I’ve wanted to write about Beck for a long time now (by the way, his real name is Beck David Campbell). I don’t want to quote Wikipedia here, but it’s worth mentioning just a few facts by means of introduction: he was born on July 8, 1970 in Los Angeles. He comes from a very artistic family. His mother grew up in the 60s surrounded by the bohemia centred around Andy Warhol, and in the 90s she was strongly connected with the punk scene in LA and bands like Black Flag. Beck’s father was present in the music industry as a composer. Beck was thrown out of school when he was in the first grade, and moved to New York where he became involved in the anti-folk movement. Then he ran out of money and returned to LA, where he started playing in local clubs and became more and more recognizable, up to the point of recording the single “Loser,” which came as a breakthrough. After that, things were only getting better: his record won the album of the year title in magazines such as Rolling Stone, Spin and Village Voice. He was also awarded with two Grammy Awards in the Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Rock Male Vocal Performance categories for “Where It’s At.” He collaborated with such artists as Bjork, Jack White, Beastie Boys, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sonic Youth, Philip Glass, Bat For Lashes, Chemical Brothers and many, many others. I appreciate and love him to this day, but I feel the greatest fondness, if not obsession, for his work from the 90s. I do not know how many of you know his other songs apart from “Loser” and possibly the newest “Up All Night”, but I’ll try to convince you that it’s worth getting to know his work deeper. To start getting into the swing of it, I suggest you listen to the playlist that I’ve prepared for you for Spotify, while reading. There are actually two to choose from.
The “BECK no labels please” playlist more or less illustrates his overall work (wild, hard to classify, full of strange samples, beats, but nevertheless melodic and rhythmic with great bass lines and great lyrics).
As a teenager, I’ve always thought that listening to Beck made me belong to some kind of elite. But only listening to him for real, because everyone knew “Loser” and the music video (the song was even labelled as the hymn of the decade), but no one knew anything more about his other songs, videos, etc. (with the exception of my wonderful friends, of course). It’s like with Nirvana. Everyone knew “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but if someone didn’t know their other songs, it meant this person knew nothing about music and was a poser. Back then, Beck was something really niche.
The second playlist, “BECK blues folk chapter”, consists of the more blues folk, analog-dirty sounding pieces, so it does not illustrate this madness, which I describe here. It shows how multi-dimensional and talented Beck is as an artist, and how well he handles this style. I love all these tunes!
I discovered Beck via the aforementioned video to “Loser” (probably as most people did). It was played on MTV, which in the 90s was available only on cable TV. Fortunately, my cousins had a cable TV in their house. The first time I saw this video I experienced some strange sensation. I haven’t seen anything like this before – it left me stunned and excited. Scenes composed of footage of death wiping a car’s window from blood
or girls exercising on cemetery in dirty shorts…
And on top of all this, that guy with longish, greasy hair, playing an old guitar, dressed slightly like a hobo in a checked shirt, setting his guitar on fire or using a leave blower on stage, singing “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Well, it was like an epiphany! A revelation! I really liked it. I couldn’t stop staring at this video and at him.
So I started following MTV and visiting my cousins more often. And there was also the “memorable” trip with my class to a winter camp, where we had a cable TV with MTV, and we watched it over and over, to track down music videos and new stuff (I will write about it too someday). Remember these were the times with no internet (a reminder just for the sake of accuracy). I bought some VHS cassettes and asked my uncle to tape whole sections (3 hours long, for instance) of music videos. Then I was going through the recordings, and jotted down the names of the cool bands to look for their tapes afterwards (I was using this carrier – no CDs were available yet). Then I discovered another music video – “Beercan.” It knocked me down completely… it probably even beat Loser. The name behind this experimental video was Steve Hanft (Beck’s buddy). You can find an interview with him on the web, where he reveals “behind the scenes” and the “making of” this music video). They invited a couple of homeless people to the house – they could demolish and eat everything that was there. To this day, one of my favourite bits is a guy smashing a lamp at the very start, or maybe Buzz Osborne from Melvins riding a forklift? Hard to say. The whole thing is brilliant to me!!
At about the same time, I got myself a “Mellow Gold” cassette, which was a pop art blend of blues, experimental rock, hip hop beats, rap, singing, and what not. The album was so strange and unusual that I fell in love with it. Together with my friends I tried to decipher these dada lirycs that went something like:
In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey
Butane in my veins so I’m out to cut the junkie
With the plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables
Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose
Something beautiful. They were funny and bizarre, left a lot of room for interpretation, and were something I haven’t seen before. “Mellow Gold” was recorded in 1994 for a major label Geffen. This year, Beck also recorded two albums for two different independent record labels: “Stereopathetic Soulmanure” and “One Foot in the Grave”, which passed basically unnoticed, and I only discovered them years later. Anyway, along with the very first album “Golden Feelings” or the gorgeous EP “Loser” with the bonus tracks “Corvette Bummer” or “Fume” (!), I recommend it to those interested in exploring the subject. Some people labelled the first records as the anti-folk genre (which is folk, but ironic, breaking the rule that you have to sing about serious, politically involved matters).
Beck had something else I liked – his inconspicuous looks of an anti-star or an anti-hero. He was a “loser” who got the prime air time on MTV. He lived in a trailer with one guitar and gave interviews for major music magazines or TV. He was a guy who looked like your buddies. This is what was so captivating about him.
And then the time has come for “Odelay”! It was something completely different. A lot of sampling, a stronger blast, great sounding. Plus, those music videos that were just artistic intricacies! “Where it’s at,” “The New Pollution” or “Jack-Ass.” Awesome!
The albums that followed showed how an unconventional artist Beck is. Each record was, however, completely different from the previous one (as you can hear in the playlist I’ve prepared for you). Finally, the latest album, “Colors,” came out this year. It does not convince me in spite of the WONDERFUL video for the song “Up all Night”. This is a pop album, but of course, as with Beck, it is not something typical or mainstream. Still, I don’t buy it. I prefer Beck from those times when he was something above everything else, ground-breaking, and something just a bit more mine. We had an understanding back then.
Here you can see for yourself (if you haven’t switched off yet and you are still with me) the music videos that I have chosen, thanks to which you will join the elite group of cool kids who know more than one of Beck’s songs. And for dessert, a wonderful interview with Beck, conducted by Thurston Moore.