I don’t know why I feel the need to preface every review of a book from the 33-1/3 series by saying this, but it has to be said: Though they are all meant to follow roughly the same format (approximately 150 page review of a seminal album), every one of these books is unique in its approach, style, breadth and depth of content, and most other ways you can imagine. So when you pick up one of these tasty little morsels, you can only hope but never be assured that the book you’re going to get will do justice to the source material. It’s even more risky because undoubtedly you’d choose to read the 33-1/3 book(s) about your very favorite bands/albums, so a poor job by the author will especially disappoint. For those reasons I approached Beat Happening by Bryan C. Parker with extreme trepidation.
Beat Happening was a very silly band led by a very visionary and charismatic front-man, Calvin Johnson. There is a risk of overstating Johnson’s place in Seattle and indie music history because of his magnificent charisma and founding of the independent label, K Records. There is also a risk of understating the quality of this album because of its odd, silly moments (which are kind of all of them). Just from the table of contents alone I feared that the book would fail because of the latter. “Beat Happening” (the book) is structured in abecedarian fashion – for those like me who don’t know the word, it means following an alphabetical sequence. Yes, there are 26 main chapters, running from A-Z. That reeks of an author trying to be clever, possibly even as clever as Calvin. Inevitably an attempt to do so would fail miserably, so much so that it likely would make me regret ever picking up the book. But Bryan C. Parker, what can I say – you very pleasantly surprised me.
Yes the abecedarian format is a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick worthy of Beat Happening. And that’s because Parker does two critical things, and does them both well: (1) he brings substance to the work, and (2) he isn’t a slave to his chosen format. Let me explain point #2 first: I almost got the feeling that Parker wrote the book he wanted to write and then found a way to couch it in the A-Z format after the fact. That is obviously preferable to writing a book starting with the alphabet and finding the “best” word to fit each letter. The former makes for a great book; the latter (at best) a fun toy. Some examples that make me think Parker might have written the book this way: “D” through “G” could have been a lot of different words, but DIY was a concept that had to be introduced early. So it was used for D. And once you get into DIY it makes sense to explain where that ethos came from (E: Evergreen), followed by the studio where the band’s most DIY recordings were done (F: Firehouse). Many leaps could be made from there but an unlikely one was G: Girl City. However, it makes perfect sense to discuss the emergence of women in the punk/DIY scene (the subject of the Girl City chapter) before moving on to H, which had to be Heather. Consider how easy it would have been to not use “D” for DIY and instead wait until “I” and go with Indie (and follow that up two letters later with K: K Records). But in terms of a cohesive book that simply wouldn’t have made much sense. So “I” became International (which the band very much was) before J: Japan (where they strangely first hit it big) and then K was actually KAOS (the radio station where Calvin worked). K Records was critical – and is well-covered in the short book – this just wasn’t the time or place for it.
As for the substance, Parker’s work is as comprehensive as any in the series. There is a significant amount of primary research through interviews, and secondary research through older (often hard to find) source material. A peek at the footnotes says more than enough. Then there is painstaking analysis of lyrics, instrumentation, use of studios, engineering, production, etc. Somehow, Parker simultaneously tells us a comprehensive story about three extraordinary people, a local scene and subculture, a punk/indie ethic, a complicated album, and every individual song. Yet he does so in a way that feels narratively smart and fresh throughout. Excellent work.