Beck (David Campbell)

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Beck (David Campbell)

Beck (David the, Campbell), artistic nexus of traditional blues and contemporary pop; b. Los Angeles, July 8, 1970 (he took his mother’s surname, Hansen, after his parent’s divorce). Beck’s mother was a Warhol superstar at age 13; her father was one of America’s leading FluXus artists, Al Hansen. (FluXus was a Dadaesque art movement of the 1960s that included artists like Yoko Ono among its followers.) Beck’s father is an arranger who became an itinerant bluegrass musician during Beck’s youth. Beck became as intrigued by the blues of Mississippi John Hurt as he was by the hip-hop and break dancers on the corner, making his music one of the 1990s most satisfying cultural stews.

At age 16, Beck dropped out of school and took his guitar to N.Y.C., where he got involved with the burgeoning “anti-folk” scene. However, Beck did not find an audience for his music like his guitar-strumming comrades Michele Shocked, Roger Manning, Cindy Lee Berryhill, and Ani DeFranco. He returned to Los Angeles where he worked a series of minimum-wage jobs like alphabetizing the pornography section of the local video store. These experiences informed his music, with lyrics that often were improvised.

Beck began playing solo sets at local clubs while bands set up behind him. As his guitar style started to evolve, he recorded a single for Bong Load records called “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.” His next Bong Load record, 12 inches of alienation called “Loser,” caught the ears of radio, with the refrain “I’m a loser baby, why don’t you kill me?”

Geffen Record signed Beck after a fierce bidding war. Part of his deal allowed him to record for them and for whomever else he wanted. His first Geffen album, Mellow Gold (reputedly made for $300), came out to critical raves, great sales, and ubiquitous play on radio sand MTV for “Loser.” The single went gold and reached #10, and the album went platinum and got as high as #13. At the same time, Stereopathetic Soulmanure came out on L.A.’s Flipside records and Beck collaborated with K Records’s head Calvin Johnson on One Foot in the Grave.”Loser” was Spin’s#1 single of 1994 and was nominated for a Grammy. However, many critics viewed Beck as a one-hit wonder, a slacker novelty act.

The next year, Beck invoked his indie record clause to release two more albums, Steve Threw Up and A Western Field by Moonlight, which were in the works before he signed with Geffen. As these records hit the stores, Beck was busily at work on his follow-up to Mellow Gold. Determined to offer something different, he hooked up with producers The Dust Brothers, who had helped the Beastie Boys realize their artistic watershed, Paul’s Boutique. The resulting album, Odelay, proved an album of unusual artistic and commercial depth, aptly dubbed in Newsweek as “American eclectic music.” Tunes mixed accordions and turntables, steel guitar, and hardcore funk drums. The album found favor with critics, and music magazines Spin, Rolling Stone, and NME proclaimed Beck “Artist of the Year.” Select magazine took that a step further, calling him “#1 Most Important Person in the World.” The album won Grammy awards for Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Videos from the album for “Devil’s Haircut” and “New Pollution” garnered awards from MTV in several categories. More than that, the album found its audience: Odelay sold over two million copies.

Beck went on the road, making a series of successful appearances (he claims not to play live; he just makes random appearances). Meanwhile, artists ranging from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Johnny Cash to the Ska-core Allstars were covering his tunes. Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs sought him out for collaborations. Beck also took time out from music to put together a joint exhibit of his own art along with his grandfather’s work.

In 1998, Beck released Mutations on Geffen. Produced by Nigel Godrich, who had made Radiohead’s OK Computer, Beck and the group he appeared with on stage recorded and mixed a track a day for 20 days. While in the studio recording his follow-up to Mutations, Beck posted weekly video segments of his work in progress on his official website. Unlike his previous albums, the songs for this one had already been written. Beck worked with strings (arranged by his dad) and even recorded some of the vocals live. The result was more cohesive than any of his previous recordings. The album entered the charts at #13, its peak position. By the middle of 1999, the record had sold over a million copies without any charted singles.


One Foot in the Grave (1994); Mellow Gold (1994); Stereopathetic Soul Manure (1994); Odelay (1996); Mutations (1998).

—Hank Bordowitz