Olympia, WA's Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening has been fighting the "corporate ogre" and keeping the independent label faith for over three decades with his K Records label. This month's Timeline follows Johnson from his youthful start in campus radio to the formation of K Records and Beat Happening (with Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford), to Japan, and to the International Pop Underground Convention and the years and projects beyond: the Go Team, the Halo Benders (with Built to Spill's Doug Martsch), Dub Narcotic Sound System, Johnson's solo work, and, more recently, the Hive Dwellers and Lunsford's D+.
Beat Happening haven't toured since 1992 but are having a moment: 33 1/3 recently published a book on Beat Happening's debut album, and Domino is releasing a re-mastered double LP retrospective on the band called Look Around on November 20, with plans to reissue all five of the band's albums next year.
While you'll have to pick up the entire new issue of Exclaim! to read the full Timeline, you can check out some highlights below.
Five Noteworthy Facts You May Not Know About Beat Happening:
1. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin led Calvin Johnson to punk.
In fifth grade, Johnson hears the Beatles for the first time, a band who, when he reads about fans going nuts over their early live performances in Liverpool, inspires him to seek out local music scenes. "It just seemed so much more exciting to me that you would go to a show with 100 people and see the band right there, than a show with 30,000 people where you can't even see the band," Johnson tells Mark Baumgarten, author of Love Rock Revolution, in 2012. "Then, when punk rock came around, I was like, 'There it is. That's what I've been waiting for. That's the local thing. Local bands playing to local audiences and being a self-sufficient scene.'"
On July 17, 1977, he sees Led Zeppelin play the Kingdome in Seattle. "If there was anything to ever convince me that punk rock was the answer, it was seeing that show," Johnson tells Baumgarten. "I loved Led Zeppelin, and it was just horrible. So self-indulgent. There was no looking back from there. That's it. I'm done with stadium rock."
2. Johnson could have been in a band with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi.
On an East Coast visit, Johnson introduces himself to Ian MacKaye, a bass player he'd recently seen playing in a group called the Teen Idles, at a surf shop. Though MacKaye doesn't remember the meeting, Johnson will recall MacKaye saying it's too bad he is going away because they could have been in a band together.
3. Johnson's standards were preternaturally high, and Patti Smith didn't meet them.
In May 1978, Johnson attends a Patti Smith concert at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle with friends from the community radio station, stopping on the way at Peaches Records in Seattle to try to catch Smith signing records. Unimpressed by Smith's rock star-like behaviour, he asks the iconic singer, "Hey, can I autograph your coat?" According to Baumgarten, Smith's answer is, "This is a good coat. You can't sign this coat."
He would later be further unimpressed she'd actually flown to Seattle from Portland, where she'd played the night before, instead of driving.
4. K began with a cassette tape of Heather Lewis's first band, the Supreme Cool Beings, playing live on the radio.
Johnson invites the Supreme Cool Beings to play in-studio during his Tuesday night show, Boy Meets Girl, and — unbeknownst to the band — records the session. "After we heard it we were like, 'We should put this out,'" Johnson tells Exclaim! in 2015. "That's the start of the label. Once we put [Survival of the Coolest] out, I knew immediately, 'We should do this, we should do that,' I mean, there were a million ideas floating. It just sort of got the ball rolling."
5. Beck recorded One Foot in the Grave in Johnson's basement.
Beck Hansen had met Beat Happening in 1992, prior to his single "Loser" becoming a radio hit in 1993. When he visits Dub Narcotic studios (initially to record a single before it ends up becoming more than enough material for an album) Beck is in a unique position.
"He already had a hit record, but he didn't have a record label," Johnson tells Exclaim! "He had a record label called Bong Load, which had put out 500 twelve-inch singles of 'Loser,' and that became an instant hit that was getting played on the radio and people were going crazy for it, but they weren't making any more copies of the record. They were like, 'let's sell it to a major label': there were many labels anxious to get their hands on this record, so he could pretty much write his own ticket."
When Beck later signs with Geffen, it's on the terms that Beck has the freedom to also record with independents. One Foot in the Grave, with a cover photograph of Beck and bassist James Bertram standing in front of Johnson's house, goes on to sell 168,000 copies; it's K's best-selling album.