the beta band

Showing 13 posts tagged the beta band

The trouble with the Beta Band

Loving you shouldn’t be this hard.

Sorry to start with what must sound like the chorus from a lost 80s power ballad. But I’m setting myself up to talk about a band that generates equal parts pleasure and frustration. With One Week One Band, Hendrik kindly provides us wordy types with a platform from which to gush (in an astute and insightful way, natch) about a favorite artist. But I’m here to confess a more complicated relationship. For me, the Beta Band’s an estranged sibling or fondly remembered ex: I love ‘em, but they make me so mad sometimes. I listen to one of their songs, “Inner Meet Me” or “To You Alone,” and think they’re the greatest band since the Beatles—maybe the greatest band ever! Then I hear another, say “The Beta Band Rap,” and wonder how I ever fell for such a hoax. If you’re a fan—or lapsed fan—you too have felt these things.

I’m not going to sling a lot of facts your way this week. For reference, Wikipedia has the usual potted history that’s probably more accurate than not. Still, I’ll highlight a couple points from the official narrative. In 1997, following some early lineup shifts, three Scotsmen (Steve Mason on guitar and vocals, percussionist Robin Jones and keyboardist, sampler, DJ John Maclean) and an English bloke (bassist Richard Greentree) start collaging psychedelic rock, hip hop, folk, house, R&B, dub reggae (and more!) into weird, wonderful pop music. Their several EPs generate underground buzz and the fresh-meat-grinding UK music press declares tBB the Next Big Thing, heaping unsustainable hyperbole and blah blah blandishments on the unwitting musicians. But tBB waste opportunities, self sabotage. They release a maddening, brilliant mess of a self-titled debut LP in 1999, piss off the press, their peers and their record label, then redeem themselves somewhat with a sharp second album in 2001 (Hot Shots II) and a slick, radio-baiting third (Heroes to Zeros) before hanging it up in 2004. Reasons for their breakup range from the record-buying public’s disinterest in buying their records, emotional and drug issues, and a massive overdraft (aka the usual suspects).

Along the way they influence musicians who know special when they hear it, elicit hosannas from critics and collect a small, patient fan base of geeks (hiya!) who fervently believe that tBB coulda been a contender. The greatest of all time. For real.

If they hadn’t fucked it up.

Or maybe they didn’t?

Track

Dry The Rain

Artist

The Beta Band

Album

The Three E.P.'s

Dry the Rain - The Beta Band

If you know anything about the Beta Band, you know a couple-minute clip of Stephen Frears’ 2000 film High Fidelity*, the music obsessive’s ultimate conversion fantasy, performed in three movements.**

To recap, Jack Black as Barry demonstrates the hard sell, which works by belittling your target and his mainstream preferences and asserting your own much superior taste. Barry browbeats an aspirant vinyl collector until he’s clutching Psychocandy and Blonde on Blonde to his chest like life preservers. Don’t you sort of miss, just a little bit, this asshole now that record stores are going the way of the whooping crane?

Meanwhile, Todd Louiso as Dick romances Anaugh (Sara Gilbert) with his Big Theory about Green Day-precursor (and John Peel fave) Stiff Little Fingers. It’s a less aggressive approach than the hard sell, but no less manipulative. When he rolls his eyes, Dick seals the deal—It’s just you and me and an obscure post-punk refugee from Northern Ireland against the world, babe. But pause for a sec and think about all the times you pretended to like some band for the sake of a cute boy or girl who thought s/he held the patent on taste and was the sole human repository for music-related factoids? Or worse, were that cute boy/girl?

John Cusack, as Rob, is the scene stealer, performing his truth as self evident. “I am now going to sell five copies of The Three EPs by the Beta Band,” he confides to Dick, slipping disc into player. Who among of us hasn’t hoped that other people will hear what we hear in a song—every emotion, thought, memory, every bit of identity we’ve invested in it—if we only press play. Like a vaporous potion in an animated Disney flick, “Dry the Rain” winds through the shop; head-bobbing and limb-grooving ensue, frowns turn upside down. This is the magic method.

***

Rob has dropped the needle (figuratively) on “Dry the Rain”’s back end, the full-bodied best part of the song where drums and bass and horns serenade an arm-waving refrain:

If there’s something inside that you wanna say,

Say it out loud, it’ll be ok.

I will be your light,

I will be your light,

I will be your light,

I will be your light.

It’s a little hippie-dippy and actually gets more so when Steve Mason strips naked for a final plea, I need lovvvvve. But you’d have to have a peach pit for a heart to scoff. And great as it is, this refrain’s hardly “Dry the Rain“‘s secret sauce. From the first fine dusting of percussion, through the soft shuffle of instruments and slow build of harmonies, to the ecstatic “Hey Jude”-ing outro, it’s a multi-caret pop gem. (In the early days especially, some people wanted to paint tBB as a bunch of flaky stoners—as if something like this, something that sounds this easy, isn’t in fact really hard.)

