Revolution Come and Gone: The Legend of Beat Happening & K Records
“We are Beat Happening, and we don’t do Nirvana covers. They do Beat Happening covers, so let’s get that straight.” —Calvin Johnson
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Beat Happening might not be a household name in the collective memory of the masses, but they’re easily among the most seminal and influential acts in American pop underground history.
The legend of Beat Happening and K Records is packed with famous names they worked with before they were stars (Beck, Modest Mouse, The Gossip, Built to Spill), and big names they deeply influenced (Kurt Cobain, Sleater-Kinney).
Less acknowledged, however, is that the band created some of the most original and joyous music to come out of the American punk rock tradition.
Now, Domino Records celebrating the Beat Happening legacy with the new career-spanning retrospective, Look Around.
Curated by the band, the album serves as a great starting point for the uninitiated, as well as a refreshing reminder to those who caught the bug the first time around.
Formed at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington in the early 1980s, with a consistent line-up in Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, the trio immediately stuck out in the post-punk era. They called themselves punks, and showed that punk had more to do with attitude than looks and behavior. Instead of being rowdy hardcore archetypes, Beat Happening were nerdy, cute and weird.
But as Michael Azerrad points out in Our Band Could Be Your Life, his classic book on the ’80s American Indie Underground: “Despite the cutesy perfection of the band, Beat Happening was one of the most confrontational bands in the indie circuit.”
Their take on punk rock, with offbeat vocals, corky dance moves, out-of-tune guitars and shaky sound, was quite the opposite of what the punk rock crowd expected, often resulting in abrasive behavior. Fugazi’s Brendan Canty said of their one-time touring partners, “You don’t have to sound like the Sex Pistols, all you have to be is different to provoke such animosity.”
Drawing on the sounds of the likes of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Young Marble Giants, The Cramps and Television Personalities, and armed with a minimalistic approach, primitive charm and non-commercial stance, they even turned to indie stardom without ever compromising their ideals.
Their eponymous 1985 debut was produced by Greg Sage, of punk legends The Wipers. Packed with fuzzy indie anthems and Johnson’s characteristic baritone voice, it paved way for countless subsequent bands that continue to follow in its wake. Beat Happening are rightfully ranked as forerunners of the whole indie scene, and subsequent artists flagged as college rock, lo-fi, twee pop, cuddlecore, anti-folk or whatever can mostly trace their roots in a straight line back to Beat Happening.
Even more important, they are widely recognized as pioneers of the whole northwestern craze in the early 1990s. Always true to his roots, Kurt Cobain often sported his K tattoo, and named their debut album as one of his all time favorites.
Their album catalog consists of just five titles, but it’s remarkably strong, consistent – and they’re one of the few bands that actually improved with each LP, before quitting at the top of their game. The (preliminary) swan song You Turn Me On (1991) stands out as their masterpiece, an effort of astonishing maturity that brought them far beyond their debut’s unpolished simplicity.
Since 1982, Calvin Johnson has also run his respected Olympia-based label, K Records, which under the slogan, “Exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre world-wide since 1982,” has become one of the most important headquarters for the “International Pop Underground” from all over the world.
K is known for championing the underdogs, going against the mainstream and working with artists way ahead of their breakthrough, with credit for incubating the likes of Built to Spill, Beck, The Gossip, Modest Mouse and more. Music revolutions have come and gone in the 30-odd years of their existence, but K Records is a safe harbor in the stormy sea – not in terms of being stagnant, but for being predictable in quality.
K was a precursor for Sub Pop and popularization of the alternative rock in the ’90s, but has always stuck to its independent policy and musical profile. K and Sub Pop took different paths, but kept a close relationship. In Azerrad’s words: “Sub Pop was about developing regionally and conquering globally in an aggressive, flamboyant, quasi-corporate way, while K was about networking, uniting kindred spirits in an benign conspiracy of outsider geeks.” Even so, in 1990 Beat Happening turned to Sub Pop and released their last two albums in collaboration with their bigger brother.
With a special affinity for ramshackle lo-fi punk and naïve twee-pop, K have released artists like The Blow, Kimya Dawson, The Microphones, Unrest and obviously Calvin Johnson’s separate projects, like Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, among others. We honor this great label with a playlist of some highlights from the beloved label.
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