We Are Beat Happening is a collection for completists and die-hard fans and serves its purpose.
Dean Wareham, lead singer of dream-pop group Luna, once joked that Beat Happening’s song “Indian Summer” was “indie’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’—everybody’s done it.” The joke came after Luna had covered the song. As it happens, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie fame has also covered the song and while Girl Band has covered “I Love You,” it can still be argued that Beat Happening are best known as one of those obscure bands that appeared in Kurt Cobain’s journals. Jamboree was reportedly one of his favourite albums of all time. He would also immortalize them and their creative and business endeavors by not only playing a Fender Strat displaying a sticker of the K Records logo the band’s Calvin Johnson founded, but also to tattoo the logo on his arm in a bid to impress riot grrl and Bikini Kill founder Tobi Vail.
To those in the know, however, Beat Happening were one of the most interesting and influential bands of the Pacific Northwest. Eschewing any inclination towards being in any way technically impressive, the band took the DIY ethic and spirit of punk rock and subverted it—maintaining a rough exterior through minimal, slapdash instrumentation recorded with rudimentary equipment but imbuing their music with an unquestionable ear for melody and hooks. Carried by Johnson’s surprisingly resonant voice or Heather Lewis’ playful coos at any given turn, the band’s take on punk rock effectively sparked the underground lo-fi and twee pop movements that would carry on through the ‘80s and ‘90s in their wake.
We Are Beat Happening the definitive Beat Happening collection—the complete recorded output of the band who made it possible for so many others to be punk rock on their own terms. What we get are seven LPs in a hard slipcase, the band’s work in high fidelity sound on heavyweight vinyl and remastered at Abbey Road and a page book with exclusive photographs and liner notes from fellow Olympia, Washington scenester Lois Maffeo.
While most remastering jobs can be intrusive, the work here serves more to preserve than to restore. Jamboree still has its recorded-in-the-bedroom charm—“Indian Summer” still carries its raw, straightforward, emotional power, “Hangman” still crackles with guitar fuzz and “Midnight a Go-Go” still carries its devil-may-care nonchalance. The songs from the band’s swansong You Turn Me On, too, still brim with what set them apart from the band’s hitherto ramshackle sound—the multi-tracked, exuberant, primitive “Teenage Caveman” and mesmerizing “Godsend” sound as good in this edition as ever they did before. The contrast between Johnson’s and Lewis’ vocals were never more evident than on You Turn Me On, nor was the potential of their minimal setup better unlocked.
What the collection does highlight as well, however, is just how polarizing and esoteric the band’s sound and style can be in general. While the melodies of their self-titled debut are indeed sweet, it’s pretty clear that many of the songs are half-written and thrown together, almost to spite the potential shown on tracks like “I Love You” and “Down by the Sea.” Meanwhile the material of Black Candy when presented in this form really jars with the rest of the band’s back catalogue. Sullen and moody, it lacks the energy and blasé naiveté that makes the band’s best work so appealing. While on “Cast a Shadow” we do see the band’s playful side, and the scuzzy guitar tones on the album’s title track reflect the band’s attempt at moving in a new direction, when slotted next to the band’s other, sunnier material it really does come off as a contrived effort.
More than anything else, We Are Beat Happening is a celebration of a band whose influence on the alternative and independent music scene stands to be seen. What sets it apart from other career retrospectives, however, is its inclusion of those recordings that can be considered harder to come by. This is what can make or break it in the eyes of fans and detractors alike. The material included in the likes of Beat Happening Cassette, Three Tea Breakfast Cassette and Crashing Through EP would often be resigned to the vaults of other artists—they were legitimate releases in the oeuvre of Beat Happening. But this is all part of the charm. Beat Happening are likable in the same way as Pavement, Daniel Johnston or the Fall—unconventional, unpredictable, unpolished and not always objectionably good but never ever boring. We Are Beat Happening is a collection for completists and die-hard fans and serves its purpose. For an introduction to the band, try one of the band’s compilation albums.