Beat Happening have always been the score for outsider punks.
Maybe it’s the way Calvin Johnson’s voice rolls in with that first “yeeeeaaaah” on “I Dig You;” how the song becomes, all at once, a groovy ode to every crush you’ve ever had, and a droning backing track to many solo bedroom dances. It makes sense that all the weirder, funkier punks were identifying with a band who, in essence, rejected the abject aggro notions and aesthetics of hardcore, but who still expertly claimed and interpreted the underground.
After playing their first gigs in Japan, Olympia’s Beat Happening later toured the UK, fostering an alliance to kindred spirits alongside groups like The Vaselines and The Pastels, and shocking fans when they toured with iconic Washington D.C. punk outfit Fugazi. Percussionist Heather Lewis notably borrowed drums at gigs, and oftentimes created makeshift drum sets out of any bangable materials at hand.
With a stripped-down sound and a gentler DIY ethos, Beat Happening, consisting of Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, created a space in punk scenes everywhere for a larger scope of identities, presentations and overall weirdo-types to feel like they belonged in underground music communities. “At the time, there was no one to do it for you. So you just did it yourself,” Johnson says over the phone.
“The whole concept of punk, from the beginning, was to be original and express yourself in your own unique way.”
“The whole concept of punk, from the beginning, was to be original and express yourself in your own unique way. In that sense I just felt like I was following in the tradition of iconoclastic artists,” he continues, referring to Patti Smith and Television.
The much-anticipated reissue of their entire catalogue, We Are Beat Happening, will be released November 29 on Domino andarrives during a period where DIY — though still meaningful — means something largely different. Given that millennial musicians have access to SoundCloud and GarageBand, interacting with analogue media is a stylistic choice rather than a community necessity. And underground music lovers of today are used to exploring bands in a less catalogued way.
Type “Beat Happening” into YouTube and you receive a less cohesive experience of the band, with each song or album re-uploaded separately and sporadically. You can pick and choose what you want to hear instead of playing a tape or EP all the way through. It doesn’t negate the experience of experiencing underground music. But it’s certainly different.
The reissue, which features seven LPs, was remastered at Abbey Road Studios by Frank Arkwright. It’s the first time in a decade that all of their work has been in one place, including their 1985 self-titled debut, which Johnson describes as their “ultimate statement” as a band, and feels like the most “potent” representation of their work. It serves as both an accessible journey through Beat Happening’s evolution, and categorical relic of the underground.
There is something about Beat Happening’s anarchic approach to humour, tenderness and punk that’s outlived its expiry date. Their ability to weave homemade percussion and sparing guitar chords into a longing, innocent narrative of adoration is easy to love.
Johnson notes that the band always had a clear idea about their sound.
“We were attempting to write classic pop songs. Hopefully we were successful.” When asked if timelessness was always the intention for the band’s sound, he affirms with the same casual drawl he’s made his signature, “mhm.”
Best Track: Fourteen
We Are Beat Happening is available Nov. 29 via Domino Recording Co.