33 1/3: Beat Happening by Bryan C. Parker (Bloomsbury)


I acquired Beat Happening’s self-titled debut album about six months ago, and I’ve had questions about it ever since. Mostly, how does an album of low-fidelity recordings by a trio of unseasoned musicians (vocals, guitar and drums – no bass) with child-like lyrics come to be; and why does it sound so wonderfully out of step with everything else, even thirty years later? Bryan C. Parker’s book helps answer those questions over the course of twenty-six chapters, each one covering a band-related subject corresponding to a letter in the alphabet. “A” is for action, “B” is for Bret, “C” is for Calvin…and so on. At the center of the story is founding member Calvin Johnson, a decidedly unique character who basically put Olympia on the punk map with his band and record label, K Records. Think of him as an Ian MacKaye of the Northwest, as the two shared an almost identical need to make something happen locally, no matter how much effort it took . Parker does admirable work in describing the origins of the band’s sensibilities (improvisational theater and early exposure to feminism are both key), and how those sensibilities put them at odds with punk just as the scene was growing increasingly violent and exclusionary. As with all volumes of the 33 1/3 series, I judge Parker’s work on how much it enhanced my understanding of the album and whether or not that enhanced perspective made me want to revisit it with fresh ears. He’s successful on both fronts.
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