The Beta Band
|Track||Album / EP|
|Round The Bend||The Beta Band|
|The Beta Band Rap||The Beta Band|
|Dry The Rain||Champion Versions / The Three E.P.'s|
|The Monolith||The Patty Patty Sound / The Three E.P.'s|
|She's The One||The Patty Patty Sound / The Three E.P.'s|
|Assessment||Heroes To Zeros|
|Space Beatle||Heroes To Zeros|
|Eclipse||Hot Shots II|
|Al Sharp||Hot Shots II|
|Dogs Got A Bone||Champion Versions / The Three E.P.'s|
The Beta Band (l to r): John Maclean (keyboards), Steve Mason (vocals, guitar), Richard Greentree (bass), Robin Jones (drums)
Contributor: John Hartley
Unusually, the record shop in downtown Chicago appears to be doing brisk trade and for a rare moment things appear to be looking up. The owner of the shop spins a CD on his index finger, turns to one of his colleagues and whispers “I will now sell 5 copies of The Three E.P.ˈs by The Beta Band”, before a song fades in to scenes of enthusiastically-nodding potential customers. This is not real, of course: just possibly the best line in any film ever to reference a lesser-known indie band from Scotland.
The film is High Fidelity and the song of course is Dry The Rain; but that is not where this Toppermost begins. Instead, we travel across the Atlantic to the first floor of a unit on a Southall industrial estate; to the wholly unsuitable premises of a day service for adults with profound autism and challenging behaviour. For it is here that John Woods (soon to become Jacques Cachecarte) will present John Hartley (already seven years into being Johny Nocash) with a mix tape upon which is contained a song by The Beta Band. Confusingly, the artists have been written in alphabetical order, so when a song leaps out at me I have no way of knowing the performer. This is my introduction to Round The Bend.
Of course, I don’t properly ‘get’ Round The Bend until much later, when my own mental health causes various light bulbs to illuminate in my foggy brain. For now, it’s a bouncy acoustic strum punctuated by – apparently – whichever instruments are at hand in the studio and peppered with amusingly unconventional lyrics: “I listened to The Beach Boys just a minute ago – Wild Honey; it’s not their best album but it’s still pretty good, it’s got some pretty little love songs on it …” I love the way the song stops and starts throughout, is peppered with odd sounds, has a human vocalising drum rolls at the end and yes, sometimes I can’t bear the thought of going shopping.
John tapes The Beta Band’s eponymous album for me. Although I have now stopped buying the NME in disgust (I’m not sure about what in particular: maybe it’s just a rite of passage?) I am aware that the band have been highly critical of their album. Yeah, well, ok: nice marketing ploy but The La’s have already done that, and I can’t understand what all the fuss is about. I still can’t, but in years to come I will appreciate that negativity can be found in the very things of which we should be proudest. Round The Bend is just one excellent song amongst many on the album. There is no coherent style; the foursome will beg, borrow and steal from just about any musical genre imaginable over the course of their career. Take for example The Beta Band Rap which is, as the name suggests, a rap. It’s also a handy, amusingly deadpan potted history of the band thus far: the barbershop introduction “we’re The Beta Band and we’re nice and clean, always polite and we’re hardly ever mean” leading into more practical matters … “the first thing Dave did as boss was make us play Water Rats in Kings Cross. We played five songs, got credit for four, went down well so decided to tour”. The Beta Band Rap brings the listener right up to date following the band’s release of three EPs, and it is to The Three E.P.ˈs to which we head now.
Having taken a few too many batterings and lost a couple too many shirts at the hands of strong, fit men in their twenties whose combined frustration at not understanding the world around them and not being able to communicate this frustration conventionally manifests itself on a daily basis, I find alternative employment. John is tasked with sourcing a ‘leaving present’, part of which is The Three E.P.ˈs, an album whose name indicates its content: the first three EPs recorded by The Beta Band. The very first song on this compilation is Dry The Rain; it was the first song on their very first official release, Champion Versions, and what a way to begin a career. A lazy acoustic strum with a hint of countrified slide guitar against a percussive background introduces deadpan-dry vocals: “this is the definition of my life: lying in bed in the sunshine, choking on the vitamin tablets that the doctor gave in the hope of saving me …” Fifteen years after first hearing this, The Beta Band – and in particular the words of chief lyricist Steve Mason – began to make complete sense.
John and I have by now formed a band – Echolalia – which will try unsuccessfully to capture the best bits of The Beta Band, Belle and Sebastian and a few other bands whose name begins with ‘B’. I can’t say precisely what those best bits are; it is challenging to describe the music of The Beta Band in words. What fits one song does not necessarily fit the next song. In fact, one of the joys of The Beta Band songs is their completely unpredictable form and manner. Much like early James (although totally different at the same time), the only predictable thing about The Beta Band is their unpredictability. It is probably easier to capture what makes The Monolith – track three on their second EP, The Patty Patty Sound – than it is the final track on the EP, She’s The One. Both are great pieces of musical art, but in very different ways.
