Domino Records reissues the Olympia, WA pop greats’ seminal catalog on wax
With the 1991 release of Nirvana’s earth-shaking Nevermind album some 30-plus years in the rearview mirror, the entire groundbreaking, influential “Seattle Sound” has become the stuff of rockcrit retrospectives and academic papers on American pop culture.
Emerging in the mid-to-late 1980s in the Pacific Northwest, centered in Seattle and encompassing surrounding areas (even reaching as far south as Portland OR), the “Seattle Sound” (a/k/a “grunge”) was identified with bands like the aforementioned Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, as well as albums released by the city’s resident indie labels – Sub Pop, EMpTy Records and C/Z Records.
Relatively obscure, by comparison with their Seattle contemporaries, was Olympia, Washington’s kings of lo-fi pop/rock, Beat Happening. Formed by singer Calvin Johnson, guitarist Bret Lunsford, and drummer Heather Lewis, the trio recorded five full-length LPs between 1985 and 1992, as well as numerous singles and EPs, including one with fellow Washington rockers Screaming Trees. Beat Happening rapidly became one of the most popular bands on the late 1980s indie rock scene, the band also taking a pivotal role in the creation of the 1991 International Pop Underground Festival, an important counterpoint to the corporate rock of the era that featured 50 bands including Fugazi, L7, Bikini Kill, Jad Fair and, of course, Beat Happening.
Beat Happening released its self-titled debut album in 1985, beating such regional trailblazers as Green River, the Melvins, Screaming Trees, and Skin Yard to the punch. The band’s influence on early riot grrl artists is undeniable, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was such a fan that he had the stylized ‘K’ logo of Johnson’s K Records label tattooed on his arm. As for K Records, Johnson’s erstwhile indie label released all of Beat Happening’s albums, as well as important early recordings by Beck, Modest Mouse, and Built To Spill and albums by more eclectic artists like Shonen Knife and Mecca Normal. Domino Records in the U.K. recently reissued the entire Beat Happening catalog on vinyl, the first appearance of many of these influential albums on wax as they were originally released on cassette tape.
Beat Happening’s 1985 debut was produced by Greg Sage of the Wipers, and is the best example of the band’s musical modus operandi, which emphasized originality and passion over technical ability. On “Our Secret”, Johnson’s droning, sleepy, mesmerizing vocals ride tight alongside Lewis’s primitive, albeit effective percussion. Lunsford’s scrappy guitar clamors along in the background while the low-slung, lo-fi mix creates a dense, magnetic soundscape. Taking the mic for “What’s Important”, Lewis’s voice is a flattened curve similar to Johnson’s but with a bit more energy. By contrast, Lewis drives “Down At the Sea” with about as upbeat a vocal take as you’ll find on a Beat Happening LP, her snappy drumbeats embroidered by Lunsford’s jagged fretwork. “I Love You” sounds like a (slightly) less manic version of the Cramps while “fourteen” buries Johnson’s vox behind a mud-caked wall of rhythm. Upon subsequent listens, however, the nuance peels away like an onion skin, revealing insightful lyrics and imaginative guitar lines.
“Run Down the Stairs” is a brilliantly cacophonic tune with Lewis’s voice riding alongside her syncopated drumbeats, with shards of subtle guitarplay hiding in the song’s corners. “Bad Seeds” is probably the coolest entry in the Beat Happening songbook, a rockabilly-tinged mid-tempo performance evincing minimalist vigor; the album includes both the raucous studio version and an equally rowdy live version, with the band’s instruments piercing the dark, cavernous ambiance to deliver a sort of subliminal, psych-drenched sonic spa day for your ears. “Honey Pot” is pure joy, a mostly-spoken songs with firecracker percussion, and simple, inspired lyrics that remind of Jonathan Richman.
This Domino reissue of Beat Happening has been expanded to include a second disc comprised of early recordings and demo tapes that, taken altogether, provide a thorough and comprehensive document of Beat Happening’s first four years. Among the tracks included on the Beat Happening bonus disc is the lovely “Youth”, another Richman-inspired romp with charming guitarplay, and “Don’t Mix the Colors”, a banging, clanging exercise in achieving more with less, Lunsford’s chiming guitar strum matched with tinny, AM-radio percussion and Johnson’s staggered vocals. “Let’s Kiss” blends muted Bo Diddley/Cramps rhythmic waves on top of which Johnson’s spoken-sung vox ride uneasily like a surfer in a storm.
