Beat Happening Music For Everyone
Published Nov 24, 2015Hearing Beat Happening for the first time — Heather Lewis's primitive drumming, Calvin Johnson's idiosyncratic, sometimes off-key baritone, Bret Lunsford's loose, jangly guitar — might make you want to pick up an instrument, write songs and start a band. Or it might make you want to turn it off. But don't turn it off. The Olympia, WA trio have been called naïve, twee and shambling, but in their way, they were quintessentially punk rock, even as they were making experimental independent pop music. (The band would never break up, but went inactive in 1992 after nine busy years.) They had a seemingly tireless DIY work ethic and refused to see anything as barriers to music-making, including lack of experience on their instruments (Johnson has admitted he intentionally shies away from music theory).
An elusive yet endearing leader, Johnson is responsible for launching K Records, which since 1982 has been fighting the "corporate ogre." Not governed by genre, but more by outlook, K has put out over 260 releases by local Olympian artists along with likeminded artists from around the world, managing to take part in the grunge and riot grrrl scenes as if by accident, and to put out recordings by Beck, Modest Mouse and Built to Spill before they became famous. Though it has grown (and shrunk) over its lifetime, K's still pretty much the same: "We're still working with people that we like," Johnson tells Exclaim! That means handshake deals and roughly 50-50 splits with artists, as well as the freedom to come and go and to work with other labels. In a conversation with 33 1/3 author Bryan C. Parker in July, 2013, Johnson said K is only a company by necessity. "It's really more of an art project," he says. "Beats working."
Thirty years since Beat Happening released their debut album, and 13 years since K released (then sold out of) a comprehensive box set called Crashing Through, Domino will be releasing a remastered retrospective called Look Around on November 20, followed next year by a reissue of each of Beat Happening's albums.
Asked how Beat Happening fit into a scene that at the time seemed to favour hardcore punk, Johnson says, "I didn't realize that we were doing anything that different. I thought we were just like the other bands." After a pause he adds, "we might have been better-looking."
1962 to 1977
Calvin Johnson is born November 1, 1962 in Olympia, WA, the third child of Evelyn and Calvin. His older brother, Streator, was born in 1958, and older sister Wendes, in 1960. (The family will later adopt a daughter named Kristen.) According to Bryan C. Parker's 2015 33 1/3 book, Beat Happening, Johnson's mother is involved in the natural childbirth movement, while his father, who holds various jobs as a writer for the Associated Press in New York, and then as a press secretary for Washington State Governor Albert Rosellini and administrative assistant to Washington State Congresswoman Julia Butler Hansen, is interested in organic gardening.
Bret Lunsford is born December 12, 1962, in Anacortes, WA, a small city on Fidalgo Island surrounded by Puget Sound, San Juan Islands and the Swinomish Channel. Lunsford later edits a book called Croatian Fishing Families of Anacortes (2011), featuring photographs and oral histories of the community his family is part of. He tells Parker that a fishing expedition with his family to Bristol Bay, Alaska in the spring and early summer of 1983 demonstrated that independence and adventure — things that would also apply to Beat Happening — were part of his culture.
Heather Lewis is born in Pennsylvania and moves to Westchester County (north of New York City) at the age of ten. For her senior year of high school, Lewis enrols in an alternative program called a Walkabout, which includes backpacking trips, an internship and community service.
In 1970, the Johnsons move to a small town on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and in 1973 Calvin Johnson, Sr. takes a job as associate professor of journalism at Central Washington State College and the family moves to Ellensburg, where the Johnson children attend Hebeler Elementary School, an experimental and interdisciplinary elementary school affiliated with the college (and staffed by student teachers from the college), embarking on a style of education that Johnson will continue later at Evergreen State College.
In fifth grade, Johnson hears the Beatles for the first time, a band who, when he reads about fans going nuts over their early live performances in Liverpool, inspires him to seek out local music scenes. "It just seemed so much more exciting to me that you would go to a show with 100 people and see the band right there, than a show with 30,000 people where you can't even see the band," Johnson tells Mark Baumgarten, author of Love Rock Revolution, in 2012. "Then, when punk rock came around, I was like, 'There it is. That's what I've been waiting for. That's the local thing. Local bands playing to local audiences and being a self-sufficient scene.'"
Not long after Johnson's 11th birthday (for which he receives the soundtrack to American Graffiti), Johnson's father dies of a heart attack. The Johnsons move to Olympia, WA, in 1974, after Evelyn gets a job at Washington Federation of State Workers.
Johnson attends Olympia High School, and reads about the emergence of punk in magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone, and also watches it unfold on TV. (NBC airs a program on punk rock culture in December of 1976 featuring live footage of the Damned.) On July 17, 1977, he sees Led Zeppelin play the Kingdome in Seattle. "If there was anything to ever convince me that punk rock was the answer, it was seeing that show," Johnson will tell Baumgarten. "I loved Led Zeppelin, and it was just horrible. So self-indulgent. There was no looking back from there. That's it. I'm done with stadium rock."
In the summer of 1977, Johnson signs up for a field trip to Europe with his school (which includes visits to France and Holland), partly as an excuse to shop for punk records in the UK. He eventually finds a record store that carries what he's looking for, and, by singing what he can remember of songs he has heard on the radio during his trip, comes home with the debut album and a 45 by the Jam, a Sex Pistols single ("Pretty Vacant"), and a single by the Stranglers.
1978 to 1980
In March of 1978, 15-year-old Johnson enrols in a night course at Evergreen State College called "Radio For Everyone" (he actually intends to take a course on the History of Black Music before a friend tells him about the radio one), and begins volunteering at KAOS 89.3 FM, Olympia's community radio station. There he meets mentors like music librarian John Foster, who is responsible for creating and suggesting the station implement its Green Line Policy — still going today — that states that DJs must play 80 percent independent music on the air. Foster also co-founds influential alphabetically organized OP Magazine as part of the Lost Music Network, in 1979.
Thus begins Johnson's involvement with KAOS, where he would soon begin broadcasting his own shows, including Life in the City on Tuesday afternoons, followed by Teenage Paradox on Friday nights, and eventually, Boy Meets Girl. Johnson would continue volunteering at the station for the next 16 years.
