In the land of DIY indie rock, it would be a crime not to acknowledge the influence of lo-fi twee pop three-piece Beat Happening. Formed in Olympia, Washington at Evergreen State College by Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford, Beat Happening were one of the seminal bands to break the conventional rules of musicianship in the ’80s and ’90s. The band has influenced several groups that emerged from Olympia, Washington, including Fugazi, Bratmobile, and even Nirvana. Calvin Johnson was also the founder of independent label K Records, which kickstarted the careers of several indie bands like The Vaselines, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse.
Beat Happening has become one of my favorite bands over the past few years. Like many others, I discovered the band through Nirvana, specifically when Kurt Cobain referenced the group on the Nevermind song Lounge Act.
Beat Happening’s records are well known for their naive and childlike aesthetic, which is utilized to navigate mature subject matter in their lyrics. This is beautifully complemented by the band’s primitive instrumentals, the gentle unorthodox lead vocals of Heather Lewis, and Calvin Johnson’s soothing, almost hypnotizing baritone voice.
The band’s 1991 record, Dreamy, was released hot off the heels of their critically-acclaimed self-titled record (1985), and the following releases of Jamboree (1988) and Black Candy (1989). The band used childlike imagery and motifs to highlight the unique trials and tribulations of adolescence and adulthood. The song “Hot Chocolate Boy” illustrates an awkward young man trying to work up the courage to talk to a girl he is attracted to, and also trying hard not to capitulate to unhealthy standards of manhood (“Hot chocolate boy/Every girl yelling/Wanting him to be the terror”).
The wistful vocals of Heather Lewis on sweeter cuts like the buoyant love song “Fortune Cookie Prize,” and the more distorted, fast-paced cuts like “Collide,” are also a large part of album’s charm. On “Cry For a Shadow,” Calvin Johnson sheds the menacing tough guy veneer and bares his soul over Bret Lunsford’s twangy guitar riffs.
“Nancy Sin,” “Me Untamed,” and “Collide,” are all unabashedly sexual in nature. The former’s booming percussion and Johnson’s urge to be dominated as he chants the lyrics “FILL. MY. MOUTH. WITH. HOT. SAND,” is guaranteed to jolt the listener out of the trance that previous tracks will easily put them in. It’s definitely a change of pace, as is the closing track “Red Head Walking.”