American trio Beat Happening are more that their collection of recorded music. With a strident DIY attitude, they bridged the gap between punk and indie pop, and were an influence far beyond their Olympia roots. While they could never be accused of being proficient musicians, their passion for song and performance put Beat Happening at the forefront of many musical movements of the 80s and 90s. We Are Beat Happening is a long overdue box set of the band’s complete recorded output over seven LPs, which have all been lovingly remastered at Abbey Road Studios.
Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford all met at liberal art school, The Evergreen State College, and started Beat Happening whilst only in possession of a pair of maracas and a guitar purchased at an op-shop. To add to their intrigue, they played their first shows in Japan with borrowed equipment – a practice they would continue for their duration.
Johnson formed a friendship with Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, which cemented a connection between the Washington DC and Olympia music scenes, and prompted the formation of Johnson’s influential K Records. It was this label and the band’s approach to playing punk tunes without a hint of aggression that saw them influence the budding Riot Grrrl scene as well as finding peers in Glasgow band The Pastels, The Vaselines and Teenage Fanclub.
Beat Happening embraced primitive recording techniques, used childish themes for their songs and didn’t let a lack of musicianship get in the way. Johnson’s deep baritone comes to the fore when delivering lines like “we’re no good is what they say, but we just see the world in a different way,” on Bad Seeds. Lewis has a voice that can only be described as thin, yet carries the right amount of heartache whenever she’s at the microphone.
With songs littered throughout their catalogue of the caliber of Indian Summer, Godsend and Cast a Shadow, it is no wonder Beat Happening helped to shape many bands (Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Beck et al) of the era and beyond. With a handful of chords at their disposal, Beat Happening straddle a number of genres without fear of favour.
We Are Beat Happening is a surprisingly consistent collection of songs that shaped lo-fi before it was fashionable. It would be easy to make an argument that Beat Happening’s brand of art rock is an acquired taste, but the weight of quality tunes more than make up for any lack of polish or half baked moments. We Are Beat Happening is more than a collection of songs, it is a time capsule of the musical underground of the time.