In May, 1978, Johnson attends a Patti Smith concert at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle with new friends from the station, stopping on the way at Peaches Records in Seattle to try to catch Smith signing records. Unimpressed by Smith's rock star-like behaviour (he would later be further unimpressed she'd actually flown from Portland, where she'd played the night before, instead of driving) he asked the iconic singer, "Hey, can I autograph your coat?" According to Baumgarten, Smith's answer was, "This is a good coat. You can't sign this coat."
In the spring of 1979, Johnson cuts his hair short, begins wearing punk-inspired straight-legged jeans and goes straight-edge. When his mother gets a job in Washington, DC, Johnson's family moves to Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland, though Calvin and his younger sister Kristen stay in Olympia for the summer.
During the summer of 1979 Johnson plays in his first band, a trio called the Beach Heads, who play one show in room 305 of the College Activities Building at Evergreen College, August 4, 1979, before Calvin leaves for his senior year of high school on the East Coast. Pretty much at the same time, the first issue of OP Magazine comes out.
While visiting his friend Alisa Newhouse in New York, Johnson manages to catch the Cramps three times. "When I saw them live, they just blew my mind," Johnson tells Baumgarten, "It changed my life. It was just — this is what rock'n'roll is all about." He also writes a letter to the New York Rocker, saying, "Now I'm not just your average 'I know all the punk bands' kid. After 15 months at the good radio station (KAOS-FM in Olympia, Washington) playing great teenage music, I feel that I know rock'n'roll. I mean, I know it. And I know the secret: rock'n'roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages — they could be 15, 25, or 35. It all boils down to whether they've got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit." Evidently Johnson's early heroes the Cramps agree, as Beat Happening author Bryan C. Parker points out in a September 23, 2015 blog post recalling that in a 1990 interview, the Cramp's Lux Interior says of his band's music, "It should be teenage music. It's music that should horrify adults and please teenagers," adding, "It's an urgency, a danger, it's a true kind of folk music based on the blues," and, "you don't have to be a teenager, but it's music for teenage — it's music for the young at heart, I'll put it that way. It doesn't matter how old you are. What matters is your outlook."
In Washington, DC Johnson catches shows by bands like Gang Of Four and Buzzcocks, and also befriends Bill Ash, owner of the Record & Tape Exchange in Arlington, Virginia, and founder of Wasp Records. He gets into dyeing his clothes pink, and spends the summer working at KB Cinema, where he plays music with co-workers.
Johnson decides to go back to Olympia for university, enrolling at Evergreen State College. Just before he leaves Maryland, Johnson introduces himself to Ian MacKaye, a bass player he'd recently seen playing in a group called the Teen Idles, at a surf shop. Though MacKaye doesn't remember the meeting, Johnson will recall MacKaye saying it's too bad he is going away because they could have been in a band together. The two will meet again six months later, after the Unheard Music Festival, where MacKaye performs with his brand new band, Minor Threat; they ring in the 1981 New Year together, sober. MacKaye tells Baumgarten, "I remember Calvin being at this party with blue jeans and a pink bandana tied around his ankle, just wearing sneakers. And I thought, 'This guy's a kook.'"
Back at KAOS, Johnson meets newcomer Bruce Pavitt, from Chicago, an intern at Op Magazine, whose Subterranean Pop show is in Johnson's old timeslot. The two strike up an immediate friendship, and Johnson contributes to Pavitt's fanzine of the same name, Subterranean Pop, which is later shortened to Sub/Pop and soon incorporates cassette compilations into alternating issues.
In his dorm, Johnson also meets upstairs neighbour Heather Lewis, a freshman who had moved to Olympia from the East coast and started studying visual art at Evergreen in 1980 after visiting her sister in Seattle. She won't start playing music until about a year later. Lewis tells Baumgarten she was charmed by Johnson. "I totally fell in love with him," she says. "He was extremely compelling and unlike anyone I had ever met."
In late 1980, Johnson forms a band of Evergreen students called the Cool Rays (according to Michael Azerrad's 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, they cover "Modern World" by Jonathan Richman) to play a show at the New Delhi, which the band then decide not to play after the Washington State Liquor Board declares that the rock show cannot be all-ages. The band (which include bassist Cathy Watson, drummer Tracy Taylor, guitarist Tony Traverso and Ed Gaidrich on saxophone) does, however, play other shows (including an Olympia Goes to Portland Weekend show), and records with KAOS engineer Steve Fisk before disbanding in June of 1981. (Cool Rays songs will later appear on Sub Pop 5, Mr. Brown Records & Tapes, and K Records' Let's Together.)
1981 to 1983
In the fall of 1981, while living at the Capitol Theatre building with neighbours Pavitt and Girl City creator (as well as Johnson's bandmade in 003 Legion) Stella Marrs, Johnson meets Lois Maffeo, and through her, her roommate Krista Forcast. It is through Maffeo and Forcast, a native of Anacortes, that Johnson meets Forcast's boyfriend, Brett Lunsford, as Lunsford is on his way to Tucson, AZ for the winter. "I was intrigued by his record collection," Lunsford tells Baumgarten of his first visit with Johnson. In the spring of 1982, Lunsford, Maffeo, Forcast and Johnson see the Jam play at Vancouver's Kerrisdale Arena.
During the summer of 1982, Johnson hitchhikes with a friend to Vancouver, who suggests they stop in Anacortes to visit Lunsford. During the visit, Johnson attends an inspiring show at the Summit Park Grange Hall with Lunsford featuring a local punk band of teenagers called the Spoiled playing to hundreds of teenagers. "That seemed exciting to me, because it was not something that was going on anywhere," Johnson tells Baumgarten. "I was like, 'This is such a great idea!' Because that's what the Grange Hall is. It's a place where people congregate. Yeah, it's a trade organization, but it's also a social organization. And it just made sense that here in this small town you would go to the Grange Hall to see the local band. So I was like, "Why don't we have this in Olympia? This doesn't happen in Olympia."
