In 1998, with rock experiencing an elongated bout of hideous melancholy, [B]THE BETA BAND[/B] are so unexpected...
The electric eyes of the plastic donkey shine. The poet gibbers. Transvestite nuns thrust snarling manifestos into the hands of the smiling crowd. This is Old Jock Radio, the mad support act. He’s a bit like getting menthol-flavoured watermelon balls as a starter – a shock to the palate, difficult to swallow. But not to worry, ‘cos what follows can only be meat’n’potatoes by comparison, right? Wrong.
What you get next is a bubbling polyglot stew, so heavily spiced and thick and rich that it ought, by rights, to make the most gut-hardened gourmet spew. We are about to witness an aesthetic shitstorm, a style nightmare and a critique-crippling musical meltdown.
The Beta Band’s first [I]NME[/I] cover feature claimed that they sounded like TheVelvet UndergroundBeachBoysLed ZepCanKingTubbyBeatlesYes StonesPrimalScreamBeck EmersonLake&PalmerProdigy StoneRosesAndParliament. Which is not hype, but only half the truth. It’s as if they’d turned up on [I]Stars In Their Eyes[/I] and said: “Tonight we’re going to be Pink Floyd circa that oh-so-brief era when they were a genuinely exciting experimental and radical rock combo, and before they became the epitome of pretentious and overblown student wank rock. And Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. And The Partridge Family. And Harry Belafonte and The Doors and The Proclaimers. And Patti Smith circa ‘Piss Factory’.”
The Beta Band are, in short, a category clusterfuck. Singer Steve Mason sports a borstal-boy haircut, a stained shell-suit and child molester spex and he strums an acoustic guitar whilst groaning softly, and he does NOT come across as a complete twat. Bassist Richard Greentree wears an off-white flared safari suit, a butcher’s trilby and socks with sandals. And makes it look cool. The rest of the band wander around the stage in an apparent daze, battering bongos, FX pedals and an oversized cow bell whilst clad in apparel so corny, crusty, cobbled together and crap that it would have failed the dress code at the entrance to the Especially Scruffy Hippy Bastard Field at Woodstock.
But this isn’t comedy. This is a ruthlessly clinical execution – as in termination – of ’90s cool. This is very postmodern clever-pop made by arty student types but (and here comes the real weirdness) it doesn’t make you want to hose the stage down with a flamethrower and then hack at the still screaming bodies with a fire axe. It makes you dance and smile and dream of platinum album sales. Odd.
We’ve seen their ilk before, sort of, in ’69 and ’78; years in which art students forgot to be pretentious twats and rock underwent cathartic nervous breakdown. It’s just that, in 1998, with rock experiencing an elongated bout of hideous melancholy, The Beta Band are [I]so[/I] unexpected. The set starts, as usual, with ‘Circus Song’, a recording from the good old days when the British public still found organised cruelty to animals amusing, during which the Betas scratch, itch, fart around and generally test our patience. But by the time ‘Shepherd’s Dub’ has clattered to its wholly organic ending, we’re hooked. For a band still blinking in the new light of day, The Beta Band are horrendously accomplished. And brave. ‘Push It Out’ is numbingly hypnotic. ‘She’s The One’ is reminiscent of a lo-fi Spiritualized in full flight. Which is to say – it ROCKS! That’s ‘[I]ROCKS![/I]’ in bold, italic and 120-size font. Yes, that much. Honest.
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After the gig your correspondent corners DJ Ultra Scruffy (aka John McLean) and tries to lick the lad’s arse, but he goes all red-faced and squirms. Which is sweet. Out of sheer politeness, however, it’s not mentioned that one song, and one song only – the pitifully weak ‘Dog’s Got A Bone’ – (bold, italic and 120-size font) [I]SUCKED[/I] dog shit so savagely that every hound north of Hadrian’s Wall is now staggering around with a prolapsed rectum.
A mere detail. Something wonderful grows on the Britrock bombsite. Stay depressed if you like, but take the time to sniff the beautiful mutant bindweed.