The Metropolitan #22: Beck and the 1990s Angel Dust Bowl
Dead Hobo on the Patio
‘Butane – veins – junkie – kill – flaming – insane – shotgun – violation – maggot – Mace – burning – kill – double-barrel – buckshot – kill – evil – nightmare – gas chamber – weasel – cocaine – hung himself – hanging – hate – choking – kill – crazy – kill – drive-by – pierce – kill – kill – kill – kill’
Beck, ‘Loser’ (1993/4)
My friend George walked into one of our uni’s several bland blond Formica dining rooms. I expect I was drinking a mini vending-machine Nescafé in a bland blond plastic cuplet, which was all that the University of York had to offer its students by way of sustenance when there was no food available and the bars were shut. ‘Have you heard Beck?’ he said.
I don’t know how George had heard Beck. Maybe on the radio? I sort of assumed Beck was German because of his name and because George would surely love some obscurely grim Teutonic weirdo. Anyway, I said no, and he said: ‘You have to.’ So, this being the past, we walked the two miles into town (presumably we had no pressing business like any college work) and I bought a copy of a 7-inch called ‘Loser’ at Red Rhino Records. It had a red cover with a picture on it of a guy in a check shirt wearing a gas mask and holding a pitchfork. It was on Geffen Records, home of Nirvana and Sonic Youth. A major label, in essence.1 Not really what I’d been expecting. Then we went to the pub.
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Because we went to the pub, it wasn’t until the next morning that I finally listened to ‘Loser’. A scratchy acoustic slide guitar was joined by an incredibly basic drum-machine beat and then someone apparently with really bad adenoids began rapping over it. Well, mumbling, really. ‘In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey…’ It was fucking brilliant. It still is.
‘Famine – shake – bucket – blood – break – bucket – blood – break – floor – devil – floor – devil – barroom – horse-whip – screamin’ – wine – thin – wine – thin – wreckin' – wreckin' – killed – bucket – blood – break – bucket – blood – break – floor – devil – floor – devil’
Beck, ‘Sweet Sunshine’ (‘Mellow Gold’, 1994)
Although Beck Hansen has had a long and generally pretty great career, his first few records are very special.2 ‘Mellow Gold’, the album that starts with ‘Loser’, is – in my opinion – his best. ‘Odelay’ might have broken Beck into the mainstream and got him the sales and the press and the headliner slots, but ‘Mellow Gold’, its predecessor ‘Stereopathetic Soul Manure’ and follow-up ‘One Foot in the Grave’, plus the 10” EP ‘A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight’ are a mixture of throwaway bedroom cassette noodling and extraordinarily brilliant indie rock/folk/psych/rap.3
On these early records, superficially, Beck is ‘lo-fi’, like Pavement and Guided By Voices and Sebadoh. Unlike those bands, though, Beck sounds like someone struggling with something – maybe existence – not just drinking beer in his basement with his mates. Despite the ramshackle quality of ‘Mellow Gold’, and its transitions from folksy strums to open-tuned drones to amateurish rustic hip hop, its lyrical concerns are pretty consistent: death, hopelessness, drugs, booze, psychosis, alienation. It’s a bad trip in a good way.
In fact, though, Beck’s harping on drink and drugs never feels like rock ’n’ roll wastoid self-indulgence. It’s more like Newton’s all-out commitment to alcohol in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ – an outsider trying to engage in the ways of the weird humans and failing. The almost mantra-like appearance of ‘beer’ on these records suggests Beck as a kind of wannabe Beastie Boy, before they discovered buddhism and vegetables.
‘Alcohol – ditch – throwing – decapitating – swirling – teeth – suckers – bleed – drug – bug – slime – beer – bent – throwing – juiced – winos – throwing – drunk – flaming – pig – scraping – rude – sad – sad – unhappy – cold – flame-thrower’
Beck, ‘Beercan’ (‘Mellow Gold’ 1994)
At the time, the band that ‘Mellow Gold’ most reminded me of was the Butthole Surfers, in the way that it seemed able to add folk to rock and come up with something that wasn’t fucking folk-rock. Plus, it had an addled PCP prism and the occasional moment of pure stupidity. But it had nothing like the Buttholes’ commitment to taking it really out-there sonically, and though Beck was an inventive guitarist he certainly wasn’t any sort of genius like Paul Leary.
After many years of listening to these records, I think that Beck came from his own kind of 1990s Dust Bowl.4 Maybe not a physical one like the one that created the agit-prop folk of Woody Guthrie, but a spiritual and cultural one in which the lyrical preoccupations of the blues – loneliness, failure and death – are set against a backdrop of McJobs and MTV, the brash technicolour yawn of later twentieth-century America.