That same summer, at an apartment party, Johnson hears Lewis's band the Supreme Cool Beings for the first time, with Lewis on drums, New Delhi booker and instigator Gary Allen May on guitar and bass and Doug Monaghan on sax. "[Heather] actually could have done anything in that band and done it just as well as she played the drums," May tells Baumgarten. "She was equally involved in anything creative that was going on. She wasn't just some girl who played the drums. An equal partner; the songs were all by us and the lyrics were all by us." K History on K's website states that Supreme Cool Beings were "seminally Olympian in a number of ways: they often did not use a bass guitar, had both male and female vocals, a female drummer, and played in multiple bands at the same time. Though now commonplace, these features were quite unusual in 1982."
Johnson invites the Supreme Cool Beings to play in-studio during his Tuesday night show, Boy Meets Girl, and — unbeknownst to the band — records the session. "After we heard it we were like, 'We should put this out,'" Johnson tells Exclaim! in 2015. "That's the start of the label. Once we put [Survival of the Coolest] out, I knew immediately, 'We should do this, we should do that,' I mean, there were a million ideas floating. It just sort of got the ball rolling."
Possibly inspired by the letter preceding the alphabetic sequence of Lost Music Network and Op Magazine (LMNOP), or as some conjecture, the KB Cinema he worked at a couple years earlier, the fledgling label is created with a K logo with a shield around it and its inaugural release, Survival of the Coolest, comes out on cassette, with a cover designed by Lewis and hand-painted individually by the band. (Johnson is cagey about his reasons, telling Baumgarten, "It's unclear why the name is K, but I did have the foresight to realize that a one-letter name can easily get lost. So I thought that if I put this shield around it, it might show up a little better in the text. But it was a concept; it wasn't a design. There wasn't a set 'K.'")
K begins as a cassette-only label, focusing on Olympia's downtown music scene. Cassettes were attractive to Johnson because you could manufacture smaller quantities at a reasonable price — the usual run was about 100 copies. Early K releases were often innovatively DIY. The Few cassette, for example, would come in a Ziploc baggie with a black and white photo of the band painted over in bright paint splotches, while the label's second release, a compilation called Danger Is Their Business was spray painted.
"Rich Jensen [a musician who also worked at KAOS] was pretty instrumental in some of the early cassettes," Johnson tells Exclaim! "His idea was we would spray paint the cassettes white and then he made a linoleum block stamp and we stamped the white cassette boxes with the cover art. At the same time we put out a cassette by Rich himself, and we also did some spray paint but it was different, he spray-painted a stencil onto the cover. It was pretty neat because the way he did it, the stencil left a clear window on the front of the case and then he put a little piece of paper with a drawing in and you could see it." K, which in the early '80s is sending tapes for duplication to a company in Portland, will continue to hand-make cassette tapes on and off until the present. "We are still doing things by hand," says Johnson, in 2015. "I mean, not everything. But we do cassette runs of current albums, like 50 cassettes. I duplicate them myself. We have a duplicating station at our studio."
In early 1983, after May leaves town, Johnson starts a stripped-down band with Lewis and another student named Laura Carter —just drums, guitar and vocals — that lasts a year. Laura, Heather and Calvin record a few songs (one of which, "To The Beach", appears on Sub Pop 9 compilation along with tracks by Pavitt, Fisk, Jensen and the Wipers) and play an impromptu storefront show with the Wipers.
But when Lunsford helps set up a show for the band with Olympia cohorts the Young Pioneers and the Spoiled in Anacortes, the band encounter a problem: Carter had left town. Johnson changes the band name to Beat Happening, a name inspired by a film that Forcast and Maffeo had made called Beatnik Happening, and plays Anacortes on August 26, 1983 anyway, with him and Lewis supported by a messily rotating cast of musicians, which, according to Parker, includes Lunsford. "You should join the band," Calvin is quoted as saying to Lunsford after the show in Love Rock Revolution, though Lunsford isn't yet a musician. "If you do, we'll go to Japan."
1983 to 1984
In the fall of 1983, Lunsford moves to Olympia for school and starts practicing with Johnson, who teaches him the Laura, Heather and Calvin songs as well as how to play guitar. "It was a challenge to learn," Lunsford tells Baumgarten. "Just going from nothing to doing a song was challenging. I guess I got a little bit better over time, but I never could get too inspired to devote a lot of time to increasing my technical ability beyond the rudimentary." Lewis moves to Seattle around the same time, but continues to go back and forth and rehearse with the band. After a little while, Beat Happening move their practices over to an old Evergreen-affiliated firehouse rehearsal space used by the Young Pioneers, and start playing their first shows.
On November 27, 1983, Beat Happening record "Fourteen" at the Ray Apartments. Soon after, on December 11, 1983, Beat Happening record what will become their first four songs of their debut album with the Wipers' Greg Sage at the firehouse, with permission from the Young Pioneers' Bradley Sweek, who helps out. Of his generosity with his time helping the young band, the Wipers' frontman tells Parker, "I was lucky to have some power and clout and used it to help others, to share it and spread it around and hopefully get others to take a look."
In 1984 the band release "Our Secret"/"What's Important" as K's first vinyl single, with hand-coloured bongos and maracas on the cover; "Down At The Sea," and "I Love You" will appear on a limited-run cassette EP and then on the band's debut full-length self-titled album a year later.
Though originally a cassette label founded on the idea of the cassette revolution — cassettes being cheap and easy to produce in small quantities — in The Shield Around the K, Pat Maley remembers Johnson saying, about his label's expansion to vinyl, "Didn't you hear? We won."
In late February, 1984, Olympia finally gets an all-ages venue when Sweek and Larry Roberts, along with help from members of the community, open Tropicana. Young Pioneers, the Wimps, Whiz Kid (a hip-hop DJ from New York) and Beat Happening play the opening. Though it's only open for just under a year, Tropicana hosts concerts by D.O.A., the Melvins, Butthole Surfers — even Slayer. According to Parker, Beat Happening play the venue six to ten times.
