Beat Happening

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Beat Happening

Pop band

From Cool Rays to Beat Happening

Debuted with Beat Happening

Earned Indie Credentials

Selected discography


One of the most influential and respected bands to come from the underground music scene, Beat Happening and its concoction of minimalist, low-end production pop music emerged in the capitol town of Olympia, Washington, in the 1980s, during the same time the grunge rock movement was taking hold in nearby Seattle. At the center of the former phenomenon, which demonstrated that punk musics rebel spirit could defy rocks conventions as well as societys ideals, stood Calvin Johnson, his band, and a label he founded called K Records. Adopting a musical attitude with little interest in traditional standards of vocalization or instrumentation, Johnson helped to create a new punk/indie rock community that would become the lo-fi pop sound in America. Groups such as Teenage Fanclub, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Fugazi all claimed to have been influenced by the musical attitudes of Beat Happening.

Johnson, a native of Olympia, resided for a total of six of his first 17 years in the small community located just outside of Seattle. He lived in a variety of other places during his early years as well, including suburban Washington, D.C., where he graduated from high school. At the time of his graduation, his sister, and brother Streator Johnson, who studied at the University of Washington, encouraged their brother to move backto move back to the Northwest. Desiring to study at a smaller, less bureaucratic school, Johnson chose to enroll at Evergreen State College, located in his former hometown of Olympia. A school of approximately 3, 000 students nestled in the woods, Evergreen State was not a typical American university. Here, professors did not award grades to students, and the curriculum did not consist of specific majors, although students needed to take a few required courses in order to graduate with either a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree. Not one to follow established ideas, Johnson seemed suited for such as environment.

Prior to forming a band, Johnson, who grew up admiring the Doors, the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground, had long since held an interest in music. In 1977, for example, he started donating time to a Seattle-based fan magazine called Sub Pop, the same organization that became an influential designer record label in the 1990s. By the time the 1980s got underway, Johnson was booking local shows and also started his own record label, K Records. The idea for creating his own label arose out of what he believed was a necessity: to issue records by lesser-known bands that no other company would have otherwise released. At the same time, Johnson worked at KAOS-FM, the Evergreen State College radio station. Because the station mandated the deejays to play independent music, Johnsons interest in starting his own label seemed possible. I just started putting out stuff by my friends, he told Patti Schmidt for a Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) radio profile in 1995, which is exactly what I still do.

From Cool Rays to Beat Happening

In 1981, Johnson formed his first band, the Cool Rays. While the band only lasted a short time, one of their tracks was included in an early Sub Pop compilation album. After the demise of the Cool Rays, an early form of what would become Beat Happening started to take shape in 1983. The new group started playing at record stores, birthday parties and social events, and any small venue that would let them perform, so long as the club welcomed audiences of all ages, a stipulation that Beat Happening insisted upon. In the beginning, Johnson played guitar and sang baritone vocals, Heather Lewis (a fellow Evergreen State student whom Johnson had met through his roommate at the time) added female vocals and played drums, and various other musicians filled in on third guitar until they met Bret Lunsford.

Although Lunsford later attended Evergreen State, the guitarist, uncertain about his future, decided not to enroll in college straight out of high school. Instead, in 1983 he was living in Tucson, Arizona, collecting unemployment and spending most of his time going to watch bands. Although he wasnt living in a major city, Lunsford recalled that a number of well-known acts, including

For the Record

Members include Calvin Johnson (born in Olympia, WA), guitar and baritone vocals; Heather Lewis, drums and vocals; Bret Lunsford, guitar. Education: All attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.

Johnson founded K Records, early-1980s; formed Beat Happening in Olympia, WA, 1983; released debut album, Beat Happening, 1985; released Jamboree, 1988; Johnson and K Records hosted the International Pop Underground Convention, 1991; released last album, You Turn Me On, 1992; Johnson founded Dub Narcotic studios, 1994.

