When Rolling Stone released their best albums of the ’90s list, Nirvana’s Nevermind stood predictably at the top. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve it, but didn’t you just know they’d pick that? It makes complete sense. Later, we got the ’00s list with Kid A at #1, with the safer bet as runner-up. How did that happen? How does the figurehead of rock-music tastemaking champion an album that doesn’t even have a guitar show up until its fourth track? How is it that a record more concerned with textures, brittle electronic beats, and sampling obscure electro-acoustic composers beat out the riffs of the Strokes and the White Stripes? That decision was significant to me. It represented a massive shift in taste. Sure, tons of blogs said the same thing but this was the voice of mainstream pop sensibility nodding in agreement. The question, some might ask, is how did we get here?
Here’s the best response I can think of: “I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by the Beta Band.” The line is from one of the best scenes in High Fidelity — a moment every bit as iconic as Garden State’s Shins plug — that summed up the power of Steve Mason’s little quartet from Scotland who, despite their modest demeanor, managed to woo everyone from Noel Gallagher to Thom Yorke before the millennium hit. That quote reads like a challenge, but John Cusack’s character states it with the calm factuality of a physicist explaining energy transfer. He will play “Dry The Rain.” People will buy it. Even though it cuts to the next scene before anyone actually drops their cash, part of you just knows that they’ll be five copies short by closing time.
The Beta Band helped pull rock music into the 21st century in a way that they’ve still never quite gotten the credit for. They took Britpop, hungover and strung out by the late ’90s, by the hand and led it into a wonderfully open new world. Starting with three EPs, the Beta Band inhabited a world where hip-hop, rock, electronica, folk, and Beach Boys-styled pop all melted together into one sound. They were a band that was often goofy in their behavior (just look at the photo above), but got away with it because the music alone showed how serious they were.
Yet theirs is not a happy story, exactly. The band released three albums in the wake of The Three EPs and each one struggled to find an audience. The eponymous debut is without a doubt the most overlooked album in their small catalog. It’s often skipped due to the band’s infamous description of it on its release as “fucking awful” and one of the worst albums of the year. This could have been a joke, but there’s not much context to the statement anymore, so the record is forever stamped with that self-sabotaging label. The rush to its release didn’t allow the band time to give their jams and improvisations the focus that their earlier work had, so the album is almost the definition of half-baked. Regardless, it’s unfortunate that that story is more popular than the actual album because people tend to forget that The Beta Band is not “fucking awful” — it’s actually pretty fucking great.
As almost a direct reaction to the sloppy (albeit ambitious) fun of the self-titled debut, the band put out Hot Shots II. If the self-titled was a big drunken Friday night out, Hot Shots II is the hungover Saturday where you just want to stay in and get high to Floyd records. Roughly 20 minutes shorter than the album that preceded it, and much more electronic, it’s restrained and focused in a way that no other Beta album ever sounded. It’s a sad and anxious record down to the song titles (“Gone,” “Broke,” “Quiet”). Perhaps it was the ego knock from the first album or the fact that they’d recently befriended and begun opening for Radiohead (who were right in that limbo year between Kid A and Amnesiac), but it’s an extremely uneasy sounding record. It’s also just about perfect — their best legitimate album — with rhythms and beats that still sound ahead of their time.
It’s somewhat of a disappointment that they followed it up three years later with their final album, 2004′s Heroes To Zeroes, which is as drastic a shift as Hot Shots was. It’s an album of mixed feelings in every way. I may be in the minority here, as it was generally well received, but I’ve always found Heroes To Zeroes to be the band’s worst record. It’s not a bad record by any means (the Betas never made one of those), but it’s a record that tried to synthesize the disparity of their sound (and, okay, maybe make it a little more commercial) at the cost of flattening it out. Great moments like the Siouxsie And The Banshees-sampling “Liquid Bird” are bogged down by songs like the singles, “Assessment” and “Out-Side.”