In 1984, though they have been together for less than a year and have no shows booked, Beat Happening go to Japan. "It just seemed like the thing to do," Johnson tells Exclaim! "I liked the idea because it seemed like no one else was thinking about Japan, it wasn't on the radar [yet]. Now it is. Anime and all those things. But at the time, it was not something people in America thought about and knew about."
Johnson has personal connections to Japan, including a friend who lived in Japan as a child and tells him about it. Also, Japanese exchange students, who have spent the summer in Olympia, including Ai Miyake, help out. "They were like, 'We can help you,'" Johnson tells Exclaim! "It all came together."
Miyake's family find Beat Happening cheap lodging in a building that is slated for demolition, which, as Lewis recalls in conversation with Parker, is freezing most of the time. The band spend time journaling, writing letters, as well as baking bread in a toaster oven without using a recipe. Johnson begins a fruitful correspondence with Australian pen pal David Nichols while in Japan. A drummer for the Cannanes and publisher of a fanzine entitled Distant Violins, it will be through Nichols via writer Jerry Thackray that Beat Happening's first album will later fortuitously arrive in the hands of Rough Trade's Geoff Travis.
While in Japan, Beat Happening play a few shows, including one in Yoyogi Park and another at an all-girls high school. "It was all really weird," Lewis tells Parker of the gig. "Very Beat Happening weird. People didn't know what to think, but they were Japanese, so they were very polite."
The band spend their time in Japan bonding, recording five songs — on a then-advanced model boom box not yet available in the U.S. — that would appear on Three Tea Breakfast EP and later on the 1996 expanded reissue of Beat Happening. "People told me after they saw us play when we returned that it was clear that we had been concentrating on being a band for two months," Lunsford tells Baumgarten. "At no other time have we spent that amount of time concentrating on music."
Back in Olympia, Johnson begins releasing more cassettes through K: a full-length retrospective of songs from Foster's Pop Philosophers and two compilations (Let's Together and Let's Kiss), as well as the Sage-recorded Beat Happening EP. The label also launches into seven-inches with "Our Secret"/"What's Important" and starts up the K Records Newsletter. Initially all K releases are $2.
Beat Happening get some nice early press from Seattle's The Rocket. The reviewer writes: "Beat Happening are a now, happening, beat-hip trio that plays a drum and a guitar and rhymes banana with pajama and Baltic Sea with KGB. They switch their instruments and occasionally play out of key, but their fresh, naïve love songs are a great antidote to sterile synth pop and nihilistic leather."
Henry Rollins' reaction to the band is not so nice. In September, when Beat Happening open for Black Flag at Tropicana, Rollins heckles Johnson from the audience as Johnson dances around (Johnson's dancing involves twisting his arms around, contorting his body, and rubbing his stomach). As Johnson ignores the hardcore frontman, Rollins puts his hand on Johnson's crotch, and Johnson steps back and retorts, "Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"
In November, 1984, almost a year after the first session with Sage, Beat Happening record again with the producer, this time at Yoyo Studio, a studio that Johnson's friend Pat Maley had built west of town on the site of a converted chicken coop on a yogurt farm (it had also once been a Montessori school). They lay down what will become the A side of Beat Happening.
1985 to 1988
Tropicana ends its short-lived run January 31, 1985 and Beat Happening, along with Young Pioneers, play the closing party. Seeing a void to be filled, Lunsford, along with Denise Crowe (whom he'd started dating a year before) open G.E.S.C.C.O., The Greater Evergreen Student Community Cooperation Organization, which becomes a new venue for music, art, theatre, and spoken word. On February 13, 1985, Beat Happening record "In Love With You Thing" at Johnson's apartment on a boom box, which will appear on the 1996 reissue of Beat Happening. It is the last song recorded for the album.
Johnson and Jensen travel down to Los Angeles to oversee the mastering of Beat Happening's debut, which combines the two recording sessions the band had done with Sage with a live recording of "Bad Seeds" recorded by Jensen. Coincidentally they used a company called K-Disc (no relation to K) to make the records. Because of the short length of Beat Happening's songs — each side clocks in at under ten minutes — the band save some cash on the vinyl. They also stop in at Rough Trade's U.S. office — Rough Trade has been helping distribute K releases since Johnson reached out to former KAOS DJ Phil Hertz upon the release of Survival of the Coolest.
In early 1986, Vancouver hardcore noise anarcho-feminist punk duo Mecca Normal play G.E.S.C.C.O., and afterwards Johnson passes Jean Smith a Beat Happening record (which she loses for a time underneath a seat in her van), thus beginning a long collaboration with K Records.
While Lewis is away in Los Angeles, Crowe fills in on drums, continuing the Beat Happening tradition of musicians learning their instruments on the job (Crowe and Lunsford stay in a cabin on Guemes Island in the summer, where Crowe learns the songs along to Lunsford's guitar playing and Beat Happening's recordings). The band go on a cross-country tour, innovatively using drive-away cars as an affordable means of transportation.
In January of 1986, Candice Pederson, who will later become a partner and co-run the label with Johnson until the late '90s, starts working at K, which at the time is running out of Johnson's kitchen. In addition to K artists, K acts as a distributor for various bands and labels, and also starts to release music by international artists, including Shonen Knife and the Cannanes. Let's Sea, K's third compilation, features Mecca Normal, Screaming Trees and Snakepit.
Johnson and teenaged Tobi Vail (who he'd met at the Tropicana and would go on to play in Bikini Kill with Kathleen Hanna) begin collaborating on a new project called the Go Team (not to be confused with the UK's the Go! Team from the 2000s). Inspired by dub reggae remixes of songs, the Go Team's initial concept is an indie rock version of dub in which Johnson and Vail will record music onto cassettes and then pass it on to other collaborators to do whatever they want with it; the process is later simplified to Johnson and Vail collaborating with various artists.
"The Go Team was about process," Vail tells Nirvana: The True Story author Everett True (a pen name for Jeremy Thackray aka the Legend!) in 2006. "Sometimes we'd deliberately leave stuff out to incite participation in the listener. On the one hand, we were trying to demystify music and encourage people to play songs in public if they wanted to. On the other hand, we actually liked what we sounded like, and we hated most of the pro-sounding jam bands/shredding metal-punk bands that played parties in Olympia. We embraced chaos and rejected mastery."
