It’s easy, through the rosy tint of nostalgia, to believe that indie’s Year Zero came with the release of C-86, the NME’s now legendary compilation of bands from across a musical spectrum which at the time felt all consuming, but in retrospect proved to be less so.
As our tastes became moulded over time by a particular strain of machismo led, sixties-filtered tropes, history became even more blurred, to the point that a British flag would be draped over everything with direct lineage to 1976, a panoply of genres from post-punk to Britpop.
Beat Happening are not only a neat, cross-Atlantic rebuttal to that theory in evolutionary terms – their first EP was released in 1983 – but also proof that the fiercely non-conformist values of punk could be subverted into a perverse art form, one whose ethic was almost consciously as much anti-music as it was anti-performance.
Formed in 1983 in Olympia, Washington, local college students Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis along (eventually) with guitarist Bret Lunsford found themselves feted almost from the outset to be either critically adored or condemned. Kurt Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad devoted an entire passage of his alt-rock odyssey Our Band Could Be Our Life to them yet, both live and in the press, they drew criticism and aggression which ran in almost inverse proportion to their apparent passivity.
To further both parallel and underline his credentials as an auteur with a prescient Alan McGee-like vision, Johnson had in 1982 set up the K label (based initially in his kitchen), one which prospers today and (in)famously whose logo the doomed Cobain had tattooed on his arm.
Back with the Beats, ‘Look Around‘ is a chronological retrospective which spans an on and off career of fifteen years, one in which they offered cues to generations of kids who grew up to cool out on twee, lo-fi and stereotype free songs complemented by ham-fisted instrument craft. Their gift was to downsize the egotism of rock and roll, hence the elemental feel of opener ‘Our Secret‘, its childlike simplicity rendering the chutzpah of contemporary entertainment awkwardly redundant. Johnson’s hugely atonal delivery – since mimicked by vocalists in a swathe of alternative bands – is then as now however a bridge for the determined to cross before enlightenment.
Not that singing duties were his alone; Lewis providing a slightly more harmonic counter, one which challenges far less on the otherwise just as rudimentary early material ‘Foggy Eyes‘, ‘What’s Important‘ and ‘In Between‘.
Whoever was at the mic, the whirl of superficially disparate influences – garage psychedelia, folk, primeval fifties grease monkey strokes – meant a lack of mould which many British groups who so obviously aped them could’ve learned from. Johnson’s evil, drug guzzling, sex monster twin plies his trade for instance on ‘Bad Seeds‘ (think groovy, early B-52’s), ‘Bewitched‘ (ditto but instead fellow Washingtonians The Sonics) and ‘Pine Box Derby‘ (The Cramps). As occasionally jarring as its libido-spilling wantonness displays a much needed sense of self-deprecation and humour, there are still – whether by coincidence or design – just as many incidences of ‘Teenage Caveman‘s or ‘Angel Gone‘s, cut from cloth so basic they skate the line between genius and parody.
Given the thousands of words spilt about the trio since the time when an inky, decrepit fanzine was the only way to meet like-minded people, ‘Look Around’s finest moments are found in both an archetype and key moment of Beat Happening’s unreserved profundity. The bubblegum star prize goes to ‘Cast a Shadow‘, on which over a rolling, dark-eyed surf pop rifferola Johnson almost reveals some inflection over his words of misanthropic longing. By contrast, the grit in the oyster is ‘Godsend‘ over nine minutes of forlorn, latter dayish understatement, leaving you to consider that having seen pretty much all of their oeuvre out and seen them all back, was this now a moment of ironic mimickery, or an oblique celebration of what they’d somehow achieved? Anyway, it’s still an essay in build and build, eschewing the notion of climax, always spinning like a launderette machine left alone in the middle of a rainy afternoon.
Exercises like this one always seem to have that vague feeling of commodity, no matter how much hipster wattage can be squeezed out of the artists in question. Thinking laterally there’s just as much argument that Beat Happening accidentally created the professionally amateur ethos which has brought us everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Beck.
Whether this set of unlikely parables constitutes proof to you of something as radical as that or not, it’s undeniably an always fascinating listen.