BEAT HAPPENING: BEAT HAPPENING (1985)
1) Our Secret; 2) What's Important; 3) Down At The Sea; 4) I Love You; 5) Fourteen ('83); 6) Run Down The Stairs ('83); 7) Bad Seeds (live); 8) In My Memory; 9) Honey Pot; 10) The Fall; 11) Youth; 12) Don't Mix The Colors; 13) Foggy Eyes; 14) Bad Seeds; 15) I Let Him Get To Me; 16) I Spy; 17) Run Down The Stairs ('84); 18) Christmas; 19) Fourteen ('84); 20) Let's Kiss; 21) 1, 2, 3; 22) In Love With You Thing; 23) Look Around.
This is one of those records that usually triggers interminable and unwinnable discussions about what is music, what is art, what is taste, what is good and bad sound, and whether we're supposed to have admiration for something just because it was endorsed by Kurt Cobain, and if yes, should we also admire heroin and Remington Arms, etc. etc. In other words, a reviewer's paradise regardless of how much the reviewer likes or hates the record in question.
The fact remains that, as evidenced by this particular recording, «singers», «songwriters», and, most comically, «multi-instrumentalists» (yes, that's the way they're encyclopaedically described) Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford, upon getting together, found out or confirmed that they could not sing worth a damn, that they were unable to competently play any of their instruments, and that their songwriting talents did not significantly exceed those of an average 5-year old. Additionally, they did not have access to professional studios and did not even own a drum set (they had to borrow one or build up a cardboard imitation). In other words, they were, like, the first true punk band in history, except they did not want to be punks. Instead, they just took the most brilliant decision that could be taken, given the circumstances.
And that decision was — if our skills and talents match the average level of a 5-year old (okay, maybe a 10-year old for accuracy), why not imitate a 10-year old? "I was walking in our town / I was walking through the store / I saw a pretty girl / She held open the door / I said ʽI like youʼ / She said that she liked me / And we could be friends / In our special stupid way". That is the way this album opens (well, the new CD edition does, anyway), and isn't that something you'd pretty much expect to be written by a 10-year old when pressed into writing «poetry»? Okay, so the word ʽstupidʼ gives it all away: no 10-year old would voluntarily describe him/herself as ʽstupidʼ. So it's not quite as perfect as it may have been. But then, they have to have some points of intersection with their grown-up audiences — after all, Beat Happening is not advertising itself for a pre-pubescent public. I mean, another of the songs goes, "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". So let's put it this way: this is an album written by grown-ups about grown-up issues through the prism of the mentality of a little kid, one such as could have come up with the drawing for the album cover.
Does it work? Well, that's a tough question to answer once you've done your duty of acknowledging the innovative (or, rather, «novel») nature of the overall approach. As far as I can tell, it does not work on the level of «base catchiness»: beyond the fact that the primitive chord sequences that they can master on their guitars are all taken from various classic or not-so-classic pop records, they don't really know what to do with them, or, rather, they just don't care, because any extra tinkering with melodies would qualify as «polish», and a 10-year old wouldn't be supposed to care about that. It certainly doesn't work on the level of «conventional prettiness», either: viciously off-key singing and annoyingly out-of-tune playing are the norm of day (although some songs violate melodic conventions more than others), so don't expect to be angelically charmed. So what else is there to compensate for poor songwriting and horrible execution? (And, oh yes, awful production, but that goes without saying, since the first thing about Beat Happening that you learn in textbooks is how they were the real «pioneers of lo-fi»).