Go Team collaborators include Lois Maffeo, the Legend! himself, Rich Jensen and Kurt Cobain. Credited as Kurdt Kobain, Cobain would appear on a Go Team single in July 1989 (the same year Bleach will come out) playing guitar on an instrumental song called "Bikini Twilight." A supporter of K Records, Cobain will appear in photo shoots at the height of Nirvana madness in the early '90s with a clearly visible K Records logo tattooed on his forearm. "We are Beat Happening and we don't do Nirvana covers. They do Beat Happening covers, let's get that straight," Johnson is later reported to have said during a concert in Norman, OK, April 12, 1992.
Johnson receives a very exciting phone call when Rough Trade's Geoff Travis calls him up, seemingly out of the blue. "He said, 'Hey, I'm Geoff Travis,'" Johnson tells Baumgarten. "And I'm like, 'Whoa. The guy who produced the Raincoats album?'" Travis offers to release Beat Happening on Rough Trade in the UK, and the band adds the two songs from their "Our Secret" / "What's Important" single to the UK edition. The Legend! (who was partly responsible for getting the band signed) gushes in a June 28, 1986 edition of NME, "Beat Happening are a three-piece minimalist group from Washington, USA, who specialize in stripping down the sound of pop music to its basics and reclaiming it as a vibrant source of imagination. With a firm twist on reality and a firm grip on basics, Beat Happening are simple, unforgettable and gorgeous!" John, Lunsford's brother, will later tell Baumgarten that Beat Happening getting signed to Rough Trade in the UK is a watershed moment — people in Washington start to take the band more seriously after that.
In January 1987, K begins a new initiative called International Pop Underground, a vinyl single series geared towards putting out a diverse array of releases by far-flung artists. Early examples include Beat Happening's "Look Around," "Rollin' Like the Tide" by the Few, Mecca Normal's "Oh Yes You Can" and the Cannanes' No One EP. By 2015 there will be over 130 singles in the series, including ones by the Pastels, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Teenage Fanclub, Built to Spill, the Microphones, Mirah and Heavenly.
Johnson, who has begun producing some singles at Yoyo Studio, offers to record Mecca Normal's second album, inviting Smith and David Lester into the former chicken coop turned studio to record. Smith recalls Johnson pissing her off during the recording, as he reads a book while the tape's running. "Directly in front of me is the guy who's recording us and he's reading a book," she tells Baumgarten. "Perhaps he got better performances out of me by a process of gently aggravating me."
In 1988, Lunsford and Crowe move to Anacortes, leaving Johnson as the sole Beat Happening member in Olympia. Lunsford starts working at the Business, a used book and photography store run by his old friend Glen Desjardins.
In early 1988, K offices move out of Johnson's apartment and into a room (soon rooms and eventually a whole floor) above the China Town restaurant, with neighbours Marrs and Mikey Dees of Fitz of Depression.
The band record their second album, Jamboree, with Steve Fisk, with assistance from Screaming Trees members Mark Lanegan and Gary Lee Conner, in Ellensburg. Beat Happening would later collaborate with Screaming Trees on a split release on Homestead Records/53rd & 3rd singing backup vocals on each other's songs. Jamboree marks a departure for the band from Beat Happening in a few ways: Fisk's engineering is more sophisticated, but also Johnson takes over most of the lead vocals (versus the roughly half and half split on the debut), and the band have a louder, more distorted, punchier sound. On top of the tracks recorded with Fisk, Jamboree includes "Cat Walk" (produced by Patrick Maley) and "The This Many Boyfriends Club," recorded live by Jensen. In Heather Rose Dominic's 1998 documentary The Shield Around The K: The Story Of K Records, Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and Luna calls the darkly beautiful "Indian Summer" "indie's 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' — everybody's done it." Robert Christgau, writing for Village Voice, hates the album. "I find their adolescence-recalled-cum-childhood-revisited doubly coy and their neo-primitive shtick a tired bohemian fantasy. Catchy, though."
1989 to 1990
The Go Team run out of steam during an East coast tour in which their '64 Ford Falcon breaks down.
Some Velvet Sidewalk singer Al Larsen writes a manifesto-like article for Snipehunt entitled "Love Rock and Why I Am," redefining the Olympian version of punk rock as "love rock" and embracing bands like Beat Happening, Sonic Youth, Nation of Ulysses and the Melvins. "It's a scary world, but we don't need to be scared anymore," he writes. "We need to [make] the transformation, from complaining that there is NO FUTURE to insisting there be a future." The future he envisions will be filled idealistically with cooking, canning, all-ages shows, dance parties and DIY. "Go, love rocker," he concludes.
Beat Happening record their third album, Black Candy, again with Fisk, though this time they ask to record at Fisk's apartment with gear borrowed from Yoyo, before deciding that was a mistake and moving back to the studio. Unlike the band's earlier work, the new album features vocal harmonies on opener "Other Side," but lyrically continues in the dark, coyly sinister vein of previous albums, getting darker with songs like "Gravedigger Blues" and more subtle and mysteriously haunted ("Cast a Shadow" is one of the band's greatest songs).
Black Candy roughly coincides with the release of MacKaye's new band Fugazi's debut full-length, 13 Songs (a compilation of the band's first two EPs). During a visit to Washington, DC in December 1989, Johnson meets up with MacKaye and the two agree to release a Ulysses (later the Nation of Ulysses) debut record on DisKord – a partnership between K Records and MacKaye's East Coast-based Dischord label.
MacKaye invites Beat Happening to open for Fugazi on the West coast leg of a tour, though he realizes that he might be taking a chance with his audience's tastes. "That primitive, jangly guitar and no bass didn't work too well with me initially," he tells Baumgarten of his initial reaction to Beat Happening. But the band's intense performances and "weird campfire songs" grew on him. So Fugazi and Beat Happening tour together, though the two bands represent two very different interpretations of punk rock.
Famously, a Fugazi fan throws an ashtray at Johnson during a gig at the Country Club in Los Angeles, and Johnson responds by quoting the Germs' lead singer Darby Crash: "Somebody broke my nose, dump the whole balcony."
