The Beta Band - The Regal Years (1997 - 2004)
A 6 CD set of LPs, EPs, Beeb cuts, demos and live...
In a scene in the 2000 movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, John Cusack’s sardonic record store employee Rob drops The Beta Band’s “Dry The Rain” on the shop turntable and surveys the floor as his customers begin a slow head-nod, gazing admiringly towards the counter as the song lifts towards its euphoric coda.
This was the very first track off The Beta Band’s very first EP, “Champion Versions” – a rustic Screamadelica shuffle of biscuit-tin percussion, campfire guitars and slow-burning horns that arrived to broad acclaim in the post-Britpop summer of 1997. If it all sounded curiously effortless, The Beta Band’s subsequent career would take a rockier road. Depression, self-sabotage, sombreros and spacesuits, a procession of bemused producers, and more experimental percussion than you could shake a maraca at: this was not a formula necessarily conducive to good business. “When it came to us ‘playing the game’ - well, I mean, we were always playing a game,” writes Beta Band bassist Richard Greentree, sole Londoner in a band of Scots, in this new boxset’s sleevenotes. “Just rarely was it the right one at the right time”.
This six CD set, boxing three EPs, three studio albums, a disc of BBC recordings and a rag-bag of demos and live recordings is a reminder of the group’s contrary nature: of broad enough appeal to win the fandom of figures as diverse as Noel Gallagher and Radiohead, but bloody-minded enough that, by the time of their 2004 split, they were reportedly £1.2m in debt to EMI. On the material collected as The Three EPs, they come on like a Canterbury prog group converted to hip-hop, or a group of Caledonian folkies who, after a night on the psychedelics, set out to build their own Black Ark. Downhome folk homilies like “Dog’s Got A Bone” rub against tracks like the 16 minute “Monolith”, a plunderphonic collage of birdsong and mistreated washing machines that morphs into a spirited drum jam. In their twining of sonics and song, though, they hit on some exceptional moments: the Radiophonic Workshop meditations of “Inner Meet Me”, or the elegant looping and layering of “Push It Out”, Steve Mason’s Gregorian chant building into something of pious grace.
So far, so good; but the group’s debut proper, The Beta Band, still stands out as a blunder. Their Magical Mystery Tour, it’s a whimsical and uneven roll o’er hill and dale, throughout which one often gets the impression the wheels are about to fall off. Around the album’s release, they told NME it was a “crock of shit”, and the opening “The Beta Band Rap” more or less conforms to this description, the band’s creation myth told through wacky music hall, cod-Beasties funk jamming and Elvis impersonation. Elsewhere it’s all either over or under-baked, and a downer vibe permeates even the best material. “Round The Bend”, while outwardly a thing of McCartneyish jollity, sees Mason in stream-of-consciousness mode, outlining an experience of clinical depression that sees him “at 90 degrees to the rest of the world” and “trying to function as a normal human being…” There is, however, still time for him to weigh up the relative merits of Wild Honey and Pet Sounds.
Better is 2001’s Hot Shots Part II. The addition of Colin Emmanuel, a British R&B producer noted for work with Jamelia and Beverly Knight, helped bring consistency to their sound, the punchy beats and bass of “Broke” a bridge to Mason’s later solo work. Occasionally, it wants for a little of the early material’s haywire energy, but “Squares” spins a sample of Günter Kallmann Choir's version of Wallace Collection's “Daydream” into a hazy reverie, while non-album cut “Sequinsizer” toys with the rhythmic clap of UK Garage, proof they still had their ears wide open.
Things had gone off the boil by the time of 2004’s Heroes To Zeros, their crisp rhythms blotted by producer Nigel Godrich’s gusty atmospherics, and the final two discs add little of interest. Live performances from T In The Park and Roskilde are serviceable, demos like “Idea For House Track” and “Bed In The Sunlight” mere sketches of what’s been fleshed out earlier. You leave The Regal Years with the sense of a band of sporadic brilliance, but ill-served by such completist statements. As for the sniffy record store clerks of High Fidelity, forever evaluating and revaluating the canon of musical greats, you wonder if The Beta Band might today make the grade.
What is it like to listen back to The Beta Band material? In retrospect, what worked? What didn't?
Emotional! Recently I listened to the B-side of ‘Broke’, a track called ‘Won’ with the rapper Sean Reveron. It’s built around Nilsson’s ‘One Is The Loneliest Number’, and took me right back to the moment - made me realise we could take a shot at any genre of music and still make it our own. What didn’t work? Listening to the first album, I wonder why it took us so long to find the stop button on the tape machine.
It was reported that by the time the band split you were £1.2 million in debt to EMI. Is there a chance you’ll ever recoup?
Ha ha! That was a vicious rumour put about by a chap called ‘Nicky Wire’ from the 'Manical Street People', apparently to validate something he’d said in an NME Awards video about how Beta Band was doomed to fail because we had not “sold out” – whatever that means. All very highbrow and frankly above our pay grade, which led to yet a juvenile incident where someone from the Beta Band said in another NME interview that Mr Wire was rumoured to have the appendage of a new-born baby. All a terrible misunderstanding, probably avoidable, certainly regrettable. Recoup? I very much doubt it.
INTERVIEW: LOUIS PATTISON
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Rating: 6 / 10