There’s never been a band like The Beta Band. Chances are, there won’t be again. Not only is there an argument for the Edinburgh group being the 1990s’ great lost band. There’s also one for them being the band that killed off the decade. The house band for the fall of Rome. Or Camden at least.
That The Beta Band were starshaped in a square hole should have been clear from the off, when on the eve of the release of their 1999 released self-titled debut album proper, they described the era’s most feverishly anticipated collection of songs as “fucking awful”. They’d originally planned to record the album in four different continents. They ended up doing a chunk of it in a hut belonging to turntablist John McLean’s grandfather, located on the northwest tip of Scotland. The hut was small. The band had filled it with so many weird homemade instruments they had no space to sleep. Somehow two songs came out of this particular stint; one entitled ‘Happiness and Colour’. The other, fittingly, called ‘The Hut’.
Later the band decided the two aforementioned songs were ‘boring’ so insisted they were taken off the album – a few weeks after advance CDs had been distributed to music journalists everywhere. In interviews they started calling the newly sequenced record “the worst record released this year”.
That sound you can hear is the band’s publicist still sobbing, almost 20 years on.
This week the band kick off a cycle of reissues that begins with the band’s classic 1998 compilation ‘The Three EPs’, which collects ‘Champion Versions’ (July 1997), ‘The Patty Patty Sound’ (March 1998) and ‘Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos’ (July 1998). It’s the perfect introduction to this indie rock chimera. There’s the lollop of the Happy Mondays. The groove of early Verve. The cut and paste ingenuity of DJ Shadow. Arguably it’s better than any of the band’s subsequent ‘proper’ releases. They were the bedsit Pink Floyd. The band that for years Radiohead would have chewed off their own limbs to be.
Cohesive opinion is that the 1990s was the last era when the money flowed freely around the music industry. The dream of strange, highly creative men like the four that made up The Beta Band – raised on punk, emboldened by hip-hop, folk or dance, free to be whatever they wanted – used to be ‘get a record deal, push the envelope, make magic happen’. This was an era that saw the Super Furry Animals buy a tank and convert it into a soundsystem. The Beta Band delivered similar folly in spades.
Debt, doggedness and dadaism
For a while, they only performed in Velcro suits whereupon felt letters could be displayed, meaning the band could spell out words upon them. A cool idea. One that cost £4,000. The band lost the suits on the tube. When The Beta Band disbanded, in 2004, they were £1.2 million in debt to their record company.
Everything The Beta Band did was tangential. When Mojo magazine requested them for an interview, they agreed on the condition they would be asked the same questions as put to The Beatles before their legendary 1966 Shea Stadium concert. When they were invited to the Q Awards, singer Steve Mason did so wearing a baseball hat that read, ‘If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport’. They refused to perform on children’s television. They claimed that MTV viewed their audience as “vacuous vegetables”. They talked of “breaking into your local police station and stealing a fucking M-16 and heading down to the World Bank and blowing a few heads off”.
That’s a statement that hasn’t aged well at all, but such contrariness and blind fury felt genuinely exciting within an era before the world had turned to shit.
Onstage they’d wear karate suits or Native American headdress. It was presumed they liked the drugs. Maybe. Maybe not. “Drugs are so fucking boring,” said Steve Mason. “I lost part of my mind to drugs and I’m just trying to get it all back again”. Mason spent most of his time in the band suffering from clinical depression. Founding member Gordon Anderson – who has subsequently released a raft of excellent electronic music under the name Lone Pigeon – had to leave the band due of his poor mental health before they’d even released a record.
“I did forty mushrooms every night for two months,” Anderson told The Guardian in 2007. “Something that wasn’t me possessed me. It was saying ‘Murrrrdur! Murrrdur!’ It got to the point where a voice in my head was telling me to kill my twin brother, Ian. They were spirit voices. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear them sitting in the corner of the room. I had conversations with them.”
A lone pigeonhole
Not that the band ever thought they were weird. “Bands like us should be the norm” said Mason at the turn of the millennium. “We think it’s weird that very average, banal music is the norm” continued bassist Richard Greentree. “There was a really funny thing in a music magazine once where they had that band Gay Dad dressed up like messiahs, all in white, with stigmata, fake blood coming out of their hands,” added McLean. “A few pages later it had a picture of us dressed up just the way your mates dress and it had written that we were weird. You think that’s normal and we’re weird. It’s fucked up.”
In defence of the music press, in the wake of the retro conformity of Britpop, at the fag end of a decade of decadence that once extinguished would be gone forever, The Beta Band’s refusal to adhere to any rules – musically and professionally – must have been as unsettling as it was exciting. Yet, as is always the case, it’s only because the music was so good, so vivid and surprising, that we’re still talking about them now. You can lose Velcro suits on the tube. A song as transcendental as ‘Dry The Rain’ will live forever.
There’s a scene in 2000’s movie adaptation of the Nick Hornby book ‘High Fidelity’ where Rob, played by John Cusack, who in the story owns a record shop – oh how we miss record shops – announces his intention to “sell five copies of ‘The Three EP’s’ by The Beta Band” before preceding to put the record on the shop’s stereo. At the counter, Darlene from Rosanne is loving it. As will you if you if you give it a chance.
Five is a paltry sum for a collection of songs so special. This week’s reissue gives you a chance to nudge that number higher.
An exhibition of ephemera from The Beta Band’s career, Zeros To Heroes, is on display at Jay Hammond Projects/Bomb Factory, London from September 14 to November 3.