Addresses: Record company K Records, P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507, phone: (360) 786-1594, fax: (360) 786-5024, email: [email protected]; Sub Pop, 1932 1stAve., Ste. 1103, Seattle, WA 98101, phone: (206) 441-8441, fax: (206) 441-8245, email: [email protected]. Websites Beat Happening at K Records:, Beat Happening at Sub Pop:

Hüsker Dü and Minor Threat (one of the best live bands he had ever seen up to that point) played in Tucson on their way to and from Los Angeles. In the fall of 1983, Lunsford returned to Washington state to visit friends. One night, while at the Smithfield Café in Olympia, Lunsford saw a band that struck a chord with him called Beat Happening. Watching the trio together on stage, I just knew something was brewing, Lunsford said to Schmidt. Soon thereafter, Johnson and Lewis asked the guitarist to join the group on a permanent basis.

In early 1984, Johnsons K label issued the bands first recording, a self-titled, five-song tape EP of juvenile ramblings and sex tales. Later that year, the trio recorded another tape, the five-song EP Three Tea Breakfast, while visiting a friend who was an exchange student in Japan. During his stay in Japan, Johnson picked up an early tape by Shonen Knife (Burning Farm, released in Japan on the Zero label in 1983), which he brought back to the United States. Shonen Knife, an all-female, American-styled pop-punk Japanese group, would become a favorite of such underground heroes such as Nirvana, Fugazi, and Sonic Youth after Johnson released the tape in 1985 on K Records.

Debuted with Beat Happening

That same year, Beat Happening made their monumental, full-length album debut. The self-titled release, produced by Greg Sage of the Wipers, included one-take pop songs such as I Spy, Down at the Sea and the Cramps-inspired Bad Seeds. Although amateurish in terms of production quality, Beat Happening nonetheless charmed critics with its ingenuity and invention. In 1988, following the release in Great Britain of the EP Crashing Through and a 12-inch split with the Screaming Trees (one of the most influential and underrated bands to spring from the Northwest), Beat Happening released their second album, Jamboree. This time boasting the production team of Mark Lanegan and Lee Conner, both members of the Screaming Trees, and Steve Fisk of Pell Mell, Beat Happening and their latest album left critics at a loss for an appropriate description of their sound. The music press made some obvious references to acts like the Velvet Underground, the Cramps, Jonathan Richman, the Pastels and the Vaselines (two Scottish bands), and the Australian group the Cannanes, and labeled Beat Happenings music with phrases such as proto-punk, minimalist rock, love-rock sub-folk, basement trash, and others. Overall, most writers seemed confused by the groups brand of stripped-down pop, which included a lot of rudimentary, yet clever, boy-girl songs told through the escapist language of a child. People expect certain things that we havent always given them, Johnson told Schmidt, acknowledging the bands reductionist tendencies. We dont have a bass player. A lot of people were offended by that. I dont know why, its really weird.

Beat Happening returned in 1989 with their third album, Black Candy, which failed to earn the same recognition as their previous collection. With the exception of two standout songs, Black Candy and Cast a Shadow, the release was described with words such as disappointing and more careless than casual, as Ira A. Robbins concluded in the Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock. Nevertheless, such a setback didnt deter Beat Happenings growingfanbase, afollowingthey established notthrough publicity, but by extensive touring. The groups next album, 1991s Dreamy, which featured roughly three chords and tin can beats, endeared Beat Happening to the college radio crowd. A substantial improvement over Black Candy, Dreamy included several notable songs: the ominous Me Untamed, the Shonen-Knife sounding Hot Chocolate Boy, and the 1960s-like Cry for a Shadow.

