Like all the greatest punk bands of the 1980s--Minutemen, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth--Beat Happening demanded a certain level of commitment from fans. To stand them, much less enjoy them, you had to change the way you listened. If the Ramones were a brat's cartoon, these Olympia, Washington, bohemians were a quiet child's drawing--simple, loose, thoughtful. To call this trio childish was to underestimate kids: They were direct and deep, even if they savored awkwardness a little too knowingly. The angels, baked goods, and zombies of their lyrics evoked an awed punk adulthood that Kurt Cobain wished for himself--not for nothing did he tattoo the insignia of K Records, the band's label, on his arm. Yet Beat Happening's innocence was like Darby Crash in Jonathan Richman clothing: They dared to be soft, but they were also soft to be daring.
No one liked Beat Happening at first, at least not the Calvin songs. The band, you see, featured two distinct singing voices, each identified by a first name among fans. Calvin sounded nostalgic for a tradition of echoing pop baritones--from Lee Hazelwood to Mister Ed--who expressed masculinity as a kind of lazy power. Heather was a voice of the future, a more ardent Moe Tucker whose unflappable attitude and vibrato-free delivery made her a riot grrriot to a generation. The skip-rope melody of the best song on the first Beat Happening album described something like emerging consciousness: "Close your eyes and live your life/Someone else will pay the price/Open up your eyes and speak your mind/Leave your youth far behind."
Even today Beat Happening demands an absurd level of commitment: Anyone waiting for a concise K-tel best-of will be exasperated to find every last toss-off crammed into Crashing Through, a whopping seven-CD box set. Still, measured against what their toss-offs influenced--from Sebadoh (blah) to the Moldy Peaches (yay)--the music breezes by as memorably as Elvis's Sun sessions. The template is still exciting: Heather Tucker-ing her drums, Calvin shaking the maracas, and Bret, the third voice of sorts, strumming the absolute minimum of notes with the absolute maximum of authority. (He sounds like amplified air guitar.)
If you hear hints of this approach in the White Stripes or Low, the full Beat Happening shows how much the original was all hints to begin with--bones covered with fat on later cover versions (Luna's "Indian Summer"). The band left more than the usual amount of youth behind, but their adulthood wasn't misspent.
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