Beat Happening and the Teenage Spirit

By Carter Davis

August 20th, 1991, was the opening night of the inaugural International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia, Washington. Once called “the culmination of years of alternative fandom united,” the event was conceived by local Calvin Johnson. What made this particular night special, besides being the first of a music festival that would set the standard for similar indie rock events to come, was that Johnson declared it a “Girls Night”. At this event, the Riot Grrrls, a recently established group of musicians who discussed political and social issues and feminist philosophy, took the stage. Acts such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy graced the largest stage of any of their careers thus far on this night. Many of these young bands requested early spots so that they could return home by the curfews set by their unsuspecting parents.

While the women themselves were the driving force behind the unforgiving political assertiveness behind their songs, Johnson used his influence as an indie culture hero to spread the word that these women were making incredible music, as well. He also crossed into their scene more directly: Johnson was in a short-lived band called The Go Team with a 15-year-old Tobi Vail (who would go on to drum in Bikini Kill). In addition to his promotion of these groundbreaking up-and-coming musicians, though, he was also creating a brand of music all his own that was just as revolutionary.

Speaking about his emergence in the Olympia punk scene as a young college student at the Evergreen State College, Johnson declared that his favorite music was made by those who had “love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit. No matter how young or old they actually are”. If there is one constant factor throughout Johnson’s 30-year output, it would be this particular “teenage spirit”. When Beat Happening (Johnson’s band with fellow Olympians Bret Lunsford and Heather Lewis) released its eponymous debut album in 1985 on Johnson’s homespun K Records label, it was a jolt to the punk culture they deemed themselves a part of. Consisting of sparse instrumentation, dirt-cheap recording, and Johnson’s unmistakable baritone wail, the record was far from any “punk rock” that had been made prior. And yet, it achieved the same level of angst, aggression, and desperation present on the classic hardcore records that came before it.

Rather than achieve radicalism through instrumentation and pace, Beat Happening did it through lyrics and subject matter that portrayed a gritty, authentic, and heartbreaking yearning for affection. Lyrics such as “grab your favorite book and read your favorite part, and I’ll lay my head upon your lap” seem overtly childish at first, but when sung by the melancholic Johnson, pleas for romance turn into statements about the powerful simplicity of intimacy. A certain cynicism pervades his songs as well: “I had sex on Christmas, I had sex three times today, three different women taught me how to be bored in their own separate, sweet little ways”. When listening to Beat Happening, one thing is clear: they are not putting on a show. They are not making music that aims to be sensitive, emotional, or affecting in profound ways. Rather, they are brutally honest in describing the feelings associated with falling in or out of love. While most bands before would find this sickeningly coy, Beat Happening broke new ground by being the band with nothing to hide. Music made by real, humble people who go through the same cyclical and often mundane feelings of love, lust, and emptiness as their audience.

The abrasive moaning of Johnson is complimented by the more gentle Heather Lewis. However, her songs carry just as much bite: “you like the kinds of people I’d never need, like the foggy eyes walking down the street”. Guitarist Bret Lunsford has spoken at length about his stage fright simply playing his instrument, and so he never took a turn at vocals. Beat Happening’s discography evolved significantly with each album, although they never lost their remarkable innocence in the face of additional instrumentation and more complex arrangements. 1989’s Black Candy was thematically tied to some kind of perverse teenage slasher flick with songs such as “Gravedigger Blues” and “Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive”. Johnson’s contrasting lyrics of innocence and sex reached an extreme in “Playhouse”: “I got a playhouse so let’s stop, we won’t argue and we won’t talk, we’ll just take off all our clothes, in my playhouse that’s how it goes”. With each subsequent release, Beat Happening gained new followers as well as critical acclaim. However, they were never aiming for the mainstream recognition that so many indie bands like them achieved. After all, K Record’s motto was “exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre”.

By the time of 1992’s You Turn Me On, Beat Happening was still playing small clubs and college towns. But, they had decided that this would be their last album as a group. Johnson found himself busier than ever at K Records (newcomer Beck Hansen was working on his seminal One Foot in the Grave there) while Heather and Bret desired to pursue other careers, exhausted from touring. With You Turn Me On, the band ended its career on the highest and most poignant note possible. Shimmering guitar textures are just as high in the mix as Calvin and Heather’s vocals, and the album also features the duo’s first vocal interplay (it was well worth the wait). The lyrical content is extremely melancholic: “so many locks and keys and chains shield you, two hearts crash inside against, when the suffering does commence”. With the addition of more traditional rock instrumentation, Beat Happening is able to create something they never have before: anthems. What were once sparse songs of one man’s sorrow now feel more like exuberant sing-alongs. The suppressed grittiness of the first albums is long gone. The band has been validated, and recognizes that their audience has been so able to connect with the emotional rawness all along. Now they are able to sing louder and more confidently than ever. What we are left with is truly a masterpiece.

It is important to keep in mind how much resistance Beat Happening faced over the course of  its career. On a night they were sharing the bill with Black Flag, famously temperamental frontman Henry Rollins found himself very put off and confused by the innocence of a band which he had thought was just another punk group. Agitated at Johnson and his childlike demeanor, Rollins tried to provoke him by reaching for his crotch. Johnson replied: “didn’t your mother teach you any manners?”. Beat Happening proved that physical intimidation and a threatening presence were not necessary to be an affecting punk band. Rather, they achieved their edge by being extremely vulnerable and true to their “teenage hearts”. While the band itself may be long gone, their legacy still stands. And to a stumbling teenager of any age, the songs feel as fresh, relevant, and necessary as ever.

Those interested in reading more about the history of Beat Happening or Johnson’s influential K Records should turn to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life or Mark Baumgarten’s Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music.

Carter Davis is an artist based in NYC. Check out his art here

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