Released in 1988 by K Records, Jamboree was produced by Steve Fisk of Pell Mell and the Screamin’ Trees Mark Lanegan and Gary Lee Connor. The album displays a slight expansion of the band’s pioneering lo-fi sound without overshadowing their original naivete. The trio’s collective album production is fuller and more vibrant than Sage’s work on the band’s debut, and the screaming feedback intro of “Bewitched” is a clue that this is a different sort of Beat Happening record. Lunsford’s fretwork here is wiry, loud, and in-your-face; Johnson’s vocals are equally up-front and strong; while Lewis displays a deft hand on the drum kit. Lewis doesn’t sing on as many songs on Jamboree as she did on the debut album, but what she tackles, she nails to the wall. “In Between” roars in on a rampaging drumbeat, chased by taut guitar, Lewis taking chances with her vocals that pay off with a layered performance. “Indian Summer” is probably Beat Happening’s signature song, if you were to assign the quality to any of their material.
With Johnson’s sing-songy vox prominent, dancing above a hypnotic, riffing soundtrack, the song was the band’s “accidental” entry into the 1988 Eurovision contest. Sadly, Beat Happening lost to an up-and-coming ingenue by the name of Céline Dion. It was still a winner for the band, as “Indian Summer” has since been covered by bands like Luna, Eugenius, and Sonic Boom; Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard even recorded the song for the Kurt Cobain documentary About A Son. Displaying a dusty Old West vibe, “Hangman” is a dark, menacing morality tale with deep vocals accompanied by a chaotic storm of guitar and drumbeats. The album’s title track and “Ask Me” harken back to the band’s debut, both naïve lyrical constructs, the former featuring Johnson’s droning voice and the latter offering Lewis’s sassy vocals, both accompanied by minimal instrumentation. “Midnight A Go-Go” is a rowdy, psychobilly romp with rumbling razorblade fretwork, upbeat vocals, and explosive percussion.
Both Beat Happening and Jamboree showcase the band’s multi-hued charms, which have grown all the warmer over time. Back in the 1980s, however, critics really didn’t know what to think about Beat Happening. In his ‘Christgau’s Consumer Guide’ column, Robert Christgau wrote of Jamboree, “I find their adolescence recalled cum childhood revisited doubly coy and their neo-primitivist shtick a tired bohemian fantasy. Catchy, though,” ultimately give the album a ‘B Minus’ grade. Trouser Press founder Ira Robbins offered kinder insight, writing of the debut album for the The Trouser Press Record Guide, “this fresh breeze of one-take pop ingenuity is remorselessly amateurish but loaded with charm and invention.” Of Jamboree, Robbins wrote that the album “is a bit more intricate and electric than Beat Happening, but not enough to hurt.”
Contemporary critical reassessment of the band has recognized their far-reaching influence on the indie pop scene. Nitsuh Abebe wrote in Pitchfork in 2005, “the roots of Beat Happening were ridiculously primitive, and some of their early-80s recordings sound – quite literally – like three eight-year-olds with a guitar, some pots and pans, and a boombox, singing songs about holding hands and going swimming. By the time they released the albums they’re remembered for – say, 1988’s incredible Jamboree— they’d grown more sophisticated in sound without losing that feel; if anything, they’d honed it into something even more absurdly affecting.”
Both of these Beat Happening albums have been out-of-print for better than 30 years, and original copies of the band’s debut LP are going for $200+ on Discogs. To say that Domino Records has identified an untapped market would be an understatement. Aside from the band’s first two albums, the British label has also recently reissued Black Candy (1989), Dreamy (1991), and You Turn Me On (1992) on vinyl after finding modest success with the band’s career-spanning Look Around compilation in 2015 and the vinyl box set We Are Beat Happening, comprising the band’s entire discography, which Domino released in 2019.
Beat Happening were indie rock pioneers and, with Johnson’s K Records label, innovators on the independent label side of the business as well. The band’s lo-fi approach and minimalist songwriting has influenced artists as diverse as Beck, Pavement, Sebadoh and even Nirvana.
With Beat Happening’s back album catalog finally individually reissued on vinyl, it’s never been a better time to rediscover the influential and entertaining band that helped launch the “Seattle Sound.”