But for me, the most moving bit is the song’s titular request to “take me in and dry the rain.” Mason’s a mumbler and you’re lucky to understand a thing he sings. That’s ok, because his lyrics tend to work evocatively rather than descriptively. When I first heard these words, the image that formed in my mind was of a dripping stray dog rescued from the storm and embraced by someone with a big warm towel. It’s a nice image, anyway. Here’s another: In 1975, Brian Eno couched it as an offer instead of an ask, but “I’ll come running to tie your shoes,” is the echo I hear here. Love as a small, kind gesture. An act, not a boast.

***

Returning to High Fidelity, I joke about geeks and their conversion agenda. But obviously, wanting other people to like what we like is a human craving. When someone validates our music, they validate us. So something important happens in this scene: Misfit record-store clerks who arm themselves against hurt with difficult records are, well, yanked out of the rain and toweled off. When a customer tells Rob that the Beta Band is gooood, Rob’s two-word reply is telling: I know.

I know, flat and final and a little sad (not smirky or self-satisfied). I know, that these encounters in actual physical spaces have become rare and will get rarer still, that all the Robs in the world can’t possibly rescue all the Beta Bands from the world’s indifference. That this is a delicate, fleeting thing. And to prove that point, a couple skate rats rush the door with records stuffed under their shirts. [Cue Simian Mobile Disco’s "Hustler".]

*For those keeping score at home, I prefer Nick Hornby’s English novel set in England, but this works too.

**Just want to point out that there’s something funny happening with culture and commerce in this scene. I’m not going down that rabbit hole right now, but for those interested in the relationship between taste and consumption and capitalism, welcome to the playground.

Dry the Rain - The Shins (Beta Band cover)

A lot of bands have covered “Dry the Rain,” and the Shins don’t do anything revelatory here in what’s essentially a sincere tribute to the Beta Band (that also somehow manages to be all about the Shins). If you like the Shins, you’ll like the cover. I’m posting it because I want to talk briefly about the Shins’ and the Beta Band’s accidental kinship.

When given the opportunity, most recording artists participate in movie (and TV and videogame) soundtracks. It’s a critical piece of the promotional apparatus and one of the ways bands and record companies make up for declining sales. Occasionally, bands are dropped into a film’s diegesis—the space the characters inhabit—and then they’re usually there to perform nonmusical labor. It happens with Jack Black’s character in the High Fidelity scene I discussed earlier, and I’d come up with another, better, real film example except that it’s been a long day and my brain’s fried.

So let’s say a character in a film tells another character that she’s a huge Sonic Youth fan. The band’s name and the associations attached to that name say certain things about this character and how she wants the other character to think about her. Those things would probably be different if she confessed to an obsession with Celine Dion or Metallica. But in dropping Sonic Youth, she’s not revealing anything specific about Sonic Youth’s music and she’s not promoting the band. If anything, the band’s promoting her.

Ok, so now watch a scene from the film Garden State—the one that’s become the Shins’ albatross, the meme that will chase James Mercer to his grave. Nathalie Portman ‘s Sam urges Zach Braff’s Andrew, “You’ve got to hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” And then we’re inside Andrew’s headphones listening to 20 seconds of “New Slang.” Suddenly, the thrill of discovery is as much ours as his. Sam wants the song to change our lives too.

I’m not entirely sure how to characterize this device, but it’s a near mirror to the High Fidelity scene with the Beta Band. Of course the Shins song and Garden State mutually reinforce a kind of hazy, nostalgic indie sensibility. Certainly “New Slang” is the sort of thing a manic pixie dream girl like Sam would pin on her sleeve. And hey, “Dry the Rain” fits independent record store owner Rob like a bespoke suit. But the songs also seem to want to do more than dress up sets and put flesh on characters’ bones. They want to reach through the screen and touch us maybe.

The Beta Band Rap - The Beta Band

Supporters and detractors alike bemoaned The Beta Band’s kitchen-sink tendencies—as in not knowing when the sink was too full to fit another pot, let alone a chicken carcass, some banana peels and an empty milk carton. Excepting Hot Shots II (relatively speaking, about as garish as an Amish farmer dressed for church), tBB’s records skew maximalist—lousy (or lovely) with ideas great and not-so-great and the instrumentation, samples and layered vocal tracks to realize them.

