In the New Zealand Winter of 1996 a unique cut’n’paste audio collage was filtered through radio stations; the video appearing on the recent addition to Sky television, the Juice music channel. This bewildering and beguiling mix of samples was Where It’s At by Beck. The artist had cornered the alternative market, catered to old-school hip-hop fanatics and partially satiated the thirst of mainstream pop listeners, with a tune lasting 5 minutes and 25 seconds; and yet virtually meaning nothing. No mean feat.
Ah, but it signified almost everything: the cool vibe and slacker culture of certain Generation X types; the toasting street charms of slow groove soul and rap – and it was a music-box of aural delight for trainspotters (the title chant having been lifted from an obscure 1969 sex education record for teens; the hook of “two turntables and a microphone” stolen from Mantronix’ seminal 12” record, Needle To The Groove).
Where It’s At was the first single (and hinge) for Beck’s second major label album, Odelay. It was a transitional period for the artist, refining his take-from-all-genres musical approach, seamlessly exploring funk, hip-hop, soul, blues, rock and folk. And it was the album that broke him internationally. Many would like to say they were there from the start – and though he did have some chart success two years earlier with Mellow Gold – few were there at the beginning. For Beck had been exploring the wider concept of music and performance for close to a decade prior to his first single, the cultish MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack (1992).
But how did Beck get to Where It’s At – both figuratively and literally? How did he go from obscure indie artist, mixing Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore guitar workouts with the blues guitar style of Mississippi John Hurt and a set of samples that could include not only Mantronix, but also Them and Schubert on the same record? It’s because he started out as a…Loser.
Mellow Gold was Beck’s first moment in the sun. A bidding war had seen David Geffen offer to Beck the exclusive right to record and release anything he liked, so long as he served his major (in this case Geffen) with product they could release. So in fact Mellow Gold was immediately followed by the release of Steropathetic Soulmanure – “a noisy freakout” of lo-fi recordings from between the years 1988 and 1993. All Music Guide critic Steven Thomas Erlewine considers the record “a palette cleanser; designed to scare away the fans of ‘Loser’”. If this is even close to correct, it establishes the link between Beck and Prince.
Both are multi-instrumentalist (even multimedia) artists that chose to shun commercial acceptance after whetting the appetite of ardent fans of pure pop. Mellow Gold’s opening song, Loser, was an MTV smash hit. Erlewine suggests that it was the birth “of a new vein of alternative rock, one that was fueled by ideas instead of attitude”. That might not be quite correct – Pavement was there at exactly the same time. So too was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Where Beck was different was that he had immediate success. A second single with an ironic title, Loser, made him a winner. It seemed to scare him enough to not only release Soulmanure but also One Foot In The Grave, a lo-fi collection of folk- and delta-blues styled alt-rock. One Foot is a far more satisfying record than i; the musicianship is stronger, with more direction – and, in the title track, a foot-stomping blues field holler, driven by Beck’s stonking harmonica playing, he had created an enduring concert staple for his live performances.
But it is unfair to suggest that Beck was merely running from success (though it certainly seems part of his plan, as later releases would further highlight); nor is it accurate to assume that he merely chose to release his earlier lo-fi recordings simply because he could (due to his unique contract). Because Beck was raised around music and art (his father was a bluegrass musician; his grandfather, Al Hansen, was an artist based in Europe), it seems that he not only wanted to show his wide range of interests – he needed to. This was no proud peacock portraying his plumage, rather a musical magpie, stealing from this, taking from that. His approach has always tended towards the cinematic – in widescreen – with Mellow Gold marrying the guitar noise of his youth with the folk-blues and country influences of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.
As if to further prove this point, in December of 1997, Beck opened shows for Bob Dylan, performing a solo acoustic half-hour set comprised of at-the-time unreleased folk tunes, and re-arrangements of material from One Foot In The Grave and Mellow Gold. As with many of his influences, the Dylan connection might not have seemed obvious to fans immediately, but Odelay had already featured the standout track, Jackass, using Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue as a key part of the harmonic backdrop.
