Beck came to fame in 1994 when the video for his song “Loser” went into heavy MTV rotation in America. It is a sort of novelty tune, a kind of slacker white guy hop hop thing that seemed to accidentally capture the spirit of the times with its chorus of “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me”. Beck created the song as a joke and thought it was mediocre. No wonder: Beck’s real calling was as a folk singer to rival any in the history of the genre.
This isn’t historical revisionism or even a lone opinion. Take the words of Johnny Cash, who covered Beck’s country song “Rowboat” on his 1996 album “Unchained”:
“I was so impressed with the way (Beck) could do Appalachian music. He was so good at it. I especially liked “Rowboat”. It sounded like something I might having written in the 60s.”
Beck was born and raised in Los Angeles. His father was a film music composer and his mother was a visual artist (she was one of Warhol’s “superstars” in her youth). Beck dropped out of high school and started writing folk music while working a string of menial jobs (many of which became immortalised in his work, particularly his gig blowing leaves). He sang in a style that became known as anti-folk – taking many of the chord changes and trappings of traditional folk but happy to borrow from contemporary styles as well. The best example of the genre is probably Beck’s own “Satan Gave Me a Taco”.
It was through “Loser” that he got the attention, though. Released as a single that slowly spread until it became a Top 10 hit in the States, it got Beck his record deal with Geffen. He used it to record “Mellow Gold”, an LP that kicks off with “Loser”, which is far, far and away the worst song on the album. I often listen to it starting from the second, fantastic track “Pay No Mind”. Along the way, “Mellow Gold” is quite the ride, Beck giving us classic anti-folk like “Nitemare Hippy Girl”, better explorations of his attempts at hip hop (“Beercan”), the best hangover song ever (“Steal My Body Home”) and the all around unforgettable “Truck Driven’ Neighbours Downstairs”, which begins with a piece of verite involving two of Beck’s neighbours having a late night argument.
As part of his deal with Geffen, Beck was allowed to release albums much more purely folk based on the indie label K-Records (with distribution done by the major label). Released only three months after “Mellow Gold”, “One Foot in the Grave” is in some ways Beck’s response to “Loser” fame. What results is an album that deserves way more attention than it ever gets, although I understand why it’s underrated. Beck fans tend to point to “Odelay”, the proper follow up to “Mellow Gold” that is much more influenced by funk and hip hop, as the true masterpiece. Despite the anti-folk he started with being his true love (he kept going back to it, despite it not ever being particularly commercially successful for him), his fans wanted new genre bending stuff involving sampling and bass lines you could dance to. And if you never liked Beck’s popular stuff, you were hardly going to dig through his poorer selling material.
“One Foot in the Grave” contains four stone cold classics: “Sleeping Bag”, “Hollow Log”, Asshole” and “Girl Dreams”. The rest of the album is packed with greatness as well, it’s just that those four are the standouts. They also represent the best stuff Beck ever did by some stretch. “Sleeping Bag” is a slow, bluesy number which feels both intimate, like listening to someone’s private thoughts, and universal – a combo most indie musicians of the mid-90s tried to pull off unsuccessfully. “And tomorrow is just another crazy scam” Beck says as the song fades out. At his best, like this song, Beck managed to cultivate a sort of world all his own, only really rivalled in popular music by the Rolling Stones.
“Hollow Log” is just Beck, a guitar and a microphone. “Walk around with a broken leg and a hundred dollar bill”. The lyrics don’t cohere into anything, but don’t feel random either. Again, you feel like you’re entering a cosy world; the song gives you the same feeling a stiff drink does after a stressful day. “Asshole” might be the best of the four – good enough for Tom Petty to do not only a cover of the song, but a cover that was fairly superfluous as it sounds pretty much exactly like a slightly better produced version of Beck’s original. The tale of a man involved in a relationship with a domineering, bullying woman, the chorus goes, simply, “She’ll do anything to make you feel like an asshole”. The magic of the song is that you could easily flip the song around and make it about a domineering man bullying a woman; the lyrics avoid sexist cliches all the way, instead giving across an authentic experience of being in a bad relationship with someone of either gender.
“Girl Dreams” is a simple yet amazing number. “You’re just the girl of my dreams but it seems my dreams never come true” is the refrain – apparently, Beck was a little embarrassed of it at the time. Boys and their emotions and all that stuff.
“Odelay” was released a couple of years after “One Foot in the Grave”. “Odelay” sold about 4 million copies worldwide; “One Foot in the Grave”, less than 200,000. Still, Beck was determined that his fan base be won over to the anti-folk sound. He followed up “Odelay” with “Mutations” an album that, while not as folky as “One Foot in the Grave”, was in the same vein. The critics liked it better than “OFITG” but it still sold relatively poorly; half a million copies in the States.
Beck was so annoyed he decided to derail his career with an album of Prince and modern R&B knockoffs (parodies?) entitled “Midnite Vultures”. Although occasionally funny, the album is mostly fairly terrible, the middle section of it pretty much unlistenable. It still sold twice as many copies as “Mutations” had.
I suppose what unites the five albums I chose in the series is that they are all records made by artists with a large catalogue, and each of the albums represents a break from the norm for them. All five discs were under appreciated by the artists’ fans due to being an anomaly in their discographies, while failing to finding a new audience either. They all make me think about the limitations we place on artists of all descriptions and what the result of that is for politics and society.
YouTube was meant to usher in a new era of artistic freedom for creators of all sorts of content. Instead, the exact opposite seems to have occurred. It seems without officially placed curators putting forward something we’re meant to accept as “artistically important” we collectively drift toward junk food for the soul. This development is profoundly depressing. Democratising art hasn’t resulted in great art being produced; it has resulted in not only videos of cats playing piano being what most people choose to watch, but all of us having to live with the knowledge that cats playing piano is what most people really want to watch. The internet was meant to fracture tastes so that fringe artists could now find an audience much more easily; what happened instead was that everyone went in search of the median.
If an artist like Alice Cooper came along somehow today, he wouldn’t be allowed to morph from an avant-garde artist to mainstream rock act to Vegas lounge singer – he would have put “Pretties For You” on YouTube, got 500 hits and then thrown in the towel. Sun Ra is impossible to imagine arising in a modern setting, a highly talented musician who opts to place obscure stuff not many people like out there. The Fall wouldn’t form in the 21st century; Beck would have basically remade “Loser” as many times as was sustainable.
This has seeped into so many areas of modern life. We have a president of the United States who is a reality TV show host who was known for many decades as a fairly thick bullshit artist who was kind of national joke. In Britain, we have a House of Commons desperately short on leadership. I often compare the rise of social media to the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century – long term, changed humanity for the better, but had some massive downsides upon introduction. Changing the way the masses receive information changes society in fundamental ways. Right now, the changes are happening so fast, society cannot adjust to them. It creates sharply felt divisions in which each side think the other side either malicious in intent or insane. I don’t see a way out of this in a hurry.
One day I feel certain western society will produce more Sun Ras, Jello Biafras and Becks. I just don’t know how far into the future that will be.