"People were totally freaked out and pissed off that we were up on stage," Lewis tells Baumgarten. "They were very threatened by Calvin. It was really hard. Sometimes it made me want to quit and sometimes it was as if that was what drove us forward." Beat Happening would have more things thrown at them when they went on tour again with Fugazi in 1990.
Nation of Ulysses — and by extension, K — get a surprise boost when singer Ian Svenonius becomes Sassy Magazine's first "Sassiest Boy in America" in 1991 before the band have even released their album.
Beat Happening records their fourth album, Dreamy, with Fisk, and plan to put it out on Rough Trade, but cannot, as the influential UK label has become overstretched and declared bankruptcy, dropping Beat Happening in the process. Luckily Pavitt, whose Seattle-based Sub Pop Records label has grown, offers to co-release the new album and provide European distribution via Sub Pop Germany. Lunsford, who by that point gotten married and become a dad shortly before the album came out, requests that Beat Happening limit its tours to three weeks.
While on tour in the UK, Johnson sees Heavenly (featuring former members of Tallulah Gosh) and offers to release the band's second album in America. During a K Records barbecue back in Olympia, Johnson and Pederson get the idea to host a larger gathering that will draw more of their international musical community. They decide to call it the International Pop Underground Convention. "We decided to call it a convention, because we were convening," Johnson tells Baumgarten. "It wasn't a festival. It was a gathering of folks who had an agenda."
K announces the IPUC on the back of its newsletter, printing 20,000 copies. The invitation doesn't include details of who is playing, but instead reads like a manifesto or call to action: "As the corporate ogre expands its creeping influence on the minds of industrialized youth," it reads, "the time has come for the International Rockers of the World to convene in celebration of our grand independence. Because this society is sick and in desperate need of a little blood-letting; sand, sidewalk and punk pop implosion. Because the corporate ogre has infested the creative community with its black plague of indentured servitude. Because we are the gravediggers who have buried the grey spectre of rock star myth. Because we are the misfits and we will have our day." It goes on to invite "hangman hipsters, new mod rockers, sidestreet walkers, scoot-mounted dream girls, punks, teds, the instigators of the Love Rock Explosion, the editors of every angry grrrl zine, the plotters of youth rebellion in every form, [etc]" and promises barbecues, parades, dancing, picnics and rock'n'roll.
International bands on the bill include the Pastels (Heavenly can't make it), Thee Headcoats, Toronto's Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and Mecca Normal. L7, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses and Half Japanese's Jad Fair also come, along with the Melvins, Some Velvet Sidewalk and many others.
A number of women, including Marrs and Vail, approach Johnson with the idea of including a women-only night at the festival. Bratmobile's Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe, Maffeo, KAOS DJ Michelle Noel and shop owner Margaret Doherty also support the idea. Johnson is initially resistant ("I didn't want it to be like a ghetto for the women," he tells Baumgarten), but eventually Johnson and Pederson agree to add an additional night on Tuesday at the beginning of the fest devoted to women. Called "Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now," the night sees the first-ever performance of future Sleater-Kinney member Corin Tucker's first band, Heavens to Betsy, along with sets by Maffeo, Hanna, Smith, Bratmobile and Hazmat's Christina Billotte, as well as a one-off performance featuring Marrs and Margaret and Maureen Doherty.
At $35 per person for five days, International Pop Underground Convention is a community success. A "conceptual high point," Pavitt calls it, speaking to Baumgarten. Attendees will later remember headliner MacKaye taking a turn collecting tickets at the door and the Capitol Theatre's cat pissing on T-shirts (as Ira Robbins reported in Rolling Stone). K will release a retrospective of live performances from the convention in 1992, featuring 21 of the approximately 50 participating bands. SPIN called it "the true Woodstock of the '90s." A Kill Rock Stars compilation, which Johnson helps Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon curate (simply called Kill Rock Stars) featuring many of the bands who play the fest, becomes a popular souvenir.
1992 to 1994
At Lunsford's suggestion, Beat Happening work on songs for their fifth album, 1992's You Turn Me On, in Anacortes (versus the comparative separation in which songs from Black Candy and Dreamy were written). The band starts recording the new album with Young Marble Giants' Stuart Moxham, who had also produced for Lois (Maffeo has begun to perform as simply Lois), and finishes the recording with Fisk. The record is a hit with critics, and will later be called "a mature record of tremendous breadth and complexity" and "a masterpiece" by AllMusic's Jason Ankeny, who notes that it's "the most democratic record in an output founded on egalitarian ideals," featuring strong songs by Lewis as well as Johnson. You Turn Me On also features longer songs, like "Godsend," as well as multi-tracked guitar parts and layered vocals.
A summer tour in 1992 ending in Lawrence, Kansas turns out to be Beat Happenings' last. "We never talked about stopping," Lewis tells Baumgarten. "It just stopped. I remember feeling like I didn't think I could do it anymore. I really didn't like being onstage and I always had a lot of confusion about what I should be focusing on personally. I think I felt like as long as I kept doing Beat Happening I'd never do other things." (Parker writes in Beat Happening that he thinks Lewis is being too hard on herself regarding her role in the band stopping playing when she tells him, "I think, if I have to be honest, the reason we stopped playing is me.") Lunsford, in speaking to Baumgarten, emphasizes that Beat Happening didn't break up; they just went inactive. "We stayed together as friends," he says. "And that was the primary thing: the band never became more important than our friendship."
After Beat Happening stops touring, Lunsford spends more time working at the Business, eventually adding a café and a record section, carrying K records and cassettes from his own new label, Knw-Yr-Own (founded in 1987), as well as music by more well-known artists.
In late 1992, following a deal between K and Phil Herz's new Cargo Records to manufacture and distribute for K in various formats, K speeds up its releases, with the International Pop Underground Convention compilation, a compilation of the International Pop Underground singles (International Hip Swing) and new albums by Some Velvet Sidewalk and Mecca Normal, as well as Maffeo's debut release as Lois, Butterfly Kiss all coming out in 1992 and 1993.