Since I’ve previously called it out and it’s everyone’s favorite whipping boy anyway, let’s pick on “The Beta Band Rap.” “Rap” enjoys pride of place as the lead track on their first LP, The Beta Band. This makes some sense in that it’s an origin story (how they met, how they got signed, shoutouts to friends and roadies and Scotland) and a kind of mixtape of influences. It’s supposed to be humorous—you can’t rhyme “smelly with telly” with a straight face. And surely ardent hip-hop fan Steve Mason is mocking himself (a white guy from Fife, after all) with his leaden MCing (seriously, like he’d read a textbook called “How to Rap” written in 1984 and translated from the Swedish). All very ha-ha. The trouble is that the only ones they’re cracking up (or even trying to crack up) is themselves. The hapless listener is on her own. Years later, Mason admitted that it was a joke that went too far.

I’ve heard “Rap” enough times that I’ve made some peace with it. But as an early attempt at career suicide, it’s maddening. More about this later.

Track

The House Song

Artist

The Beta Band

Album

The Three EPs

The House Song - The Beta Band

Jess Harvell, in his Pitchfork review of the largely unnecessary Best of the Beta Band compilation, has one of my favorite takes on the band’s irregular run and the public’s reception: “If they loved the Beta Band so much, why did people give them so much shit while they were still alive?” He argues that each release marked an overcorrection to any criticism of the previous record—and yet still failed to engage the noisy nitpickers. Bastards!

One of the questions to ask here is, who are these “people?” I mean, I don’t want a band compromising its artistic vision or organic growth to supply me with music I’m already comfortable with. (Comfortable was never going to be tBB’s métier, as they made amply clear on their final, disappointingly bland LP, Heroes to Zeroes.) But maybe I’m just saying that. One of the fascinating things about taste is that even the most adventurous, open-minded music fan has certain default positions. Mine is a three-minute pop song dreamt up in the Brill Building or engineered by Phil Spector (preferably both, and extra hooks please!), which happens to be some of the most meticulous and precise music ever put to tape. And without realizing it, I may resent the fact that the same band supplying my pop fix is also pushing me out of my comfort zone with their messy, jumble-sale aesthetic.   

Which is why I’m posting “The House Song.” It’s off the band’s second EP, The Patty Patty Sound and was recorded only a couple months after “Dry the Rain.” I don’t love it, but understanding a few things about it has helped me to like it. One of those things is that “Dry the Rain” was an anomaly and that “The House Song” is generally more representative of what tBB were trying to do (and failed to the following year with “The Beta Band Rap”). That is, challenge genre conventions (what goes with what) and the limits of pop (where songs can go and still be songs).

The other thing that’s helped me is to experience “House” as a live performance, as something that has visual, spatial, physical qualities. And here’s an embarrassing confession: I never saw the band live (honestly, I don’t know why, because living in a big city, I must have had at least a couple opportunities, sigh). Thank the stars for YouTube!

Here, Steve Mason’s restless energy, skipping from mic to bongos to drum kit, and John Maclean’s beehive of activity on the decks explains a lot of things the studio recording doesn’t. That “House” is sort of an improv piece, ideally suited to a stage and audience setting where anything might happen and something pretty great probably will. I kind of love it.

Dr Baker - Steve Mason

Steve Mason’s voice has always been underrated as an instrument. On the Beta Band’s first two releases (The Three EPs and The Beta Band), it’s usually buried somewhere in the middle of the mix and often comes off flat, distant, diffident. Some have called it melancholy or depressed, but I wonder how much of that is a projection of the singer’s well-publicized personal unhappiness onto his performance. Others hear little emotion at all. “Mason’s monotonous vocals make Lou Reed’s emoting skills sound like Al Green,” goes one wag, correct if not in fact, then in spirit.

The underlying assumption is that the guy’s doing the best he can, which isn’t really true. In his ex-Beta Band solo work, Mason’s considerably warmer, more expressive and far more engaging, as befitting the material he’s performing. His voice in “I Walk the Earth,” from King Biscuit Time’s 2003 No Style EP, is up front and center and bounces with every beat—it’s downright ebullient. And vocal performances on 2010’s Boys Outside, a superb album released under Mason’s own name, are close-miced and almost uncomfortably intimate.

As is this clip up top. The original “Dr Baker” appeared on the third of The Three EPs, Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos in 1998, and of all of tBB’s enigmatic songs is probably the hardest to parse. It’s certainly their spookiest. A piano steals in like fog and Mason trudges after it in double-tracked ghostly unison. Desperate phone calls get made and despite some pleading. Dr Baker can’t come. A xylophone telegraphs the alarm. Then someone’s wife and dog are dead (it’s not entirely clear whose or even who is speaking) and Mason chants hovers and hollers of grief, inarticulate and opaque as the crisis apparently going down. As every great suspense film knows, the scariest bit is what you don’t show. Mason gives little away.