Prior to opening for Dylan, Beck had already opened shows for country legend, Johnny Cash. When asked by Barney Hoskyns what he thought of Beck, The Man In Black deemed him “a great hillbilly singer. He had that Appalachian music like he really felt it and loved it”.
Around this time Beck’s influence was beginning to permeate the indie-rock scene in America – with some crossover pop success. Alternative groups such as The Folk Implosion, Eels and Boss Hog borrowed his lo-fi aesthetic. The likes of Cornershop and Money Mark used his hipster-cool sense for juxtaposition.
Released near the end of 1998, Mutations was explained away as a stopgap album, not an “official follow-up” to Odelay. Presumably there was an understanding that – at least in some way – there was a fan base that expected more of Odelay’s studio trickery, found sounds and sampled effects.
Instead, Mutations featured one of the most important producers of the late 1990s, Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Air, Travis). And it was a slow-moving eclectic mix of acoustic-based material, recorded live in the studio with a working band. Another conscious decision to baffle a large portion of his audience? Quite possibly. But, beyond that, Mutations serves to highlight Beck’s acoustic influences (outside of working with Dylan and Cash and the long-serving influence of folk pioneers Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, Beck was discovering the sound of Nick Drake and Daniel Johnston). The first single, Tropicalia, was served up with a light bossa-nova beat, recalling the 1997 single Deadweight that he had provided for the soundtrack to the film A Life Less Ordinary. Marianne Faithfull later covered Nobody’s Fault But My Own on her album Kissin Time (2002), featuring the song’s composer on guitar. So the artist that had stolen many of his tricks from the generation before him was providing an influence for that same generation by return favour.
The official follow-up did appear shortly after Mutations. In 1999, Midnite Vultures arrived, to little fanfare. Essentially, it was his Prince album. Opening track, Sexx Laws, showed sparkle. But there wasn’t enough in the tank for a full ride. Reviewers weren’t especially kind, despite the album containing a few great moments. Not enough however to guarantee sales. It stands now as the great misfire in Beck’s canon. A hitherto undiscovered falsetto (again, see Prince) was the only major excitement that could be taken from this album. The rest seemed like a hipster-joke gone too far.
But if the album suffered in the press, the shows in support of it did not. Performances on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show and the VH1 Fashion Show saw a determined move back towards a mainstream audience. The shows were well reviewed with an excellent showman mixing homages to James Brown, Mick Jagger and Prince, with virtuosity for guitar, harmonica and keyboards along with a tight band and intuitive DJ. It all showed that Beck would always have an audience – even if he wasn’t sure which one he wanted. That Midnite Vultures record makes a lot more sense now than it did right then too.
In September, 2002, Beck released Sea Change, a morose set of acoustic ballads, with his voice rich and warm; sounding quite unlike any of his other material. Beck has said that he had immersed himself in the Anthology Of American Folk Music [compiled by Harry Smith] for what would become known as a breakup album. Sea Change was met with positive response from critics.
Throughout his early career, Beck seemed to constantly stand outside of the conventional. For Mellow Gold and Odelay he found the common bond between Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys. Mutations is a twisted take on alt-country, moving from salt-of-the-earth ploughman’s ditties to space-cowboy blues jams. Midnight Vultures was homage to Prince and James Brown, with incongruous references to Can, Mantronix and Yello. And for Sea Change he actually put his own heart out on the line – for the first time in his recorded career – offering mature singer/songwriter confessionals loosely connected with Nick Drake, Jackson Browne and Neil Young.
Moving from style to style, genre to genre, absorbing what he needs, using it as he must, Beck continued to serve his muse – offering influence to anyone interested in the ability to straddle mainstream and alternative: one foot in the grave of music-past; the other lifted out and positioning itself towards a future sound, whether instantly certain or not.
That’s how I saw the first decade of Beck’s career. What do you think? Were you a fan? Are you still a fan? What albums are your favourites? Do you think his recent albums have that edge that set him apart early on? What are your thoughts on Beck’s career, particularly the first half of it?