"I feel like '94 was my favourite year," Pederson tells Baumgarten. "It felt like we were putting out a fun, amazing record every moment." She adds, "Calvin and I both worked very hard, but you didn't notice it. And we grew. I think we grew smartly. We never went nuts, you know?"
It is a good time for K, but also a period of change. Nirvana's surge in popularity means that, as the band had contributed a song called "Beeswax" to 1991's Kill Rock Stars compilation, there is suddenly a huge demand for the album, for which K is the distributor. When K begins to owe Kill Rock Stars money for sales from the record, as Moon tells Baumgarten, and after Bikini Kill, who released their debut EP Revolution Girl Style Now! on K, ask to join the Kill Rock Stars label, he agrees to look for a different distributor. Other K bands Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy also move to Kill Rock Stars, while Mecca Normal goes amicably after 1993 over to Matador, and later to Kill Rock Stars.
In 1993, Johnson moves out of the Martin Apartments and into a house with a basement. Here he creates the Dub Narcotic Studio, a space he plans to invite musicians into for musical collaboration, picking up the idea that had started years ago with early Go Team.
Early Dub Narcotic Studio visitors include Olympia hardcore band the Mukilteo Fairies and Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, with whom Johnson begins collaborating in a side project called the Halo Benders. A strange combination, the Halo Benders would go on to record three albums for K. The band's "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain," from 1998's The Rebels Not In, would make Pitchfork's "The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s" list. Mark Richardson writes, "the spacey guitar and bass line that manages to be both urgent and melancholy set the stage for Martsch and Johnson's duelling vocals, in which each seems to inhabit a completely different song. Martsch is singing about loneliness and wonder with untouchably innocent tenor, while Johnson raps in his baritone, talking about belly buttons and rhyming 'savage' and 'cabbage' because... well, they rhyme, so why not. It sounds messy, and it is, a little bit. But it's the glorious kind of mess that weds absurdity to heart-on-sleeve emotion, which also happens to be a pretty good definition of indie rock at its best."
Another artist to grace Johnson's basement (in October 1993 and January 1994) is Beck. Beck Hansen had met Beat Happening in 1992 through Maffeo, prior to his single "Loser" becoming a radio hit in 1993. When he visits Dub Narcotic (initially to record a single before it ends up becoming more than enough material for an album) Beck is in a unique position.
"He already had a hit record, but he didn't have a record label," Johnson tells Exclaim! "He had a record label called Bong Load, which had put out 500 twelve-inch singles of 'Loser,' and that became an instant hit that was getting played on the radio and people were going crazy for it, but they weren't making any more copies of the record. They were like, 'let's sell it to a major label': there were many labels anxious to get their hands on this record, so he could pretty much write his own ticket."
Beck records One Foot In the Grave at Dub Narcotic during this period of major label interest. "We were getting phone calls and Federal Express packages," says Johnson. "It was pretty annoying." When Beck later signs with Geffen, it's on the terms that Beck has the freedom to also record with independents. One Foot In the Grave, with a cover photograph of Beck and bassist James Bertram standing in front of Johnson's house, comes out on June 27, 1993 and goes on to sell 168,000 copies; it's K's best-selling album. K will also releases Beck's single, "It's All In Your Mind," as part of the International Pop Underground series.
Johnson continues his dub tradition by coining a new band after his studio — Dub Narcotic Sound System — and introducing himself at the Capitol Theatre during Maley's new Yoyo A Go Go festival as Selector Dub Narcotic. He also starts a new single series called Dub Narcotic Disco Plates, which initially consist of Dub Narcotic Sound System recordings and remixes and later expands to include other K artists.
In a 2012 interview with Nation of Ulysses' Svenonius on Soft Focus, Johnson discusses his ongoing interest in remixes and dub music (while eating what looks like a granola bar). "It wasn't an idea I came up with. It was an idea that I was borrowing," he says. "I think there is a cultural arrogance in middle class white rock subculture that says if you're doing anything that could be perceived in the mind of this subculture as having originated in a black subculture than you are stealing it," he adds. "Hip-hop is like punk rock, it's like the same thing, it's just manifesting itself in a different way. I was very interested in the dancehall movement. I felt like Dub Narcotic Sound System was a way to explore those elements of contemporary culture that I hadn't had a chance to look at with Beat Happening. It wasn't always about the music, it was more about the process of creating music or of releasing it."
1995 to 1999
The mid-'90s bring some heavier acts to K, including Modest Mouse, who record their first EP at Dub Narcotic. K releases The Normal Years, a compilation of Built to Spill singles, live songs and rarities (much of it had been recorded by Johnson at Dub Narcotic).
Margaret Doherty (who had been part of the IPUC's Girls Rock Night) introduces K staff to the internet. Johnson will later tell Svenonius on Soft Focus that the internet era is an exciting time. "One could argue that that's what the internet is: people now are side-stepping that whole process of production and they are almost directly singing to each other. It's the most basic form of the punk rock revolution." So, the internet did not kill the K project? "No. Why would it?" Johnson tells Exclaim! "It's just a tool for communication. And K is a communication company, so we are using that tool to our best advantage."
Lunsford partners with Desjardins in 1995, and continues to work at the Business in Anacortes, which becomes a teen hangout. "In Olympia, I got tainted by this vision that people could make their own cultural products, and that some people might be interested in consuming these things," Lunsford tells Baumgarten. "I just sort of brought that gospel to Anacortes."
One of the teenagers who frequent the store is Phil Elvrum, a young musician who had initially come in looking for Nirvana. Elvrum starts working for the Business, and, after inheriting an eight-track recorder and some microphones from a friend, starts to record his band Tugboat in the back of the shop, and starts to experiment with recorded sound.
Elvrum also starts playing with Lunsford and Karl Blau in D+, Lunsford's first post-Beat Happening band, which records at Dub Narcotic Studio in Johnson's basement. After a Knw-Yr-Own tour with Dub Narcotic Sound System, Johnson hands Elvrum a key to the studio, which has moved (along with K offices) to the old Olympia Knitting Mills building, which also accommodates other businesses, including former K publicist Julie Butterfield's 24 Promotions. Johnson tells Elvrum he can use the studio whenever he wants.
