t quite capture the spirit of its subject.

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