Just how confrontational Beat Happening were is almost forgotten as frequently as their influence on true indie rock. Calvin Johnson recalls a life in the shade
“Implicit in Beat Happening’s music was a dare: If you saw them and said, ‘Even I could do better than that,’ then the burden was on you to prove it. If you did, you had yourself a band, and if you didn’t, you had to shut up. Either way, Beat Happening had made their point.”
Of all the groups profiled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s crucial survey of the key players in 1980s American underground rock, Calvin Johnson’s ramshackle outfit could well lay claim to being simultaneously the most influential and least-known of the lot. Crammed into the tail-end of Azerrad’s book following on from chapters about luminaries of the era like Sonic Youth and Black Flag, the presence of Beat Happening might seem generous, even entirely incongruous.
Yet anybody with a working knowledge of indie music’s early years stateside will understand that the seismic impact on the fledgling scene made by Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford means that the trio fully deserve their place in the pantheon. Essentially starting an entire movement from Johnson’s unfashionable hometown of Olympia, Washington – where he lives to this day – Beat Happening dared to hold a mirror to punk and challenge its prevailing machismo orthodoxies, ultimately helping to pave the way for everybody from Kurt Cobain to Sleater-Kinney.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Beat Happening’s totemic self-titled debut. Even if you’ve never heard the record you’ll recognise its distinctive bright yellow cover and crude crayon drawing of a cat in a rocket ship, a fitting representation of a combination of ambition and affected innocence. In celebration of just how far that little rocket travelled, last month the album gained an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33⅓ series of profile books on canonical records.