One night in December 1983, Calvin Johnson, Bret Lunsford and Heather Lewis of Beat Happening were asked to play a last-minute set at a house party. They had started the band just a few months earlier and were yet to own a drum kit; after hearing one of their songs, the previous band refused to loan them theirs. Instead, the trio settled on a garbage can from the street. “It was no big deal,” Johnson recalls nonchalantly. The band were accustomed to improvising: throughout their career, they famously used empty yoghurt pots, cardboard boxes and a string of borrowed kits in lieu of their own, while crafting askew melodies from thrift shop-bought guitars and masking inexperience with an Echoplex.
This initiative and open-minded approach to music was core to Beat Happening, who favoured rudimentary song structures, matter-of-fact lyrics and unadulterated emotion. They formed in Olympia, Washington, an unassuming city in the Pacific north-west that was home to an exciting independent music scene. Johnson and Lewis attended Evergreen State College, a local liberal arts institution that encouraged extracurricular activities and creative pursuits; the campus radio station, Kaos, where Johnson had worked from the age of 15, adopted a policy that 80% of music broadcast must be from independent labels. Johnson’s own label K Records, which would go on to release all of Beat Happening’s albums, followed suit, adopting the mission statement: “K explodes the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre world-wide.”
“People were making music that wasn’t what you were used to hearing,” Lewis says of the city’s scene. “And it was available to anybody. It was the first time that it was like: ‘Yeah, you can do this if you want to.’” The community spirit and culture of homegrown music was inspiring to her: “I didn’t want to be in a band. I didn’t want to be a musician. But what was happening in Olympia was just so interesting and different.”
Three decades later, it has proved enduringly influential, with the rise of bedroom pop drawing on the makeshift aesthetic. “When I first started playing shows and recording, there was a less-is-more mindset going on,” says songwriter Mac DeMarco. “It didn’t really matter if you could play your instrument, it didn’t matter if your recordings were incredibly scrappy or lo-fidelity, it was more the fact that you were just doing it that was important. I feel like Beat Happening still embodies that ethos for me.”
This month, Domino is reissuing their entire discography on vinyl. While not responsible for the decision (“that’s a question for our label, not us,” Johnson says in a playful jeer), Lunsford offers an explanation: “We never intended for our music to not be available.”
It’s an ethos that makes sense when you consider the context Beat Happening laid their foundations in. Strict alcohol laws and the enforcement of the Teen Dance Ordinance, which severely cut back events for underage people, meant that opportunities to play or engage with live music in Washington were limited in the 80s and 90s. Lewis recalls her former band the Supreme Cool Beings being invited to play a show, but having to wait in a closet while the other bands played because she was under 21. “Even that was totally illegal,” she laughs. “For people between 18 and 21, there was definitely a desire to go see music and perform music for each other. It wasn’t happening unless we found a place to do it.”
So Beat Happening and their contemporaries performed outside shops, inside cafes and at parties in grange halls, community venues out in the country which could be hired out for the night “for a hundred bucks”, says Lewis.
“The whole scene was like being on Mars,” says Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants, who had travelled over from the UK to produce some of Beat Happening’s tracks. “The bands were all much more supportive of each other than they were in England. Everywhere you’d go, there’d be a whole bunch of people who would turn up and be really enthusiastic.”
Contrary to the regimented roles in bands of the time, the trio swapped instruments with one another and used primitive techniques to capture their songs. The outcome was shaky, lo-fi recordings with off-key vocals and occasional chatter or tape hiss. They distributed their early recordings via cassette, not only to ensure that the music could be heard easily and affordably but also to confront the mainstream industry. Some have perceived their minimalist approach to making music as a calculated act of defiance to the more aggressive, macho punk that was kicking off at the time by the likes of Black Flag and Minor Threat. It was about resourcefulness. “I think it was just doing the best we could with the tools we had,” says Lewis.
Like their peers in Olympia, Beat Happening didn’t have a career ambition for their music. “It was about entertaining yourself and having this adventure with your friends,” Lunsford explains, recalling weekends where practice sessions took place between film screenings, group meals and colouring in the covers of their cassettes (“paying for two colours would’ve been too expensive”). “The idea that somebody might get a record contract, or go into a real studio with a budget, was pretty far-fetched from our experience,” he says.
But their impact was felt quickly. Their DIY ethos paved the way for the local riot grrrl movement, and Beat Happening are often cited as the originators of much of today’s lo-fi indie rock. They developed a cult following in and beyond Washington. But they also attracted hostility, especially in early performances to crowds beyond their familiar underground network. During a support slot for Fugazi, a punter threw an ashtray at Johnson, splitting his nose. Others, finding the band’s stripped-back style and lack of instruments jarring, would heckle. But the band would keep playing. “It wasn’t like we weren’t serious,” says Lewis. “Some people would act like we were a joke.” Was it ever intimidating? “It felt like it was more intimidating to other people,” she says. “Other people had a bigger problem with it than we did.”
Critics have referred to Beat Happening as “twee” and “childlike”, terms the band find confusing. For every lyric that explores infatuation and trips to the beach against a patchwork of maracas and acoustic guitars, you’re just as likely to hear crude anecdotes about sexual encounters or digging one’s grave, delivered in Johnson’s sullen baritone, and discordant storms of guitar and feedback that recall the Cramps. “‘Twee’ doesn’t sound very dark to me. I feel like we were a lot darker,” says Lewis.
Johnson agrees: “I always thought we were a rock’n’roll band.”
Though Beat Happening never officially disbanded, the trio stopped playing together in the early 1990s. They now live in separate cities; our interview is the first time Lewis has seen Johnson face to face in three years. Still, their work resonates. “They opened up a world for me,” says Greta Kline of American indie-pop outfit Frankie Cosmos, who was introduced to the band as a teenager. She didn’t own a microphone when she started making music so instead recorded her vocals by singing into her computer. “That ethos of just make what you can with what you have access to, I still try to view music that way,” she says.
Johnson sees the explanation more plainly. “I just thought we were writing classic songs that were for the ages. It didn’t matter when we wrote them, they were always going to be relevant to somebody,” he says.
Despite his apparent confidence, his scale for success remains modest. “If one person finds a Beat Happening record at a thrift store in 20 years and puts it on and is like: ‘Oh my God, this is the best song I’ve ever heard’ – to me that totally validates everything I ever did.”
• Beat Happening’s reissued six-album catalogue is out now on Domino.