The Beta Band
Music: The Best Of The Beta Band
eople think we spend a lot of time ruminating over the ratings that we give to records. Well I’ll let you in on something—some of us don’t. I’ve given Music: The Best Of The Beta Band a B+ because I like the alliteration, I like that beta is the second letter of the Greek alphabet and that B is the second letter of the English alphabet. Beta Band best-of gets B+. Say it aloud; it’s pleasing.
Of course trying to cram a record’s worth into an arbitrary totemic number is a daft conceit, almost as daft as trying to cram a representation of a band’s entire career onto one CD is. The latter is made doubly stupid when one considers that the key releases of The Beta Band’s 8-year career (The Three EPs, Hot Shots II, Heroes To Zeros) are all readily available and probably dirt cheap in record shops and online retailers, especially if you don’t mind second-hand CDs. And that their inessential other record is probably even cheaper, because even the band claimed it was rubbish. But anyway, Regal (< Parlophone < EMI) are desperate to recoup some of the money the band owed them when they split last year, and so now we have Music…
Even though Music… can’t hope to include every great Beta Band song, it’s still an excellent collection, predominantly culled from lead EP tracks and singles from the later albums, and running chronologically. They arrived in 1997, three Scots and an Englishman sounding utterly at odds with the tail-end Britpoppers that were their contemporaries. “Dry The Rain,” from their debut EP, is some kind of “Hey Jude” for the post-Screamadelica generation (if such a generation exists); “Inner Meet Me” (second EP) is the same but with less song and more glorious oddness. “She’s The One” is joyful, clattering helium whimsy. “Dr. Baker” is an unnerving, beautiful piece of post-Aphex Twin xylophone&harmony oddness. The Three EPs (compiled and released in 1998), from whence all these songs and more came, showcased a band producing strange, psychedelic groove-folk with touches of space weirdness and an almost infinite capacity for invention. And remarkable percussion.
In 1999, their much-hyped, long-awaited, blah blah eponymous debut album was more of the same unusual creativity, but trying far too hard. It had their catchiest moment (“Round The Bend,” not included here) and one of their most beautiful (“It’s Not Too Beautiful”) but was ramshackle and purposely obtuse. But still with remarkable percussion. Then, from “To You Alone” through Hot Shots II, The Beta Band became minimalist, subtle aesthetes, alchemising some kind of previously unthought-of child of r’n’b and polished, wide-eyed alternative guitar pop, beatific and imperceptibly touching. There was still some remarkable percussion. By the time of Heroes To Zeros they had become an intricate, expressive and occasionally noisy experimental rock band in the mould, perhaps, of latter-day Radiohead, but blessed with humanity rather than just misanthropy. And still with remarkable percussion. But this does them disservice. They do themselves a disservice.
The Beta Band’s legacy is one of po-faced irreverence, of underachievement, of self-sabotage and deliberate obfuscation, of cooler-than-thou namedropping and of wastefulness. The Beta Band are The Velvet Underground of the 90s, perhaps—an underground act with influence far outreaching their popularity. Oasis and Radiohead both claimed they wanted to sound like them during the course of 1998. Every band who did anything even vaguely groovy with guitars in their wake was accused of ripping them off, from Embrace to Neutral Milk Hotel, whether they had done or not, because all of a sudden it was OK for bands with guitars to try something experimental, to mess around with sonics as much as with songs (as if no one ever had done before). Repeatedly described as shambolic stoners in the press, as if their music was the result of some serendipitous sensimilia incident rather than hardwork and talent, their importance was consistently exaggerated while their talent was dismissed. You think the trumpet at the end of “Dry The Rain” was an accident?
In many ways Music… is exactly what people have claimed to have always wanted from The Beta Band – all their styles, all their eclecticism and grooviness and sonic invention, collected together on one CD. But it misses something. There’s no “Pure For,” no “The Hard One,” no “Push It Out,” no “Beta Band Rap,” no “Out-Side,” no “Sequinsizer,” no “Liquid Bird,” no “Needles In My Eyes”… I could go on. Music… may collect some wonderful music by The Beta Band but it ties together no loose ends, explains none of the narrative behind this band, doesn’t let you in on the magical secret that they always seemed to be trying (but somehow failing) to get across in their music, the confused, humanist core of their intent. The Beta Band were a cult band that the press tried to make into superstars, who almost believed that they should be superstars themselves, who posited themselves at the furthermost reaches (an obvious place to be, to be fair) and wondered why no one else was out there with them.
There’s a second CD included with Music…, a live disc featuring some songs already present on the first disc and a host of others that didn’t make it. Video backdrops, swapping instruments, audience participation—live The Beta Band were as innovative as they were recorded, but they were also free. Free of expectations and limitations and worrying about how people ten years hence might consume their songs. This live disc tells more of The Beta Band’s story than any compilation of studio material ever could. It’s the best reason to buy Music…