And yet, and yet … in this 2010 solo performance, he hugs his acoustic guitar and delivers Dr Baker as a riveting murder ballad. The camera cuts fast and sharp like butcher’s knives and Mason howls like he’s the one who’s done the wielding: Try it again gain gain gain gain gain gain gain. Another voice, the other voice in his head, answers back: I’ll try I’ll try I’ll try I’ll try.

What more can you ever really ask?

Track

Am I Just A Man

Artist

Steve Mason

Album

Boys Outside

Am I Just a Man - Steve Mason

The Beta Band’s demise coincided with the end of a romantic relationship, and Steve Mason’s long-suffered depression began to threaten his life. One day in 2006, he posted what sounded to his friends like a suicide note on his MySpace page and then disappeared for two weeks. As he later explained to the Guardian, “I’d been driving around Fife marking out trees that would be good to crash into at high speed.” Thankfully, he abandoned his plan, deciding, like many would-be’s before him, that he probably wouldn’t get suicide right, either. Health authorities refused his request to be committed to a psychiatric hospital, but Mason received treatment with medication and therapy and has since become something of an evangelist for medical intervention. (So maybe don’t give his records to either Tom Cruise or Mark Fisher for Christmas?).

Written during Mason’s recovery, 2010’s Boys Outside is a clean, conventional-sounding album working within familiar pop idioms. In a newly confessional mode, Mason sifts thoughtfully through love, loss and regret. “I Let her In” envisions a future precluded by the past. The way things are, the way things were and the way things never will be, pivot on a heartbreaking rhetorical binary:

To the children that I never had,

Here is the love, I was your dad.

There is a reason that I never got to hold you tight

But what it is, I’ll never know.

There was so much love from you mother-to-be,

I let it out, couldn’t let it in.

She had to say goodbye, she only comes in my dreams,

Can’t get her out, can’t let her in.

Lovely as that is, I’m highlighting another track from the record. “Am I Just a Man” makes a stronger case for Mason’s pop-song structuring talent (and provides better sightlines to Richard X’s bright, shiny production work).

Lest it sounds like Steve’s gone soft, know this: In 2011, Mason entered a North London studio with reggae musician and producer Dennis Bovell and emerged with a trippy, dubbed-up (or down?) version of Boys Outside called Ghosts Outside. Song titles include “Dub I Just a Man” and “Dub Her In.” No dubbing.

For kicks I generated a word cloud of the most-frequently-cited influences of the Beta Band according to critics and random netizens. I don’t know if it tells you anything (except that people really like Radiohead and Beck and talk about them a lot), but it looks pretty, eh?
Speaking of Beck … tBB didn’t always use the manners their mothers taught them when fielding questions about influence. Some unlucky dude writing for Junkmedia made the mistake of asking Robin Jones how he felt about the Beck comparison:

To even ask that question you must have some serious motor-differential disabilities, or maybe you’re just very tired.

And Jones’ impressions of the UK charts?

They are sewn as tight as a clucks arse in a snowstorm, with the needle of mediocrity and the thread of the witless. As you and I both know, quality is becoming a rare virtue in these modern times, while potential peddlers of products and potential purchasers of products increase daily … The last thing the peddlers are going to want in their sling pot of banality is anything of essence, quality, truth or even any real use because it would stand out like a bacon butty at a bar mitzvah.

Up next, why some reporters couldn’t stand them, and why an EMI exec was heard to say, “what the fuck is wrong with The Beta Band?” Guess! High-res

For kicks I generated a word cloud of the most-frequently-cited influences of the Beta Band according to critics and random netizens. I don’t know if it tells you anything (except that people really like Radiohead and Beck and talk about them a lot), but it looks pretty, eh?

Speaking of Beck … tBB didn’t always use the manners their mothers taught them when fielding questions about influence. Some unlucky dude writing for Junkmedia made the mistake of asking Robin Jones how he felt about the Beck comparison:

To even ask that question you must have some serious motor-differential disabilities, or maybe you’re just very tired.

And Jones’ impressions of the UK charts?

They are sewn as tight as a clucks arse in a snowstorm, with the needle of mediocrity and the thread of the witless. As you and I both know, quality is becoming a rare virtue in these modern times, while potential peddlers of products and potential purchasers of products increase daily … The last thing the peddlers are going to want in their sling pot of banality is anything of essence, quality, truth or even any real use because it would stand out like a bacon butty at a bar mitzvah.

Up next, why some reporters couldn’t stand them, and why an EMI exec was heard to say, “what the fuck is wrong with The Beta Band?” Guess!