Douglas Martin also pondered the deeper meaning of “The Birthday Song” yesterday.
The great conundrum about You Turn Me On is that we’re still basking in its relevance after twenty years, even though it sounds like it took twenty minutes to record. It’s kind of weird to picture Bret, Heather, and Calvin– the latter being the unwitting inventor of indie-rock and possibly the most celebrated man-child of his generation– as anything more significant than an intentionally under-rehearsed trio who sang songs about redheaded girls and hot chocolate boys. But occasionally, in spite of themselves, Beat Happening tapped into the emotional purity that most bands since have miserably failed to replicate.
Sure, one man’s “emotional purity” is another man’s “childishness,” and it’s not like Beat Happening’s songs don’t flirt with the purposely naïve and juvenile. So when the words “mature” and “refined” accompany You Turn Me On, the fact of the matter is that it’s still a Beat Happening record, which to Doubting Thomases could equate to the jump between elementary and middle school. But in their own plaintive, straightforward way, the Olympian legends managed to create a body of work every bit as resonant with people who stopped identifying with cat-on-a-rocket-ship drawings decades ago.
Case-in-point: “Tiger Trap,” which encapsulates everything great about Calvin Johnson’s songwriting. It builds and crests over a downtempo jangle, features an uncommonly steady but plausibly simple backbeat, and highlights Johnson’s earnest, slightly-off-key baritone. But like on many of his offerings, Johnson is deceptively poetic, using the image of a tiger trap as a metaphor for capturing a would-be lover long enough to get them to like him.
The album also finds co-songwriter Heather Lewis in top form. “Noise,” “Sleepyhead,” and the epic “Godsend”– the latter stretching out and building upon three chords for almost ten minutes– communicate powerful emotions with an economy of notes and language. The former channels the disconnect between lovers, while the others are the kind of sweet, coy love notes from years ago, buried in the bottom of an old shoebox. They simultaneously drew from influences like the acts on Postcard Records and inspired a generation of twee disciples like Tiger Trap, a band that– you guessed it– named itself after You Turn Me On‘s opening track.
In the midst of all of this newfangled growth, Beat Happening’s playful streak still remains intact. “Pinebox Derby,” “Teenage Caveman,” and the album’s title-track are rollicking numbers that are subtly reminiscent of Johnson’s heroes, the Cramps. His late-album offerings are just as intriguing. Penultimate track “Hey Day” is as propulsive and climactic as Beat Happening gets, with Bret Lunsford pounding his way through Johnson and Lewis’ slightly unpolished guitars, in sorts presenting it as a forecast for the end. Lewis and Johnson trade off verses on “Bury the Hammer,” serving as the moment where the sun comes up over the horizon as our heroes run toward it and the end credits roll.
One of my favorite moments of the recent K Records biography Love Rock Revolution is when Johnson runs into an old musician acquaintance in Anacortes. Johnson hands him a Beat Happening tape, he in turn asks what it sounds like, and Johnson simply replies, “It’s punk rock.” That moment illustrates exactly what people who identify as punk feel. Punk is not a sound, punk is not a cool look that can be bought at your local Hot Topic. Punk is existing outside of the margins of conformity and orthodoxy to do whatever the fuck you want to do.
Henry Rollins and his muscles may have famously heckled Beat Happening for (in his words) “making a mockery of punk,” but the truth is that Beat Happening is one of the top five musical groups in history that best exemplify what it means to be punk rock. They picked up guitars before knowing what to do with them, they rushed headlong into the game without bothering to learn the rules. You Turn Me On is the final and best document from a band so fucking punk rock they accidentally created an entire subgenre of punk music. Even twenty years on, long after the K Records shield tattooed on Kurt Cobain’s arm disappeared into the ether along with the rest of him, the album still burns brightly in the hearts of punks who are too romantic to slam dance to Black Flag, as well as an entire generation of music fans.