I’ve always been a big fan of wilfully creative buggers who don’t bother to play the game, and they don’t come more bloody-minded than the Beta Band, who tried (eventually succeeding) to sabotage their career from the outset. Of course, it has since come to light that a large part of this self-destructive behaviour was down to the Beta Band linchpin Steve Mason’s on-going struggles with mental illness, which at one point became so severe that he was on the brink of suicide. But at the time, to anyone outside looking in, what you could see was a supremely talented collective, riding on the crest of a giant wave of adulation from the press and public, doing their level best to fuck everything up.
Their self-titled debut album is a much talked about case in point. Mason was slagging it off before anyone had even heard it, declaring it to be a “crock of shit” in a 1999 interview with the NME. They also said it was “fucking awful” and the worst album of the year. It wasn’t – in fact, I’d argue the case that it is the best album they ever made*. But can you imagine any other lauded band on the planet opening their debut album with a track like The Beta Band Rap, a bizarre collage of Fifties doo-wop, low-slung countrified hip-hop and karaoke Elvis? It’s a manic statement of intent that borders on genius if you take the time to listen to the lyrics describing the band’s genesis and comedy meetings with record company execs. Admittedly Mason’s no Chuck D, but it’s funny, inventive and right out there – everything that the music press was praising the band to the high heavens for, while in reality wanting them to deliver another ten versions of Dry the Rain. Nobody was prepared for the sprawling, unwieldy genre-mash record that emerged, leading the enraged EMI chairman to splutter: “What the fuck is going on with the Beta Band?”
What indeed? But things could have been even worse had the band got their way. The initial intention was for their debut to be a double album, with a second disc consisting of two pieces of music, Happiness and Colourand The Hut; epic slabs of indulgent ambient noodling and field recordings (ie somebody left a tape recorder running while the band were sitting in a field smoking copious amounts of dope) that made the 15-minute Monolithfrom The Three EPs (featuring samples of a washing machine being destroyed) seem accessible. At one stage the band wanted the album to be promoted by sending out these two tracks to journalists. In the end, sane(r) heads ruled and the second disc never saw the light of day, until it was leaked onto the internet a few years ago.
So let’s consider the evidence shall we? Of the two, Happiness and Colourhas the most merit, consisting of, in patches, something approaching conventional “music” – loose campfire jams, punctuated by wayward melodica and harmonica solos; bits of wood being banged together; snatches of garbled conversation; and samples of bubbling water and sounds of the sea. There’s almost a proper song at the 20-minute mark, albeit with speeded-up chipmunk voices à la King Biscuit Time’s magnificent Eye o’ the Dug. My favourite moment happens around 13m 30s when a distorted guitar coda rings out. Close in spirit to the KLF’s Chill Out, if you stuck it on a bit of coloured vinyl in a screen-printed sleeve it would probably get snapped up by collectors in an instant. But The Hut is a step too far. It sounds like those messages you get left on your mobile when somebody accidentally calls you when they’re out and about – in this case, I imagine Steve Mason’s phone swishing around in his rucksack while he and the rest of the Betas are out rambling by a Scottish loch on a windy day. Getting through the full 20 minutes is a struggle even for me, and I’m a diehard.
However epic the folly, I completely admire the band for wanting to do things differently, even if it was eventually to the detriment of their career. Can you imagine the Vaccines doing the same? And of course it is much easier to laugh at all of this now that Mason is back on track, making some of the finest music of his career. We will probably never see the like again, and while the former EMI chairman breathes a big sigh of relief in his very big house in the country, I still cry myself to sleep over the demise of the gloriously obstinate bastards.
*Yes, NME scribe of the time (your name has not survived for posterity on the archived web link of your review), I am the "miracle" that "genuinely loves every last second of it.”