After that, things started to come to an end for the Beta Band. You can read the final album as a last ditch effort: They pushed hard to make it radio (and fan) friendly, got Nigel Godrich to mix it, and released it right at the beginning of the summer. It read like the moment when a band risks everything and makes their breakthrough. But it wasn’t. It didn’t sell well and the band was left in debt. By the end of that summer, they announced their breakup and, with that weight lifted, they finished off their tour surprisingly happy. Those final days were captured beautifully by journalist Dave Simpson of The Guardian, titled after Steve Mason’s sad reflection: “I always imagined we’d be as big as Radiohead.” But it’s not all that sad when you think about it. The Beta Band are forever immortalized as that underdog band, as that band for others to look to as a reminder: It may be impossible to be as big as Radiohead, but no one can stop you from trying to be as good.
There’s one recent story that, for me, sums up the legacy of the Beta Band and their important position for other underappreciated artists. A few years ago, Disco Inferno — an unfairly forgotten British ’90s band — had been trying to release a compilation of their early and long out-of-print music. They were one of the first bands to make what was eventually called post-rock and to blend sampling, electronica, and rock music in a way similar to what the Beta Band had done. After endless delays, the compilation came out to rave reviews and a bit more present-day recognition. What did they finally name that compilation? The Five EPs. With that, we rank the 10 best songs by the Beta Band below.
10. “Eclipse” (from Hot Shots II, 2001)
Hot Shots II was a collection of the band’s tautest and iciest music, but “Eclipse” closes the record like a big warm hug. It’s the opposite of almost everything else on the album — long, silly, and supremely chilled out. On an album that focused on electronic beats and anxious, death-obsessed lyrics, there couldn’t be a better way to bring things to a close than with an acoustic guitar torch song that begins with Mason’s mystic solutions to the problems of the world and ends with a psychedelic rock jam, and everyone (the band? the world?) deciding that maybe they’d just be better off getting stoned and ordering pizza. It might seem like a tossed-off goof, but in the context of the album and its bad drug vibes, it’s a welcome gift: that moment when everyone quits talking about the big questions, puts them aside, and just enjoys each other’s company.
9. “Pure For” (from Heroes To Zeroes, 2004)
While Heroes To Zeroes has some good songs, it often feels somewhat transitional. “Pure For,” the last song on the Beta Band’s final release, is a beautiful idea of where they might have gone. It’s sparser than most of the other tracks, mostly just a drumbeat, synth chirps, and backward guitar riffs. But with less, they do more than any other track on the album. It’s a track that just sort of drifts — there’s no cathartic finish, no grand conclusion beyond the laid-back chant of “I’m so glad you found me.” It gives a well-earned happy ending to a band that worked best with bad nights and broken hearts. For the graceful couple minutes that “Pure For” floats in the air, you forget the limitations that the band faced, and the fact that it’s their last song, and just let it lift you.
8. “Dogs Got A Bone” (from Champion Versions EP, 1997)
For all the talk about how progressive and ahead of their time the Beta Band were, this song is a good reminder that they also just made sweet jams. “Dogs Got A Bone” might be the most charismatic track they ever made. It’s like a big plate of musical comfort food — acoustic guitar, warm harmonium sounds, hand percussion, and a little beat boxing for good measure. No real verses or choruses here, just a few plateaus of sound that the group climb and descend as they please. It’s such an easygoing tune that I always forget this thing is just shy of six minutes, but that’s the magic of it. All of the things that make this band so incredible are present here but, most of all, “Dogs Got A Bone” reminds you that they rarely stooped to simply showing off.