Earned Indie Credentials

By the late 1980s, Beat Happening had earned indie credentialsbands as diverse as Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Teenage Fanclub, and Nirvana were claiming the group as an important influence on their own music. In 1991, Johnson and his staff at K Records hosted a gathering in Olympia called the International Pop Underground Convention. During the alternative music festival, Johnson and K featured more than 50 bands whose only ties were a mutual lack of support by major labels, referred to as the corporate ogre, on Beat Happenings website at Sub Pop Records. Among the bands in attendance included L7, Fugazi, the Melvins, Scrawl, Thee Head-coats, the Pastels, Jad Fair, Bikini Kill, the Fastbacks, Seaweed, Mecca Normal, and Nation of Ulysses.

Also in 1991, Beat Happening recorded their last full-length album together entitled You Turn Me On. Released in 1992, the record departed somewhat from Beat Happenings usual style. Produced with more clarity, yet not to excess, by Fisk and Stuart Moxham (from the 1970s new-wave minimalists the Young Marble Giants), You Turn Me On revealed longer, seemingly more thought out songs and arrangements. Aside from the albums title track, critics applauded the effort, calling attention to numbers such as Pinebox Derby, Bury the Hammer, Tiger Trap, and Sleepyhead. However, with You Turn Me On the strategy remained the same since the groups inception; Beat Happening always refused to embellish their songs and forbid the use of over dubs. According to Johnson, growing larger in popularity, as well as in song complexity, never fit into Beat Happenings agenda. Its not that we dont want to get better, its just not the main focus, he explained to Schmidt. The main focus is to write cool songs and play shows that are fun. I dont need to be a guitar virtuoso. Playing a really hot guitar solo has nothing to do with what were doing.

Although Beat Happening never officially broke-up, insisting that they would one day record togethera gain, the band concentrated on other projects after releasing You Turn Me On. Lewis went on to record tracks with the Land of the Loops album Bundle of Joy, released on the Seattle-based Up label, while Lunsford joined the group D+ and formed the Know-Yr-Own label, which he ran from his home in Anacortes, Washington. Meanwhile, Johnson continued with his work at K and in 1994 founded his Dub Narcotic studios, a sort of lo-fi community center located in the basement of his home in Olympia. One of the first projects recorded at the studio was the Halo Benders debut album God Dont Make No Junk. Johnson formed the group with Built to Spills Doug Martsch and Fisk. The trio released two other LPs: Dont Tell Me Now and The Rebels Not In, released on K in 1996 and 1998 respectively. In addition to playing with the Halo Benders, Johnson also released work with a rotating cast of musicians from his studio under the name Dub Narcotic Sound System. In addition to releasing a handful of EPs, Dub Narcotic Sound System released two albums, 1995s Rhythm Record Vol. One: Echoes From the Scene Control Room and 1996s Boot Party.

Selected discography

Beat Happening

Beat Happening, (EP), K, 1984.

Three Tea Breakfast, (EP), K, 1984.

Beat Happening, K, 1985; reissued, 1996.

Beat Happening/Screaming Trees, (EP), K/Homestead, 1988.

Crashing Through, (EP), (U.K.) 53rd & 3rd, 1988.

Black Candy, K, 1989; reissued, K/Sub Pop, 1992.

1983-85, K/Feel Good All Over, 1990.

Dreamy, Sub Pop, 1991.

You Turn Me On, K/Sub Pop, 1992.

Dub Narcotic Sound System

Hands on the Dial, Punk in My Vitamins?, 1994.

Industrial Breakdown, (EP), Soul Static Sound/K, 1995.

Rhythm Record Vol. One: Echoes From the Scene Control Room, K, 1995.

Ridin Shotgun, (EP), 1995.

Boot Party, K, 1996.

Ship to Shore, (EP), 1996.

Halo Benders

God Dont Make No Junk, K, 1994

Dont Tell Me Now, K, 1996.


MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.

Robbins, Ira A., Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.


Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1998.

Washington Post, August 28, 1998.


Beat Happening Profile, (February 6, 2000).

K Records, (February 6, 2000).

Sub Pop: Beat Happening,, (February 6, 2000).

Laura Hightower