Beat Happening was a hugely influential low-fi punk band from Olympia, Washington. They released five albums between 1985 and 1992. Although they never officially called it quits, they haven’t played publicly or released anything since 1992. Calvin Johnson is still very active in the music industry, even after narrowly escaping death in 2003 while touring with his band Dub Narcotic Sound System. He and Heather Dunn (Tiger Trap, Lois) were ejected from the van after the driver swerved to avoid hitting a deer. Both suffered serious injuries, as did the driver. Johnson suffered a major concussion and a few broken ribs. He ended up with a speech impediment and pretty severe cognitive disfunction. Despite the fact that it was hard for him to walk or talk or stay awake, he got back to work as soon as he possibly could and hasn’t looked back.
To back up 20 years, Beat Happening are a really interesting phenomenon. They launched a record label. Not just any label. THE label. K Records was the ultimate label for west coast punk rock in the 1980s and early 1990s. K is to Washington (state) punk what Dischord is to Washington (DC) punk. So that makes Beat Happening the left coast’s answer to Fugazi. Not that they sound anything alike. Just that they laid the foundations for their respective scenes. And both did it not for the money but for the fans. Just as Fugazi had a longtime rule of never charging more than $8 for a concert ticket, Beat Happening did everything they could to keep the consumer price of tickets and records very low.
They inspired a whole generation (or two) of musicians, especially those in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. They were fiercely supportive of the local scene, and they went out of their way to do everything in Olympia. They’re royalty in the seedy underbelly of DIY punk rock. They’re regarded as one of the most important and influential independent bands not just of the 1980s/90s, but of all time. To this day, bands cover their songs all the time.
So they were trailblazers, they were influential and they had a lot of fans with shallow pockets. “What’s the big deal?”, you might ask. They were terrible. Just an awful band. Johnson’s baritone singing voice is “mediocre” on a good day. They lacked technical proficiency at their instruments. They didn’t make up for that with good looks, either. The songs had sloppily written lyrics, and they were often about childish stuff. They took DIY lo-fi sensibilities to an extreme, as some of the songs sound like they were written and recorded in a span of about eight minutes. Some, like “The This Many Boyfriends Club” sound like they were made up on the spot. For the record, I love that song.
It’s their attitude that got them fans. They knew that they weren’t going to win any awards for songwriting or producing. They weren’t going to win any beauty contests. But there they were with that “I don’t even care” attitude. They didn’t want the lack of musical ability stand in their way of making great music. And for some reason, it’s the near unlistenability that makes some of these songs compelling.
By the time they recorded You Turn Me On in 1992, they started to show interest in musicianship and production value. Still, though, Jamboree is probably their most well-known album. “Indian Summer” is, by far, their most well-known song.
“Indian Summer” by Beat Happening
I’m really not sure why I like the song so much, but I do. Maybe it’s the line “I drink from your drain”. I think, though, that most of it has to do with the youthful innocence of having a picnic date in a cemetery, complete with “french toast with molasses” and Baked Alaska.
Many bands have covered this song, and the most notable is Luna. I don’t know if they ever officially recorded it, but it was a live performance staple for them since at least 1993.
Buy Jamboree directly from K Records here.