Well, there is a fair amount of innocent charm in all this stuff, whose fairy godmother is actually Maureen Tucker on ʽAfter Hoursʼ (yes indeed, for everything in the Seventies, Eighties and beyond there has been a blueprint at least as early as 1969). Just the way this trio launches into this material, with such gusto and all, challenges conventional expectations — instead of upgrading themselves to the level of a very mediocre, undistinctive, third-rate guitar pop band, they have chosen to downgrade themselves, and in doing so, they have attracted our attention rather than dissipated it. The lo-fi production and poor playing, in this case, enhance the experience — we are not being shown some pretentious, idealized, «childfully angelic» world, but are drawn into the process as is, warts and all: Beat Happening do not invite us to admire them, to fall head over heels in love with their cuteness and cuddliness, but instead provoke a mix of curiosity, laughing, irritation, and, on occasion, even some intellectual stimulation.
There is one song here (actually, presented in two versions on the new CD edition, one of which is a barely audible live performance) that is intentionally written in a «punkish» idiom — like, what would a 10-year old scribble in his classroom after his first encounter with The Clash or The Sex Pistols? With a quasi-surf rock guitar line and a stiff vocal performance that brings up visions of the B-52's rather than Duane Eddy, ʽBad Seedsʼ is like a really really silly, really really bad punk rock anthem if you take it on its own, but placed in this general context, it's just the album's protagonist momentarily caught in a bad mood — usually, his mood is much better, when he is trying to pen something romantic and optimistic, but sometimes the world gets him like that, and all he can do is just grin back at it: "we're ba-a-a-a-d, bad bad seeds" (should be delivered with all the theatrical evil that a little harmless, inoffensive kid can possibly gather up).
Special prize goes to Miss Heather "Mr. Fish is having a party" Lewis here, for serving as the prototype for thousands of intellectually endowed, innocently sounding indie ladies that would start springing up at alarming rates in the 21st century — on a gut level, I feel relieved every time that she takes lead vocals, because she is either too afraid or to ashamed to sing as completely out of tune as Mr. Calvin "The best part of sex is walking home" Johnson, who is simply reveling in the pleasure of making your ears curdle. But you're supposed to take it like a man: I mean, would you really be as insensitively cruel as to tell a 10-year old who's really, really trying that your singing totally sucks, lil' buddy? Come on now. In a few years, he'll start taking serious singing lessons, and then we'll see. And these guys here, they're just growing backwards.
And some of the songs are genuinely funny — ʽI Love Youʼ, for instance, has nothing to do with just loving you, but everything to do with our proverbial 10-year old trying to compete with the beatniks: it's something he might have written the next day after having his mind blown by Dylan's ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ, with such deliciously bad semi-rapped lines as "Those poets grin / Who never sin / They fight with Russians / And have discussions / With the KGB / At the Baltic Sea". It actually takes something good to create something that bad, you know. It is also amusing that, although our «kid» seems familiar with sexual experiences (so let's raise that 10 figure to at least 12-13 for comfort), he always seems to downplay and denigrate them: "You got five other guys saying love me do / You know what they want from you / Me, all I ask is love / And, honey pot, my love you can trust" (ʽHoney Potʼ), or check that quotation from ʽChristmasʼ again. On the other hand, we may very well be dealing with a virgin here who's just shooting his mouth off about having sex on Christmas, so, upon second thought, bring that figure back to 10. Any more than that and we begin to have our doubts about the whole thing.
Overall, on a conceptual basis Beat Happening is quite endearing, hilarious, and occasionally rather unsettling, since some of these songs come very close to nailing the phenomenon of mental retardation (the Ramones used to take too much pride in passing themselves off as mental retards: Beat Happening do that humbly and quietly, and this makes it all the more unsettling). On an individual song level, it is practically non-existent, though, even compared to their later records where «polish» would reduce the importance of the concept and increase the importance of separate song units. Also, the LP/CD re-issue from 1996 which added a whole bunch of bonus tracks, particularly ones taken from the later EP Three Tea Breakfast, makes the whole experience somewhat overlong (23 tracks in 45 minutes — they come close to beating Wire's record with Pink Flag!). Regardless, it totally makes sense as an artistic statement and deserves its thumbs up, although I'll have to wait until I go completely mental before I start really enjoying it on a casual everyday basis.