This article originally appeared in the January 1993 issue of SPIN.
A lot of what’s been written about Olympia, Washington’s finest-ever rock trio, Beat Happening, refers to its purported immaturity. The band has been pegged as “wide-eyed,” “naive,” and “childlike,” which would, I guess, be charming If it weren’t so wrongheaded.
“I don’t mind when we get called childlike, but I don’t understand it,” says Beat Happening’s Lurch-throated singer-guitarist Calvin Johnson. “What’s childlike about ‘Revolution Come and Gone,’ or ‘Black Candy’?” Or for that matter, any number of Beat Happening’s heavy gems, such as “Red Head Walking,” or, from its wholly fab new LP, You Turn Me On, “Tiger Trap” and “Bury the Hammer”?
For his part, Johnson prefers to think of the trio’s music as classic rock—not Classic Rock, mind you, like the Doors or Led Zeppelin or Bad Company, but classic rock like Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Bo Diddley (“Most of the music I listen to was recorded at least 20 years ago,” Johnson claims). A major influence on the stuff he writes is: “‘Brill Building. Tin Pan Alley. The idea that you could have a factory that just pumps out the perfect pop song. Also, the idea that classic rock’n’roll is totally manufactured—it’s Chuck Berry saying ‘Hmm, I didn’t make it with that song. Why don’t I write one that appeals to teenagers?’ And then he writes the perfect teen anthem that has nothing to do with his life. He struck a chord inside himself that he didn’t know was there.”
Beat Happening tunes are often similarly inspired. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, classic themes. We don’t have one about this yet,’” says Johnson. “‘I should write a song about drag racing.’ And so I do. It’s as simple as that.”
You Turn Me On is the band’s fifth album; its first, Beat Happening, was put out in 1985 by Johnson’s K label. Along with bandmates Heather Lewis (drums, vox) and Bret Lunsford (guitar), Johnson has forged, in the smithy of his soul, a guitar-based (no bass) minimalism that recalls the swamp-surf of the Cramps, the rawness of the Velvet Underground, and the direct primitivism of the Modern Lovers. Beat Happening has never made a less-than-swell record, and has manufactured enough perfect songs (“Indian Summer,” for instance, is one of the best ever written) to warrant a (less-than-swell) tribute record, Fortune Cookie Prize, recently released by the Simple Machines label.
The band is fiercely independent aesthetically (Johnson coorganized the International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia in August 1991; one of its prime tenets was ‘‘No lackeys to the corporate ogre allowed”). So don’t expect to see Beat Happening on a major label anytime soon (it’s still on K/Sub Pop). But does gradually expanding mainstream recognition bother Johnson?
“Not really,” he maintains. “That sort of recognition bears no relation to what we’re doing. Progress to me is having the right frame of mind to be able to create. Right now, it feels pretty good. There’s still a point. Like, if there wasn’t a point it would be—harder.”