Beat Happening probably didn’t invent indiepop and twee, but they may as well have. The landscape past and present is littered with references to this band from Olympia, Washington which says a lot about their long lasting influence. Looking at their songs, it’s kind of astounding how many bands have covered them named themselves after their songs, certainly more than those that have named themselves for Velvet Underground songs. Not bad for a band that confessed to writing songs mostly about sex and food. The band never officially broke up, but retired soon after the release of 1992’s opus You Turn Me On. Front guy Calvin still runs K Records and has found other outlets for his unique take on pop in Dub Narcotic, Halo Benders and solo albums. The band never released a best of album, so they seem ripe for a best of list. Here are my top 10 Beat Happening songs, and probably not what would show up on a best of list, but who knows?
10. Other Side (Black Candy 1989) – Beat Happening were a lot of things. They could rock out like the Cramps, be wayward mavericks a la Lee Hazlewood, and of course sound like 60’s beatniks. Other Side comes from Black Candy which is probably considered their weakest album, but they always started their records with a splash and this duet between Calvin and Heather is full of wistful beauty.
9. Tiger Trap (You Turn Me On 1992) – This song starts off Beat Happening’s final album You Turn Me On. Right from the start you know this record is going to be different than the others because they’d never started off a record with ballad and they’d never recorded a seven minute song (Godsend is nearly 10 minutes). Recorded by Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants the droning pastoral jangle of Tiger Trap hypnotizes and soothes you like a babbling brook through a meadow.
8. Not a Care In the World (Sassy Single 1992) – This one was also recorded by Moxham during the You Turn Me On sessions, but it didn’t make the cut and was relegated to a single released by Sassy Magazine (anyone remember their Cute Band Alert?). This one has Moxham’s fingerprints all over it, I would be surprised if he didn’t play guitar on this. Heather usually sang only a couple of songs per record, but they were always highlights and this would have been a great 10th song on Your Turn Me On and hints at what might have been if they had recorded a follow up to their final album.
7. Indian Summer (Jamboree 1988) – Indian Summer may be Beat Happening’s best known song thanks to Luna, REM and Ben Gibbard who have all covered it. This song demonstrates what Beat Happening did so well, it’s so minimal yet paints such a vivid picture. You only hear sparse guitar and drums accompany Calvin’s voice yet it evokes autumnal colors, long shadows and the end of something special.
6. Nancy Sin (Dreamy 1991) – Beat Happening weren’t all campfires and s’mores, Calvin sang about sex a lot and this song is dripping with it. This one has a noir feel to its lust. Probably because Nancy always made me think of Nancy Drew and Calvin wanting to get it on with here. And what red blooded adolescent kid wouldn’t want to get it on with Nancy Drew?
5. Our Secret (Beat Happening 1985) – This was Beat Happening’s first single. Often bands never do better than their first single and Beat Happening set the bar pretty high. They barely knew how to play at this point, but they knew what a great pop song should sound like. Ever the gentleman, Calvin is going to run away with a girl, but first he’s going to have dinner with her family, I assume to tell them of their plans. What a punk.
4. Fortune Cookie Prize (Dreamy 1991) – Heather sings this wistful song evoking the happenstance of love. Sometimes you find it when you least expect it, but the other half doesn’t quite know it. The best love song the band ever wrote.
3. Sleepy Head (You Turn Me On 1992) – You’ve been up for hours, but your partner likes to sleep in. Now the complication comes in. Is this song about letting your lover sleep in, or is it about anxiety and depression about not being able to sleep? Heather’s gentle voice keeps you guessing.
2. This Many Boyfriends Club (Jamboree 1985) – There are some amazing stories of when Beat Happening toured the west coast with Fugazi. Punks there to see Fugazi at the Los Angeles show just didn’t get Beat Happening. One story is of Calvin getting hit in the nose by someone throwing an ashtray at him. He didn’t miss a beat and quoted Darby Crash of the Germs back to the audience, “Somebody broke my nose. Dump the whole balcony.” I don’t know what song they played after that, but I like to think it was this one. All guitar squall and feedback with Calvin doing spoken word that sounds improvised. This Many Boyfriends Club demands your attention and keeps it until mic hits the floor with a thud and a girl screams at the top of her lungs. This is punk!
1. Tales of Brave Aphrodite (Beat Happening / Screaming Trees 1988) – Tales of Brave Aphrodite comes from the four song EP that Beat Happening recorded with Screaming Trees. Calvin went to grade school with Trees singer Mark Lannegan and Lannegan had helped record Jamboree. Beat Happening have said that they felt like Screaming Trees cast off songs were better than their best stuff. Aphrodite really soars thanks to the additional power of collaboration and a swirling organ riff. Even if they didn’t team up with the Trees, this song features some of Calvin’s best lyrics and one of his best melodies. “Silver Aphrodite in her chocolate nightie, Says she wants to try me, she won’t bite me”combines the food and sex theme of Beat Happening into a single line.