Those of you who were toddlers in the late '80s will probably not understand Beat Happening. In fact, I didn't hit the double digits myself until 1990, so I'm not so sure if I understand them all that well. But if you know anything about the '80s, you know the decade was burdened by pop's obsession with synthetic sounds. For everything that happens, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the underground music of any era is that reaction. Beat Happening used no synthesizers and accented it with Calvin Johnson's unique voice.
But they didn't just exist within the underground; they nurtured it. Calvin created K Records. Olympia, WA would not be the oasis of amazing indie music it is today if it weren't for K Records. Trust me. Olympia is just a soggy, sleepy little town that, like most state capitals, is only special because it's the state capital. Yet The Gossip, Modest Mouse, and Chicks on Speed are all fantastic examples of the groups that K Records has brought together. Now, Olympia is home base to an extensive DIY rock scene.
If you're wondering, this compilation of songs by Beat Happening can tell you why. In the context of the vapid '80s, full of neon and flash, Beat Happening's lack of frills and gimmicks was revolutionary. Even now, it's like listening to a practiced storyteller after only hearing bubblegum pop; the contrast is tremendous, and makes all the false emotions of pop music sound like nothing more than soap opera melodrama. The lyrics were simple, but effective. For example, on the first song "Angel Gone" (which sounds, I might add, a lot like one of Calvin's other bands, the Halo Benders) he sings, "You don't know where you're going, but you go there all the time." I couldn't think of a better way to sum up confusion in one sentence. Beat Happening consists of Bret Lunsford, Heather Lewis, and famous Calvin Johnson, a drum, a guitar, and Calvin's unique, deep voice. Occasionally, there is an addition of bongos or a violin, but the extra instruments are always understated.
Unfortunately, the understatement isn't very exciting and I found my attention wandering after the first 5 songs. They may be historically significant, but how often does that keep you listening? I can appreciate the innovations for what they were, but they aren't original anymore. Though I have no way to know when each song was released, I know Beat Happening's sound didn't change much over the years, and it's rather stifling. Even the addition of a bass guitar would help, balancing the tinny sounds of Bret's guitar. I suppose Calvin's low voice could be seen as a substitute. At the same time, it's like holding up a four-legged table with three legs: it works, but you get tired of it after awhile. Beat Happening also chose sometimes to ignore the conventional verse-chorus-verse way of creating a song, which only adds to the monotony. Idiosyncracy is not always a good thing.
They did write one or two compelling and catchy songs, like the surfpunk sounding "Nancy Sin", with it's heavily distorted guitar and Calvin's smooth voice devilishly enticing, but in all truth, that's the only song I like on this album. It makes sin sound delicious, whereas the rest of the compilation just reminds me of the protagonist/loser stereotype of '80s teen movies, trying so hard to be cool but demonstrating inherent and inescapable nerdiness instead. You never really come to like the guy; you feel sorry for him, and would only hang out with him to make him feel better about himself. That's a crappy reason to spend time with someone. Historical significance is a crappy reason to like this album. 5/10 -- Eden Hemming Rose (25 May, 2005)