7. “Round The Bend” (from The Beta Band, 1999)
Arguably the most focused moment on a very unfocused album, “Round The Bend” find the Beta Band at their funniest and saddest. It’s also a moment where Mason’s lyrics out-dazzle the music. Mason is fiercely specific in his internal monologue on his bummer of a night, and the lyric sheet is like a layered pastry of the depressing and the hilarious. They blend simple thoughts about dinner and going out drinking against lavish fantasies about pyramids, reflections of the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey (“it’s probably not as good as something like Pet Sounds“), and moments of deep awkwardness (“I try to function as a normal human being”). He’s still going to go out drinking with his friends, but in his head he can’t help thinking, “I don’t wanna see my friends again/ I just want to be left alone/ And never bothered ever again.” It’s the perfect song for anyone who has ever felt stuck in their head, narrating their own shitty night out.
6. “Squares” (from Hot Shots II, 2001)
After the wackiness of the first album, people might have been expecting another step in that direction with Hot Shots II. After all, the name is goofy and the album cover was a pretty clear approximation of Pen & Pixel’s legendary ridiculous art design. Yet what you first hear is some of the starkest music the Beta Band ever made. While “Dry The Rain” started with a warm drumbeat and slide guitar, and “The Beta Band Rap” began somewhere between a carnival and a barbershop quartet, “Squares” opens a capella and immediately you know something is different, something is off. The drums fire off like synapses, only barely forming a beat until the song blooms and its iconic “Daydream” nod bursts through.
Wallace Collection’s “Daydream” was the hit that cursed that Belgian band to the eternal status of one-hit wonder. Through a strange coincidence, “Squares” and I Monster’s “Daydream In Blue” both appropriated the 1968 song in the same year, and the melodies are similar enough that people confuse them for one another. The original song does not move beyond what you hear sampled — it’s literally just a song about laying in flowers (the things you could get away with in the ’60s…). I Monster, meanwhile, put a dirty, sex-obsessed spin on the track that proved more popular than “Squares.” (Of course, now I Monster is remembered as a one-hit wonder and the Betas are still being written about, so I guess things worked out.) But why did “Squares” stick when the two songs have almost identical hooks? It’s because there’s a depth to “Squares” in between the hooks that puts what you’ve already heard in a scary new context. Mason’s darkly psychedelic lines about reaching for feeling (and failing) while people reach for him (and can’t reach him) come with all the alienated fear of a bad acid trip and, with each verse, that shout of “Daydream” sounds more like a nightmare.
5. “Dance O’er The Border” (from The Beta Band, 1999)
This might be the perfect song to illustrate why some people were pissed when The Beta Band came out. Everyone knew that the record was rushed, and that maybe the band didn’t have enough time to fully develop the songs or lyrics as much. That’s understood. And many people first listening to “Dance O’er The Border” just heard a fucking mess. Rather than developing the multi-sectioned songs people wanted, it’s just a repetitive percussion-heavy jam (both natural and electronic) that drifts like the B-side to some old dance 12″ with Mason mumbling over it. Oh right — Mason’s vocals: no chorus, no verses, no real rhyming or even singing. He just talks, ad-libbing comments and stream-of-consciousness riffs, ditching imagery for reference and poetry for personality. It doesn’t even bother finding a melody until more than four minutes into the song. So why is it on this list? Because every single one of those things I listed were complaints in 1999 and, a few years later, they were the same elements James Murphy used to conquer the decade in music with LCD Soundsystem. “Dance O’er The Border” isn’t very representative of the Beta Band’s sound, but it does a pretty great job anticipating the next 10 years or so.
4. “Al Sharp” (from Hot Shots II, 2001)
The best song off Hot Shots II is one of the finest examples of the Beta Band throwing disparate sounds together into something that gels completely. The whole thing plays as a perfect counterpoint to the lovestruck “She’s The One” from The Three EPs. While that song opened with loose, woozy acoustic guitar strums, “Al Sharp” takes a similar sound and mangles it, Oval-style, until it sounds more like a scratched, skipping CD. Even though the usual mantra-like lyrics are used here, it’s a hypnotic weaving of two devastating statements: “You and I will never be fine” and “I never even tried to smile for you.” They’re applying the same tricks they used to pull on their older, happier jams to a darker purpose — this is the sound of souring and failing.