But Beck doesn’t politicise his situation like Guthrie, or later Dylan, does; his is an existential horror, not a righteous outrage (‘I pay no mind, I sleep in slime, I just got signed’ [‘Pay No Mind’, ‘Mellow Gold’]). If anything, his early career approach reflected his genre mash-ups, signing to a major label while still being allowed to make records for other indies.
One result of this was ‘One Foot in the Grave’ (also 1994).5 A much more straightforwardly ‘folk’-indebted record than ‘Mellow Gold’, it lacks its predecessor’s singularity, though if Bob Dylan had written ‘Woe on Me’ I might have listened to more Bob Dylan in my life: ‘I am just a ramshackle, I roam from town to town/When there is no shelter, I lay upon the ground/I've killed for no reason, I’ve pissed upon the blind/Cursed and moaned and burned the bone when I had the time’.
‘Sink – hard – wrong – lonesome – convalescent home – crying – rattlesnake – gunpowder – wrong – lonesome’
Beck, ‘Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997’ (‘Mellow Gold’ 1994)
Beck’s Dust Bowl is full of winos and the displaced, but instead of railroad boxcars and traveller camps, the setting feels suburban (‘There’s a dead hobo on the patio’ [‘One Foot in the Grave’, ‘Stereopathetic Soul Manure’, 1993]).
His personal post-apocalyptic landscape is a derelict LA strip mall full of defunct/defunked electrical goods, busted Casiotones, and bags of sweets and powder. He repositions the blues as a soundtrack to the modern dispossessed man, adrift somewhere between Van Halen, Death Row Records and an ancient blues LP he got from the local library, and dressed in the kind of outfit donated to the victims of natural disasters – old-lady anoraks, baggy cord trousers and ski hats.6
When we finally got a glimpse of this oddball in action, it was on ‘Top of the Pops’, of all places, beamed into our own suburban living rooms. Beck had assembled a pretend backing band of extremely old men and at one point, he did some breakdancing.7 He was everything I could have hoped for.
‘Bucket – puke – on fire – vat – fat – frozen – bone – hooker – fake – cops – burnt – bullet – hard – no teeth – stole – gun – crawled – shadow – shooting – holes – suckin' – jerk – suckin' – jerk – beer – fat – bent – wet cigarette – bloodhound – black – hell – beg – worms – fall – ditch – suckin' – jerk – suckin' – jerk’
Beck, ‘Soul Suckin’ Jerk’ (‘Mellow Gold’, 1994)
One of the causes of the Dust Bowl that produced Beck was a corporate over-ploughing of the prairie of creativity, destroying the rich topsoil of post-punk and independent hip hop. As those genres succumbed to their own version of Reaganomics, grunge got (back) to Gap and white men in big shorts started rapping.8 It was a process that would lead to Kurt Cobain’s suicide and a new genetically modified harvest of major-label, sort-of-indie bands like Weezer. So, lo-fi and anti-folk were also a financial necessity for artists rationalised as a statement of stick-it-to-the-Man intent (like anyone really cared).
Beck was saved by the fact that in the early 1990s, you couldn’t just record reasonable-sounding music on your own and publish it immediately. These days, his meandering early path would probably just disappear into the digital void to zero interest. Compressed into LPs (and exciting formats like 10-inch wax) it feels mysterious and full of possibilities: a portrait of a fucked-up world by a cherubic alien elf, who seems wide-eyed with interest in it.
‘Scumbag – crying – fuckin’ – fuckin’ – beat – fuckin’ – devil – robbing – crutch – limping – fuckin' – fuckin' – asshole’
Beck, ‘Fuckin’ with My Head’ (‘Mellow Gold’ 1994)
Next week: “I’d start with ballet shoes first. It’s my favourite.”
The song was first released in 1993 by US indie label Bong Load, who also put out ‘Mellow Gold’ in the States. It was its re-release in 1994 after Beck signed to Geffen that got it into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Apropos of not much, ‘Overload’ by the Sugababes is obviously a Beck song.
There are also two early cassette-only albums called ‘Golden Feelings’ and ‘Don’t Get Bent out of Shape’, some of whose tracks appear on later releases in different forms, notably ‘MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack’ and ‘Pay No Mind’.
An Angel Dust Bowl, if you like.
The chronology of the early Beck material is quite tricky to unpick. He has said, for instance, that he’d been working on ‘Loser’ since the late ’80s. He’d been adrift on the NY anti-folk scene before returning to LA.
Which made his post-‘Odelay’ sartorial reinvention as a kind of drainpipe-trousered Jacques Dutronc type even more troubling. Still, Dutronc took the Gallic chanson tradition and turned it into an unholy garage racket, so maybe it was more appropriate than it felt at the time.
Rumour has it he originally wanted to get an entire band of dwarves but the plan was vetoed by the ‘TOTP’ producers.
Not to mention political scandals like Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair, a favourite subject of US indie bands for a while, eg Ed Hall’s 1990 ‘Ollie Ollie’.