In 1998, Elvrum, now playing as the Microphones, releases his first album, Tests on Knw-Yr-Own, incorporating material from his two previous cassettes, Microphone and Wires & Cords.
K keeps busy with releases, including a debut record by D+, as well as Jonn Lunsford and his wife Lisa Jackson's band the Crabs, the Softies and hip-hop group Dead Presidents. But by 1999, Pederson sells her share of the company and leaves. Johnson is, once again, the sole owner of K Records.
In 1999, K releases Old Time Relijun's Uterus and Fire along with the Microphones Don't Wake Me Up. Elvrum starts producing records at Dub Narcotic, including a Dub Narcotic Sound System collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
2000 to 2008
Beat Happening record together for the first time in eight years, producing the Elverum-recorded single "Angel Gone" in 2000 and releasing it on K.
Michael Azzerrad's 2001 book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, concludes with a chapter on Beat Happening.
A new generation of artists begin to arrive at K, including Mirah (Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn), Yume Bitsu, Khaela Maricich's the Blow and, later, Kimya Dawson (who will go on to Juno-assisted indie fame).
In 2002, Johnson releases a debut solo album, What Was Me, an album of love songs performed solo a cappella and on nylon string guitar, with Mirah and Beth Ditto of the Gossip singing backup vocals on one track each.
Lunsford and Anacortes host the first What the Heck Fest, coinciding with a city-wide annual rummage sale called Shipwreck Day running since the '80s. The festival will continue until 2011.
K releases Crashing Through, a seven-disc box set featuring every Beat Happening album, plus Music to Climb the Apple Tree By, a collection of B-sides and rarities that will come out as a stand-alone album the following year. In addition to the music, Crashing Through features extensive liner notes written by Maffeo, as well as photos of the band. Johnson tells Exclaim! that K printed 5,000 copies, which, within the first few months, sold out.
In October 2003, while on tour with Dub Narcotic Sound System, Johnson gets into a car accident, suffering from a brain injury as well as a separated shoulder and three broken ribs. According to his brother Streator, Johnson is in a hospital in Montana for several days. "He was different afterwards," Streator tells Travis Nichols in 2008. "He stuttered badly when he got back and he had trouble finding words." Johnson tells Nichols he wanted to work, "even though walking was hard and talking was hard. I wanted everything to be normal." After the accident, Johnson must relearn the songs he had written for What Was Me.
Johnson records a second solo album, Before the Dream Faded, in 2005 (his first after the accident) this time featuring contributions by Mirah, the Blow, White Rainbow's Adam Forkner and Yacht's Jona Bechtolt.
Two years later he releases Calvin Johnson & The Sons of Soil, a project that sees the artist rework songs from throughout his catalogue — including Halo Benders, Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Go Team — with help from Kyle Field (Little Wings) on bass, Adam Forkner (Yume Bitsu) and Jason Anderson on guitars, and Mirah.
2009 to 2015
Johnson forms his newest (and eighth) band, the Hive Dwellers, in 2009, a band who is (according to the K website): "a combo of disparate individuals who share a common love of rock'n'roll, library cards and railroad travel." The band's lineup will morph over the years as they release Get In (2010), 2011 Dub Narcotic Disco Plate Lynch The Swan, 2012's Hewn from the Wilderness and 2014's Moanin'.
Anacortes hosts the last What the Heck Fest in 2011 and the Hive Dwellers play.
In 2012, Mark Baumgarten publishes Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. In November of that year (as reported by Exclaim!) K makes its entire catalogue available to stream.
K continues, now in an old synagogue at the southwest corner of Jefferson and 8th Avenue in Olympia, under the management of Mariella Luz, who took over after Pederson departed. K has released almost 300 records by over 150 artists. Current artists include Gyasi Ross, the Ghost Ease, Shivas and Selector Dub Narcotic.
Lewis, who previously worked at an interior design firm, currently lives with her family (she has two daughters) on an island off Puget Sound. Lunsford continues to live in Anacortes, and play in D+. Johnson continues to tour — when we speak, in October of 2015, he's in Prague during a solo European tour.
33 1/3 publishes Beat Happening, Bryan C. Parker's alphabetically organized book on the band's debut album, on September 24, 2015. Johnson plays the launch in Olympia, while Lunsford plays the launch in Anacortes. The final launch, in Seattle, features Young Pioneers, the band who started in Olympia a year before Beat Happening and shared their rehearsal space with them, but are just now working on releasing their debut album on K. "We love their music," Johnson tells Exclaim! "They're very integral to Beat Happening."
Domino announces a remastered double LP Beat Happening retrospective called Look Around, which will be released November 20; Domino will also be reissuing all five Beat Happening albums next year. Johnson tells Exclaim! that the timing is "a wacky cowinkydinc," adding, "Well, we have this saying in the music business: there's no time like the present."
Beat Happening have still not broken up and still have no plans to reunite.
Essential Beat Happening
Beat Happening (K Records, 1985)
Beat Happening captures the band at their rawest and most ramshackle. Calvin Johnson's lusty love songs, often pretty off-key, alternate with Heather Lewis's deadpan yet insistent lyrics. There are hints of surf, C86 (though C86 didn't exist yet) and the Velvet Underground, and the band are already creepily funny, charming and danceable.
Jamboree (K Records/Rough Trade, 1988)
Songs like "Bewitched" and "Hangman" would make the Cramps proud and beg to be cranked, while Lewis's time-traveling "In Between" foreshadows bands like Eric's Trip. Recorded by Steve Fisk with assistance from Screaming Trees members Mark Lanegan and Gary Lee Conner, there's also a live track ("The This Many Boyfriends Club").
You Turn Me On (K Records/Sub Pop, 1992)
On the heels of 1991's popular Dreamy, 1992's You Turn Me On is Beat Happening's most mature and sophisticated — and last — album. The band arrive at a new, fleshed-out sound, employing multiple guitar parts and overdubbed harmonies. Moving at a completely different pace than the band's earlier albums, the record still rocks relatively snappily on songs like "Teenage Caveman" and the title track.