Monolith is a cut-and-paste collage of sound, snippets of old songs, mystical Eastern chanting and a sequence of five notes, played slowly on a guitar that creates the most melancholically fragile soundscape I have ever heard. All of these parts, and so many more, combine to fade in and out as the track plays out its recreation of those moments spent drifting in and out of sleep when fatigue and exhaustion kick in. If Monolith is musically and sonically challenging, then what about She’s The One? To describe it as a song structured solely around two chords, strummed on one guitar, with lyrics that don’t quite make sense and keep repeating themselves with a tiny bit more added each time doesn’t do it justice. But it’s true. Oh, and the sung title is sampled and repeated ad lib through the second half of the song, its pitch undulating with the chords. It is a challenge to find the correct words to describe the song – never mind the band themselves – to the uninitiated; however, this clip from a French TV show is the best I can suggest to actually get halfway to comprehending The Beta Band:
As I indicated at the start of this Toppermost, I do not come to fully understand Round The Bend until a good while after my first hearing; about fifteen years, in fact. In between times I have bought a couple of The Beta Band’s singles, copied my sister-in-law’s copy of their second album Hot Shots II and continued to listen to The Three E.P.ˈs on and off. John and I have recorded two low-fi 4-track albums and half an album proper, John has been forced to leave the band against our wills, disappeared, reappeared and disappeared again. Life and work get in the way, not always in a good way.
When depression grips me in the second decade of the twenty first century, suddenly things begin to make a lot more sense. Round The Bend is, of course, the song that makes things click: “people walking past see a nice little flat, see a green tree outside, imagine the person inside is having a great old time; well I wish I was having as great a time as they possibly imagine that I’m having.” That opening verse to Dry The Rain seems all too real now as well. I read up a bit more and discover Steve Mason and depression mentioned in the same sentence more than once. Lucky for me then that I have just discovered that not only are Poundland selling CDs for a pound, they’ve a copy of Heroes To Zeros – The Beta Band’s third album – just waiting for me. It becomes a regular play, whilst ironing, travelling to work, washing up … in fact any opportunity is taken.
Opening track and single Assessment is a perfect way to demonstrate latter-day The Beta Band. There is now much more cohesion in the band’s sound and the quirky montages of their earlier work is now gone, for better or worse. Assessment kicks off with a determined descending guitar riff and heavy pounding of drums which is quickly supplemented by a bass line that is not going to be messed around with. Then the vocals come in: ‘Now the time has come for decisions … gonna sail my boat for a reason.’ This song, as much as any other, will provide me with the necessary call-to-arms on a bad day. Further into an album whose title seems in hindsight to be a wry reflection on the band’s career is the track Space Beatle. Like so many songs by The Beta Band, it is reminiscent of no others within their catalogue. Starting with dreamy synthesized sounds and a heavily reverberated vocal line stating “Just like yesterday I’ll never feel this way again” the track drifts pleasantly along until a bell rings faintly and the dream breaks into the realisation that “I love you to pieces”. Sung by Chris de Burgh this would be banal cheese; sung and performed by The Beta Band over a beautifully delicate arpeggio it is almost possible to feel the bravery required to utter words of such importance.
Time to revisit Hot Shots II then, I decide. There is a definite sense to this album that suggests a band finding themselves at ease and in a position of security. That is not to say there is any degree of complacency; far from it. However, after the initial burst of excitement brought about by the recording and release of the first three EPs and the band’s subsequent disillusionment with their first album proper, Hot Shots II seems to have been recorded by a band who know what they want and how to get it. There is a concentrated understatement about the album, with excellent songwriting – again not really fitting any convenient genre description, thankfully – and production. This is an album that builds and builds upon the solid formations set by opening track and single Squares until it reaches its culmination with Eclipse. The last track on the album, Eclipse cleverly and surreptitiously brings us back full circle to the conspiracy theorism of Squares, whose video brazenly hints at fakery of the moon landings.
Eclipse is more subtle, telling a story of different peoples with books, answers and questions finally getting together, agreeing on things like leaves on the trees being green, roads not being very clean and the food being eaten not being particularly healthy. There is also some near agreement: “the moon is a big ball with nothing on it and I don’t think anyone’s ever been there/ok, so we’re kind of agreed to that…” Unfortunately, it turns out one of the parties isn’t very truthful, with disastrous consequences. Well, no pizza at any rate.
Perhaps it isn’t being entirely accurate to describe Hot Shots II as I did above as being by a band who know what they want and how to get it. Musically, yes. Emotionally? Perhaps not, as throughout the album lyrical imagery indicates an uncertainty and vulnerability in relationships – with ‘ma’ in Alleged, for example, whose game has provided the bullet that has created the hole in the head of the narrator.
It is also very clear in Al Sharp, the second track on the album. Starting with a single acoustic guitar picking notes in a loop and ending with a contradictory chorus of voices, here we have Mason describing money overtaking the heart in importance with the encumbent realisation that “you and me will never be fine” added to the admission that “you know I never really tried”. Such insinuations can be found elsewhere throughout the album; with hindsight it seems Hot Shots II is a natural stepping stone to the last-ditch self-deprecation of Heroes To Zeros.
The final track in this Toppermost Ten takes us right back to the beginning; Champion Versions, the first of the three EPs. Apparently the four tracks on the EP were submitted as demos, only to be deemed good enough to be the real thing by the label. The last of these four tracks, Dogs Got A Bone is as good a lesson in simplicity as any song. A bluesy acoustic guitar, a harmonica, some bongos, harmonised singing in the chorus, a pause that leads to an outro filled with chorus and the most melodically simple piano riff. Lyrically too, the track provides a blueprint for what will come later: “can’t help this feeling of being so alone/won’t you come home”, yet before long “I wish you were here tied to the pier” and then “words disappear every time you call me”.
Just like they do when I try and find precisely the right words to describe The Beta Band. And if you’re reading this John: a very belated thank you.
After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song John Hartley has turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.