Beat Happening - Biography
Beat Happening was one of the most influential bands in the American post-punk indie underground not so much for their music, but rather for their attitude towards making music and producing albums. Throughout their career, Beat Happening maintained a defiantly independent stance, playing the simple music that they wanted without bowing to commercial pressures. They also established and maintained a record label and a network of musicians that were committed to helping each other rather than competing with each other.
Calvin Johnson is a native of Olympia, Washington. Johnson moved around quite a bit as a boy and spent his high school years in the Washington DC area. After high school, Johnson was encouraged by family members to return to Olympia and attend the city’s Evergreen State College, a liberal arts school noted for its grade-free curriculum. This seemed like the perfect place for Johnson, who was never one to follow rules or guidelines. Once at school, Johnson, who had always been a big music fan, started going to shows by local bands and got involved with the Seattle-based fanzine Sub Pop. (Sub Pop, the magazine, would eventually morph into a record label of the same name.) Around that time, Johnson also started working at KAOS-FM, the radio station at Evergreen State College. The station’s policy of playing only independently produced music gave Johnson the idea of launching his own record label. Johnson started K Records in the early 1980s, originally putting out cheaply recorded cassette-only releases by bands no other label was interested in, including his first band the Cool Rays. In 1983, Johnson began playing music with Heather Lewis, a fellow Evergreen student whom Johnson had met through his roommate. With Johnson on vocals and guitar and Lewis on vocals and drums, the two roped in whomever they could to play another guitar and started playing gigs at Olympia’s coffee houses, birthday parties, and get-togethers as Beat Happening. At a coffee house show in 1983, they met a young guitarist named Bret Lunsford who was visiting from Tucson, Arizona. After seeing the shambolic yet charming band, Lunsford decided that something good was brewing in Olympia and he wanted to be a part of it. Lunsford immediately moved to Olympia and became a member of Beat Happening later that year.
In early 1984, the group issued Beat Happening, their first five-song cassette release on K Records. Later that year, while visiting a friend who was staying in Japan as an exchange student, they recorded another five-song cassette titled Three Tea Breakfast. While in Japan, Johnson also picked up an early tape by the Japanese primitive pop band Shonen Knife, which he later released on K, making the all-female band popular among in the American underground music scene. Once back in Olympia, Beat Happening began work on a full-length album with Greg Sage (of Wipers fame) as the producer. The album, also called Beat Happening (K), came out in 1985 and its simplistic songs and cute, innocent lyrics won the band a small, but devoted, following. Johnson’s low, often off-key voice was an acquired taste, but it made the band instantly recognizable and was an effective counterpoint to Lewis’s sweet-sounding vocals.
Johnson kept busy with his label during the next couple of years and Beat Happening didn’t release anything until 1987’s single “Look Around,” which was followed by an EP recorded with their friends the Screaming Trees simply titled Beat Happening/Screaming Trees (1988 Homestead). Although the two bands’ sounds couldn’t be more different, they complemented each other surprisingly well with Beat Happening making Screaming Trees buckle down and write more concise songs, and Screaming Trees expanding Beat Happening’s limited scope. Beat Happening next released another EP in the UK called Crashing Through (1988 53rd & 3rd), before releasing their next full-length release, Jamboree (K/Sub Pop), in 1988. Produced by Steve Fisk of the instrumental combo Pell Mell and Lee Conner and Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees, the album shows the band improving in their songwriting and expanding their sound in small degrees, while retaining their basic amateurish charm. Beat Happening’s unique sound had many critics trying to find a label for the band, who were at various times called “proto-punk” and “minimalist rock.” The band preferred the tag “love-rock.”
The group returned the next year with the album Black Candy (1989 K/Sub Pop), a darker and less focused set than Jamboree. Beat Happening waited until 1991 to release their next album, Dreamy (K/Sub Pop), which marked a maturing of their sound. The group, and Johnson’s label K, were by this time leaders in the underground, anti-corporate label rock scene, and celebrated that fact by hosting the International Pop Underground Festival in Olympia in the summer of 1991. The festival featured over 50 independent bands, including Fugazi, Scrawl, Bikini Kill, L7, and Mecca Normal, to name just a few. Beat Happening followed up the next year with the album You Turn Me On (1992 K/Sub Pop), co-produced with former Young Marble Giants member Stuart Moxham. The influence of Young Marble Giants on You Turn Me On is more evident than ever before. The album shows Beat Happening maturing even more, featuring the use of multi-track over-dubbing for the first time in their career.
After You Turn Me On, not much more was heard from Beat Happening. The band maintains that they haven’t broken up and still practice on a fairly regular basis, but they have just decided not to record anymore — with the exception of the single released in 2000, “Angel Gone” (K). A box set compiling almost all of the band’s recorded material, Crashing Through (K), was released in 2002, and a collection of the band’s b-sides and rarities titled Music to Climb the Apple Tree By (K) was released in 2003. Calvin Johnson went on to form the Halo Benders with Doug Martsch from Built To Spill, and has also produced and appeared on many releases by his free-floating collective Dub Narcotic Sound System. Heather Lewis has stayed out of the spotlight in the years since Beat Happening stopped recording, and Bret Lunsford has stayed busy running his own record label, Knw-Yr-Own, and writing cultural criticism.