“Loser,” “Where It’s At,” “The New Pollution”
Who Is He?
A postmodern pop art collage of musical styles hailed as one of the most creative musicians of the ‘90s alternative scene. Sounds pretty legit.
After dropping out of high school in the mid-‘80s, a young Beck Hansen traveled to Europe to become a street musician (as most college drop-outs tend to do.) He decided to head back to the states a few years later to become involved in the punk-influenced anti-folk scene in New York City.
While hanging around with the beatniks in NYC, Beck recorded a cassette called Banjo Story. He returned to his birthplace, good ol’ LA, and ended up living in a shed because, well, being a freelance musician isn’t exactly the most lucrative career choice.
But near-poverty didn’t stop our hero from continuing to develop his music. Beck had a habit of sneaking on to stages at various venues in LA to treat the unsuspecting audience to his music. During this time, he met Presidents of the United States of America founder Chris Ballew. They performed on the streets as a duo until Beck recorded his first studio album, Golden Feelings, in 1993. (Only 500-700 copies of this album exist, which is probably why you’re staring at this thinking, “There was an album before Mellow Gold?”)
After the release of Golden Feelings, Beck signed to Bong Load Custom Records (that name kills me) and released a little ditty called “Loser.” Radio host Chris Douridas got a hold of it and played it on Morning Becomes Eclectic, the flagship music program from Santa Monica college radio station KCRW. “Loser” created a sensation and led to a bidding war among larger record labels to sign Beck.
Geffen eventually snagged him, offering the least amount of money, but the greatest amount of creative freedom. Beck’s major label debut, Mellow Gold, was released in March 1994. Beck became a mainstream success and Mellow Gold received sky-high praise from just about every music publication on the planet.
A month previous to the release of Mellow Gold, Flipside Records released Stereopathic Soulmanure, a 25-track album comprised of some of Beck’s most ambitious (and nonsensical) recordings. It contained fan favorites “Satan Gave Me a Taco” and “Rowboat.” (Johnny Cash covered “Rowboat” on his 1996 album Unchained, and Allen Ginsberg called “Satan Gave Me a Taco” one of his favorite contemporary works of pop poetry.)
After a world tour and a slot on the main stage at the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, Beck released Odelay in 1996. Singles like “Where It’s At” and “Devil’s Haircut” put all the one-hit-wonder talk to rest and cemented Odelay as one of the best (if not the best) Beck albums to date.
Odelay’s follow-up, 1998’s Mutations, was plagued by label complications. Apparently the album was originally slated for release by Bong Load Records, but Geffen said, “Fuck that” and released the record against Beck’s wishes. Everyone starting suing each other and the conflict remains unresolved to this day.
Despite all that nonsense, Mutations earned Beck a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1999.
Beck ended the decade with Midnite Vultures and a tour of high-energy performances.
Where Is He Now?
Making some pretty rad music under the radar.
Beck started the ‘00s by releasing a handful of B-sides and soundtrack-only songs, including “Deadweight” for the A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack, a cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” for Moulin Rouge!, and a cover of The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In 2002, Beck released Sea Change, his first US Top 10 album. Conceptualized around one unifying concept (the end of a relationship), Sea Change was a melancholy departure from Beck’s playful body of work. But critics loved it (and so do I).
Guero (released in 2005) marked a return to the Odelay-era sound and enjoyed critical acclaim from most critics (with the exception of Pitchfork, but they’re pretty hard to please anyway). Singles “E-Pro” (which samples the drum track from the Beastie Boys hit “So What’cha Want”) and “Girl” received heavy airplay.
In 2006, Beck performed at the Bonnaroo Festival with a set that featured many songs from Guero, along with a group of Beck lookalike puppets. (Why can’t more artists incorporate a puppet show into their live shows?)
Beck released two more albums (2006’s The Information and 2008’s Modern Guilt) and a handful of songs for the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World soundtrack in 2010.
But Why Beck?
Since the release of Modern Guilt, Beck’s been quietly releasing new songs on various film soundtracks. Last July, he announced that he was working with Dwight Yoakam on a new album, which has yet to surface. But Beck’s still a busy bee, collaborating and producing albums with the likes of Thurston Moore and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
What Does Sam Think?
There really aren’t many artists like Beck, if any, so he’s got that whole “one of a kind” thing going for him. And he’s also ridiculously talented, so there’s that, too.
The ‘90s alternative scene needed someone like Beck. This is a guy who introduced himself with a track like “Loser,” which seems like came straight out of left field. I mean, listen to the lyrics: “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey / Butane in my veins and I’m out to cut the junkie / With the plastic eyeballs / Spay-paint the vegetables / Dog food stalls and the beefcake pantyhose.” This was a mainstream hit, people. This isn’t underground shit.
Beck is one of those artists whose appeal puzzles me. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve all this critical acclaim of anything, and I’m certainly not saying that I don’t like his music. I love Beck, but I’m not sure how he’s managed to attract such a diverse audience.
Granted, he plays with so many musical styles that he’s bound to catch someone’s attention. But with songs like “Satan Gave Me a Taco” or even “Loser,” it doesn’t sound like he’s trying to produce a mainstream hit.
Beck is a musical genius when you really think about it. He takes all the different aspects of folk, country, Latin, and hip hop, and melds them together into this entirely new sound. He has the ability to produce both high-energy tracks (“E-Pro,” “Devil’s Haircut”) and gentler, more personal tracks (every song on Sea Change) without sounding out of his element.
And whenever he contributes a song to some indie film, it’s a huge deal. (In my eyes, Beck is Sex Bob-omb).
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.