3. “Dry The Rain” (from Champion Versions EP, 1997)
For most people, “Dry The Rain” is the song by the Beta Band. The first track off their first release, it’s one hell of an impressive introduction. Break it apart and you’ll find that each element is extremely simple: the drumbeat, the horn sample, the chanted lyrics — it was actually the first song I learned how to play on bass, and believe me, I was terrible at bass. But that’s always been one of the best things about these guys: their ability to blend a few simple elements and create something miraculous. Each part is simple enough for a kid to play along to, but the whole is a dense kaleidoscope of sound. It also establishes Mason’s bitterly funny songwriting. Most remember the chant of “I will be your light” (or misremember it as the very un-Mason like “I will be all right”), but this is a song that starts with the line, “This is the definition of my life/ Lying in bed in the sunlight/ Choking on the vitamin tablet,” which on paper sounds like a Radiohead lyric but with Mason’s gentle, underdog voice manages to sound silly and sad at the same time. You laugh, but you also kind of worry about the guy.
Deceptively quaint in the beginning, the track drops these little climactic bombs, each one completely defying your expectations for what a band should sound like. The initial hook, with its slide-guitar groove, could have been enough by itself. But right when you think that’s all there is, a drum and bass groove shows up two minutes in, gradually morphing it into an entirely different song. The most famous part is when the band coasts on that coda, which in actuality only lasts a minute or two, but feels like it could loop for an eternity.
2. “Needles In My Eyes” (from Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, 1998)
Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, the third of The Three EPs, takes the band in a darker, slower direction with the trio of “It’s Over,” “Push It Out,” and “Dr. Baker” — all songs preoccupied with death, heartbreak, and an anxiety that Mason sums up well with “Over”’s plea: “Please reassure me I’m doing all right.” Then comes “Needles In My Eyes,” a track that pushes all those feelings and somehow comes out profoundly hopeful. Lines like, “Last night I dropped by heart and I never want to see it again” point to a nasty breakup, but Mason’s genius is in capturing the lobotomized numbness felt in the aftermath and alluded to in the title. In spite of that pain, it grows into a song of great power — everything you need in a breakup song. Yet after the sad run of tracks on the EP, it’s a relief to hear Mason declare “needles in my eyes won’t cripple me tonight.” That feeling seems like it will last forever, but it passes, heals, and scars over. He might not be doing great, but you know he’s going to make it — or in the words of Real Estate, the band currently mastering the Beta’s laid-back melancholy style: “No, I’m not OK, but I guess I’m doing fine.”
1. “She’s The One” (from The Patty Patty Sound EP, 1998)
My second most important CD purchase in high school was The Three EPs, an album I got (like everyone) because it opened with “Dry The Rain,” but that’s not the height of its charms. Think back: You just made it through the 15-minute sound collage insanity of “Monolith,” and whether you loved or hated it (there’s really no in-between), you were completely wiped regardless. That penultimate track off The Patty Patty Sound EP (which, at 37 minutes, barely counts as an EP) is designed to scramble your brain, push you to stop listening, but then encourage you to stick it out. What follows is remarkable — “She’s The One” is the sweetest, most smile-inducing, and yes, best song the Beta Band ever made.
As soon as I hear that acoustic guitar strum, those shambling drums, and mouth-harp (or what always sounded like a mouth-harp to me) fall into place, everything seems a little brighter and warmer. It’s nearly Pavlovian. Some bands spend their entire careers trying to write that perfect love song or push their experimentation toward some kind of transcendence, but the Beta Band effortlessly did both in the same song. It’s with Mason’s simple and direct mantra: “She’s the one for me,” which gains more power with repetition than anything more complicated could. You focus on it so much that the climax they’ve been building to seems to burst out of nowhere.
In retrospect, it’s a song that reached back to the Beach Boys’ sincerity and experimentation while looking forward to the hypnotic folk of Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. It was a stepping-stone. It was rock as trance music. It was how we got from there to here. But most of all, it’s just a really great way to spend eight minutes and 22 seconds.